It’s just shy of noon on a Friday, and the sky is clear, the traffic downtown fairly light. An immaculately clean cream-colored sport utility vehicle is parked illegally on M Street, smack in front of a health club. The car’s driver, a tall, good-looking Marine captain wearing his dress uniform, is inside flirting with the woman at the front desk. He lavishes all of sorts of attention on heruntil his eyes finally stray out the window and he spots two blue-uniformed men lurking around his car. He quickly bolts out the door and races across the sidewalk, a few steps too late. Lionel Ben, a member of the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) boot patrol, has already locked the orange grip of death around the captain’s front tire.
The Marine proceeds to throw up his hands toward the sky, beseeching the gods with a predictable tale of woe. “[The parking tickets] can’t be minemy truck was stolen recently and I just got it back,” he pleads to Ben and his partner, Wayne Goss, both paid skeptics. “That truck’s in too good shape for being stolen,” Ben astutely notes. A routine call down to dispatch quickly confirms his suspicions: The captain has 22 unpaid tickets spread over a number of months. So much for the stolen-car defense. In less than two hours, the captain’s car is safely on its way to the District’s Brentwood impound lot.
Minutes after nabbing the Marine’s car, Ben and Goss score again, on the car right behind it. It belongs to the woman he was flirting with in the health club. Her car gets the boot as well. She strolls out and approaches Ben and Goss rather sheepishly. “Did they just call you guys?” she innocently asks.
“No,” Goss answers straightforwardly. “We saw your plate on the list.”
Unlike her friend the Marine, the woman quickly goes on the offensive. While my tape recorder is aimed point-blank at her mouth, she attempts to bribe the two public servants with some money and a little something extra. “I can’t give you guys any money to take it off?” she asks with a delicious smile.
As I watch her bat her eyelashes and inch closer to the two, I remember something that boot foreman John Roach told me earlier in the day. “I’ve never been approached that way,” he replied when I asked about the frequency of such interactions. “But other technicians have been offered women’s bodies.”
Now the Marine and the woman have something to talk about. Of course, if they do go on a date, it’ll have to be on foot.
Boot patrol is the front line of municipal employment, and it’s not for the thin-skinned or easily tempted. Each day, DPW boot technicians probably encounter more lies, bribe attempts, and insults than anyone over at police headquarters or 1 Judiciary Square. They are harassed by the public precisely because they do their job and do it wellin stark contrast to the city’s other municipal servants. As they hunt the streets in search of offenders, they often clash with car owners who resort to all sorts of strategiesfrom white lies to assault and batteryto keep their cars safe from the boot’s grip.
“We only get nervous when we see them acting crazy and going into their pocket like they’re going to pull out a gun or something,” says Ben.
Ben and Goss take a Joe Friday approach to the job, answering even the most enraged citizen with no nonsense, no disrespect, just the facts. Sometimes, it’s hard to draw the line and stay behind it.
“This woman came out just as we were finishing, and she was pregnant,” Goss recalls. The boot stayed on. “We felt bad about it, and we could have let her go, but our command might think we’re out here taking bribes.”
As we make our way onto S Street, heading west across town, Ben and Goss discuss happy hunting grounds. “Georgetown is good,” Goss offers. “And if it gets slow, we can go downtown and get some at Rhode Island and N. It’s always good down there,” chimes in Ben. The boot hunt, you see, is hardly a science. There are no designated precincts or PSA patrol areas. Three or four teams of boot technicians slowly cruise city streets each day, matching license plates to the magic ones on the “hit list,” a 169-page bible that alphabetizes offending plates by state. Three unpaid parking tickets more than 30 days old put you at risk of getting the boot. Listed plates marked with double stars are cars with lots of tickets, and a double pound sign designates high fines. Those kinds of bonus points will get you frozen in place quickly.
Although they don’t receive a reward for catching the hit list’s most wanted, Ben and Goss do seem to get a special thrill as they reel one in. “Come on, Harold,” Ben says to the dispatcher as we are waiting to verify if a double-starred hit is legit. “Big money, baby, big money.” When Harold confirms that the hit is a go, Ben and Goss jump out of the van in a blur of screaming ratchets and flying pens.
