Miami parking nightmare: From the homeless parking mafia to the meter fairy
Haitian cabbie Pierre Jean-Charles climbed into his yellow taxi van while cradling a bottle of Coke and a bag of Doritos — the customary get-me-through snack for the 51-year-old full-time student and father of five. He had parked at a meter in front of a corner store at 75th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. It was before noon September 7, Labor Day, and the sweltering streets were full of people draped in towels, wearing bathing suits, and flip-flopping to the beach.
Jean-Charles found that an SUV had parked inches behind him, jamming him in. He honked and stepped out of the taxi, gesturing for the woman behind the SUV's steering wheel to back up.
A short, stocky Hispanic man emerged from the passenger side and stomped toward the cab. "Where you from?" the man snapped.
"What difference does it make?" Jean-Charles shot back before climbing back into the driver's seat. Suddenly, the stranger began punching the cabbie through the open window, landing hard blows on Jean-Charles's face. The taxi driver grabbed a long umbrella from the back seat and jumped out of his cab to fight back. As a crowd formed to watch, the two men grappled for a few moments, destroying the umbrella, before the SUV passenger tripped on a curb and fell backward.
The stunned and sweat-drenched cabbie returned to his vehicle and sat down with the door open. That's when his attacker ran up on him again, clenching a dagger-like knife. With short, manic lunges, he stabbed Jean-Charles in his left shoulder and, when the taxi driver tried to escape, the back of his left thigh.
The man jumped into the back seat of the SUV and it took off northbound on Collins. When cops arrived, they found Jean-Charles "bleeding next to his yellow cab," according to a police report. A baggie on the ground contained cocaine — perhaps shedding light on the source of the attacker's rage. Despite many witnesses — including one who Jean-Charles says wrote down the SUV license plate number — Miami Beach Police spokesman Juan Sanchez tells New Times: "there hasn't been an arrest made."
It's a story quintessential to Miami, which has long been the nation's cultural capital for cocaine use and more recently has hoisted America's road-rage championship belt. For four years straight, a national study declared Miami to be home to the country's most aggressive and angry drivers, until New York City stole the title in 2009.
And though old-timers will tell you parking in this city was once a breeze, rampant development and a scheming homeless contingent have turned securing a spot into a Mad Max-esque adventure. Anybody who has trawled for parking on Washington Avenue on a weekend night or near Wynwood's clubbing area during bar hours knows the joys of inhaling Lamborghini carburetor dust or being extorted by a drug-addicted parking-protection mafia. Finding a spot usually isn't violent — but nowadays it's rarely boring.
In this report on all things parking in Miami, we'll sojourn with ragged Bayside Marketplace receipt scalpers fundraising for crack cocaine and visit enraged restaurateurs who claim the Miami Parking Authority is killing the neighborhood. We'll expose the county's worst ticket scofflaws and the teacher accused of assaulting a parking officer, and detail the rise and demise of a tutu-wearing parking-meter fairy. Because if anything unites folks from Aventura to Opa-locka to Homestead, it's the tireless pursuit of a place to leave their cars. "They say there's nothing certain in life but death and taxes," says Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose vehicle-clogged district includes Coconut Grove, Brickell, and portions of downtown. "Add the near impossibility of finding a parking spot when you really need one."
A month after being stabbed, Jean-Pierre Charles has recovered from his wounds, although he'll likely never lose the scars on his shoulder and thigh. The poster child for Miami's parking woes sits in his North Miami living room, which is strewn with his young daughter's pink plastic toys, and describes the ordeal with remarkable calm. He finally gets angry only when he partakes in one of our town's most popular pastimes: complaining about parking. "Last weekend, I went to see I Can Do Bad All by Myself in South Miami," he says, his voice rising. "I spent half an hour driving around looking for parking before I finally had to spend eight dollars on valet parking. When I bought the ticket, I had already spent $20 just getting in, and that's without any popcorn!"
