Sometimes, after enough rounds of alcohol with friends, someone will ask the inevitable question, "What's the worst crime you've ever committed?" I know from experience that this is usually followed by a sex-related question, as if talking about some homicide I perpetrated last month would open me up to an intimate conversation on lovemaking do's and dont's.
The most common answers to the crime question are generally harmless: "I shoplifted once because I hated my parents" or "I ran over a small animal, and just kept going" or "I stole a bag of marijuana from a passed-out friend." Theft and cruelty to animals figure pretty highly on these lists, it turns out.
I always give the same answer, and it's a real doozy: "I stole parking for 3 months."
I then embark on a circuitous retelling of how this came to happen, and why it is that I no longer park in Greenbelt 1, Makati City. This same story is what I will now relate to you, dear reader, so that the next time we have a drink, you won't need to ask me this. You can skip straight to the juicier followup question.
The whole affair began in early 2008, around the time that I was going to Makati 5 days a week, sometimes for 14 hours at a stretch. Syndeo was in a rough spot and I was under the impression that spending more time in the office was going to pull us out of it. (It didn't, but that's another story.)
As you're probably all aware, parking in Makati is expensive, and staying for inordinately long periods would often cost upwards of PhP300/day. So I decided to rent a parking slot from Greenbelt 1, which they were selling at the relative bargain price of PhP3,000 per month. I signed a one-month lease agreement in a small office under the stairs and forked over my PhP3,000. In exchange, they gave me a Greenbelt 1 car pass with my name and the date handwritten on the back with a ballpoint pen.
The next day, I drove up to the entrance and handed my car pass proudly to the lady in the booth. She had never seen one of these before, and had to radio the admin office for instructions. Eventually, she just waved me through, as it turns out that there was no real protocol for parking leases yet. Likewise, when I left the lot late that evening, the lady at the exit looked at my pass dumbly for a few seconds before raising the gate and thanking me for my patronage. A small bird chirped quietly in the back of my mind, but I paid it no heed. Not yet, anyway.
That first week, I spent a total of 70 hours in Makati, which would have cost about PhP1500 if I had been parking ala carte instead of all-you-can-eat. In the mornings, I'd arrive, and the lady in the booth would smile at me and I would smile back. In the evenings, I'd leave, and receive a similar smile, and a mouthed "Bye, sir."
I was clearly getting my money's worth here.
This continued for the remainder of that month, and as I approached the last day of my lease, I was certain that I'd renew it. Then, a funny thing happened. The last day of my lease turned out to be a Sunday, which was the only day of the week that I wasn't in Makati. Had I been in the CBD on that day, the rest of this story would've turned out differently, but as it happened, I wasn't. The next day was Monday, and I was in a big rush. I drove up to the lot, flashed my car pass (she didn't even bother to look at it anymore, she was so used to seeing it and my car) and made my way to my assigned space. It was only later at work that I remembered that my car pass had expired and I wasn't supposed to be using it any longer. I made a mental note to renew it the following day. Today was just too busy.
But Tuesday was even busier, and to top things off, I had neglected to fill my wallet with anything but old receipts and a random neoprint. The lady at the entrance was barely even looking at my car pass as I held it up to my windshield. She smiled and nodded at me though as always, and pressed her little button to raise the boom gate. I promised myself that I'd renew my pass before the end of the week, tops.
That didn't happen either, it turned out. By the following week, the little bird in the back of my head was chirping quite loudly. In its sing-song way it was itemizing the various reasons why I could - and should - get away with this for as long as possible.
- 1. Greenbelt had been gouging me for parking for years. It was time to get even.
- 2. If I ever got caught, all I'd need to do was feign ignorance, apologize and pay for my parking that day.
- 3. This was really Greenbelt's fault. There was no mechanism in place to remind their customers about their expiring leases. I was highlighting a flaw in their system by exploiting it thusly.
- 4. I had more important things to do than to sign another agreement in that dingy little office under the stairs. (This last one occurred to me while I was sipping an Americano at the Coffee Bean garden area, my feet propped up and my laptop displaying an exciting screensaver.)
Armed with this air-tight reasoning, I pushed courageously onwards. My smiles to the ladies at the entrance booth were now intricate disguises; overly jovial displays meant to conceal the fact that I was perpetrating a grievous crime right under their very noses.
A crime that I continued to commit for the next 3 months.
I had actually gone to the trouble of writing over the date on the back of my car pass so it'd look like I had just renewed it. I had also rehearsed a number of possible responses when confronted, mostly involving pointing at invisible three-headed monkeys and then making a run for it.
But nobody ever checked my pass, and nobody ever called me out.
Then one day, the boom gate remained lowered and I hit the brakes. The lady was smiling apologetically and waited for me to open my window. "Sir, may I see your car pass for just one moment?" she said. I nodded slowly. "Sure." My palms began to sweat.
She turned it over and pulled out her walkie, mouthing what was probably my name. Her eyes darted towards me as she spoke, and I smiled innocently back at her. Finally, she put the radio away and leaned as far out as her booth window would allow.
"Sir," she said, almost conspiratorially, "This is ok." And then she handed me back my car pass, and raised the gate.
I thought long and hard about what had just transpired for the whole day afterwards, wondering what would happen when I tried to leave. Would they stop me? Fine me? Did they even know that I was committing grand theft parking, or was I just being paranoid?
That night, as I made my way to the exit, I knew my number was up. The lady at the booth was the very first one I came into contact with, on my first day there. When I pulled up, we nodded to each other in a familiar way. She asked to see my car pass, and said something into her walkie, just as the earlier girl had.
She looked at it for a long time, as my engine idled and my eyeball twitched. "Sir, this is fine," she said finally, handing it back. I couldn't believe my luck.
"Thank you," I said, as meaningfully as I could. My smile was sheepish this time. I couldn't hide the guilt any longer. But hers was genuine. Reassuring.
I didn't return to that parking lot for a week after that. My work schedule was changing and I was spending less time in Makati. When I finally did, I noticed a small sign had been tacked on to the outside of the ticket booth. "NOTICE TO ALL CUSTOMERS WITH MONTHLY CAR PASS," it bellowed. And then below that, in smaller print (and obviously I'm not quoting this verbatim): "Due to non-payment from several customers, we will be instituting strict checking policy for all car passes. To avoid inconvenience, please settle your bill at the administration office immediately."
I had to smirk at that. It had taken them three whole months to disentangle the web of deceit I had woven. I was proud. I had played them all, and with a enthusiasm that I frankly found surprising. I imagined the interviews later, after I had been hunted down by a task force with dogs and searchlights, and carted off in heavy chains for my crimes. Surrounded by flashing red and the whoop of sirens, the ticket ladies would tell the camera, "He was such a nice-looking man. He always smiled as he drove past."
"You'd never have guessed he was a serial parker."