Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Homeless Parking Gangsters

January 12, 2015

Homeless Parking Gangsters

It is not uncommon, while walking down select streets of Montevideo, to see a homeless man (they are usually men, though there are a number of women as well), sleeping on a piece of cardboard, under a threadbare blanket, against the side of a building. Under him are all of his worldly possessions, which conveniently fit into a garbage bag. This is not small fortune, as one must bear in mind there is an entire strata of society here that makes a living by raiding garbages (or homes), usually on their horse-drawn carriages with a humungous one-ton resin bag on the back and then sell their take at the various and popular flea markets around town.

They are homeless during the night and late morning as well – depending on the neighborhoods. Residential neighborhood homeless go to sleep later and wake up later; commercial neighborhood homeless go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. However, during the day and the evening they work. One of the most popular jobs is as a parking Mafioso.

They stake out a street (often the one they sleep on), put on a dirty reflective yellow vest that no longer reflects anything and give uninterested drivers directions as to how to park their car, sometimes directing other cars to wait patiently while you get into your spot. Very nice community service type of thing. When the driver returns to his car and is ready to pull out, our Good Samaritan once again officiously directs traffic and tells you when to pull out. By now, Uruguayans are trained to tip these parking gangsters for this unrequested service. When I first arrived to Montevideo, I was scandalized by the constant low-level extortion of these unofficial, unregulated parking attendants. Why should I have to pay these guys for something I didn’t want or ask for? Is there a hidden threat that they would damage my car or allow harm to come to it, if I didn’t give them “protection money?” [Note: After months and months of waiting we finally got a replacement car!]

However, with time, I have come to appreciate these harmless ruffians. I have come to believe that there is indeed some element of protection they afford for a symbolic donation. Cars do not seem to be harmed on their watch. They are actively self-employed. They are entrepreneurs. In some streets there seems to be a concession system. That’s management and expansion possibilities.

I smile at the regular ones in the morning and wish them a good day. I ask them how they’re doing. There is one who I used to see twice a day, when I was living alone on Blvr. España and walked from there to the synagogue. His name is Eduardo. He has his own chair. He’s fairly laid back about his duties. He seems either regularly content or drugged. He somehow always has a beer in his hand and on cold days the traditional mate drink.

There is another one I know well by sight. He is on Blvr. Artigas, between Av. Brasil and Maldonado. He is darkened by standing the entire day in the unprotected sun. Thick white hair adorns his round wrinkled face. He has a cane that he uses imperiously to direct people to empty spots under his dominion. The challenge is that Blvr. Artigas is a major artery and more than 95% of the drivers are just passing by with no interest in parking. This does not deter our noble cane-waving attendant. He waves his cane with a seriousness of purpose; he looks at each driver zooming by as if they are a perspective parker, and directs all of the incoming traffic to parking spots that nobody wants. No one pays him any attention. He is completely ignored by the commuting masses. Though he takes his self-appointed job seriously, nobody else does.

I wonder how many of us have similar situations?

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