by Jim Harris

There is a rumor afoot that parking kiosks in Chestnut Hill, similar to this one not on the Hill, were actually sent here by the devil. But who gives any credibility to rumors?

Once upon a time, parking lots in Chestnut Hill were overseen by kindly old gentlemen in quaint little guardhouses. They were a distinctive part of the community.

“Mornin’ Jim! How ya doin’? How’s that new puppy?”

“She’s great, Uncle Joe. Got any open spots?”

“Sure. Doc Jones is just pulling out. You can have his space.”

“Thanks, Joe. See you at the hoedown tonight?”

“You bet!”

But Uncle Joe and his rustic cohorts have been kicked to the curb and replaced by robots. Dispassionate, automated kiosks now guard the gates 24/7 with unflinching efficiency, and visitors are greeted by a phalanx of signs bearing terse proclamations, regulations, exhortations and explanations: “Press here, go there, do this, don’t do that. No change given, no pennies, nickels, dimes or bills larger than $5. Will not return bills if cancel button is pushed. Putting in nickels or dimes may result in waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay!”

Here’s how this new revenue-producing program works: shoppers are lured into the “bait station” — in the form of a much needed parking spot — then forced to purchase a time-stamped parking receipt from “R2D2” (the brains of the operation). All the while, shadowy henchmen and henchwomen prowl the landscape, waiting for parkers to let down their guard so they can slap them with a $26 fine.

I guess this “new lot order” might be workable for young folks, but it’s difficult for old codgers like myself. Not only are the directions on the tiny kiosk windows hard to read and more confusing than an income tax return, but you need to have the agility of a watchmaker to grab the elusive little receipt that comes out from underneath an awkward, useless plastic door, then retreats back into the bowels of the machine every time you try to grab it.

Additionally, if you should accidentally insert a nickel or dime while feeding the machine, the whole process is aborted and you receive an “illegal coin” admonishment. You then have to 1. figure out what just happened; 2. start all over again while constantly looking over your shoulder; 3. Make sure the Philadelphia Parking Authority torture squad is not within grabbing distance.

The new system may be making money, but what’s lost is the camaraderie and small town atmosphere that made Chestnut Hill such a desirable destination. But fear not, I believe I have a brilliant compromise solution. Bring back the old lot attendants but put them INSIDE of the kiosks. That way, they could change the receipt paper as needed, count the money, repair any minor machine malfunctions and still maintain a modest rapport with patrons.

“Good Morning, Sir or Madam. Welcome to Lot Five. Please insert cash and press the green button.”

“Uncle Joe, is that you? What are you doing in there? You don’t sound so good.”

“Is that Jim? Hi! How’s that new puppy?”

“Fine. Do they ever let you out of there?”

“Oh sure,” we get a 15-minute break every day and a week off at Christmas. You’d better get back to your car. One of our operatives is writing down your license plate number.”

Of course, if residents reacted negatively to having their neighbors locked up in kiosks, maybe prisoners from Guantanamo Bay could be brought in to staff the machines, but some of the camaraderie might be lost.

Eventually, I suppose, all of the kiosks will be directly connected to the main computer at the National Anti-Terrorist Military-Industrial Corporate Headquarters in Washington, and anyone who fails to comply with all posted regulations will wind up inside a kiosk him/herself. Oh well, that’s progress, I guess. At least no one has yet suggested posting armed guards at all the lots.