I see Mr Parking Meter every morning as I walk the kids to school. He is short and roly-poly — the predominant biotype among Spanish men of a certain age. He sports the incongruous look (for a pensioner) of tracksuit bottoms and off-white trainers, while the flat white cap he always wears is a popular look among Spanish abuelos (grandfathers).
His “thing” is checking parking meters for change. He bustles along the pavement, stopping at each meter to lift the metal flap which covers the little chamber into which change is dispensed. He always wears an untroubled, smiley expression — a seven-out-of-ten on the happiness scale — an expression so immutable that I can never tell whether he has struck gold inside the flap or not.
I always wonder how much he collects on his morning rounds. It can’t be that much. A friend of mine once said that a Spaniard would rather die than leave the euro behind them in a shopping trolley (a practice so common in Ireland that urchins and street people can make decent drinking money hanging around the car parks of large supermarkets, especially on wet days). I imagine the Spanish disinclination to leave spare change after them extends to parking meters. (As an aside, you never find coppers on the ground in Spain, not to mention the more valuable coins.) Also, the traditional cash-only parking meters were replaced last year by “smart” meters. All you have to do is key in your car’s registration number, insert your credit card, and Bob’s your uncle. Less people are feeding them with change. Or so the theory goes. The new meters are so smart that the sight of baffled and annoyed motorists clustering around these sleek pillars of modernity or mobbing unfortunate traffic cops greets me multiple times each day.
I also wonder if Mr Parking Meter does his rounds because he needs the money or could it be a behavioural tick or some species of magic thinking. If it’s a case of him needing the money, then he has my sympathy. But I would hazard that the latter cases are more likely. In Ireland even someone in direst financial need would not be seen dead scrabbling for loose change or rooting in skips. Here in Spain such shame does not exist, especially among OAPs. Free is OK. Free is good. You see respectable people — in suits and what have you — taking discarded newspapers from litter bins or claiming crates or old bedsteads or other tossed-out bric-a-brac from recycling stations. In shopping centres the long queues of sexagenarians and septuagenarians you regularly come across invariably snake their way towards free samples of a new yoghurt or cleaning product. Political parties have cottoned on to Spanish OAPs’ fondness for the free gratis and election campaigns heavily feature the giving out of logoed-up trinkets such as biros or stress-relieving squooshy balls.
Whatever his motivation, Mr Parking Meter is at least putting in some healthy exercise of a morning. I would estimate he walks for three or four miles. After I have left the girls at the school gate and turn around towards work I pass Mr Parking Meter once more, about forty-five minutes after our first crossing of paths. To get back to where I see him with the girls, he has to walk for another half an hour, so I calculate his strolls last for something like two hours each morning. He is out, just like me and the girls, come hail, rain or shine (it is mostly shine, this being Spain) and I’ve even spotted him on weekends. We have never spoken, or properly saluted, but we kind of half nod as we pass one another by (both times). Perhaps someday my curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll put a few questions to him.