Spite is not one of the seven deadly sins, but my family has raised it to an art form at the very least. Case in point, I recently received a parking ticket in the People's Republic of Arlington (Virginia) for parking in a residential area where resident stickers are required at all times. Did I do the crime? Absolutely. In fact, my friend and I parked directly under the sign, we just didn't read it correctly. I do think the sign could have been a little clearer, but hey, this isn't DC where signs on the same post sometimes conflict with one another. I'm not fighting this ticket.
What I am doing, is paying my $50 fine in person. In pennies. 5,000 pennies. About 30 pounds worth.
When I tell this to my friend as I grab the ticket off my windshield, she thinks I'm joking. Or just running my mouth. No. I'm doing it. However, I know spite can be blind. I need to research it to make sure I can.
I read the back of the ticket. They certainly encourage you to pay by check – but they don't say you can't pay with cash. (Don't mail cash, don't put cash in their drop box, but nothing about a ban on cash payments.)
The county website specifically says you can pay in cash at the second floor cashier in the Department of Revenue in the county courthouse complex. Oh, it's on.
By this point, I estimate I've spent about 10 minutes on this project. A project I've codenamed: "Operation Copperhead Spite." I could sit down and write a check to the county, address and stamp an envelope in just under a minute. But this is going to be more satisfying. Isn't it?
I let a few weeks go by to see if I'll come to my senses and just write the stupid check; the ticket, thanks to the principle of sedimentation, sinks into a pile of papers in the backseat of my car and slips out of my mind. Then I receive a letter in the mail from the county. It reminds me that I have received a parking ticket and I have until the end of April to pay it, or incur a 50% penalty.
This reminder is actually a pretty good service. What if the ticket had blown away, been snatched off my windshield by a prankster, or been lost? If that happens in DC, the next notice you get is after they've doubled the fine. No, Arlington is actually offering a consumer-friendly service. Of course, that's not how I see it at the time. Against the backdrop of Middle Eastern regimes crushing rebellions, I see this letter as a taunt – a thumb in my eye. I am more determined than ever to stand up to these bullies in Arlington. I will pay my parking ticket in pennies on behalf of the Libyan people and oppressed people everywhere. Back to the internet!
Are coins an acceptable form of payment? U.S. coins are legal tender, right?
According to the U.S. Treasury, Title 31, Section 5103 of the U.S. Code states: "United States coins and currency…are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."
Sounds cut and dry. Not so fast, Klein. Treasury goes on to say that while all U.S. coins are legal tender, not all legal tender is coins. Huh?
Businesses are free to establish policies with regard to which types of legal tender they accept. For example, some convenience stores and restaurants won't take bills larger than $20. Legal. But that's a private business, surely a government agency has to take – uh oh – busses and ironically, parking meters, don't take pennies. But that's a function of the machinery they use not being able to take the small coins; a cashier with a drawer can take pennies, right? We shall see.
Having excavated the ticket from the back seat, I head to my bank to collect my copper. The teller either doesn't hear me or refuses to believe me – she tries to hand me two twenties and a ten.
"No, I need it in change. Pennies actually."
She stares at me, as do the three other tellers who have abruptly stopped their counting and sorting.
"I don't think I have that many," she says.
"It's two boxes," another teller chimes in.
The bank manager in the lobby has overheard the whole exchange and authoritatively enters the teller area. She's tall, thin, and blonde and speaks with a thick Slavic accent. "Of course he shall have his pennies," she pronounces. And with a subtle tilt of her head adds, "The vault."
As two tellers scurry off to the vault, the manager looks at me with the slightly crooked smile of a woman who knows from standing up to tyranny. I imagine her grandfather once told Joseph Stalin to "shove it." Right before he relocated to Siberia.
A few minutes later, a teller wheels out a cart with, as promised, two thick, heavy, cardboard boxes of rolled pennies. As I pick them up and feel their heft I realize what a jerk I am. Thirty pounds worth of pennies. Really? Idiot.
On the drive over to the courthouse I start imagining the cashier will just take the pennies without batting an eyelash. That would really eat a spiteful person up. I know because it's what I would do – try to out spite the spiter.
I get a parking space in front of the courthouse and carefully read the sign, feeding the meter to the two hour maximum. I know an ironic set-up when I see one.
I wonder if my backpack will have to be X-rayed. I realize the boxes with 100 rolls of coins could look like 100 shotgun shells. Luckily, there is no security and I head up to the cashier unmolested.
The smiling cashier looks up at me and I hold up the parking ticket – "can I pay this here?" He smiles again and waves me over – and now the subterfuge.
I pull out my money clip and ask if I can pay cash. He nods and smiles again. "Sure!"
And Operation Copperhead Spite is a go.
I put my money clip back in my pocket and pull the first big box of pennies out of my bag, gingerly placing it on his counter. I bend down for the next box, and when I come up, I see this smiling agent of local government has lost his good humor. And after weeks of planning - my day is made.
"We don't take those," he says.
Now I am the one smiling. "Ah, but you must," I respond, opening up the email on my Blackberry where I have sent myself the pertinent sections of the U.S. Code, and U.S. Treasury and Arlington County websites.
"We're not a bank," he tries.
"No, you're the government. It's even more necessary for you to accept this legal tender," and I dramatically sweep my arm across all the pennies before me. (Seriously, I did.)
He takes a third approach, "We can't take them because they're rolled and so we'd have to count them."
Even he knows how ridiculous this sounds, and I respond simply by staring at him.
"I'll go get a supervisor," he says, hopping off his chair.
I'm giddy with excitement – the showdown is coming.
After five minutes, he returns and bursts my bubble.
"We think accounting might need the pennies, so we'll take them," he says.
No, wait. This isn't right. As Michael Palin once said, "I came here for an argument!"
Maybe I can still get one going.
"Need them?" I sneer at him. "You have to take them."
"Like I said, sir, we'll take them. I'll come around and get the boxes."
And like that, Operation Copperhead Spite is over. It's consumed about 90 minutes over two-and-half weeks, time spent doing research, at the bank, at the courthouse, and of course, driving to and from all these places.
Was it worth it? Well, I do have a small sense of satisfaction that some poor schlub in accounting had thirty pounds worth of pennies dumped on his or her desk on Thursday. But on the other hand, that person didn't write the parking regulation or even issue my ticket. They are what we call, "collateral damage." Maybe the story of the great Penny Rebellion of April 21st will make its way around the office and up the ladder all the way to the County Commissioner? Probably not.
Perhaps the person in accounting lives on the street where I got my ticket. Yeah, that's it. That's what I'll tell myself. Also, I saved a stamp.