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Free Parking for Sale 

Many say homeless guys who help commuters find street parking provide a valuable service. But others complain that they cause trouble.

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008

Page 3 of 6

Some have questioned whether Silas and his crew may be responsible for a recent rash of burglaries in the buildings. His battle to keep his de facto business afloat amid accusations that he's an extortionist and a thief is, in essence, every unofficial valet's battle. Across the city, woo-wooers are mistrusted and blamed when cars are broken into.

Sometimes, of course, that blame is deserved.

The quality of service provided by an unofficial valet can range from excellent to nonexistent to detrimental. Logically, the best service will always come from those valets who have found a home on a residential or commercial block, since they serve the same customers time and again.

But when it comes to the numerous nightlife hustlers, well, that's pretty much a free-for-all. They move with the business, and there's nothing to keep them on their best behavior.

On any given night in San Francisco, dozens of unofficial valets venture into the night to claim blocks. In the Mission, two wiry guys in beanies work Valencia between 16th and 18th streets. In the Tenderloin, valets jockey for position near hotels, nightclubs, and any major event. In SOMA, most of the evening action takes place within a ten-block radius of Slim's nightclub, near the intersection of 11th and Folsom streets.

On a recent Friday, all the usuals showed — Michael, George, Cheddar, Reggie, Tony, Taylor, and more. They all know each other, and sometimes fight over turf and curse each other out. "You know I got in here first," Taylor screamed at Michael as they both tried to park cars near the intersection of Isis and 12th streets.

Ask an unofficial valet to evaluate his competition, and you'll get a narrow selection of answers. George calls Taylor a "maggot" and a "hustler." Taylor says Michael is "total scum," and says the guys in the Tenderloin never stay to watch the cars, and if they do, they break into them.

It's not exactly the best PR for the industry. But the game is not always every man for himself. On certain blocks, when the workload becomes too much for one valet, he may — like Silas — begin to accept protégés.

That's been the case on Juniper Street, an alley between 10th and 11th streets off Folsom. The head unofficial valet, whom we'll call George, has been there for five years. He has hired dozens of assistants, who wash cars and help drivers find spots. So far, they have all eventually disappointed him by trying to hide money, or guiding cars into towaway zones.

"They just want to get their money and do whatever they gotta do," he says. "Feed family. Buy some dope. But for me, it's a job."

George says that several years ago, he tried to band the unofficial valets together under one federation, thinking maybe they could wear similar jackets as a "uniform," but there was apparently little interest in that kind of unity. And in the end, there were plenty of guys with whom George didn't want to be associated.

Taylor, for instance (also not his real name). One Tuesday night just outside of Slim's, Taylor is ripping signs off the meters along Folsom and tossing them underneath parked cars. They are expired "No Parking" signs, but Taylor admits that sometimes he tampers with still-active ones.

"I overrule 'em," he says, with a wide smile revealing a missing front tooth.

Clad in a brown beret, glasses, and an acid-washed jean jacket, Taylor is quick-witted and charming, and he will not disclose where he sleeps. He makes lively conversation with his customers, and never demands compensation. But he doesn't mind using every sales trick in the book.

His main gimmick is a small white flashlight he waves at the asphalt in tiny circles, illuminating an empty spot near the club. "Slim's, baby! Slim's!" he hollers as a white sedan speeds past. "See, you gotta convince the motherfucker that this is the place to park."

Not many drivers have taken the bait tonight. That's just the way it goes sometimes. But Taylor is here for good reason. Tonight at Slim's, the bands Clutch and Death by Murder are playing. They sold out both Monday and Tuesday, Taylor learned, which meant a lot of people would need street parking.

A few more cars roll by. "Hey! Hey! Wake up!" Taylor yells. "I got your spot." Nobody stops. "I talk to them even though they can't hear me," he says.

A rock crowd isn't his favorite. But there's worse, he says: "I don't like parking nobody black. They bullshit. They want to blow smoke up your ass and not pay you, too."

Taylor checks newspapers' calendar listings every weekend to find out where he can park the big spenders on their way to the ballet and the opera, and to see "what's that girl's name? Latifah?" He reckons he must have made $250 the night Queen Latifah performed at Davies Symphony Hall.

But tonight Taylor is striking out. He pauses for a contemplative scan of the desolate, piss-stained block, illuminated by a giant Coors Light ad. When a spot opens up right in front of the club, he vaults onto his bike, speeds across the street, and arrives just in time for a white truck to begin a parallel parking job.

"I got you," he says, waving the driver in. "This is a good spot."

The driver remains in the truck for about five minutes. Not a good sign.

Finally, Taylor approaches the window. "You stayin'?" he asks, then points in the direction of a reporter. "My boss was saving this spot."

The driver, a double-chinned man with a goatee, mumbles something about not being sure. Then he hops out and says he just needs to see if his friend is inside Slim's. He promises to come back and pay if he's going to stay.

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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