I assume most of you have had an experience like this: Back in 2010, I got a ticket from a police officer who said I didn't slow down enough before turning at a small intersection in the International District—tiny intersection, four-way stop, no cars anywhere in sight, he was parked on his motorcycle on the sidewalk looking for someone to pop, blah blah blah. Absurd, yes, but there you go. The ticket was for $103. One hundred and three damned dollars for not slowing down enough (according to one guy) to make a bicycle turn at an intersection with no stoplights and no cars anywhere in sight.
Obviously, this ticket chapped my hide. (I mean, come on.) But I did the good-citizen thing, wrote my check, mailed it in, and paid it. Done.
Flash-forward two years. A couple of weeks ago, I got a letter from a collections agency, saying I owed the municipal court $52 plus a $13 fee for something to do with the "rights and duties of [bike] riders." It was the first thing I'd heard about this, so I called my bank to make sure I'd paid the ticket. (I thought it might be some kind of new scam or something.) I had. Then I called the collections agency, which told me to call one court office, which told me to call another court office, etc.
As expected, nobody seemed to give a shit (except for one pleasant lady who seemed sympathetic but confused). They were just punting my picayune issue from phone-bank operator to phone-bank operator. Hours later (not exaggerating), I got a person willing to explain the problem.
She said the extra $52 was for not paying the ticket on time.
But the date on the check was around two weeks after I'd gotten the ticket, within the allotted time I had to pay the fee. "It was not timely," she said indifferently. The court, it turns out, goes by when it gets the check.
The upshot is that I paid the stupid ticket in a timely fashion, but between the postal service and the court, my payment wasn't processed in a timely fashion, hence I have a late fee from two years ago and my first-ever relationship with a collections agency. All because some guy thought I was going too fast on a bicycle through an empty intersection. Seriously: Come on.
Last month, according to the lady on the phone, the municipal court system began a "database cleanup" to hustle all of its outstanding debts to collections agencies. (Without, of course, giving the people who owe the debts any notice that they owe the city anything.) I pay my tickets when I get them and would have paid the late fee, had I known I'd incurred one.
But times are tough, governments are broke, and this is one way to put a drop in the empty bucket of desperately needed revenue. That's my frustrated-good-citizen rationale.
So I'll hold my nose and pay the dubious late fee bundled onto on the dubious $103 bicycle ticket. I'm going to close my eyes and fantasize that the money is going to basic social services—my own private citizen-bureaucracy porn.
For what it's worth, the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld wrote about these kinds of experiences years ago in an ethnography called The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy. It's about why bureaucracies, supposedly established to help liberal-democratic governments efficiently go about the business of protecting individual liberty, seem so opposed to efficiency, individuals, and liberty.
The first sentence is: "Why do some people apparently become humorless automatons as soon as they are placed behind a desk?" And the summary from the publisher, the University of Chicago Press, goes like this:
Herzfeld argues that "modern" bureaucratically regulated societies are no more "rational" or less "symbolic" than the societies traditionally studied by anthropologists. He suggests that we cannot understand national bureaucracies divorced from local-level ideas about chance, personal character, social relationships and responsibility.
If you're curious, you can buy a copy here. I read it years ago, but it always gives me comfort in moments like these—the seeming arbitrariness isn't really arbitrary. It has deep cultural roots.