Betty Winchester, manager of DPW’s boot division, says there are about 73,000 plates currently on the hit list. When she started in 1979, there were about 80,000. “[I]t’s gone down a little, but the numbers you’re seeing are pretty average,” she says. Vehicles registered in Maryland, Virginia, and the District account for 66,000 of the scofflaws. The rest are from every other state in the union. “The most money owed by a single car is about $35,000, and they have 299 tickets,” reports Winchester. “The highest number of tickets is 314, but they only owe $28,470.” The tickets from all 73,000 cars translate into $35 million in potential revenue for the District.
If you’ve ever walked up to your car and seen it booted in place, speculation about how they found you is bound to ensue. Ben and Goss says it’s almost pure chance: They meticulously work their way down a street, checking plates on the left and right as the radio cackles with boot-tech chatter. As elementary as it is, the hunt-and-peck procedure works. Our first hit comes within minutes of hitting the streets. When a positive match is identified, the technician calls in to the dispatcher to check if the tickets on the car are still outstanding. Occasionally, a hit will come back as a negative, but most times it’s declared a positive, and that’s when the fun begins.
From that moment, it’s a race against the clock. From start to finish, installing the boot takes about three minutes. Ben and Goss work as if defusing a bomb, knowing that if they dally, an enraged car owner just might explode.
On 17th Street, Ben and Goss home in on another offender. Right before they spring into action, a young man approaches the car. “Oh my God, am I being booted?” he asks the two. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he exclaims, arms flailing. He moves around to the boot van door and tries to prevent Ben from getting out.
“Stand away from the car, sir,” says Goss firmly.
“Is that your supervisor back there?” the man asks as he points at me with a pitiful look on his face.
“Stand away from the car, sir,” Goss warns.
“Well, can’t you at least let me move it?” the man futilely asks. A small support group of friends starts to form, and they’re all looking at me for help. I shake my head and watch the boot go on.
“We could have let him go,” Ben later says. “But it’s slow today.”
Urban myth has long held that the boot can be removed by simply letting air out of the tire. Ben and Goss warn that you would be foolish to try it. “If the boot is put on properly, letting the air out just seals it on tighter. The boot’s clamped to the rim, not the tire.” Besides, Ben and Goss remind me, boot tampering is a crime. If a DPW boot technician sees you attempting to remove the boot or even kicking at it in frustration, he can report you to the police.
Owners of expensive cars often complain that they are the boot technicians’ primary targets, in a sort of sweet revenge for bitter civil servants. Bonnie Burke, an Adams Morgan real estate agent who owns a Jaguar, is an adherent to that theory. “They love to boot Jags,” Burke says. “Everybody says, ‘Yay!’”
The day’s fourth hit is on a set of plates that has been divided between two cars parked on the same street. The front plate is on a Mercedes, and the rear one is on a Toyota. The owner appears right as Goss is finishing the paperwork on the Mercedes. “What seems to be the problem?” he asks, smiling while approaching the two men. Ben and Goss remain on task, first imprisoning the Toyota.
The car owner switches to a different tack. “Did you go to Howard?” he asks.
Goss remains unflappable. “No,” he flatly answers. “You’ve got unpaid tickets on these plates,” he says as he slaps the completed form on to the Mercedes.
The gentleman’s chatty demeanor quickly evaporates. “Oh, no!” he exclaims. “Not my Mercedes, too!”
Ben and Goss deny that they’re out for revenge. If you arrive at your vehicle before the installation is complete, if you’re polite, and if you don’t have an excessive number of tickets, they might show mercy. But even innocence can be deceiving. On M Street, an older gentleman with a thick Middle Eastern accent willingly approaches the boot van to tell Ben and Goss, “Between 21st and 22ndlots of Virginia and Maryland cars in there.” He shares the information with glee. “Put the big boot on them!” he tells us. “I love it when they’re booted!”
Ben and Goss laugh, but as they turn the corner they begin to question the gentleman’s motives for being such an eager informant. It might just be a diversion. “He’s probably a hit,” Ben remarks. From the back seat, I watch nervous citizens scurry for their cars as we roll down the street. When we pull up next to a Volvo, a pretty woman with a child next to her gives us the evil eye and curses under her breath. Ben notices her, too, and says, “When they see us coming they always show off their ugly side, don’t they?”