Judge Fletcher "Pound of Flesh" Freeman is ready to free the world from rampaging bagel-shop owners.
Judge Fletcher "Pound of Flesh" Freeman is ready to free the world from rampaging bagel-shop owners.
Peter Calvin

Bagel Petard

There are global issues people need to think about, but I also believe an issue that needs to be addressed is when a perfectly law-abiding citizen pulls up in front of a certain bagel shop to park his car in order to go next door to a certain cafe, and the owner of the bagel shop runs out and starts pointing to some totally bogus hand-painted parking sign and threatens to have the good citizen's car towed because supposedly you can't park there unless you're going into the bagel shop.

Please don't take this as a petty or self-serving complaint. It is true that I did happen to be a victim of such a bagel-shop incident myself, but that experience was significant only because it opened my eyes to a form of suffering and oppression that I believe is widespread.

I speak for the others.

And here's the thing: I knew for sure at the time when I was coming under attack that the Dallas City Code does not allow property owners to restrict parking spaces where you park right at the curb.

You know what I mean about these dumb signs. You see them all over town now. "Parking for Subway Only, Towing Enforced." "Reserved Centennial Parking, Enforzamento de Gru'a." "Parking for Aunt Bitsy's Baby Togs Only: Four Flats if you think Bitsy's kidding."

Well, I made up the last one, but you know what I'm talking about. I said to the bagel guy: "This is public parking, and you can't reserve it for your own customers."

He said: "My lease says I can."

I said: "Your lease says wrong."

He said, "Does not," and I said, "Does too," and does-not and does-too and so on, and finally he said, "Try it, and I'll have you towed."

I turned sharply on my heel to show this man my utter contempt, and I marched into the cafe, where I stood guard watching my car from behind a movie poster in the front window, while the bagel person stood out on the curb dialing his cell phone as if he were Leonard Bernstein conducting The New York Philharmonic in Schumann's "Manfred" Overture.

Give me a break.

So I went back out and got in my car. It's a fairly new one. I didn't want the tow morons wrecking it. He sneered at me because he thought he had defeated me, but I silently vowed that this would not be the end of the matter. I would go straight home, forget about anything else I was supposed to be doing and look up the city code.

OK, if you don't mind, I would like to refer us all to Volume I of the Dallas City Code, Chapter 28, because I think this is where Monsieur Le Bagelette is hoist with his own petard, under the heading "Unauthorized reserving of parking spaces."

"A person commits an offense if without lawful authority, he places, maintains, or displays upon or in view of a public sidewalk, curb, or street, a sign, signal, marking, or device which indicates reserved parking space for adjoining owners or for customers of the adjoining owners upon the street or in areas recessed from the street which require use of the street for maneuvering."

Now, that was just Section a. If you don't mind, I would also like to refer us to Section b, which I think could be aptly titled the special "Leonard Bernstein Impersonator Clause":

"Verbal statement or gesture.

"A person commits an offense if without lawful authority, he attempts to reserve a parking space upon a street for an adjoining owner by statement or gesture."

This is huge.

I called James Murphy, one of the best municipal-issues lawyers I know (he sued the city over the trees at Tenison Park), and I asked him if he knew of any lawyers who specialize in suing the socks off bagel-shop owners who wrongly harass good citizens. I was kind of hoping he might say, "Oh, I love those cases; please let me represent you without fee," only because of the larger principle such a response would have affirmed.

Murphy, as always, was very nice, and he gave me an interesting history of recent court battles over parking enforcement and towing. He suggested, however, that normally in the specific type of case I described, in a bagel-shop situation where there actually has been no towing and only emotional and psychological damage and possible harm to a way of life, there is not, as he put it, "much recovery."

I didn't fall off a turnip truck. I know what that means. No moolah for the lawyers. Nobody takes it on a contingency.

Even if you get towed, what do you sue for? Loss of consort with your car? So you get the towing fee and the pound fee and some money for the ding in the windshield that actually happened two years ago? You're still not hitting up anywhere near around Lawyerville. Unless you're willing to pay the lawyer yourself and take a hit of several thousand dollars even if you win, this red dress isn't going to town.

But not to despair entirely. Murphy told me to call Justice of the Peace Court Judge Fletcher Freeman, a man I remember well from covering his mass marriages at the Ballpark when I was a daily reporter. Murphy suggested, and I agreed, that Freeman is the kind of judge who won't just automatically take the shop owners' side from the get-go--a fair-minded jurist with an ear for the little guy.

That's me.

Judge Freeman was extremely cordial, and he took time to tell me exactly what the procedure would be to go to small claims court and nail the bagel-shop owner. He said first of all you would have to be actually towed, not merely gestured upon with a cell phone. If towed, he said, "you could come to small claims court and sue, alleging wrongful towing."

He made it sound simple: "You would see the clerk and ask for a small claims form. It will ask you for your name, address and phone and the same information for the defendant. Then there is a section where you explain why you are suing."

Total cost? Seventy-two bucks pays the filing fee and for someone to go serve the bagel-shop owner with legal papers. Aha! Wouldn't I like to be a fly on the wall for that scene?

The bagel defendant has approximately 10 days to answer. If he fails to answer in that time, I win by default. I asked: If the bagel miscreant does answer, how long does it take to get this matter to trial?

"Six months to a year and a half," the judge said.

Hmmm. I could be dead by then.

"But if you're right," he said, "it will still cost the other side time and money to respond. So you will get your pound of flesh if nothing else."

Pound of flesh! I like that phrase! From here on out, I will think of him as Judge Fletcher "Pound of Flesh" Freeman.

But what is all this troubling stuff about "if you're right?" Obviously I'm right. We all read Chapter 28, Section 77, "Unauthorized Reserving of Parking Spaces," right? I suppose what Judge Freeman refers to is the possibility that, if I were wrong about the law, and if I were to put the Bagel Fellow in a legal jackpot over it and cost him a pound of flesh, he might sue me back and put me in a jackpot and cost me a pound of flesh, too, for harassing him over nothing. From that perspective, it's an ugly phrase.

So I wound up on the telephone with Lloyd Denman in the city's Public Works and Transportation Department, who agreed right off the bat that "a parking space off a public street cannot be reserved by the adjacent property owner."

He said the key phrase in the code is "use of the street for maneuvering." He explained that if it's head-in parking or even parallel parking where you have to back out or maneuver in any way that puts you in the right of way (the street), they can't reserve it. Head-in parking is the clearest case. You use the street to back out of the parking slot. That means they can't reserve it.

I explained to Denman that I had one tiny reservation about this particular situation. In this case, there are two tiers of parking. One is out along the street. There is no curb. You turn into those slots from the street. Then there is another tier, right up along the curb. You kind of turn in and get to those by driving between the two rows. That is where the offending bagel sign was.

Denman didn't miss a beat. "They can't reserve spots in the outer row," he said, "but I would think the inner row, which does not require you to maneuver in and out of the public right of way, would be fine to reserve."

No. Not fine. Don't say that.

"Well, I think Chapter 28 is fairly straightforward," he insisted. "The second row, closer to the businesses, is all right to reserve."

Sure. And just stick a knife right in my heart while you're at it, Mr. Denman.

The global socio-political and moral issue here--people who try to reserve parking spots that are right off a public street where you have to turn in or back out using the street itself--still stands. We can and must go to Judge Freeman's court or the court of any other JP and sue them blind--sue the blueberry cream cheese right off their whole-wheat bagels.

But my case. My case. My case is dead. The bagel sign is...legal.

(NOTE TO EDITOR: I still get paid this week, right?)


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