'Meter angels' keep watch on parking in New Hope

20150913_inq_sangels13z-a
Stephen Stahl, a "New Hope Meter Angel," checks to see if a parked car on Main Street is delinquent. "We just want everyone to be happy," says Stahl, who started the meter-feeding program with a friend in June. Top, a calling card on a windshield lets a motorist know who was behind the kindly deed. "I think it's admirable,' Mayor Larry Keller says. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

It's hard to miss Stephen Stahl when he strolls down New Hope's Main Street.

Ocean-blue shirt, blinding-white pants. Flip flops clacking beneath his feet, black shades resting atop his trimmed white hair.

And, on Friday, quarters in his pockets.

With wings on his back.

"I'm going on a flight!" he joked to a friend driving by as they pointed at the feathery appendage strapped around his shoulders.

Then he turned and chuckled: "People think I'm coming out of a gay bar or something."

Every small town has its quirks and charms. Stahl is trying to add some more to New Hope.

With a small pack of middle-aged friends, he helped launch the town's "meter angels" program, a grassroots tribe of winged volunteers who drop quarters into expiring parking meters, then leave a card on the windshield as they fly away.

"New Hope Meter Angels have topped off your expiring meter," the card says.

In just more than an hour Friday, Stahl gave out six of them.

During peak summer hours, he laughed, "I'd walk around with $50 in quarters in my pockets."

The idea has been seen before, in places as far-flung as England and New Zealand.

In June, the practice was deemed legal by New Hampshire's state Supreme Court. The town of Keene had sued a group of "Robin Hooders," accusing them of harassing parking officials as they refilled strangers' meters.

But the group's meter-feeding, the court ruled, was protected by the First Amendment.

Larry Keller, New Hope's mayor, said Friday that he has no qualms with his town's angels.

"I have to tip my hat to them," he said. "I think it's admirable.

High praise for what began as something of a lark.

Stahl and a friend, Charlie Sahner, simply hated seeing yellow parking tickets on tourists' windshields. Like mosquitoes on the beach, Stahl believed, they could spoil someone's whole trip.

"We just want everyone to be happy," he said.

So in June, Stahl and Sahner hatched their plan and started looping around town themselves.

They soon were joined by half a dozen volunteers, Sahner said, and banks gave them rolls of quarters. Friends donated the wings.

Almost every day over the summer, Sahner said, an angel or two walked around town for a few hours, surprising dozens of unsuspecting visitors with fresh quarters.

"This is sort of a populist movement," he said, noting that the quarters are a combination of their own money and donations.

For the angels, the movement can also be a social opportunity.

Just walk Main Street with Stahl, a playwright who lived in New Hope for 30 years before a recent move to Lambertville. Within a few steps Friday, he was cracking jokes with old friends.

"A Christian and a Jew," he laughed while embracing Gail Pedrick, who was wearing a cross around her neck.

When another friend and store owner teased him about his wings, he quipped back: "There's no place for me in heaven, honey."

Sahner, who says he's a more focused meter-feeder than the casually strolling Stahl, wants the angels to become a permanent part of town. Stahl wants to recruit more volunteers for next summer.

There was just one thing they couldn't agree on before Stahl finished his loop Friday: whether they should add to the costume.

"Oh no," Stahl told Sahner. "I'm not wearing a halo."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305@cs_palmer