Sometimes, you can feel it. the way the presence of a stranger can be detected by the shift of the ether in her wake. Or a fleeting truck lifts the earth skyward, hovering, like mist in the morn. Or both. A stranger and a truck. A truck with green letters, say, letters that spell “Code Enforcement.”
Yes, you can feel it. You cannot see it. But you know it has come and gone.
Many residents of University Park experience this sensation on a regular basis. It happens in the alley when they toss their trash.
“She’s been here,” they whisper, tightening the knot on the bungee cord that connects the pail lid to the can, as regulations stipulate. “That woman, again. Save me.”
Pat Grecco is the city’s sole Neighborhood Integrity Officer. The title sounds friendly and helpful. It is a title that Mister Rogers could have had or the Sesame Street guy, the one with the poufy hat. He could have been the Neighborhood Integrity Officer. But Pat Grecco inspires fear and uncertainty among the locals in this tiny place, like the elusive Sasquatch or the sea monster from Loch Ness. Pat Grecco’s benign-sounding title does not do the woman justice.
Here is why. Pat Grecco scopes out and fines unsuspecting citizens for doing un-citizeny alley things such as growing grass that stands too tall (more than 8 inches), using plastic bags rather than paper for the disposal of weeds, and impeding the viewing of house numbers, among other brazen acts of lawlessness. She spends her days cruising alleyways, on the lookout for such offenses, in an effort “to improve, maintain, and develop the quality of life”—or so the city’s website claims. She is the only official in University Park who can do this. Other people take care of the miscreants who commit building code violations, such as, for instance, erecting a sign in front of a tanning salon that reads, “If Your Not Tanning We Will Be Towing.” (They cannot issue citations for poor grammar, alas.) Though it may be true that preventing such mayhem from happening in public passageways does keep them nice and tidy, residents object to the zeal with which Pat Grecco carries out her special task, even though they, too, like things nice and tidy. And who doesn’t?
“They don’t want a forest. I get it,” says a resident of Southwestern Boulevard, ticketed twice for the prolific ivy behind her back fence. “I went out there and ripped it out with my hands, and a week later, I got another ticket. It’s like they’re waiting for a technicality to make some money out of us. We should have fought it, but they beat us down.”
She is vigilant. And Pat Grecco is productive, too. During the six-month period from October 20, 2009, to April 13, 2010, a stretch that included a no-growth winter, the city issued 2,558 code violations. Just 563 of these were for building code transgressions (including such breaches as “Broken flower pots, pile of dirt, wall has dirt on it”). Pat Grecco racked up 1,995 citations of her very own, each with an accompanying and well-composed color photograph. That’s 333 citations per month, or 80 per week, or 16 per day. That is, if Pat Grecco takes weekends off. It is not clear that she does.
Interestingly, one would think that so many violators would be loading the city’s general revenue fund with cash. But not every citation results in a fine. During that six-month span, only $4,346 was doled out in fines, $2,311 of which goes to “support state-funded programs that correlate to the type of infraction,” according to Steve Mace, community information officer. Are there state-funded programs that correlate to the tying of trash can lids to metal racks? In any event, University Park has collected only $423.60 from the total amount; the state has gotten $663.40 and still needs to collect $1,647.80. A collection agency, which keeps 30 percent of what it collects, has been hired to hassle residents for the remaining $1,611.20.
So, if making lots of money isn’t the motive, why the strong-arm tactics to enforce compliance? One would not think that calls from debt collectors foster “quality of life.” Or, perhaps, “quality of life” means that a garbage can won’t tumble down an alley in a heavy gust like a dervish. One Amherst Avenue resident thought she was following proper directions for disposing of the debris from her yard. Her vegetation was gathered up in required biodegradable paper bags, so when the citation arrived, she was, naturally, miffed. Careful study of Pat Grecco’s photo revealed the problem.
“My bag didn’t have a UP emblem on it,” the woman says. “I bought it at Preston Royal, so it had a Preston Royal emblem on it. Apparently, even though it was paper, and biodegradable, it was still an infraction.”
Odd. Are UP paper bags more environmentally safe than Preston Royal paper bags? Is the ink in the Preston Royal emblem toxic? Will it bleed off and kill the geese in area ponds? Does UP make money from the sale of UP bags?
Well, kind of. “It is a fee issue,” says Jacob Speer, assistant director of Public Works. “We could have a monthly yard waste fee for everybody, but not everybody needs yard waste carted away. So we elected to buy our own bags and sell them to Tom Thumb, which offsets, but does not cover, our cost of a $100,000 truck, fuel, and two employees.” Speer says it costs 28 cents to make a bag, which is sold for 80. The city gets 50 cents back; the store gets the rest.
