No one likes having to go to the Office of the Chicago City Clerk. Not even those who get paid for being there. The desk workers on the first floor in the City Clerk’s office are of the same ilk as DMV workers. They are always tired, annoyed, smarter—yet dumber—than you, wield a surprisingly unnatural amount of power and have a general disdain for a good majority of humanity. And who can blame them? They work for idiots and get dumped on by the citizens who elected those idiots all day long.
Anyone having to go to the City Clerk’s office is there because they owe the city money. It could be to pay for something egregiously offensive like a parking ticket or for the privilege to live here like a city sticker for the car. No one likes paying the city money. No matter what neighborhood we’re from, our level of education, our income or our position of influence within the city, we all know that the money we fork over to the City Clerk would be better served buying fidget spinners for paraplegic veterans. Chicago has a solid track record of doing really dumb things with people’s really hard-earned cash.
I had to visit the City Clerk’s office recently because the block on which I live overwhelmingly decided to become a block of Permit Parking. This means that I needed to get a new city sticker and purchase a sheet of the residential daily parking permits so that out-of-town guests can park on our street without getting an invoice from the city in the form of a parking ticket.
There were four people in line ahead of me. It looked like all of the desks were open because they all had red digital numbers displayed above them so that we knew which desk to walk to when it was our turn. But as expected at the City Clerk’s office, there was some confusion. Three or four workers were crammed into the desk area closest to the front of the line.
“Are you paying with cash, check or card?” one of the three workers asked to no one directly. And so no one answered. “Are you paying with cash, check or card?” he asked again. And again, no immediate response.
“Card,” the woman at the front of the line eventually said.
“You’re paying with a card? Or cash?” he asked her.
“Card,” she repeated.
“Number seven,” he said.
She headed to the desk with the 7 hanging overhead.
“Cash, check or card?” he asked the next person in line.
“OK, come here.”
Then person directly in front of me noticed the automated kiosk at the other end of the office and headed there to pay his parking ticket.
As one worker handled the woman paying in cash, the inquisitor—still standing behind that worker crammed into that small desk area—asked me, “Cash, check or card?”
“I’m paying with a card,” I answered almost before he finished the question.
“Are you paying with cash or check?”
“No, I’m paying with a credit card.”
He was frustrated with me for some reason and let me know by staring hate into my eyes and down my spine. His glare seemed to say, “Fuck you,” but his mouth said, “Number three.”
In 2016, I purchased the two-year city sticker. I did so in plenty of time for the sticker to arrive in the mail so that I could have it adhered to the lower right corner of my car’s windshield before the old one expired at the end of July. By mid-July, I had not received it. I figured it was just the crapshoot that is the postal service in Chicago and that it would arrive any day. But it didn’t and July’s end was upon us. I called the City Clerk’s office.
“You said you didn’t get it in the mail?”
“And you paid for it?”
“That’s right. And according to my bank records, the city cashed my check.”
“It says here that we mailed it.”
“I believe you. I just never received it.”
“Hang on.” I held for a few minutes. There wasn’t any hold music, which I appreciated because I hate hold music but also thought was kind of rude. Sometimes I’m complicated. “It was returned to us.”
“What’s your address?” I gave her my address. “That’s what we have.”
“So, why was it returned?”
“I don’t know. This happens a lot.”
“You can come pick it up from our office. Do you know where we’re located?”
When I picked it up two days later, I learned that the City Clerk has a designated basket for its returned mail. “If this happens so frequently,” I asked, “why isn’t there a system for contacting the people to let them know that their city stickers were returned and that they need to come pick them up? Because, had I not called and debated the issue with you, I never would have known. Plus, you’ve then got a basket overflowing with returned mail. It doesn’t seem like the best system.”
The worker was frustrated with me, perhaps because she knew I was right. Still, her glare seemed to say, “Fuck you,” but her mouth said, “I don’t know.”
When I got home later that afternoon, there was a ticket on my windshield for having an expired city sticker. I contested it, I won. But I lost half a morning of quality work time and billable hours doing it.
I was expecting the usual City Clerk worker to be waiting for me at Desk 3. Old—maybe younger than me but eroded by age, fluorescent lighting and a government job—spiteful and short-tempered. The worker arrived at the desk at the same time I did. I didn’t notice her before because she was obstructed by the other workers in that first desk, making the total number of workers stuffed in there four. She was young, chipper, unsure of the procedures but willing to do what she needed to in order to get me my new sticker and my page of passes as quickly and painlessly as possible. She even smiled and laughed with me as we made casual conversation. It was like she actually enjoyed being at the City Clerk’s office.
It threw me off my game. I should have asked if she was new. It was the only possible explanation for her endearing personality and attentive work ethic. I walked back to my office in a better mood than when I arrived at hers. Never, in the history of Chicago, has anyone left the City Clerk’s office in a better mood than when they arrived. Never. Ever. But as is the case with most dizzying highs, this one faded quickly when I realized that she wouldn’t last.
I don’t mean that she wouldn’t last in the job. I’m sure she’ll be there for decades and decades. And that’s the problem. Because sooner than later, her time at the Office of the City Clerk of Chicago will wear her down and break her. The she that won’t last is the she that she was when I met her. The eager, joyful and helpful person I knew. She was pure, she was untouched by the foul misery that permeates through the thick walls and floors of City Hall.
My heart breaks for her because soon enough, her spirit will be consumed with hate and she'll belong to the darkest demons. Chicago City Hall will chew her up and spit her out and she’ll be as repulsive to those in line to pay their fees as if she were a large, noxious tonsil stone hacked up by Satan himself. And worse, we will be even more repulsive to her.