COLUMNISTS hunger for topics with an obvious bad guy - usually an arrogant arm of government or runaway corporate greed - and a sympathetic good guy.
You load up and blast away at the bad guy.
It feels good and reads good.
You hear the huzzahs of everyone who's
ever been abused by The Man. (In the
interest of gender equity, The Man might be The Woman. Happy, girls?)
What kills columnists are topics in which The Man (or The Woman) does the right thing and the sympathetic good guy is a widow who, accidentally, does wrong.
Lynne Brennen, 64, lives alone in a two-story brick rowhouse in the Northeast's Castor Gardens and was written up by the Streets Department for a load of litter in her front-yard hedges. Attached to the ticket was a grainy picture of her trash-eating hedges.
Brennen, a fair-skinned redhead, suspects that an unfriendly neighbor may be stashing trash on her property, but she has no proof.
The enforcement officer could not know that she has serious cardiac problems and was bedridden for two weeks.
Knowing the facts makes the city seem a little heartless, but how could the officer know? And can the city realistically heed every hard-luck story?
Brennen was fined $50, which she could mail in, or she could request a hearing, said a covering letter.
Being on a small Social Security income, $50 is a big bite to Brennen, who is alone in the world.
When she called the number provided and requested a telephone hearing, she was told there was no such thing. She'd have to come in to plead her case at the Finance Department's Office of Administrative Review, which handles a wide variety of appeals, from water bills to home-security false alarms. (It does not handle parking tickets.)
No address was given for the Office of Administrative Review, which struck me as a subtle way of saying We don't really want to see your face in this place.
Not true, Executive Director Paula Weiss assured me. If you request a hearing, you then receive a time, date and address.
The officer who wrote the ticket was just doing his job. The city wants to reduce debris that can make neighborhoods look like an unpaved block of hell.
Brennen complained that she was given no advance warning: "Clean it up or we'll write you up."
She says that's unfair, but the ordinance doesn't require a warning, Weiss said, although officers can issue one.
In this case, a ticket was written because it was "severe and an immediate nuisance," Streets Deputy Commissioner Carlton Williams said.
The thing is, when Brennen called the number provided, and explained that she was disabled, she was told that she couldn't make her case on the phone - but was not told she could file her appeal in writing.
Weiss encourages in-person appeals because it makes it easier "to judge credibility" and get questions answered, but Administrative Review will accept appeals by mail or email from people who can't attend in person.
If Brennen writes to explain all the facts, Weiss believes, the $50 fine could be turned into a warning.
While I was working on this, an anonymous benefactor paid Brennen's fine, but it's good to know that if you feel you were shafted, you can turn to Administrative Review.
The phone number is 215-686-5216.
Over in Streets, Williams is reaching out for Brennen's block captain to help the widow keep her property free of debris.
So this column, minus bad guys, turns out good because some city employees have both a heart and a brain.