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.

His main gimmick is a small white flashlight he waves at the asphalt in tiny circles, illuminating an empty spot near the club. "Slim's, baby! Slim's!" he hollers as a white sedan speeds past. "See, you gotta convince the motherfucker that this is the place to park."

Not many drivers have taken the bait tonight. That's just the way it goes sometimes. But Taylor is here for good reason. Tonight at Slim's, the bands Clutch and Death by Murder are playing. They sold out both Monday and Tuesday, Taylor learned, which meant a lot of people would need street parking.

A few more cars roll by. "Hey! Hey! Wake up!" Taylor yells. "I got your spot." Nobody stops. "I talk to them even though they can't hear me," he says.

When a preferred customer needs a spot, Silas doesn’t mind saving it.
Charles Eckert
When a preferred customer needs a spot, Silas doesn’t mind saving it.
On breaks, Silas peruses the newspaper in his “office.”
Charles Eckert
On breaks, Silas peruses the newspaper in his “office.”

A rock crowd isn't his favorite. But there's worse, he says: "I don't like parking nobody black. They bullshit. They want to blow smoke up your ass and not pay you, too."

Taylor checks newspapers' calendar listings every weekend to find out where he can park the big spenders on their way to the ballet and the opera, and to see "what's that girl's name? Latifah?" He reckons he must have made $250 the night Queen Latifah performed at Davies Symphony Hall.

But tonight Taylor is striking out. He pauses for a contemplative scan of the desolate, piss-stained block, illuminated by a giant Coors Light ad. When a spot opens up right in front of the club, he vaults onto his bike, speeds across the street, and arrives just in time for a white truck to begin a parallel parking job.

"I got you," he says, waving the driver in. "This is a good spot."

The driver remains in the truck for about five minutes. Not a good sign.

Finally, Taylor approaches the window. "You stayin'?" he asks, then points in the direction of a reporter. "My boss was saving this spot."

The driver, a double-chinned man with a goatee, mumbles something about not being sure. Then he hops out and says he just needs to see if his friend is inside Slim's. He promises to come back and pay if he's going to stay.

Surprisingly, he returns two minutes later. He smiles and hands Taylor two dollars, then hurries back inside, perhaps thinking: What will this guy do to my car if I don't pay him?

To combat this, the San Francisco Police Department established a policy on aggressive solicitation in January 2006. It includes soliciting within 20 feet of an ATM, in the roadway, on sidewalks, and in parking lots. The acts must be witnessed by police, and victims must state that they felt intimidated or threatened. Since January, police officers have written more than 450 citations.

But Sergeant Neville Gittens acknowledges that the problem can be best handled by the drivers themselves. They can refuse to pay, and then call the cops if they feel they are being harassed. "Nobody can charge for parking on a public street," he says. But sometimes when you get to know a guy, maybe you do want to give him something.

Lyn Silas is not a perfect man, and there are things in his past that he doesn't want people to know. For instance, he won't talk about his 26-year-old daughter, or why his family moved around a lot. But his descriptions of his stable upbringing, alongside a mostly fruitless search for criminal records, suggests that he does not fit the standard profile of an unofficial valet.

"They say I'm one in 100,000," Silas likes to say about his status as a well-liked homeless man without much of a rap sheet.

Silas' parents met in high school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. They moved to San Francisco, had nine children, and stayed together until his father, Ed Silas Jr., died 48 years later. Smack in the middle of six boys and three girls, Silas was number five, "and I don't care if you start from the bottom or the top," he says.

The children grew up in a series of stucco hilltop homes in Hunters Point. They had views of the bay and Oakland, and the family kept beehives and chickens. "We didn't know what we had," Silas says.

His father worked in a warehouse in Oakland, which meant there was always food on the table. "One thing my father believed in was that none of the kids would ever be hungry in his life," Silas says. "And we never was."

In high school, Silas paid little attention to his studies, which he now admits was a mistake. He spent most of his time in the pool hall, on the basketball courts, or chasing skirts. He was involved in occasional gunfights.

Although it was rough growing up in the 1960s in Hunters Point, where everybody had a gang affiliation and racism lingered like winter fog, Silas finished high school, moved to Daly City, and got a job as a breakfast cook at Zim's at 18th and Geary streets, which he kept for 16 years.

Then he ran into trouble one night in July 1975. At 4 a.m. after a party, Silas found himself back in Hunters Point defending a friend in a fight. Bullets flew, but none came Silas' way.

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

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