San Francisco has always depended in part for its economic health on tourism, and a good many of its tourists are from the city it pretends to despise--Los Angeles.
Angelenos recognize that San Francisco is one of the world's most exhilarating cities, and they go there even though they know they will be considered philistines by the natives.
Los Angeles has surpassed San Francisco in so many ways, however, that it is unfair to bring up the old rivalry; it is like a tennis champion scoffing at a challenger he has just soundly trounced.
But an Angeleno named John Howard Steensen complains that San Francisco is engaged in what he considers a disreputable practice designed to raise revenue from innocent visitors.
Steensen says he remembers reading in The Times about a flurry of false parking citations that Los Angeles residents had received in the mail from San Francisco.
"I must confess I was rather skeptical of this report until the same thing happened to me! I received in the mail a Notice of Delinquent Parking Violation from the City of San Francisco alleging that my car was parked in San Francisco on July 15, 1987."
On that date, Steensen says, he was on vacation in Hawaii and his car was safely locked and garaged in Los Angeles.
Steensen wrote an explicit letter to the Presiding Judge of the Municipal Court of San Francisco, explaining that he had not been within 300 miles of San Francisco in three years, nor had his car.
Stretching his muscles a bit, Steensen wrote: "I assume that writing a false parking citation is a form of perjury, or at the very least a malfeasance. It is also my understanding that using the mails for purposes of extortion under false pretenses is a federal crime, and if so, I may be filing charges against the person or persons responsible for this outrage."
Steensen demanded the name and address of his accuser and the precise location of the alleged offense.
He enclosed affidavits from neighbors, attesting to the presence of his car in Los Angeles at the time of the citation, and asserting that he had not received, in the past 10 years, one single traffic or parking citation; "and I do not intend," he added, "to have this record spoiled by some incompetent San Francisco City employee."
Granted that Steensen's response was perhaps more belligerent than was prudent, since it might have pressed the San Francisco court into issuing a warrant for his arrest, and making it impossible for him ever to drive in San Francisco again, the fact is that he did receive an explanation and a sort of apology. The letter read, in part:
"The court received your name and address as registered owner on inquiry to the Department of Motor Vehicles. On receipt of your letter, the records were examined, and it is evident there was an error in the license number as recorded on the citation. This caused the inquiry to DMV to be on your license number instead of the vehicle actually cited for the parking infraction.
"The citation has been dismissed and the matter is now closed. We regret this error occurred and thank you for bringing it to our attention."
What troubles Steensen is that the explanation was a form letter .
"The fact that they have a form letter to cover this sort of thing makes it very clear that mine is not an isolated case," he says with righteous logic. "Probably seven out of 10 victims of this sort of 'error' pay the $10 bail to avoid problems, and the City of San Francisco has a nice source of revenue."
I certainly don't mean to accuse the City of San Francisco of deliberately issuing fraudulent parking citations as a means of extorting money from Angelenos, though I can't blame Steensen for thinking that.
What obviously happened is that some parking enforcement officer in San Francisco wrote down the wrong license number, and it turned out to be Steensen's.
But he is right to worry that his answer was a form letter. Just how many times does that sort of thing happen?
Obviously it happens often enough that the city doesn't even try to answer all complaints with a personal response from some responsible official, but has prepared a form letter to deal with a multitude of similar errors.
Maybe those San Francisco cops need new specs.