Sunday, May 9, 2010

The "courtesy notice"

Several times over the past few years, in various suburban environments, I've awoken to discover a helpful "courtesy notice" glued obnoxiously to my windsheild or the side of my van. Getting this thing off is a pain, though it comes off of windsheilds pretty easily with a razor blade.

The "courtesy notice" is not a ticket, but it looks a lot like one-- only a lot stickier and harder to remove. It just says that my vehicle appears to be "abandoned" (how does anyone actually determine that?) and I have 72 hours to remove it before it gets towed. All of these notices cite the same California law (never a local municipal one) forbidding "abandoned" vehicles.

A couple times, I got these by parking in an out-of-the way place where there weren't many other vehicles like mine around-- and I could see how an alert cop might look sideways at it. So I've learned not to do that; I could do without the attention, thank you very much.

Last week I got one completely unexpectedly. Apparently I was blocking a front walkway (not a driveway), and it pissed someone off. Now, it's obviously not illegal to park in front of someone's WALKway: if it were, I'd have been cited for it. So instead I got a "courtesy notice" that took 15 minutes with paint thinner to remove. Which was fine, I guess, compared to the half-hour it took me the same DAY to remove the grafitti that some punk sprayed all over the side of my van, not even an hour or two AFTER the cop had already been there! I took care of both tasks with one trip to the hardware store.

This vandwelling is a delicate balance-- getting both grafitti'ed and "courtesy noticed" in the same day is a great example of it. A vandwelling friend calls it "cops and robbers": there is a war going on between cops and robbers, and, the secret to my survival is to avoid being collateral damage between the two. Apparently, I inadvertently parked somewhere that there was gang activity going on-- a war between cops and robbers. My van became collateral damage, receiving fire from BOTH sides almost simultaneously. I am getting better at avoiding these situations, but sometimes there's just no way to know until some kind of sign like this shows up. I'm getting more philosophical about it.

When I first started vandwelling, I was very nervous and scared, and felt very weak and guilty and apologetic and submmissive about how and where I was living. I was terrified of getting ripped off, but I tended to park in dangerous and skanky areas because I was even more terrified of getting busted. A friend used to smack me around a bit, and basically tell me to man up and claim my right to live how and where I choose. He'd point out that too many people believe that anything that isn't explicitly permitted is forbidden, but that American law works in exactly the opposite way: anything that isn't explicitly forbidden is permitted. And even if I'm doing something that is forbidden, the state has the burden of proving it. For example, if "habitating" (very loosely defined) is illegal in a vehicle between certain hours in certain cities (i.e. San Francisco), the police first have to prove that I'm "habitating"-- not easy if I don't admit it, and I won't-- or even that there's anyone inside the damned vehicle at all! So, when I get "the knock" on the van, I certainly don't have to reveal myself, let alone explain myself.

This was hard for me to swallow, because I don't like breaking the law, and I don't like even being suspected of breaking the law. I never will. But I'm starting to understand and adopt his more confident, assertive way of thinking. If I am parked legally, not disturbing anyone, certainly don't mean anyone any harm, and the only law I'm breaking is a minor and deeply unjust one which discriminates unfairly against the poor, then I don't think anyone has any right to push me around because of it.

A few weeks ago, I went hiking on a beautiful day in a remote area. I was parked perfectly legally, within normal permitted daylight hours, in a public park. I came back, tired and happy and filled with sunshine, and took a nap. I woke up to hear a knock on the van, and a police officer calling in my license plate on the radio, and the dispatcher responding with my name and registration info. What the hell? I have no warrants or tickets, my registration is paid up, and my vehicle is NOT stolen-- and this is probably exactly what the dispatcher reported back. So I just went back to sleep. My alarm was already set to a half hour before sunset, when the park closed-- my confidence comes in large part from knowing the law and doing my best to live within it-- so I figured if there were any cop issues I'd deal with them then.

Sure enough, with nothing to see or do, the cop took off. What I understand now is that parks like that are war zones in the "cops vs. robbers" drama. There were signs posted warning of car breakins and how to keep valuables from being stolen. I deliberately chose to take the risk, since I wouldn't be hiking long, there were lots of other hikers about, and I knew if I were hanging around any longer, I'd be physically inside the van. The signs also said the area was patrolled, which I figured was fine too-- I was somewhat alarmed but certainly not surprised when a cop came by. Or even that annoyed or indignant either. This is the balance. If my vehicle had in fact been stolen, I'd have been very grateful for it being recovered by an alert cop running a plate on it. But then, I don't have to expose myself to harassment either, so if they knock, I ain't coming out. Dealing with these kinds of fine lines is not fun, but it's reality, and I'm OK with it now.

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