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.

One of the chronically unsaved is Markus Merlino, who owns the cafe Tazza d'Amore inside the Caltrain station. He estimates that he's paid $3,000 to $4,000 in tickets over the past eight years. He got one yesterday. He has another one today.

"The city needs money, and this is how they make it," Merlino says, arms akimbo. "But some people can't afford the tickets and it's very, very unfair."

Those whom Silas cannot or does not save — including those who take public transportation — are not always receptive to his presence. Some give him the finger and tell him to fuck off.

Sometimes people say things like, "Dude, these are free parking spots. It's annoying to have you standing there and making me feel obligated to pay you," says Steven Isler, an attorney who works in 350 Townsend.

One time a woman got so mad she called over a police officer, Isler says. His well-heeled clients have also expressed skepticism, and the block is constantly abuzz with gossip about Silas' girlfriend, Isler says, who has been seen cracked out in the street and referring loudly to herself in the third person as "this white mother-fucking bitch."

For a while, Isler gave Silas the benefit of the doubt. The lawyer travels to Europe frequently, and sometimes brings back clothing for Silas. He also gave him a pair of tennis shoes. "He's sort of been adopted by the block," Isler said. But soon, Silas was asking for money every day. "I told him, 'I don't want you asking for money every time you see me,'" Isler said.

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.

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This is great. This whole story. The kicker's a cherry on top.

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