A large family of Indian Sikhs, the women in traditional saris and the men in turbans, climbs from a black Acura SUV after it's parked in the lot across Biscayne Boulevard from Bayside Marketplace. They're from Boca Raton, here to do a little sightseeing on this early Monday afternoon.
"Papo," a bug-eyed homeless Puerto Rican man who claims to have lost his teeth in the Iraq War, acts as their one-man Miami welcome wagon. "You need a ticket?" he demands, brandishing a parking receipt with a couple of hours left on it, which he'd begged off a driver leaving the lot about 15 minutes ago.
Like a linebacker, Papo blocks the patriarch's path to the blue Miami Parking Authority machine selling tickets. "You don't want to buy from that, bro," the peddler commands. "It's a six-hour minimum! I got your ticket right here."
The Indian man, who later gives his name as Ranjit, protests at first but soon submits. He gives Papo three crumpled bills and places the ticket on his dashboard. As the family tries to cross the street, a panhandler separates the beleaguered Ranjit from another dollar. "It's easier to give them money than to argue with them," he explains as Papo moves on to another mark — an old man in a white Cadillac with a VFW bumper sticker who's attempting to leave the lot with a receipt that's still good for four hours. "You just going to throw it away?" Papo asks incredulously.
Papo makes up to $100 a day, he claims, after a reporter buys him a Coke and gives him the change. The jittery 44-year-old doesn't hesitate when asked what he buys with the cash. "Crack!" he answers with good cheer. "What else? I buy all the rock I want."
He dismisses the idea he's addicted. He uses crack as an "antidepressant."
The six-hour minimum in this parking lot, which means drivers have to shell out at least six dollars, has sparked a cottage industry for homeless people scalping receipts. Today the lot swarms with a rotation of hustlers who regard each other with varying levels of suspicion and animosity. Sometimes the competition verges on violent. Reggie, who has an apartment and is muscular and clean despite his own crack habit, spits before he speaks of Papo. "People don't like it when somebody runs up to you all gooked-out, dirty, and musky," he says. "It ruins it for the rest of us."
"Him? He's an asshole," Papo says of his well-groomed competitor across the parking lot. "One day, I'll have to punch him in the head."
For these addicts, scalping receipts beats busting a car window or strong-arming an old lady to get the next fix. As Reggie puts it: "I'd rather do a misdemeanor than a felony." Cops might arrest them for loitering, conducting business without a license, or aggressive panhandling, but the charges rarely stick, amounting to no more than a night in lockup. And though Miami Parking Authority (MPA) Chief Operating Officer Fred Bredemeyer tells New Times that "all levels of our personnel are trained to enforce trespassing laws," on this afternoon, an MPA employee working on a machine simply chuckles at the hustlers' shenanigans.
For the most part, the receipt scalpers' customers seem to appreciate the service. "Actually, they come in handy sometimes," says Rufus Wagner, here for family court. "They're not doing nothing too bad. Six bucks is a rip-off anyways."
After a few hours scalping tickets at Bayside, a light-skinned homeless man — everyone calls him "New York" for his birthplace — has hit his goal for the day: $30. "If the dealers know you're doing parking shit, they'll front you because they know you're making money," he explains. New York has hustled enough cash to pay for his last fix and the next one, plus an Angus bacon-and-cheese burger at McDonald's. He's a consummate parking schemer who also works late nights charging Wynwood clubbers five bucks and up to "watch" their cars on the desolate streets — a thinly veiled intimidation racket that's become popular among the tougher members of Miami's skid row.
After the meal, New York shows off his "abando-minium," the stalled-in-construction parking tower downtown that he and five others call home. "We let bums come and shoot up on the ground floor," he remarks, "but if they get loud or attract attention, we chase them away with lead pipes."
Next to New York's ancient mattress on the third floor, he keeps neatly folded clothes and a stack of reading material: mystery novels, cowboy and self-help books, and, of course, back copies of New Times. He pulls out a red flag and vest, which he swiped from a lackadaisical parking attendant. It's the uniform for his ultimate caper. During big events downtown, New York busts open a vacant parking lot and waves cars in for $15 to $20 a spot. "You let about 15 customers in there and get $300 in your pocket," he explains. "Then you run like hell."
