‘I’m just doing my job, ma’am’

Pub date August 12, 2008
WriterPhil Eil

› culture@sfbg.com

Almost every San Francisco car owner has had this experience at least once: you parked at a metered or timed spot, and now you’re running late. You rush back to your vehicle only to find a uniformed official already filling out your parking ticket. Now you’re pissed — at yourself, your car, the city’s rules, and the person holding the notepad. On some level you know the parking official is simply doing her job — it’s nothing personal. But on a more visceral level, you’re seething with resentment, and it’s directed squarely at her. Glancing at the ticket that’ll cost you more than this week’s groceries, you want to ask, "How can you sleep at night?"

I recently went through this experience twice in one week. And once I got past the automatic hatred of all uniforms, three-wheeled vehicles, and notepads with carbon copies, I began to wonder what it would be like to have a job most people don’t want you to do.

I got to thinking: not everyone can be an urban hero — those professionals who, because of the nature of their jobs, are considered benevolent and necessary. They put out our fires, save our lives, and teach our children how to read. No, some people are urban antagonists. They call during dinner time. They interrupt your picnic at the park. They write parking tickets.

I wanted to talk to some of these people, to find out not only just how badly they’re treated, but also why they continue to show up for work, day after day. It turned out it can be so hard to have these kinds of jobs that most parking control officers wouldn’t even talk to me. And none I interviewed would give me a real name.

But they did give me some insight.


With their uniforms, handheld ticket-gadgets, and ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles, there are few professionals more recognizable on San Francisco streets than the Parking Control officers. And with 44 recorded incidents involving angry motorists threatening or assaulting officers in the course of performing their duties over the past two years, few professionals are subject to such acute on-the-job stress.

"It’s tough sometimes," acknowledged B., a PCO writing tickets near the intersection of Valencia and César Chávez streets, "because you’re doing your job and a lot of the time people see you as the opposition — like an enemy, not as someone who is doing a service to the city." People forget that by writing tickets, PCOs crack down on double-parkers who block traffic, space-hoggers who stay in one spot all day, and sidewalk-parkers who obstruct walkways for pedestrians such as mothers with strollers, B. said.

But not all PCOs take comfort in that rationalization. K., another anonymous PCO, said, "You just need to find your niche. I respond to complaints — blocked driveways, construction zones, fire hydrant obstructions — I’m happy. It’s cool."

"It’s not for everybody, but I would say it’s a fine job," he continued. "It pays well. It’s secure. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never had a problem. If you’re cool about it, if you’ve got the right demeanor, then the saying is true: you get what you give."

Judson True, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, added that PCOs conduct traffic during special events and congested hours, help motorists around accident sites, and even conduct undercover stings to prevent the abuse of disabled parking placards. Most of all, though, PCOs — like others with less-than-lovable jobs — are still people.

"No one likes to get parking tickets. That’s an obvious reality," True said. "But people need to remember that the parking control officers are their neighbors, their friends, their family — people who are doing an important job for the whole city."


Yes, those clipboard jockeys scanning for eye-contact outside Whole Foods or approaching you at Dolores Park have a name. They’re called canvassers, and their job is to solicit votes, subscriptions, opinions, or something similar — and often they’re paid by the signature. These days canvassers are talking about everything from orphans to Obama, gun control to global warming. But most people aren’t interested in what they’re called or what issue they’re representing.

"I’ve been called pariah, douchebag, whore, woman of the night," said Valerie, who recently canvassed at Market and Powell streets for an international charity. "I’ve had coffee poured on me. I’ve had people scream ‘Get the fuck out of my face!’ and yell ‘It’s a scam! It’s a scam!’ while I talk with other people."

Dave, a canvasser for Progressive Political Solutions who worked further down Market, agreed the job can be challenging — but worth it.

"There are going to be days that people are totally against everything you do," Dave said. "But then there’s someone — one person — who makes the day worthwhile, someone who I would have never been able to talk to in an office."

Dave was enthusiastic about the skills he has developed working the streets. He not only credited canvassing for PPS with enhancing his verbal and interpersonal skills, but also with learning industry-specific skills like how to do press calls and conferences, and understanding the political process. Within months of taking the job, he said, he had risen to staff supervisor, helping to advise and manage new hires.

"I like this job in the sense of the big picture," Dave said, before heading into a crowded UN Plaza, clipboard in hand.

Valerie confirmed that for canvassers, the big picture is what it’s all about. Valerie, no less positive for being verbally assaulted and doused with coffee, added, "At the end of the day — no matter how many times someone calls me a douchebag or a bitch — I am making someone’s life better. That’s what really matters to me."


Kurt Stenzel, vice president of sales at Tactical TeleSolutions, was one of the few people I interviewed who gave me a full name. Then again, he swears his salespeople aren’t the same ones interrupting your primetime TV hour — and he credits telemarketing for his meteoric rise to success.

"I took the Greyhound bus from New York City with $200, got a telemarketing job, and one thing led to another and now I’m selling to big tech guys [Apple, IBM, Sprint] every day," said Stenzel, who runs the call station downtown.

Though TTS mainly does business-to-business work, Stenzel explained, most telemarketers do make cold calls to homes at some point. His was in New York, where he worked in a windowless room calling people who didn’t want to hear from him.

Their attitude, he says, was, "You’re trying to rip me off — now prove otherwise."

"It’s a tough go," he admitted. "People will curse you out or be crazy."

So what’s good about this job? According to Stenzel, it’s how egalitarian the hiring process is. Call stations aren’t interested in padded resumes and flashy degrees. They want people who know how to talk, plain and simple.

"If they’re articulate, it doesn’t matter so much if they’ve got the right degree," he said. "In that sense, call center work is one of those genuine equal opportunity situations. If people have dropped out of school or come on a tough time, people can come here, build up some skills, and really build their way up."

Though these interviews were enlightening, I can’t say I want to do any of these jobs any more than I did before. And I can’t promise to be less annoyed the next time a canvasser butts into my private conversation or a PCO ruins my morning. But I do hope I’m at least a little more compassionate.

Of course, compassion would be so much easier, officer, if you just let me go. Just this once.