One African job that seems odd to the New Yorker in me is that of "parking marshal."
A parking marshal is a human parking meter. They have them in Kampala and they have them in Swakopmund. They also have them in Cape Town, and probably in hundreds of other cities across the continent. The parking marshal wears a brightly colored uniform—usually an orange or yellow vest—that has the words "Parking Marshal" stenciled across the back. There’s one on every business district block.
We have machines that do the job of collecting parking fees in the States. Machines get frustrating when they are broken. Machines are not flexible. People, however, can be reasoned with. They can also provide change.
When Shawn was parking his car in Cape Town and going to the closing for his condo, he was getting frustrated that all the signs in the center of town read “60 minutes.” He might be done in that time, but had no way of knowing for sure. Plus he only had enough change for 30 minutes. I encouraged him to pay for a garage spot as the parking police will clamp your wheel in a flash here. That’s The Boot to us Yanks.
Nobody wants The Boot.
But Shawn—being African and a lot more aware of the flexible nature of things here—pulled into an empty spot on the street and had a discussion with the block’s parking marshal.
She agreed to let him pay for a half-hour and pay for the rest when he got back. And she didn’t mind it he stayed longer than 60 minutes. It wasn’t a heavy traffic day. He could take his time.
He was back in 15 minutes and got a partial refund.
The other job that people do here is less official, and can be kind of annoying. “Car guards” keep an eye on your parked vehicle while you are away from it. Some of them are organized volunteers doing their civic duty. Others can best be compared to New York’s “squeegee men.” Anyone who was in New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s will remember the huddled masses wielding their dirty squeegees.
You’d stop at a light (in a car or taxi), and suddenly someone would be smearing filthy, greasy water all over your windshield. And they’d want some money in exchange for this “service.” You’d almost want to pay them NOT to wash your windshield.
The only way to stop them was to always have your windshield wipers running while you were at a light. You could squirt a little washer fluid for emphasis if the squeegee men wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Once I stopped at a red light on Houston Street. There must have been six of these guys sprinting towards my old Volvo. And they were not rich fellows, so they were dressed in rags. I felt like I was suddenly in a George Romero film and in danger of someone eating my brain. And I seem to remember having broken wipers for a while—which complicated matters—but the sorry states of my old cars is a topic for another day.
Some Africans like car guards and think they are useful. Others argue that car guards don’t do anything and cars don’t really need watching. It seemed like a sham in Uganda, where I once witnessed an expat woman wail at the top of her lungs because someone had stolen her laptop out of her 4WD—right under the guard’s nose while she was in a restaurant. The guard sat there, looking puzzled and ineffectual with his rather large gun, while the wait staff consoled her.
Is a car guard useful? I suppose that like anything, it depends on the circumstance.