Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A vital portion of this “tow zone” sign on Oxford Street between Forest and Garfield was indecipherable. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Trying to park in Agassiz a couple of nights ago, I noticed a “Tow zone” sign that seemed to be warning me off. I say “seemed to be” because, while the paper sign warning of construction was clear enough until the bottom, it was impenetrable from that vital point onward.

Someone had jotted some unreadable characters — probably numerals — in black pen on duct tape. Other cars were parked along the street apparently without concern, but as a resident whose car had been towed a spirit-crushing number of times, that was no reassurance.

The readable part of the sign said there was no standing between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. So maybe all the other cars on this stretch of Oxford Street, between Forest and Garfield, were planning to move before 7 a.m.? It was also possible the characters written on the duct tape were dates on which this sign was in effect, and maybe Monday wasn’t one of those days. But how could I be sure? I thought I saw sevens, which would make no sense in the 11th month, but it also didn’t make any sense on a sign that already said not to park there starting at 7 a.m. What could it all mean? At midnight on a Sunday, I couldn’t really ask the neighbors. I thought briefly about calling the police, but my experience Tuesday with the city’s Public Works and Transportation departments, which couldn’t tell me about the sign, sort of supported my decision not to try.

Public Works project manager Eric Breen, however, tracked me down to make it clear that “the last thing we want to do is tow somebody,” and that his workers on Prentiss Street would run a license plate number, find a resident and warn them before actually towing a car.

Still, most signs are posted the day before a parking restriction and 95 percent of them warn drivers to stay away from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Breen said. The duct tape is to be written on “so we don’t go through a million signs.”

These are all good things.

But my car was a rental, so I had only a guest pass, not a resident parking sticker; if I’d actually parked, that would make me harder to track down. But the first concern is that guest passes are supposed to be good only within two blocks of my home, and living on the Somerville border meant a dramatically curtailed set of parking options: While many people can look for parking two blocks in four directions, I had half the options.

I could have kept looking for options, but gave up, drove the car to the rental franchise on Somerville Avenue and walked home.

Sure, the sign was unclear and the obvious choices for informed city departments didn’t offer any clarity, but despite Breen’s best efforts I could have been towed all the same. The last time I was towed — while I was out of state for several days — it was because street cleaning had been pushed off by a Monday holiday, which I didn’t catch because it had been more than a week since the holiday, and a Public Works department worker had dismissed my agitation by telling me I’d been warned of this some four months earlier in the booklet I got when renewing my resident parking sticker. And, anyway, she said, that’s what I get for not having a driveway in Cambridge.

The message was: Take responsibility.

That means going to get the car, with none of the city’s three impound lots in convenient spots for walkers, and paying the $90 impound fee and $30 ticket.

Construction workers’ punishment for leaving an indecipherable sign? Nothing.

Has anyone else had similar problems with parking in Cambridge? Or is the city running primarily on the fees I’ve paid for getting my car out of impound lots? Feel free to share your parking stories in the comments section.

This post was updated Nov. 4 with Breen’s comments. The image on the home page is from the Flickr account of Frank Hebbert.