One day not long ago, I headed to Ybor City for lunch. Alongside suits, secretaries and construction workers, I jockeyed for a spot in the city parking lot behind my favorite Cuban sandwich shop.
Where I met up with The Pay Station.
We all met up with The Pay Station that day. One by one, we stood in the midday sun trying to coax a parking permit from The Pay Station while privately reassuring ourselves we really were of reasonable intelligence. Had it been a Stephen King novel, I believe The Pay Station would have been laughing maniacally.
Parking in Ybor, Tampa's historic Latin Quarter and entertainment district, has been an interesting and evolving thing. Once I came out of a meeting with a police officer over cafe con leche to find a parking ticket under my wiper. (The cop laughed.) This wretched, antiquated parking meter had refused my perfectly legal dimes and nickels and then penalized me when my quarters ran short.
But guess what. The official-looking ticket turned out to say: Welcome to Ybor, friend, we won't nail you this time and we sure hope you come back! It was a parking mulligan, a nice touch in a place that wants visitors happy.
In other positive parking news, the city is ditching meters to make more than 200 street spaces free for two hours. Ybor also offers a couple of brick parking garages that are nicer than some apartments I've lived in.
And now, we have The Pay Stations in city lots to take money and issue small paper permits to display on dashboards. Simple, you'd think.
Printed on the machine is a list of numbered instructions: first, push the amount of time you need. Second, insert money. Except the machine would not take money, would not accept bills, spat inserted quarters clanging out onto the change tray. More than once I saw this. Bad words were said.
Because, it turns out, on a different spot on the machine, away from those numbered instructions you assume would tell you everything you have to do to make it work, is another note: Don't forget to press the "Buy" button before you put your money in!
Other troubles: Credit card slots were duct-taped shut. The promised tickets didn't always appear. And some of us apparently do not like the hoof back to the car to leave the ticket behind.
I wanted to check out the dollar coins the machine (allegedly) gives as change instead of bills, so on a quick trip for take-out, I asked for 25 cents worth of parking. I put in a $5 bill. And got back 75 cents change.
Another time, I saw an Ybor "ambassador" stationed next to the machine to help. The poor guy's smile looked permanently pasted on. No one was smiling back much, though things were moving faster.
The good news: Vince Pardo, manager of the city's Ybor City Development Corporation, says the machines will soon be credit card ready and instructions made clear, with "Buy" right in there with the rest of them. Complaints have tapered off, and signs have improved, he says. In other towns, they've gotten used to the walk back to the car.
I am happy to report that on a recent trip to Ybor's Saturday morning market for tomatoes, the encounter with The Pay Station went without incident or maniacal laughter. Now that the secret of the "Buy" button is out.
Pass it on.