Short End of the Stick 

Feeding the parking meter is a stretch when you're confined to a wheelchair.

It is in a white room at City Court, while awaiting his opportunity to go before the parking judge, that David Robertson recalls how he came to need the wheelchair nearly 30 years ago.

Doc, the nickname derived from his initials, DR, was in his senior year at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. Though he had practiced that summer at quarterback, Doc was moved to strong safety on defense.

"It was at a time when coaches tell you to put your face mask in their numbers," Robertson said. "I did what I was told to do."

The hit broke Robertson's neck at C5. What would have been a glorious senior year, a likely spot on the basketball team that included his friend and future UCLA star Marques Johnson, instead was spent in rehab at Rancho Los Amigos in Downey. He took his college entrance exams at Rancho Los Amigos and was there for 11 months.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English at UCLA and then picked up a master's in journalism, across town, at USC. He worked at KCET, the public television station, and then wrote in the thorough and trendy Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, focusing on minorities and disabled in films and in the industry.

He taught school and wrote plays, short stories and books. His "Wayland High" series of books are used in many classrooms. His novel, A Family Tree, Taking Root, paralleling much of his and his family's experience in Los Angeles, was released last summer.

Robertson, much like a character in the book, left Los Angeles seeking a "much slower environment" and settled in Tucson. His daughter was the pioneer, moving first to attend the University of Arizona. He now teaches honors English at Amphi High School and freshman English at the UA.

In between he has coached basketball, the Amphi High varsity girls last year, and tennis.

"It is devastating," Robertson said awaiting his turn in Parking Court. "A lot of people think I've adjusted. I haven't adjusted. I am extremely competitive. I look at this as one big competition. I was going to say 'game,' but it isn't a game."

For Robertson, "there are good days and bad days. Today is not a good day."

He struggles with back spasms, the type that could be relieved with pain medication he cannot take on this day because he has had to drive his Ford Econoline to City Court.

He made the trip to fight a $100 ticket issued in January on a day he also drove downtown from his Midvale home to take care of some business on building plans and permits for his family's new home in a less congested part of the southwest side.

Robertson parked that day in the handicapped spot on North Stone Avenue, a block north of the County-City Public Works Building. It, and the 69 other handicapped spaces downtown, are metered. Robertson could neither reach the coin slot from his motorized wheelchair nor handle the coins.

The lowered meters are supposed to be 40 inches. This one is 48 inches.

Karen Maish Leavitt, the parking magistrate, listened to Robertson's brief defense. She could see his inability to handle the papers he brought, including the summons and a letter from doctors that explains his condition and severe physical limitations.

"I'll give you a warning," she said in eliminating the fine.

Those in front of a judge should stay quiet when ahead, but Robertson looked incredulous.

"A warning? It will happen again," he said.

Leavitt then recommended that Robertson call Carlos Portillo, the top parking cop in the city's Park Wise office for help.

In the pay lot east of the prison-like tiers of City Court, Robertson's vehicle was ticketed. Another $6.

"There's no way I could put a dollar in that slot," Robertson said as he looked both for an attendant and at the lot's depository. He wheeled four blocks to the lot's office in Pioneer Plaza, where a young woman acted as if she had done him a favor by waiving the $1 fine.

At Park Wise, Portillo is polite and responsive. But the solution explained to The Weekly won't help Robertson.

Robertson could return to Public Works to buy a cash key to slip into the meters. But that won't solve the height problem or be something that Robertson could easily handle.

Chris Leighton is Portillo's boss as parking program coordinator for the city. He is proud that the city has more than tripled the 22 spaces that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act says should be for the disabled among the 1,132 parking spaces downtown.

Michael Crawford, the Tucson lawyer and Democratic activist who served on the City Council, also uses a motorized wheelchair.

"There is no way I can put coins in those meters or dollars in the slots at the pay lots," Crawford said. "A lot of times I'd get out and ask somebody, 'Hey dude, can you put this in the meter.' "

Crawford remembered when the city offered free parking for the disabled. That changed before Crawford was appointed to fill a vacancy in northside Ward 3 in 1995.

Abuse--handicapped people parking in the spots all day--led to the change, Crawford and Leighton said.

The change was a compromise worked out by the city's Committee on Disability Issues. But abuse of other kinds has made access to the spaces difficult.

Crackdowns are needed on the proliferation of state-issued disabled parking permits, both Crawford and Robertson said.


One of the violators ahead of Robertson at Parking Court sought to fight his $500 fine for illegal parking in a handicap space. The young man announced he had to return to his car. He dashed out and came back carrying the type of disabled parking permit that hangs on a rear-view mirror.

The magistrate set that case for trial.

More by Chris Limberis

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