Established 1978
The Town Crier

Scofflaws Unite!

by Gerald Nachman

Just when I worried that City Hall had run out of inspired new ways to annoy its citizens, someone at the Department of Lame and Picayune Laws came up with a clever plan to force homeowners to park their cars in a garage, if they have one, and not on the street.

This appears to be the handiwork of the city attorney, one of the many dedicated people who run this little-known city agency responsible for driving San Franciscans nuts.

The department also came up with schemes to enforce parking meters on Sundays, allow restaurant owners to add 3 percent to the bill to subsidize their workers’ health care, quadruple the number of bike lanes, tear down Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, institute confusing “Bus Only” lanes, allow public nudity in the Castro, build the Central Subway to Nowhere, and rip out all the eucalyptus trees.

It would seem hard to top those for wacky ideas, but the Department of Lame and Picayune Laws is a bureau that never sleeps. I managed to land an interview with the elusive Elmer C. Pettifog, who heads the department, and found him bent over a map of the city in search of still more new ways to deliberately outrage its residents.

“What inspired ideas do you have up your sleeve this week?” I asked Mr. Pettifog, a balding little man with a mustache, arm garters, thick eyeglasses, and a fretful look. “I just loved your idea of making the people park in their garages—brilliant!”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Pettifog, smiling modestly. “I dreamed up that one in my sleep a few weeks ago. I had to chuckle at breakfast, as I thought to myself, ‘Wow, just wait till I fob this one off on San Franciscans! They’ll really go bananas.’”

“And I imagine that using one’s garage just to store stuff will include a pretty hefty fine.”

“I’m thinking $400 per item per day—does that sound too low?” Pettifog asked.

“Seems about right,” I said, “but maybe you could double the violation if all used furniture in a garage is not removed within ten days.” He made a note. “Hey, I really like that.”

I confessed that I had an illegal Ping-Pong table in my garage, and he told me that would cost me plenty. “It may involve a stiff jail sentence. We’re looking at that right now. You’d be amazed how many people play table tennis in their garages. It’s really outrageous. Some homeowners even have the audacity to turn their garages into rec rooms—can you believe it?”

I wondered if Pettifog’s agency was responsible for driving movie companies out of the city because of the tangled red tape that producers must unsnarl to shoot films and commercials here, so, I asked him.

“Yes, I’m proud to say we’ve finally made it almost impossible for film companies to work on the city streets now. They’re forced to go elsewhere. What a relief!”

I said, “I understand you’ve also helped close down a lot of small mom-and-pop stores and restaurants so that landlords could triple their rents and further feed the city coffers.”

“Yes, we’re always looking for new ways to protect landlords and drive mom-and-pop operations elsewhere,” said Pettifog. “You don’t want a big cosmopolitan city like San Francisco to have too many nice little neighborhood shops. That’ll ruin our chic image.”

“You said it,” I agreed. “Let them all move to Brisbane, Petaluma, and El Cerrito. We need to make more room for those swell Twitter folks.”

Pettifog added, “We’ve also clamped down on food trucks to make it much tougher for them to survive. I’m especially proud of those regulations.”

I asked him if he could reveal any other new irksome laws that he’s been working on.

“We’re expanding our highly popular ‘service dog’ regulation, which will make it legal for people to carry ‘service cats’ and ‘service birds’ into stores and restaurants.”

“That’s a cute one,” I said, “a really subtle way to rankle the customers. And I understand there’s even a movement to do away with paper bags in the city and force people to use cloth bags. What would happen if you’re caught toting groceries in a paper bag?”

“You’ll be put in a stockade in Union Square where people can shout catcalls and pelt you with rotten fruit.” Pettifog explained that cloth bags will be licensed by City Hall.

“You can’t be any too green these days,” I said.

Pettifog brightened. “Exactly—and speaking of green, I’ve just devised an idea to fine homeowners who don’t keep their lawns green enough to comply with city lawn codes.”

I said, “But isn’t the drought responsible for turning lawns brown?”

“Pretty feeble excuse,” he replied. “If you have a front lawn and one of our deputy garage-and-yard inspectors notices that it isn’t being kept up nicely enough, that’s going to cost you.”  Pettifog added, “We’re cracking down hard on homeowners, because their properties are worth so much now; we figure they can afford all the penalties we can inflict. And we plan to double the fine if your hedges are not neatly trimmed and you have too few flowers in the front yard.”

“It sounds to me like you’re really working overtime to harass the citizenry.”

“Hey, somebody has to do it,” Pettifog grinned. “Life was getting a little too easy here.”


Gerald Nachman is a former SFChronicle columnist and critic, and the author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio, and Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America.


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