It's 9 AM and while most people are making their way through their first cup of coffee, I'm frantically battling for a parking space on Callowhill Street in Philadelphia PA. Locating a person on the street in a major metropolitan city is a difficult feat, but considering the number of horns and people pointing, it was easy to spot Parking Wars' Marlene (also known as Hairspray) as she and her ticket-writing device made their way down the sidewalk.
With a third season premiere under their belts - and more notoriety locally than that 'L.O.V.E.' sign at Love Park - the cast of Parking Wars are officially enjoying the surreal life. The only downside? They can't quit their day jobs just yet.
The luxuries afforded most people who become famous for being on television aren't extended to the cast of Parking Wars, mainly because their day jobs with the Philadelphia Parking Authority are anything but glamorous; it's real bunion-causing work that just happens to air nationally. So the condemnation comes from the mouths of parking violators isn't staged, or reshot for added effect, it's real. This sums up exactly why this show has stuck around well past its freshman season, turning a seemingly mundane job like ticket writing into an adrenaline packed half hour of uncomfortably fun television.
Enter Marlene, the ticket writing matriarch of sorts. Known as a no nonsense widower who smokes like a California forest fire and wears more turquoise jewelry than Joan Rivers on a QVC binge, she's most notable for her hairspray hardened blonde hair. On the show Marlene is regularly seen dispensing advice while peering down from her glasses that always teeter on the edge of her nose.
"I am doing my job the same way when the camera is with me, I don't even acknowledge the camera," explains Marlene. "The only time I acknowledge the camera is if they're asking me questions. I'm not over-polite, I am the same way. I don't change my demeanor."
But it is more than just colorful employees that create the spectacle-per-episode ratio. The most engaging character on the show is the city of Philadelphia. "Philadelphia is very interesting -- very interesting. And I'm not saying the citizens are kooky or crazy. A lot of people thought that Parking Wars made the city of Philadelphia look stupid," defends Marlene. "No, it did not. It actually gave us, the Parking Authority, the ticket-writers themselves a boost. And the reason for that is a lot of people did not realize what we go through, the aggravation, and the insults."
The formula of juxtaposing working individuals battling to do their jobs amidst strife with the public paid off. Viewers not only root for their favorite PPA employees, but also for the people they ticket on a weekly basis and how those situations are resolved... or not.
After walking what seemed like the length of the city with Marlene, there was a mad dash to North Philly to locate the stars of the Booting and Towing Division, Garfield and Sherry. It was rumored they were holed up outside of a popular Wawa store (a gas station/ convenience store based out of Philadelphia with an Indian motif) in South Philly, confirmed when I spotted a white P.P.A. van parked front and center with Sherry leaning out of the passenger side, nibbling on a sandwich.
The vehicle, which houses two seats up front and an open cab for those infamous boots Garfield and Sherry dole out during the course of the day, is just as popular as its occupants. While the three of us chat about Garfield's recent loss of hearing from an ear infection, it doesn't take long before the van attracts a small crowd waiting to interrupt Garfield's' tale and offer accolades to their local heroes. It's obvious from the smile plastered across Garfield's mug that he really enjoys this part of the job.
For the Booting and Ticketing Division, their jobs contrast greatly with those of the ticket writers; usually people they encounter aren't as nice as the people outside of Wawa. Instead of fining a car that's parked inappropriately they are booting individuals who take things a little too seriously at times.
"It wasn't shown on TV [but] a couple of months ago, a guy threw a trash can at us. So we just got right back in the truck," recalls Sherry. "He was really crazy. I believe he had a gun in the house and I was telling Garfield, 'Come on, we can just wait. We'll go down, get in the truck and wait for the cops to come.' He was really harried."
Sherry, a natural beauty with long black hair and a wrinkleless face that doesn't betray that she's also the mother of eight, seems like the polar opposite of the gruff and gray Garfield. The pair, partners on the job for six years, playfully bickers like a married couple which explains why Garfield couldn't resist topping Sherry's story with one of his own.
"I went to release a car that they had booted to tow, and when I went to take the boot off, this older guy, real skinny comes running out and he's going nuts. I mean, he's screaming and yelling," says Garfield. "He's putting his feet on the tow truck -- you know, on the claw and trying to prevent us from doing anything. So we called the police. They calm the guy, take him over to the side, and the officer comes back to me and said, 'Well, I'm glad he decided to calm down because this is what I found in his waistband,' and he's showing me a gun."
After short ride which turned into a journey due to rush hour traffic and a stop at Center City's Reading Terminal to down a cheesesteak. I land in downtown Philadelphia outside the grey brick building that houses the P.P.A. A group of evening ticketers file out of the building and pile into a line of vans while the van for the newest cast member Gina remains.
Gina and I huddle alone on the side of the building while the rest of her co-workers take smoke breaks and begin an impromptu gossip session - most likely about our interview. With her long black locks and sample size body newbie Gina could have easily been a contestant on one of those reality modeling shows that litter the television landscape, but she chose a real career with the Parking Authority.
Being the pretty girl in a cast of working folk doesn't help when it comes to getting an earful from the public. "I've got cursed just a few times. I've never really have bad experiences. It depends on their attitude," she explains. "I'm pretty calm and I can hold a conversation."
It's obvious from a visual scan that she's not your average city employee, but it manifests itself other ways when Gina has to shoo an over enthusiastic male co-worker who takes the playful flirting a bit too far while trying to eavesdrop on our interview. She busts him with, "Why are you over here?" He moves quickly.
The former hairstylist will quickly point out that her job isn't as intense as the half hour show would have you to believe. According to her the job is more entertaining than it looks on television, thanks to the city's pubs. "I work on South Street, so it's always fun on South Street. You either have the crazy drunks or the fun drunks," says Gina. "And as far as when we filmed, we had a lot of the fun drunks. So it makes it a good time. It makes the night go by faster too."
Before long Gina gets a signal from her supervisor and the gang files into the van laughing and joking as they begin the night shift. While we like that the cast is having fun, as long as the show is filming in Philadelphia there shouldn't be a lack of drama. After all, it's the real life drama that keeps us watching.
by Patrick Taliaferro