Can art rehabilitate a parking meter?

Colorado Springs Parking MeterIt’s become another art medium in itself. Like oil, watercolor, and macaroni sprayed gold, we now have painted industrial objects. I’ve seen fiberglass cows, pigs, and elk cast to provide uniform canvases for ensemble-scale kitsch. Colorado Springs is probably not the first municipality to recycle obsolete parking meters as art pieces. The scheme is actually fairly clever: scatter beautified meters around retail areas to collect spare change “for the homeless,” to scoop the tug of panhandlers who may have less responsible designs on charitable donations.
 
My favorite is a meter painted like a Muslim imam, with the time-expired flag made to be a cry for help showing through his clear forehead.

Of course, I interpret this “help” to be a desperate cry from embattled Islam, a message in a bottle aimed at the English-speaking westerners whose soldiers have the Islamic world besieged. But the artist might just as well have meant to portray this Muslim’s spiritual lobe as less pellucid than vacuous. Imprisoned behind the soundproof uniformity of Sharia grooming and dress might echo a lonely S.O.S. seeking a secular salvation.

After the city’s counter-sidewalk-insurgency fund-raising is through, the painted meters will be auctioned for charity. But would you want one?

As upcycled sculptures go, I’m not big on commemorating parking meters. Of all industrial contraptions, it’s hard to imagine a function less popular. Meter maids must vie with dentists for trying a therapist’s sympathies. For most people, paying for parking is an investment in nothing. Isn’t it inherently objectionable when civil authorities charge tolls on already tax-funded thoroughfares? One of the liberating feelings you experience from taking mass-transportation is not worrying about a ticking parking meter. We most often approach parking meters with great anxiety and at a run, they take our coins like terrible vending machines, returning sometimes not even the incremental reprieve for which we paied, with no one to call for a refund. When we return to find a parking ticket, it’s the meter who ratted us out. What are we supposed to do with one of these at home, but beat it?

The analog charm of these retired meters cannot help but remind us what mercenaries their replacements have become. Newer models have all sorts of digital enhancements. They can tell when the previous vehicle leaves the parking space so as to reset the timer to zero. They can monitor whether you’ve overstayed the posted time limit, preventing you from feeding the meter, although without refunding the excess of your solicitous enticements. And when your permission to park has expired, they can send off a wireless signal to alert a parking enforcement officer posthaste. Can you imagine one day we will be playfully decorating these humorless machines?

A coworker of mine was retiring from the payroll department at around the same time the factory was updating its time clocks. He’d spent virtually his entire career tabulating punch cards collected multiple times a day from the various department clock-in areas. Actually it was our employer’s policy to take a sledgehammer to all obsolete equipment, sooner than risk the liability posed by an uncertain post-operational utility. I suggested we decorate one of the antiquated models like a big hunting trophy to present as a retirement gift. In none too many words my friend was able to articulate his lack of even curiosity for my proposal.

There might be a call for imbuing nostalgic utilitarian items with a creative after-life: toasters and typewriters for example, even drill presses and lathes. But granting immortal persistence to machines whose function it was to measure our labor, or tax our time? I don’t think so.

Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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