Friday, May 13, 2005

Low Hanging Fruit

The Pocono Record has a front page article about parking meters today. Specifically, the article is about certifying each meter’s accuracy. There are about 800 meters in Stroudsburg and 300 in neighboring East Stroudsburg.

This year Stroudsburg expects $320,000 and East Stroudsburg $104,000 in meter revenues.

Some fruit just hangs too low.

A few years ago the Stroudsburg Chief of Police, who sported a near shoulder length black hair piece and sometimes called the local news photographer out of bed to shoot the dramatic chief on a ladder as the chief was about to climb into a second story window during a midnight drug raid (this was in the Miami Vice era), was arrested and charged with stealing meter money. He was acquitted by an out of town jury bused in for the job. According to the story the Chief’s girlfriend supposedly brought large amounts of coins to the bank to be deposited and/or changed into folding money. Some of the coins were marked quarters that were part of an investigation into decreasing meter revenues.

My friend Rex, of thirty years ago, an average sized, average looking guy you’d never notice, wouldn’t have made the mistake of sending the girlfriend to the bank with the coins. Rex made a fine living as a parking meter thief. He plied his trade in large towns and small cities throughout the South. Going on tour, he called it.

Shortly after he arrived in town, usually on a Friday, he went and, with a pipe cutter, cut down a meter. Then he brought the meter back to his motel room. Rex was a skilled locksmith. He took the meter apart and made a key. The key to the city, he called it. Key in hand he headed to town in the evening, preferably with a temporary female accomplice.

One man hanging out attracts attention, Rex said. Two men do too. But a man and a woman lingering and moving slowly down a street or through a lot don’t usually attract a second look. The best time is when there are people on the street, but not many.

Rex emptied the meters into a milk shake cup and from there into deep coat pockets or his helper’s bag. When the pockets and bag filled he transferred the money into a pillow case in the trunk of a car. On a good weekend he could pick up $5000 even $7000 dollars. (That’s 1970’s dollars.)

The best time to work a town, Rex said, was not when the meters were full, right before they were emptied by the town, and certainly not right after they were emptied. Best time was half way through the cycle, when they were about half full. Coins would be there when the meter was emptied by city employees and suspicions would not be aroused. In fact, nobody would notice the theft until after all the money was counted and the amounts compared to previous takes. By then Rex would be long gone.

Back in the motel room Rex rolled the coins and stamped the rolls with “Ace Vending Company”. In the morning he donned his blue Ace Vending Company shirt, packed up and drove at least a couple of hundred miles before asking a bank to change the rolls into folding money.

Never, he said, never change the coins in the same town you’re robbing and never rob the towns where you change the money.

Years later, when I was on tugboats I again came across parking meters. I was on an oceangoing tug which meant there was plenty of time to bull shit. The engineer was a huge Irish guy. He and I were bull shitting about our Jersey City roots. Turns out he was once a Jersey City cop who didn’t last too long on the job.

While a brand new rookie cop he was given a one day job of emptying parking meters. It was also his birthday. At the end of the day he dutifully brought in all the money. A couple of days later he was called in by a sergeant who began cursing him out as a dumb fuck mick. He had no idea what he had done.

You brought in more money than anyone ever has, the sergeant said.

I can’t help it, the engineer said, that’s what was there.

You nearly ruined it for everyone, the sergeant said. You weren’t supposed to bring all the money in; it was your fucking birthday, the sergeant nearly screamed.

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