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In a lot off I Street NW in Chinatown, sedans and SUVs sit shoulder to shoulder along an unmaintained, city-owned patch of dirt and gravel. Cars that rest here for the evening are regularly ticketed and sometimes towed or vandalized.
But those dangers mean nothing to the trio of self-appointed parking attendants who’ve been packing the lot this afternoon. In the hours before tipoff at the Wizards’ Nov. 6 home opener, they’ve done everything in their power to lure passing drivers into the unsupervised lot two blocks from the MCI Center, for the going rate of $20 per car: shouting to drivers, waving makeshift flags, even stepping out into traffic and windmilling their arms toward the entrance.
“Park! Park! Park!”
Just when the lot appears exhausted, an attendant twirling a rag tries to make one last sale to a late-model Oldsmobile shopping around for a streetside space.
“I just need five minutes,” the driver pleads.
“OK, OK,” he assures her. “Then it’s just five bucks.”
The driver submits and glides her sedan into the last patch of open space in the swollen lot. Upbeat, the rogue parking crew disbands.
“Time to get me a Heineken,” announces one.
But in the surrounding lots, the mood is anything but celebratory. Lema Atakelete, a manager for nearby Georgetown Parking, has watched uneasily as the create-your-own-parking-lot racket has turned into a nightly spectacle in the District’s revitalized downtown. He and other legitimately employed workers say the street entrepreneurs, who typically cater to unknowing suburbanites on their way to the MCI Center or the Washington Convention Center, are shaking down drivers and, worse yet, siphoning off business from valid lots.
According to attendants real and fake, a lot hustler can rake in upward of $300 a night running any number of scams:
•The most profitable and inconspicuous graft is to simply commandeer a public lot after the attendant has left for the day. “We close at 5 [p.m.], so they come in right after that,” says Anibal Montanez, manager for Altman’s Parking on I Street. “Whoever goes into the lot [to park], they tell them they work for us.”
•If he’s truly enterprising, a parking swindler will rise early, open somebody else’s lot, and snag the first paying customers of the day. “They’ll be here before 6 a.m., before our guy even starts his shift,” says Atakelete. Later in the day, when the duped driver returns to her car, the real attendant will typically ask her to pay again. “They’ll say, ‘But I just gave it to that guy.’”
•The more daring huckster will work the door of a lot where an attendant is still on duty, pocketing parking fees at the entrance and then taking off. Reggie Hill, a manager for Parking Management Inc., says one of these door-workers snatched $15 off one of his customers two weeks ago. “I chased him about half a block, and then he went down an alley,” Hill recalls. The baffled driver was forced to eat the fake fee—a $30 double whammy for his parking space.
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•In the most sophisticated scam, impostors will divert customers away from valid lots and into illegitimate ones. “They’ll be dressed up just like I am,” says Martin Bowser, who works a lot at the corner of 9th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. “They got the whistle and the flag—it’s all part of the craft. They try to mock us to a T.” When one D.C. police officer arrested two such impostors on June 4 near the Convention Center, the culprits were wearing orange reflector vests, waving parking flags, and handing out stubs that belonged to actual parking companies.
•Not all of the action is in the lots. When a metered space opens along the street, a faux attendant will swoop in as a “car jockey” and guide a driver into the slot. He’ll demand payment for his services, of course, and most people will cough up some loose change or small bills just to end the already awkward encounter.
Real attendants watch street jockeying with bemused detachment, but they get proactive when a hustler moves in on their turf, either calling the police or chasing him off themselves. “All the time I’m fighting,” says Melesse Agegnehu, an attendant for PMI. “I’ve gone to court three or four times [to testify against parking jockeys].” This summer, he had a brick thrown through his windshield after he called the cops on a jockey who was pocketing his entrance fees. He once scuffled with another vengeful jockey in his attendant booth.
Before the Wizards’ Nov. 10 matchup with the Magic, Chinatown’s lot impostors and car jockeys are hawking unclaimed spaces in the half-hour free-for-all before tipoff. One jockey, who identifies himself as Rick, says that for years he’s been making his living working the open lots downtown and jockeying cars into spaces. He was recently punched in the face when he haggled the wrong driver, and he’s been arrested twice for his efforts in the last few weeks. But he says only suckers lie back and beg for change.
“You panhandle, you make a dollar. You park a car, you make $20,” he says. “I’ve got five, six, maybe seven lots I work. I’ll make $200 or $300 on a game night.” He says he bats close to a thousand when it comes to getting paid for jockeying cars into metered spaces; the trick is getting in people’s faces and talking to no end.
Tonight Rick will do all he can to duck Officer Dwayne Johnson, a burly D.C. cop and, by many accounts, the bane of the Chinatown car jockey’s existence. With the help of other officers, Johnson says, he might have three or four swindlers locked up on a game night for “aggressive panhandling,” the D.C. Code statute that covers street jockeying. It’s one of his “personal peeves,” he adds, because it turns visitors off of downtown.
“Hey, jockey!” Johnson barks to a fake attendant on 6th Street, sending him scurrying behind an apartment building. “Get out of there!”
“I had one guy working a parking lot literally every weekend—and it wasn’t even his lot,” says Johnson. “He’d put cars in there—shove ’em in sideways, whatever—he’d get 20 cars in there, every Saturday and Sunday, for an entire year.” Johnson says the jockeys retain open street spaces with the help of orange construction cones, holding them until they spot a likely rube with non-D.C. tags. “I don’t even know where they get the cones from.”
In spite of Johnson’s vigilance, lot jockeying is a hard bit of street trickery to stay on top of: There are more than a dozen public parking lots within a three-block radius of the MCI Center, and they can’t all be supervised by real attendants or cops around the clock.
To stave off lost revenue, some lot managers have developed their own policing measures. Atakelete now drives into his own lots posing as an out-of-towner, videotaping impostors in the act and later showing them the footage as a warning.
Bowser says his boss took an even more desperate measure: He offered the con artists real jobs. They turned him down.
“They’d rather do it on their own,” says Bowser. “Forty cars at $15 each, all tax-free. You do the math.”CP