Reporting from Mexico City — They stand at the curb, waving a red rag like an urban matador. "Hay lugar, hay lugar!" they call to passing motorists. ("There's space.")
And then: "Viene, viene." Come, come, as they guide you into an impossibly tight parking spot, and finally charge you the equivalent of 3 or 4 cents for their service.
They are the franeleros, the ubiquitous men, and sometimes women, who control parking on many Mexico City streets, blocking off spaces, even though most of those streets are public and gratis. They form an entire segment of the underclass, of Mexico's enormous informal economy. And sometimes they are the only way you can park in the congested chaos that is motorized Mexico.
But now, starting in one of the capital's more affluent neighborhoods, the franeleros are being challenged over who rules the streets.
The enemy? Parking meters.
The city government has embarked on a pilot program to install parquimetros, first along leafy but busy streets in the Polanco district, and then gradually expanding into super-rich Lomas de Chapultepec and hip La Condesa.
For officials, the goal is ambitious: to impose order and transform car culture in this capital of 20 million, where a growing middle class means 4.1 million vehicles competing for space on inadequate roads and at curbside parking spaces.
"Meters in Polanco will serve as the model for organizing and putting things in order," said Daniel Escotto, head of the city's Public Space Authority.
In part, he said, the idea is to employ parking fees (a meter costs more than a franelero) to encourage the use of public transportation or carpooling, still a pretty unfamiliar concept here.
But the franeleros are up in arms. (The name can roughly be translated as "rag men," from the Spanish word for the cloth used to wipe down cars; many Mexicans simply call them the viene-viene.)
First, they took to — where else? — the streets, staging a couple of noisy marches through Polanco hoisting signs with such messages as, with no small dose of irony, "The streets are not for sale" and "A parking meter doesn't take care of your car." (Some worry that disgruntled rag men might vandalize the meters or the cars parked at them.)
Police showed up and the marches stopped.
Polanco residents, meanwhile, seemed generally pleased with the meters, 77 of them in the initial phase. Many residents don't have to wrestle with street parking because they have garages or special permits. But they often emerge from their doors or gates, exasperated, to find long rows of large vehicles parked or blocking pedestrian crossings, a sea of SUVs and taxis and every model of car jockeying for position and inching along once-tranquil streets. They say the franeleros have "kidnapped" the streets.
In the first days, at least, since the meters were installed, Polanco's roads around its half-mile-long Lincoln Park have been so calm and orderly that they almost seemed deserted: no rag men, cars parked properly within white lines, each with a parquimetro ticket displayed on its dashboard.
Meters are "a solution that's worked elsewhere, within cities that are reclaiming a degree of sanity that is sorely lacking in ours," said Daniel Gershenson, a Polanco resident and community activist. "It's worth a try."
Less happy are people who work in Polanco but don't live there. Many complain they will go broke paying to park. Plus there's the inconvenience of having to renew the ticket because you can pay only for up to three hours at a time. That means frequent runs out of the office to renew the meter or move the car.
Another combatant in the battle for the streets is the valet parker, more formal than the rag man but just as omnipresent. Some belong to established companies, others are ad hoc: A group of men buys matching yellow vests and, voila, they are valet parkers, but still compete for their piece of the pavement.
The meters are also designed to discourage some of that, Escotto said. Limited parking options should force restaurants and businesses to consolidate valet staff so that only a few are at work, he hopes.
The relationship between the valets and the rag men is one of those Mexican mysteries, a careful dance of divvying up who gets what part of what street. And, at least until now, it's all been conducted with a wink and a nod from authorities.
Efforts to impose order on Mexico City can prove fleeting, however. Transportation experts warn of what they call a cucaracha (cockroach) effect of cars and their informal parkers simply spreading to other, meter-free neighborhoods.
Escotto, meanwhile, said he was sympathetic to the franeleros' concerns about loss of income.
"It is OK to wash cars, to tidy the facades of buildings, etc.," he said. "What is not OK, what is against the law of civic culture, is to take ownership of a public street."
But Mexican workers are nothing if not resourceful. And so several rag men have reinvented themselves. Now, instead of finding you a parking space, they will feed coins into your meter, sparing you those mad dashes when time is about to expire.
"As long as we can still work and make some money," said franelero Juan Pablo Sepulveda, standing at the corner of Masaryk and Oscar Wilde streets, "we won't have to attack the parquimetros."