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A day on the prowl with PARKatlanta

Undercover (kind of) with Atlanta's most hated agency

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Keisha Thomas, a 28-year-old mother of twin boys, seems to have achieved a Zen-like sense of calm. That can come in handy when you have a job that involves occasionally being verbally abused by complete strangers.

When I requested to shadow a PARKatlanta meter maid, sure, I wanted some insight into the daily workings of Atlanta's most-hated agency. (And, for the record, Thomas says "meter maid" is derogatory; her job title is parking enforcement officer.) But, what I really wanted was to experience the public's vitriol firsthand. As evidenced by the dopey-if-addictive A&E reality show "Parking Wars," a parking ticket — not to mention a boot — sure can bring out the worst in people. Apparently, in London, parking enforcement agents are so reviled that they're outfitted with stab-proof vests and "kits" that contain cotton swabs so they can collect DNA when people spit at them.

Basically, I'd hoped that we'd be spat upon.

The people at the Department of Public Works didn't want me to draw too much attention when I tagged along with Thomas while she made her ticket-writing rounds, so they suggested I dress the part of employee. In my "uniform" — a gargantuan PARKatlanta shirt tucked only partially into my own jeans, a purse on my shoulder, and a pair of Reebok EasyTones (shut up) on my feet — I looked as much like a PARKatlanta trainee as a scrubs-clad mental patient looks like a doctor. Besides a woman dressed like a big fat phony (me), Thomas was tailed by two Public Works employees — PR manager Valerie Bell-Smith and parking project officer Benita Clemons-Dunn — who did their best to seem nonchalant whilst supervising my walk-along, as well as CL photo editor Joeff Davis, who did his best to take pictures and be invisible, a thing that is not possible. Thomas genuinely didn't seem bothered in the least by the intrusion into her routine. But, then again, she's pretty used to being hassled.

It's safe to assume that Public Works hooked me up with the most exemplary PARKatlanta employee it could find — a decently knowledgeable, super-polite woman who's hardly fazed by the mild abuse associated with her job. As we weave our way through downtown's Fairlie-Poplar District, I poke and prod for the gruesome details of her worst interactions with disgruntled ticket recipients. She concedes that, yes, people holler, curse and give her the finger, but insists it's not that bad and she's not that bothered by it. "We get the yelling and the cursing. I mean, at some point you do get used to it because it happens every day," she says. "The citizens don't like us, but we're here to help. We're not here to hurt. We're here to make sure that people aren't making spaces their own personal spaces."

Ultimately, she's not dodging loogies on a daily basis. But, even if a PARKatlanta logo doesn't make its wearer quite the pariah it did even as recently as a year ago, field agents for the widely disliked out-of-town outfit, which was contracted by Atlanta to usurp control of parking enforcement in late 2009, still aren't prone to make fast friends with the public. As PARKatlanta installed new meters throughout the city and started enforcing parking regulations where they hadn't previously been enforced, there was a definite failure to communicate new expectations to Atlanta's drivers. PARKatlanta ticket-writers earned a reputation for being overly eager, impolite and even ignorant of the rules they were supposed to be enforcing. Last May, the City Council-imposed 30-day moratorium on their ability to ticket, tow or boot sent a clear message to the company: Get your shit together.

Citizens and local officials alike have said that Atlantans don't mind paying for parking — or for tickets if they're actually in the wrong — as long as the rules make sense, are equitably enforced and properly displayed. But, really, even if you've got it coming, no one ever likes getting a ticket.

On a shady side street, Thomas comes upon an Atlanta police officer's car that's parked at an expired meter, and decides to write him a warning just to demonstrate to me how the handheld ticket-issuer works. First she enters the alphanumeric code from the meter on the touchpad, then the vehicle information: tag number or VIN, make, model and color. A thing I didn't realize is that the handheld is also equipped with a digital camera so PARK- atlanta officers can photograph both the car's tag and the expired meter, presumably so there's evidence of the offense in the event that the driver tries to contest his ticket.

The car she's writing the warning for is the officer's personal vehicle, not an actual patrol car. We know this because he's left his vest on the dashboard to indicate that he's exempt from feeding the meter — which he really isn't. Right after she slips the warning under a windshield wiper, a visibly annoyed uniformed cop approaches and says in a tone that demands explanation, penance or both: "You just put a ticket on my car." She tells him calmly that it's a warning, and that he isn't subject to a fine — this time. He doesn't respond, just glares at her and walks away.

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