TIME U.S.

If You Want to See Inequality in the U.S. at Its Worst, Visit an Impound Lot

For millions of Americans a towed car can lead to a crippling spiral of stress, debt, joblessness, illness and, in many cases, incarceration.

On a recent San Francisco afternoon, I returned to where I’d parked my car, but it was gone. A “No Parking” sign indicated that parking was prohibited after 3:00 PM on weekends. It was 3:15. I called the telephone number on the sign and a clerk affirmed that my car had been towed to an impound lot.

I took a cab and entered a single-story brick building where a few dozen people were crowded together in a scene that evoked Kafka; weariness, frustration and anger were palpable. Some stood in line, some paced and some sat hunched on the floor. A family huddled in a corner, an infant asleep on the father’s shoulder. A woman on a pay phone wept as she begged whomever was on the line to find money so she could get her car back–she said she needed $875. “I’m gonna lose my job if I’m not there at 5.”

Clerks sat on stools behind Plexiglas. At a window, a man pleaded with an agent, “I have to pick up my kids in less than an hour. What am I supposed to do?” At the next window, another man railed loudly and furiously, yelling, “How the hell am I supposed to get my goddam money if I can’t get to goddam work?” The clerk said, “If you can’t get cash, you can pay by credit card or cashier’s check.” The man shouted, “And if I had a goddam limousine, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

A man waiting in line with me told me that he owned a landscaping business that depended on his truck, which had been towed three days earlier. “I can’t work,” he said. “The crew don’t work. Everything I need is in the truck.” It had been towed when he parked in a red zone in front of an auto-parts store. He’d been late to a job and ran into the store to buy a spark plug for a broken lawn mower. He didn’t have money enough that day to pay the $472 towing fee. After the first four hours, charges began accumulating—about $65.00 a day. (They didn’t include the $72 cost of the parking ticket.) He had borrowed $700, which he held near his chest in an envelope. He said it would take “I hope no more than a year” to repay the loan, for which he was being charged 50% of the loan amount. “I had no choice,” he said. He had already lost four days’ income and didn’t know how he was going to pay his bills, including rent, due that week.

When I reached the front of the line, I handed the clerk my credit card, on which she charged $472. I retrieved my car and drove home. I left behind the roomful of my fellow citizens, a disparate group bound together by the fact that they didn’t have the cash or credit required to free their impounded cars, a fact that threatened livelihoods, stressed families and broke budgets, forcing some people to choose between essentials and paying fees that would continue to accumulate and leave them without another essential, transportation, which in turn could lead to other calamities. If they didn’t find a way to pay the fees, they would ultimately lose their cars (the city auctions them), a loss that for some would be a devastating setback. For me, a towed car was an inconvenience. For them, it was a catastrophe.

Some cases of injustice in America are reported far and wide, such as the horrific shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, targeted by police in what many view as an egregious case of racial profiling. However, we don’t often hear about the countless quieter injustices suffered by tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis. They experience inequities of access to opportunities, quality medical and dental care, quality education, healthful food, affordable and safe housing, childcare, credit, psychological counseling, legal representation, insurance and more. For them, events that others weather unhappily but routinely—a towed car, for example—can lead to a crippling spiral of stress, debt, joblessness, illness and, in many cases, incarceration.

The final injustice comes when they die early, which many do—and not only by violence. More often, death comes slower, from under- or untreated physical and mental illness, poor nutrition and chronic stress as it impacts health. Several years ago, Senator Bernie Sanders presented a report to the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, in which he highlighted research that showed that the wealthiest Americans on average live at least 6.5 years longer than those in the lowest income group. In 2009, the mortality rate for African American infants was more than twice that of white infants. The poor in this country have higher rates of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and depression, according to Dr. Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. According to the Health and Aging report, “The lower people’s income, the earlier they die and the sicker they live,” Woolf said. “Neighborhoods in Boston and Baltimore have a lower life expectancy than Ethiopia and Sudan. Azerbaijan has a higher life expectancy than areas of Chicago.”

When events like the Michael Brown shooting occur that inflame people and motivate them to take to the streets to protest, we are reminded that there is not justice for all in America. We must also acknowledge and condemn the daily injustices born of a system that slowly grinds down the people who can least afford it, and, in too many cases to count, leads to their early death. In the line at the San Francisco impound lot, I overheard the crying woman ahead of me telling the clerk, “I need my car to get home to my children.” The clerk responded, “I wish I could help you, ma’am, but if you don’t have the money, there’s nothing I can do.”

David Sheff’s latest book is Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, the follow-up to his New YorkTimes No. 1 best seller, Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction. Follow him on Twitter @david_sheff.

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