He bristles at being called a "con man." He's providing a service, New York insists. "The MPA charges you six dollars and you stay for an hour. The next guy pays another six bucks, when the MPA already got paid for the spot. Who's really robbing you?"
For at least the past 20 years, the Miami Parking Authority, which oversees all public metering within city limits, has waged an arms race against a guerrilla army of street people. In the early '90s, when the meters were fully mechanical, an anonymous innovator figured out the inner timer could be manipulated by jamming the tab of a Magnum malt liquor can (appropriately, no other brand worked as well) into the coin slot and jiggling. A guy parking his car could usually be persuaded to part with a couple of the quarters he was planning on feeding the meter. Naturally, word spread quickly, and at least one Overtown corner store stopped selling Magnum cans because of rampant shoplifting.
It's not only the City of Miami that's had to contend with meter hackers. In 1999, a heavy-drinking Miami Beach meter man named Eby Loveland was arrested for using the key from a Spam can to empty coin compartments. With the secret thus out, Spam became the new Magnum among the homeless set. The island weathered what the Miami Beach parking director termed an "epidemic" of theft before all the meter heads were replaced.
In late 2004, the MPA introduced its "pay and display" system: the electronic machines that print dashboard receipts. Drivers were confounded by machines that broke often in those early days and demanded minimum payments that bordered on extortion. Since then, the bums have adopted the big blue boxes as their very own cash cow.
The MPA's Bredemeyer admits his agency is fighting a never-ending battle. "In one section of a parking lot, you might see a police officer patrolling, and on the other side, you'll see a vagrant trying to sell a ticket," he says. "It's the sort of thing where you can have a cop out there 23 hours a day, and in that last hour, they'll get you."
Bredemeyer, a polite Indiana native, is inside the MPA's drab headquarters located on Northeast Third Street, just two blocks from the Bayside parking lot where scalpers constantly take bites out of the agency's profits. But it appears there's enough parking cash to withstand the nibbles. Bredemeyer shows off the vault, where behind bulletproof glass, a week's worth of change has been mechanically packed into dozens of 75-pound-capacity clear plastic bags to be transported to a bank by a Brinks truck. In the MPA's collection process, coins go from a canister within the parking meter to a rolling cart, to a larger canister, to a scale, and into these baggies without touching human hands.
The system is a safeguard against the type of embezzlement that recently occurred in Coral Gables. In July, one of the city's meter collectors, Rolando Hernandez, was charged with grand theft and organized fraud after his father was caught changing more than $3,500 in coins at a local Publix. Turns out, cops said, the father-and-son team had changed similar amounts three times a week for about six months.
While seemingly every other municipal entity in South Florida has been hemorrhaging cash during the recession, the MPA has bloomed financially. In 2008, according to the agency's annual report, it made $87.8 million in revenue, for a whopping net profit of $27.8 million, $2 million more than in 2007 and $3 million more than in 2006. Bredemeyer gives two reasons for the growth: more development downtown, where the MPA has the bulk of its meters, and the "system is working. People are finding it more tolerable, and easier, to pay for parking."
Your average Miamian would scoff at that last claim. A quick read of comments on MPA's Yelp! page hints that because of omnipresent and always-enforced meters, frustrating receipt machines, and "stalker meter maids," the agency remains about as popular as the IRS. One commenter provides "synonyms for Miami Parking Authority: thieves, crooks, shysters, used-car salesmen, hoodlums." Another, after paying $90 in tickets, seethes, "You people are monsters."
"Ninety percent of the time [your machines] don't work," writes one more, "and when they do, they are so slow the people behind you are practically starting a riot while you stand there like a bumpkin waiting for your stupid slip."
