The Nation's Pulse

I Take Bribes

Capitalizing on government mandates and the hidden costs of city life.

By 1.26.12

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Increasingly one gets the impression that he is living in a third-world country.

Last week I went to have my vehicle inspected as directed by the all-powerful Missouri Department of Revenue. Here in St. Louis the state has mandated our vehicles be inspected every year… or two. (It's confusing). This ensures a steady stream of cash flowing into the state's bottomless coffers. This also ensures that many residents never have their cars inspected since they cannot afford the fees and the cost of repairs.

I once attended traffic court after receiving an (in my opinion) undeserved moving violation. Like most experiences in the city, it was an eye opener. The courtroom was standing room only, but I seemed to be the only person in attendance who possessed a valid driver's license. Apparently, a great many drivers on our city streets are unlicensed. Who knew?

In my town, in order to get one's tags renewed your vehicle must pass an emissions test and a safety inspection. You must also show proof that you paid your property taxes, or, lacking any property, secure a waiver from the city assessor's office. All of this is preliminary to actually visiting the horror show that is the DMV. Such copious quantities of red tape would warm the heart of the mummified Lenin.

As with most government regulations the poor are most negatively impacted. The well-to-do can afford better vehicles which require less maintenance, while the poor end up with thousands of dollars in repairs. Worst case, they drive on expired tags, are arrested (many have warrants for previous driving violations), and go to jail, thereby losing their job, their income, their insurance, etc. I once had the tags stolen from my license plates. At the time, I couldn't imagine who would do such a thing. But now I know there is a very lucrative black market in stolen license plate tags. A driver may not have a valid driver's license, but for twenty bucks he can buy stolen tags, which may keep him from getting pulled over in the first place.

I HAD TAKEN A DAY off work in order to get the requisite inspections. Happily, there was a vehicle inspection shop right down the street from my house, a place covered with piscine symbolism. The fish were, no doubt, displayed to set one at ease, always an important consideration when negotiating the shady world of automobile repair. I paid the $36 for the inspections and waited.

I was fairly confident my old truck would pass. After all, I had passed both inspections only a year ago at a little shop north of St. Louis. This time, however, the inspector, a barrel shaped man with a bushy gray beard and long gray locks weaved into a French braid, informed me that my vehicle had failed the safety portion. I had a cracked windshield and the back tires needed replacing. We were easily talking $500. He said the vehicle had a lot of other problems he was letting slide.

I protested that my vehicle had had a cracked windshield last year, and it had easily passed inspection. "Look," I said, "I know my truck is a piece of crap, but I live in the ghetto. If I had a new vehicle it would be vandalized or stolen. New tires would likely be stolen too. The local thieves leave my beat-up old truck alone."

The inspector shrugged and said, "I tell my buddies that for fifty bucks I didn't see anything."

So that's how it is, I thought. I'd heard about such things, probably from New York City crime shows, but, being from a relatively small town, I had never actually been shaken down, extorted or asked for a bribe.

The inspector said I would have to come back in about three hours' time. That's how long it would normally take to install new tires and a replacement windshield.

I was already out $36. If I went to another inspection center I would have to pay an additional $36 for another inspection. And who was to say I would pass that one? But what really irked me, as much as being extorted, was that I had used one of my few remaining vacation days to get the new tags. And now half the day was gone, and I had accomplished nothing.

I drove around the south side of town till I located another inspection place. There I was told I could not be fitted in today. Come back tomorrow.

Did I pay the extortionist? My attorneys advise against saying. But I suspect many people do. It's the price of doing business in a third-world country. I mean an American city.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.