That's the ticket

Bobby Johnson leaves a ticket on a car on King Street in downtown Charleston, S.C.  By Brad Nettles / The Post and Courier

Bobby Johnson leaves a ticket on a car on King Street in downtown Charleston, S.C. By Brad Nettles / The Post and Courier


It’s about 1 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, and something seems off to Bobby Johnson.

"I haven’t been cussed out yet today," he said, walking down St. Philip Street. "I’m overdue."

For the last eight months, Johnson, 42, has been one of Charleston’s 23 parking enforcement officers, and in spite of the vitriol, he said his interactions with people are his favorite part of the job.

The worst? The walking.

He starts each day near Calhoun Street, going all the way down King and its side streets to Broad Street, before walking back up, over to Wentworth, up Glebe and down St. Philip.

Then it’s back up to Calhoun to do it over again. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., he circles through that beat four or five times, walking about 15 miles in the process.

How far he makes it, though, depends on how many tickets he gives. On a busy day, that number can reach up to 140, but most days it’s closer to 90, said Paul Campbell, the city’s director of parking enforcement.

That doesn’t earn him commission or help meet a quota, Campbell said, but it does win him one distinction. During the week, he issues more citations than any other officer, accounting for an impressive chunk of the 450 or so tickets the city issues each day.

Johnson works for that status. He forgoes lunch and rarely stops, except to write a ticket or to say hello to a shop owner or the residents of the Ansonborough House, a retirement home.

He guesses he downs about 15 bottles of water on an average day, and though he regularly dabs his forehead with a cloth, he still drips with sweat.

That was on Tuesday, which he called "a cool day." The heat index was 105 degrees.

But Johnson presses on, walking down King at a good clip, regularly making a double-take and a quick pivot when he sees an expired meter to record a license plate and print a citation — all without interrupting his sentence.

His pace doesn’t slow, not even for meters about to expire. They might only have a few minutes left, he said, but they’re not worth the wait.

"I’m not gonna stick around," Johnson said. "By the time I wait for one ticket, I could’ve passed up two or three."

Johnson doesn’t plan to stick around too long in the parking division, either. Like a number of other officers, Johnson took the job because he lost his old one. Plus, he said it gives him a foot in the door in city government, and he’d like to work as a transport officer for Charleston police.

But while he’s on the beat, he suggests folks parking downtown get back to their cars before their meters turn red. Because once they do, he’s not very forgiving.

He’ll sometimes let drivers off, if they’re polite and get there before he hits "print," but otherwise, no one’s safe from Johnson and his handheld device.

Not even Mayor Joe Riley.

The mayor’s meter had expired in front of City Hall a few months ago, and Johnson started writing a ticket when he saw the mayor walking toward him. He stopped.

"I said ... 'I (just) about wrote you a ticket,'" Johnson said. "He said, 'I wish you would’ve. I pay my tickets just like everybody else.'

"I said, ‘Not a problem,' hit print and handed it to him."

In the business of parking, though, people aren’t always so gracious.

There’s the man who tried to fight Johnson on Society Street a few months back over a $45 violation, or the one who spat on parking enforcer Kim Sanders twice when she tried putting a boot on his car. Both cases were resolved by the police.

Sanders and Johnson work together fairly often. She’s the city’s main booter, and "on a good day," Johnson calls in seven or eight times with cars that have picked up more than $200 in unpaid tickets. That’s when they’re eligible to get a boot.

"I like getting boots," Johnson said. "As long as I’m writing tickets and getting boots, I’ve got a job."

Doing so exposes Johnson to a good deal of drama — people shout profanities unfit for print at least once a day, he said. But Sanders is set up for worse.

Her work forces repeat offenders to pay up, and she can immobilize cars at any city parking spot, expired or not. Their owners don’t always take so kindly to her doing so.

Once, someone tried driving off as she was putting a boot on, injuring her hand and damaging the car. The driver stopped, but she’s let people drive ever since. She’ll have another chance, she said.

People drive off on Johnson, too. Asked if it was a regular occurrence, he pulled out two folded tickets from his pocket; they’ll be passed on, sent by certified mail.

And that’s just in the doldrums of the early afternoon, hours before the 3-6 p.m. slam, when traffic picks up.

Even when it’s slow, though, as Johnson walks down the street, people dart out ahead of him.

"I have a way of making people exercise, I guess," he said.

People like the two women who rushed to their car just before he got there, only to see he’d ticketed them a few minutes earlier.

All around King and its side streets, white strips of paper and their bright yellow envelopes dot windshields and wave lazily in the breeze. Inside, one of the women takes a look at theirs, and Johnson walks past.

"Oh," he said, glancing at the car. "They’re not too happy about that."

Originally published in The Post and Courier, July 16, 2012