Bredemeyer insists the MPA has "solved many of the machines' mechanical problems, and they're needing less repairs." He urges Miamians to try the agency's newest innovation, the pay-by-phone system, where users set up accounts connected to their cell phones. He believes that once people adopt the system en masse, the MPA will have finally beaten the nickel-and-dime hustlers — although then the agency could have more high-tech scammers to contend with. "I'm sure that as we're speaking," Bredemeyer says, "some hacker is probably trying to figure out how to get his name into the 'paid' column without paying."
In 2004, Kendall native Xavier Cortes was a 37-year-old out-of-work actor in desperate need of a gig. Opportunity came in the classified pages of this newspaper, where an advertisement sought "an extroverted, fun individual, male or female, who knows how to ride rollerblades and isn't afraid to wear a tutu."
Cortes immediately answered the ad. He was hired by the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce. He donned a hot-pink wig and matching tutu, carried a wand, and began each shift with $40 in dimes. For his wage of ten dollars an hour, paid each day by a different Grove business, Cortes skated through the neighborhood putting coins in meters that were about to expire. He left a calling card tucked under windshield wipers. "You've just been saved by the Coconut Grove parking-meter fairy," it read, and included a coupon to the business that had donated the dimes.
Cortes's new occupation was the counterattack strategy employed by Grove business owners who felt under siege by MPA enforcement officers scaring away customers. Parking-meter fairies have been spotted in New York City and Portland, Oregon; the latter city's fairy was incorporated into a Jackass segment. Coconut Grove's incarnation was the brainchild of Cynthia Bettner, a local guidebooks publisher. "I was just tired of getting a ticket every time I ran into a business, and I knew I wasn't the only one," she explains.
Cortes was catcalled by construction workers and berated by teenagers, but to the Grovites who understood his purpose, he was a hero worthy of tips, cigarettes, and free meals. Soon though, he says, a cold war developed between him and MPA officers. "They would try to intimidate me, telling me it was illegal to feed another person's meter," he recalls. "They'd try to figure out my routes and shifts. I'd see them hiding behind walls spying on me. It got ugly, and it went all the way to the top of the MPA."
MPA's director of on-street operations, Luis Choter Jr., confirms the fairy's operation was legal but doesn't deny there was some intelligence gathering done. "We weren't spying on him," he insists. "Our only concern is that we wanted to know when he was skating. We wanted him to remain visible. It was really a safety issue."
A meter man who has worked in the Grove for nearly a decade — and for fear of losing his job did not want his name published — recalls stalking the fairy as more of a recreational pursuit than a directive handed down from on high. "I saw it as a friendly competition," he says. "I liked to figure out which street he was going to be on and beat him to it. I just liked watching his face drop when he saw all the tickets on the windshields... And I loved getting him on technicalities. Say he put a dime in a meter just as I'm getting to the car. But I'll leave a ticket anyway, right in front of him, because the car has an expired tag."
Bredemeyer declines to comment specifically about the rogue meter man's claim. His enforcement officers have no quota, he says, and the MPA earns no money for tickets: Parking fines are owed to the county.
In early 2005, after less than a year on skates, the parking-meter fairy met his demise at the hands of the MPA when the Goliath agency introduced the pay-and-display system in the Grove. Because the receipts must be placed behind a vehicle's windshield, Cortes was left with no recourse. "My presence sped up the process of the MPA incorporating those new machines," he says. That's a claim Bredemeyer scoffs at, although he verifies the Grove was among the first districts to use the pay-and-display system.
Cortes is now a freelance TV producer who has worked on Keeping Up With the Kardashians and America's Worst Drivers. But there's been no fairy-tale ending to the feud between Grove business owners and parking officials. It's a rift that's reaching levels of near-revolutionary unrest. "It's disgusting, the racket that they have going," says Mark Phelps, co-owner of the Sandbar sports bar. "It really is like a mafia."
He's complaining about a little-known clause in city code that requires neighborhood businesses to make monthly payments "in lieu of parking" to the MPA for the "Coconut Grove Parking Improvement Trust Fund," which is run by the neighborhood's Business Improvement District (BID). In theory, the fund is used to create spots to alleviate the Grove's parking gridlock. The monthly fees for each business are determined by an MPA estimate of how many customers the place will draw. For many owners, the expense is huge. When Phelps owned the restaurant and nightclub Flavour, he was ordered to pay $2,790 a month. He couldn't stay profitable, and the place went out of business earlier this year. "It's like another rent, but for nothing in return," Phelps says. "And if you don't pay it, the city will revoke your license within three months."
