Strolling the Parking Beat is the Best Job in Town
Parking in downtown Davidson is a bargain. It’s free, in fact, unless you overstay the two hour limit. In that case, you’re risking a $33 encounter with Ralph Quackenbush, the town police department’s parking enforcement officer.
The town got a bargain when Ralph signed on to the job 20 years ago. He receives no salary for his service, but the tickets he writes add about $20,000 a year to the town coffers.
Despite the lack of a salary, Quackenbush thinks he’s got the greatest job in Davidson.
For one, he sets his own hours. If it’s too hot or cold or rainy—or time for a vacation—he stays home. He doesn’t punch a clock. In fact, most of the time the staff in the police department doesn’t even know if he’s working or not on any particular day. But on most temperate days he and his spouse, Carol, hoof it about five miles through town parking lots. On the first go-round Ralph swipes a chalk mark on the back tire of all parked cars. After two hours, he retraces his steps and tickets any cars whose tires are still visibly marked. Occasionally, he finds a car that hasn’t moved in several days. Those are considered as abandoned, and get towed.
Then there are those drivers who show up at the last second and beg him to have mercy. In those cases, he yields to his tender side, and lets them off with a gentle warning.
Not only does the job keep Ralph and Carol in good shape, they also view it as a way to give back to the town they’ve called home since 1961.
Regular police officers have more important duties than writing parking tickets, so Ralph and Carol are filling an important community need. “That’s what small towns are like,” said the 84-year-old Ralph. “I’m not getting any younger, and it’s the best way to stay young that I can imagine!”
Legitimizing his status as an official police department adjunct, he carries an official Davidson police shield on his belt, and his shirt and ball cap are embroidered with the town insignia and his name. He also carries the chalk stick and a high-tech device called “Zebra” that has made his life much easier.
The Zebra is a small printer/computer he wears on his belt. To issue a ticket, he need only enter the violator’s license number in an app on his cell phone. The Zebra prints out a paper ticket that Ralph puts on the windshield, and simultaneously sends the info to a processing center in Charlotte. It’s up to the processing center from there. “They collect $3 and give the town $30, and I’m done in 30 seconds with a system that used to take me five minutes to do by hand,” he explained.
Most citizens recognize Ralph in the role of parking enforcers, but very few know how far back he and Carol go in Davidson history and lore.
Ralph was born in New Jersey and studied textiles at Philadelphia Textile Institute. (He and Carol met on a blind date and this year are celebrating their 58th anniversary.) Ralph was drafted and spent two years in Army intelligence, then got a job with a company that sent him to work at a textile plant in Davidson. Carol found employment as a nurse, first in Huntersville and later for many years at the Davidson Clinic.
Not long after the couple moved here, Ralph’s employer shut down the Davidson operation, stranding the couple and their two children in this small college town. The bad taste of corporate life prompted Ralph to conclude he would never be happy working for anyone but himself.
“I had to be the boss,” he said. “I couldn’t work for someone else. If I make a mistake, it’s mine.”
So, in 1960 he opened an independently franchised Tastee Freez in Cornelius on the current site of Mama Mia’s. That business proved so successful that two years later he rented a downtown Davidson storefront and opened a soda and sundries shop called “The Hub.”
The name reflected his attempt to make the enterprise a center of student life. He served hamburgers and hot dogs, school supplies and magazines, including “Playboy,” which he placed on the top shelf of the magazine rack where youngsters couldn’t reach it. One of the most popular items was “The Triple R,” which stood for “Ralph’s Raunchy Repast.” It featured two burger patties on toast with cheese and condiments.
The shop served food until 1 a.m., and seated 30-40 customers at peak hours. Business was best on Saturday evenings when the college didn’t operate its own food services.
Though The Hub closed in 1979, a shadow of the enterprise lives on still, in fading lettering visible beneath the awning at its 123 N. Main Street location.
In addition to increased competition, Ralph eventually tired at the grind of working behind the counter day and night. As that business faded, Ralph found another vocation — furniture repair and refinishing. Though he had no previous experience or formal training in the craft, the demand for the service was significant, and Ralph was confident in his belief that, “If someone else can do it, then so can I.”
He enjoyed the work tremendously, “Making silk purses out of sow’s ears.” He recalled, “Someone would bring in a box of pieces and say, ‘This used to be a chair. Can you put it back together? And I would find a way to do it. That was very satisfying.”
He hung out his shingle in Cornelius in the Chair Factory building, and later moved down Highway 115 to the old cotton mill building in the heart of Cornelius. He operated his business there until 1996, when he finally retired. In addition to his commercial venture, he became so proficient at fixing furniture that he was invited to teach classes in furniture work at Central Piedmont Community College, and did so from 1976-1989.
At that point, it looked like Ralph was going to settle in to one of his recliners, but the Davidson Police Department made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Chief Hank McKiernan published an appeal in the local paper for a part-time volunteer parking enforcement officer. Ralph was the only one who applied. At first, he wrote a lot of tickets. “The fine then was $10, and a lot of people figured they would pay that much in Charlotte, so they parked all day and paid the fine.”
Now that the fine has escalated three-fold, Ralph said the system is, for the most part, achieving its goal of freeing up parking spaces for short-term visitors, and shifting all-day parking by those who work in town to lots on the periphery of town.
He and Carol love the social aspect of the job. It gives them a chance to see and be seen, to visit with old friends, and find out what’s going on in town. They invite you to stop and chat next time your paths cross—as long as you’re not overstaying your two-hour limit!
Bill Giduz was the son who followed his father’s footsteps into journalism. He has been involved his entire life with news and photography in schools he attended and jobs he’s held. He believes now that he’s got a few good years left to devote to The News of Davidson.