He agreed that residents would be happy residents, and eager to buy the correct bags, if they knew the reason behind buying them. And the house numbers? No problem, if they knew that the police need to see them when they are responding to reports of suspicious persons in alleys. Citizens would climb ladders, shine up the numerals with chamois cloths. Instead, they perceive a dedication of time, resources, and enthusiasm to a cause that is not only annoying, but seems to have created a pervasive sense of “Gotcha.” A personal story will illustrate:
One day last summer, I receive a photograph in the mail, similar to the ones received by my neighbors, artistically shot, with respectful treatment of negative space. Those look like my garbage pails, I say to myself. Those are my garbage pails, and the back of my house, I realize, feeling instantly stripped, exposed, despite how pretty the pails look. The word “Warning” races across the top of the paper. In an instant, I feel like a common criminal. This is my mugshot. I flip the page, looking for a profile shot.
I read on, learning that my brush has grown tall—too tall, in fact, for the powers that be. The gardener is summoned. The brush is trimmed. I hear not a word. Months later, though, the photo arrives again, along with a message that I will be arrested. Yes, arrested. As in, slammer. The big house. Orange suit. Unless, of course, I pay $94.
The court clerk tells me that a citation was filed, and it has come to this. “I did not receive a citation,” I say, horrified. “Come to court, then,” she says. “Wednesday, 5:30.”
I go three times to court, on three different Wednesdays at 5:30, to contest the offense. I have my own photos. I have my kid (for legal advice). “Mommy, be nice to the judge.”
Easy for her to say. Long and short of it, I am offered nothing. Nothing! Except a trial. A trial! “Judge or jury?” I choose the judge. The next day, I go to City Hall. Democracy in action. “Mommy, be nice to the mayor.”
“I will call over there and see if I can get her to drop it,” says the city manager of Pat Grecco. “But I don’t know if it will work.”
“But you’re the city manager,” I say. “She is the alley lady.”
“You’d be surprised,” he replies. His eyebrows arch.
Later that day, he calls to tell me that there was nothing he could do, though he tried, valiantly, and he feels bad. I go to the court clerk’s office to request a continuance. I need to plan my next move. I am mean to the woman behind the window. I tell her that the system is insane and that she needs to speak louder through the crack in the glass. I tell her that I am not coming to court another time at 5:30 and that my name is always misspelled on my water bill and, maybe, I am not me. Maybe I am not the person who used this much water and has tall weeds. Maybe I have short weeds, puny weeds. I ask her if she has weeds behind her house. I act like the deranged felon they think I am.
A day before the trial date, I get a call from the court: “It seems we have made a mistake and have the wrong name for you on your water bill, so the charges have been dropped.”
Weeks later, I set out to find the real reason for the surrender. The city will not let me speak with Pat Grecco, so I am on my own. I do not think it has to do with the misspelling on the water bill. It was just one letter, a “t” instead of a “p.” Maybe Pat Grecco is not who I think she is. Maybe I traumatized the clerk. With newfound purpose, I set out to find Pat Grecco. Pat Grecco holds the key.
===I have been spared, at the final hour, while my fellow residents have paid the ultimate price, $94 in cash or check. What does it all mean?!==
The lot behind the worcola street headquarters of the Public Works Department that is reserved for official vehicles is jammed with official vehicles around 9 am, when I drive through it, not in an official vehicle. There are many white trucks with green letters, spelling “Utilities,” “Sanitation,” “Parks.” The “Code Enforcement” truck is missing.
I retrace my route back to Ground Zero, 32 degrees N, 96 degrees W, the precise latitude and longitude of my weed location. From there, I travel west and then east through University Park’s alleys, covering the city’s entire width and length. I become dizzy. I think I see Pat Grecco’s truck, but it is an Oncor truck, disconnecting someone’s electrical service. I repeat the search process on random days, discovering nothing.
“Have you ever seen Pat Grecco?” I ask my neighbors. “Have you seen a white truck with a lady in it who takes really good pictures of wild ivy and house numbers? Have you?” It is no use.
Later, I take my twigs to the alley and muse. Maybe Pat Grecco does not live or breathe. Maybe she is symbolic, mythical. I have been spared, at the final hour, while my fellow residents have paid the ultimate price, $94 in cash or check. What does it all mean?
Frankly, I do not know. I do know that, while evanescent, Pat Grecco exists, according to Speer and his buddy Robbie Corder, the city’s director of community development. They tell me she used to save dogs from euthanasia when she worked for the Dallas Police Department’s Animal Control Unit. Found shelters at the 11th hour. They tell me she keeps a pair of pruning shears in her truck for stray branches here and there. Not everyone gets a photo.
I realize that I do not hate Pat Grecco, after all, leaning my biodegradable UP-emblemed bag against my standard-issue container containment rack. And I am hopeful that my just result will spur on others. Maybe I have learned a thing or two about community or social justice or public protest. Or weeds.
I douse them with extra-potent extended-control herbicide and ponder their fate and mine.
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