An informal survey of Grove owners and managers — most of whom did not want their businesses identified for fear of crackdowns from city code enforcers or cops — reveals that the amounts due are largely arbitrary. Owners who opened before the law went into effect in the early '90s pay nothing because of a grandfather clause, while others pay more than $5,000 a month. "We have not seen one extra parking space built with the money," says the owner of one well-known café, who guesses he's forked over $500,000 for parking since he's been in business.
Bredemeyer insists the "in lieu of" payments are a necessary expense. He points to an Oak Avenue garage that was opened using Parking Improvement funds and "$4 million" that BID has stashed for a future garage. "I'd love to open a restaurant that doesn't provide parking and then bitch about the fees," he snaps.
Incensed Grove restaurant and bar owners, many who already regard Commissioner Sarnoff as an enemy for his support of a 3 a.m. nightclub curfew, won't appreciate his position on this issue either. The Parking Improvement fund "was created because parking was sorely needed and required by code for restaurants," Sarnoff says. "The money raised so far has paid for the Oak parking garage, and more is to come."
Grove restaurateurs say their bar receipts have been sliced by a third or half as the district's hip reputation has faded. Revelers instead flock to South Miami and Brickell. The Grove's chronic parking problems might represent the final nail in the coffin, says Le Bouchon du Grove manager Jean-Charles (no relation to the stabbed cabbie). "Let's say you want to take your wife out to eat," he says. "You come to the Grove and drive around endlessly trying to find a spot. The babies are crying in the back seat. Your wife becomes impatient. You've had a bad night already, and it's just begun. Of course, by now you would rather go to Aventura and park in some mall."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a long, angry line snakes from the payment windows of the Molina Towing yard on Northwest Seventh Avenue at 21st Street. When the people get their turn at a Plexiglas window, they flip crumpled bills through the slot. They either moan and complain or say nothing, not wanting to give the dead-eyed cashier the pleasure of watching their agony.
"I'm spending money I don't have!" says Joseph Dorismond, a Haitian mechanic forced to pay $115 to get his Dodge Neon out of impound. He's one of at least a half-dozen people called for jury duty who've made the sad pilgrimage to this dingy yard located on a trash-strewn industrial block. They all parked in the same empty lot outside the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building downtown. When they were released from duty, an attendant glibly informed them the lot was not open to the public and that their cars had been removed by Molina tow trucks. "It's definitely one of the worst days of my life," says a 26-year-old woman who identifies herself only as Michelle. She paid $367 to retrieve her Honda Civic, which also had "a mess" of unpaid tickets owed on it. "What do we get paid, $40 for jury duty? And I took a day off of work for this bullshit."
Since 2004, Molina Towing has owned the contract with the county to do its towing. In return for the business, it pays Miami-Dade a fee per each car towed. It's safe to say that providing a pleasant towing experience is not at the top of owner Orlando Molina's priorities. Boldfaced signs hanging by the windows seem designed to befuddle and frustrate: "Cash is cheaper. Credit card is expensive"; "We have no change." Behind barbwire fencing, hundreds of cars of all makes and models, along with dozens of Jet Skis and mopeds dumped on their sides, await unhappy owners. The manager, named Lázaro, sits in a cinderblock office with an enormous dog and tells New Times: "My boss told me we have nothing to say."
Since 1983, Molina Towing has been named as a defendant in a whopping 96 civil lawsuits in Miami-Dade County. The reasons are myriad. One woman, Angela Maria Smith, claimed to have been injured when a tow truck rammed her car in 2004. The next year, an insurance company filed suit to have a wrongly impounded vehicle released. In 2007, a Miami businessman named Eric Glaser claimed in a suit that Molina had destroyed the engine of his black Porsche Carrera while towing it from an illegal spot. The case was settled out of court. Asked about his experience, Glaser says, "When I told them they had destroyed my car, their attitude basically was, 'Screw you.'"
