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malden

Taking the impersonal personally

By Kathy Shiels Tully
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2012
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What started out as a lark - my friends and I enjoying lunch in downtown Malden - slammed into the icy wall of automated indifference when I tried to appeal a parking ticket via the city’s efficient new online system.

No face-to-face pleading. Just this in my inbox. Appeal Status: Denied.

It was just after Thanksgiving when two mom friends and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal, a little way to reward ourselves for all the shopping/wrapping/returning (not to mention endless cooking and cleaning) about to hit us in December.

“Where should we go?’’ one friend asked.

We live in Melrose, which, until recent years, had few restaurants. Today, it’s like an edible trip around the world. We mulled our choices. Did we want seafood? Mexican? Italian? Bistro? Should we splurge on money (and calories) for steak or sushi? Add in the high walkability factor, right past a number of great stores and bakeries, and there’s really no reason to leave downtown Melrose.

But sometimes it’s good to leave the ranch. Plus, I wanted to support Malden’s restaurants and stores.

Before Melrose, my husband and I lived in Malden. He was born and lived most of his life there.

We love seeing some of the changes, especially the addition of new restaurants like All Seasons Table and the Exchange Street Bistro. I donate my business clothes to Tailored for Success, and shop at its boutique. And because our two daughters attend Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, we shop every fall at Sparks, a 90-year-old Malden Square institution, for uniforms and more.

“What about All Seasons?’’ I asked. It’s one of our favorites and many Melrosians consider it one of “our own.’’ My friends agreed.

So, on Nov. 29, off we went.

Finding parking on Pleasant Street is tough. But, after saying a few PSAs (Parking Spot Affirmations, which I learned after moving from New York), I found free parking - as expected - just outside the restaurant.

Giddy with the “free’’ find, we headed in for one of the three-course lunches (an average of $10 each). Oh, and lettuce wraps. (The waiter serves them as if you’re a queen.) The bar is another source of joy, but since we had to be home in time for the kiddies, we sipped iced tea instead while we talked, laughed, and relaxed. After paying the bill, we each decided to visit the bathroom before leaving. (Too much iced tea!)

Getting into my van, I saw a paper tucked under the driver’s side wiper. Probably a flier for some “deal.’’ I grabbed it before it blew away.

“It’s a ticket!’’ I told my friends.

“What? Why?’’

I read the code. “Violation A6 - Overtime parking.’’

Overtime?

We spotted the sign: “One hour parking.’’

How late were we? The restaurant receipt showed we were just under an hour. The ticket showed us late by about 12 minutes. Oh, the bathroom trips.

“Fine: $25.’’

Twenty-five dollars? Almost the entire cost of our lunch! Why didn’t we just stay in Melrose, I whined? The meal, and our moods, were ruined.

My friends kindly gave me money toward the ticket, resigned to forking money over to the city in silence.

No, I decided, Malden needing some waking up. I would appeal.

Surely, I thought, Malden wants to attract people, both residents and neighbors, to its redeveloping downtown. But how can it, if the city doesn’t make space - or time - for consumers to enjoy it? Don’t they want to ever thrive again, like 40 or 50 years ago when Pleasant Street was so crowded, as my mother-in-law used to tell me, you could barely walk down it?

Once home, I learned I had to appeal online. Online? No, I wanted to talk to someone. Eyeball to eyeball. Like I had done once, just the year before - and successfully - after receiving a parking ticket outside the charter school on Salem Street.

Apparently, it was street-cleaning day in Malden. But the row of us parents parked outside the school - running inside the “fishbowl’’ to get our kids - didn’t know that, being from other towns, and got hit with a slew of tickets.

I drove right over to City Hall. How were we supposed to know, I calmly, politely asked the clerk, looking into her eyes, that it was street-cleaning day if we didn’t live in the city? She listened and let it go. That once, she added. I agreed. It was a fair, rational process.

As I typed my virtual, online plea (“We were only a few minutes late! I have the timed receipt to prove it! We just had to go the bathroom. Really. We’re old! Really!), I wondered: Does it sound the same in cyberspace as it does in person?

Call me naive, but I really believed my personal approach within Malden’s impersonal system would make a difference.

The holidays came and went. I waited.

Then, ping! The other day, the decision arrived in my e-mail inbox.

Appeal Status: Denied.

Officer Comment: [their caps] THIS IS THE FINAL DECISION ON THIS APPEAL.

Just as everyone - but me - expected. Because rejection is much easier to do online than when you’re looking someone in the eye.

And, oh, joy: If I want to pay the ticket online, an additional $2 “convenience fee’’ is added.

Next time, we’ll eat in Melrose.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@gmail.com.

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