CONFESSION: I was four months late for my vehicle emissions test. I was bad. I had no excuse, other than the rush of life, the leak in my roof and the holidays, but, hey, we're all busy, right? I have no defense. I procrastinated. I was derelict in my duties as a citizen of the Patapsco Drainage Basin.
The air in Baltimore and Central Maryland is unhealthy, and it will only get healthier if we, the motorized public, all do our part - and do it on time.
But I blew it, OK? I was a loathsome sluggard.
It was the last day of January before I got there. According to the suspension notice I received from the Motor Vehicle Administration - and promptly stuck behind my windshield visor so I wouldn't have to look at it every day - I owed the state of Maryland $14 for the test and $60 in late fees. (In case you're not hip: The state fines you $15 for every 28 days you shirk your duty as a motorized citizen.)
So, there was nothing I could do about this, and I knew it. I went to the ATM and got some scratch that would have been better used for tsunami relief (or to pay my BGE bill), drove to an emissions station and waited in line.
When I got to the inspection bay, even the guy in the jumpsuit with the VEIP emblem (Vehicle Emission Inspection Program) seemed impressed with my fine.
"Wow," he said, "seventy-four dollars."
I felt good about this reaction. It suggested that the vast majority of my fellow citizens take it seriously and go for this important test when they're called - unlike yours truly.
I reached into my wallet and started to extract four $20 bills.
"Hey, you have lots of money," the inspector in the jumpsuit said.
"I'm late. I owe fines," I said.
Bear with me. I can't remember exactly what was said at this point. I wasn't taking notes. I did not have an electronic recording device. But I remember what happened.
The guy in the jumpsuit was friendly. He asked for my vehicle registration. And he offered to see about getting my fines waived.
I thought that was odd.
I hadn't asked to have the fines waived. In fact, I had cash in my fingers, and I was fully prepared to pay what I owed.
The guy in the jumpsuit took my registration, said he'd be right back, then disappeared.
I sat there and waited. I wondered what was going on. I hoped the fines would be waived, of course, but really didn't think they would be. I had no excuse for the tardiness, and I wasn't about to lie and say I'd been out of the country for four months.
The man in the jumpsuit returned and asked for $14.
He said the fines had been waived and had a form to prove it. (I assume his supervisor had signed this, but I can't be sure. I only got to see the waiver form for a moment.)
At this point, things turned weird. The fellow in the jumpsuit suggested I owed him for the favor. He said it would be better if some of my money went to him and other underpaid workers in the testing bays than to the state.
I don't have an exact quote for you. But clearly, the man in the jumpsuit wanted a little tip for getting my $60 fine waived. He didn't seem to be kidding.
I told him I appreciated what he had done, but I could not give him anything in return for the waiver-favor.
I felt guilty and conflicted - and extremely Catholic.
I liked the guy - he was a likable fellow - but couldn't see slipping him some cash. (For a moment I thought I had driven into a sting operation to catch drivers who try to bribe inspectors to get out of late fees. At any moment, I expected to see Jayne Miller and the 11 News I-Team sticking a camera in my face, just in time for February sweeps.)
I hadn't asked for the waiver-favor, and there wasn't anything to support it.
The moment became even more awkward when the guy in the jumpsuit started getting impatient with me, a little grumpy, then angry.
He was grumbling about my lack of gratitude, asked for the full $74, then in the next instant changed his tune and took $14 for the test.
It was a strange experience.
The guy in the jumpsuit clearly expected a little tip for getting the waiver.
It wasn't right, but I wasn't about to make a scene while I was there. (A spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Administration says what I had encountered was a problem of "individual integrity" and not a widespread practice at VEIP stations.)
I have since mailed in a check for $60 to the MVA to cover the late fees. Next time, I'll go for my emissions test on time - for the sake of cleaner air and a clearer conscience.