In order to subject your car to the not-so-careful watch of Molina Towing, you must accumulate five unpaid parking tickets, according to Miami-Dade parking enforcement manager Debbie Hess. That's when your tag number will spark a "scofflaw" alert on the hand-held computers enforcement officers carry, prompting a radio call for a tow truck.
Still, it's certainly not impossible to evade towing for years on end while accumulating thousands of dollars in fines. A New Times request for the county's top parking-ticket scofflaws reveals that 59 people owe more than $2,000 each. The worst offender: a 2000 Mercedes-Benz CLK430 that belonged to Advance Auto Rental, a Miami airport-area company. The Benz racked up $16,629 for 250 unpaid citations. While rental companies are ultimately responsible for the fines customers incur, it's often difficult for enforcement officers to locate the vehicles — especially when the business goes bellyup, as Advance did in 2007.
The top seven scofflaws are all rental companies. The person who owes the most for tickets in Miami-Dade County is Cutler Bay native Dorcas Jimenez, who between 2003 and 2007 accumulated 85 tickets, totaling $5,352, on a red Mitsubishi sedan. Complicating matters, in 2008 Jimenez sold the car to a military property manager based in Key West. Selling a car with massive ticket debt is a common ploy that works if the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles fails to transfer the tickets to the former owner. Jimenez's listed apartment is empty, and the new owner did not return messages left on his office phone. None of the top five scofflaws, who list P.O. boxes as addresses or have relocated, could be found by New Times — which is precisely why they've gotten away without paying.
But not all major parking violators are such masters at evasion. Recently nabbed in the wild: a schoolteacher who owed $706.60. But Rolanda Benjamin did not allow her car to be towed without a fight.
The morning of September 22, the 26-year-old Miami-Dade County Public Schools elementary school substitute and mother of two was in the courthouse district near the 1300 block of Northwest 14th Avenue. Benjamin claims she was there to see what she could do about her 17 unpaid citations. When she emerged from a courthouse just after 11 a.m., she heard her car alarm blaring and saw a parking enforcement officer attempting to load her 2001 Chevy Impala onto a Molina truck. The officer, named Sham Jaglal, was having trouble: Her security system had locked the vehicle's wheels, making it nearly impossible to tow without keys.
According to a police report, Benjamin was irate. She grabbed a bottle of water from her car and "splashed/squeezed water on [Jaglal's] face and uniform shirt" before pushing him in the chest in an attempt to get in her car and flee the scene.
Benjamin remembers it differently. She claims the officer became aggressive when she refused to give him her keys. "He got all up on me, saying, 'Oh, you're not going to give me the keys?'" Benjamin recalls. "I told him: 'Back up out of my face.'"
That's when Jaglal shoved Benjamin, prompting her to perform the Poland Spring baptism. Says Benjamin: "I poured my water on him and said, 'You got the nerve to put your hands on a lady? You're going to jail!'"
Indeed, the teacher says it was she who called the cops — but when they arrived at the scene, she says, "the police walked directly past me and to the parking officer. Of course they're going to believe what he says, because he works for the county."
Reached on his cell phone, Jaglal told New Times: "I'm not allowed to comment."
Benjamin was charged with felony battery on a parking enforcement specialist. Teach has been in cuffs before: Records show that in 2004, she was hit with petty theft charges that were later dropped. And in March 2008, she was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and driving without a license, for which she paid a $358 fine. In the incident with the parking officer, she lost her main cause: Cops confiscated her keys so Jaglal could tow her car. At Molina Towing, she paid nearly $800 in back tickets and tow truck fees before she could free the Impala from impound.
On October 13, the battery charge was dismissed, vindicating the educator, who says, "Jesus is my attorney," and then scoffs, "Me go to jail for battery? Me? If I would've battered him, you'd know. He'd have bruises."
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