03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Can Fight City Hall

Months ago, the City of Whittier notified me I was late in paying a parking ticket. Since neither I nor my car had ever even passed through Whittier, I wasn't worried. (I did flash on defending myself with a Law & Order trope: I was at home with my girlfriend at the time of the crime.)

But Whittier is Richard Nixon's home town, so perhaps worry was reasonable. It turned out that if I wanted to appeal the charge, I'd have to first send in the $53 fine and a note explaining my innocence. Resisting the temptation to just pay the damn thing, I submitted a check and a letter swearing that Whittier and my car were perfect strangers.

Weeks later, I received a notice that my appeal had been denied. I called and reached a Whittier parking functionary, who explained -- without irony -- that because I couldn't prove I wasn't in the space in question during the time in question -- cf. "When did you stop beating your wife" -- the verdict would stand. Madame Functionary added that in order to appeal the appeal (to the Whittier Supreme Court of Parking?), I would have to show up in person armed with proof of my innocence.

(Now we're talking CSI: Whittier. With no forensic evidence to support my alibi -- e.g., no security camera footage of my car nestled in its carport on that fateful day -- I might have to abandon my principles and cop a plea. Involuntary parking, perhaps?)

Another appeal seemed futile. And so -- concluding I could better use the time and energy demystifying my new Sony Reader (thanks, Mom!), listening to Jesse Winchester sing Sham a Ling Dong Ding and finding out more about that all-chocolate restaurant in Manhattan -- I gave up.

My solace was that I had material for a screed about the evils of bureaucracy run amok. But just hours after I'd mentally nailed Whittier to the wall, the mail arrived. And, lo and behold, there was -- without explanation -- a $53 check from the City of Whittier.

When the left hand of a bureaucracy doesn't know what its right hand is up to, it may not be evil, but it sure can be chaotic. Take health insurance -- e.g., Blue Shield -- where life itself is at stake. Though its rate increase notifications go out like clockwork, the most common BS (ain't acronyms grand?) responses to claims are "This is not a check" and "Reimbursement Amount: 0." Trying to speak to an actual human with authority is harder than getting front row seats to the Oscars -- unless you're Jack Nicholson. How many claimants end up throwing in the towel -- as I did with Whittier -- when appealing seems hopeless?

The massive corporatization and mind-boggling technological advances of the past couple of decades have produced a vast network of forces that thwart reasonable inquiries and protests. But our easy capitulation to The System -- not just big government but big corporations or any entity that devalues personal relationships -- also erodes progress toward a just society.

The only hope for turning the tide is not to surrender so easily the next time we get dinged for a phony parking ticket or denied a valid medical insurance claim.

Is this what they call tilting at windmills? Maybe, but that phrase -- which has come to mean useless activity in the face of an impossible obstacle -- derives from Cervantes' novel Don Quixote, which these days has me glued to my Sony Reader. Here, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha isn't beaten down; he's redeemed by the power of his imagination. By conjuring a world in which truth, courage and loyalty matter -- by fighting City Hall -- our hero transforms not just himself but also those around him.