The Lost Art Of Parking
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.


Heard in a recent commercial:

"All of our K2ORS model automobiles, whether two door, three door, four door or five door, have self-parking and un-parking, for all of you who can't get your own car into a space."

Well, I resemble that remark.

Frequently credited to Abraham Maslow, the same man who brought us the much better-known Hierarchy of Needs, is a little quadrant diagram called the Conscious-Competence Model. In the area of Parallel Parking, there is no question where I fall in this quadrant: Consciously Incompetent. I know what I don't know. And I don't know how to parallel park.

In fact, back in the Previous Century I was trying for my Driver's License for the second time, having failed the first time before even starting the road test by neglecting to turn on the windshield wipers during a light misty rain. For that second attempt, I was both smart enough and lucky enough to select an appointment just before lunchtime. I was given this tip by one of my mother's friends who also worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. She strongly, if unofficially, suggested that inspectors make sure that they get their full break time in. Even if that means, let us say, streamlining, the test procedure for the final applicant before lunch. And so it came to pass that I was maybe ten percent of the way into the required parallel parking space test, and at an angle at which I thought I was never going to get in legally without either hitting something or being about a mile away from the curb, when I was told, "Good enough, you'd make it." As a bonus, I was never asked to back up in a straight line either. And I got my license.

Which is excellent at the very least, since I think I'd still be taking my road test otherwise.

Somehow I have managed to muddle through my general inability to Parallel Park. I go farther than I need to in order to take the middle of three consecutive spaces, or pull directly into the first or last spot in a row even though I could pick something else, as I am only marginally better at getting out of a space than I am getting into one). Or I simply opt out altogether and go somewhere that has only angle parking or perpendicular parking. And the best choice of all: "pull through parking," where I can come in from the rear of two adjoining perpendicular spaces and then pull forward to the second of those two, enabling a move directly forward to get out of the space... no backing up! Which I can't do in a straight line, as previously noted.

A quick diversion before going on: one late night a friend and I were approaching a nearly deserted supermarket parking lot when from another driveway, an apparently very rushed motorist drag raced diagonally across the entire span of the lot and screeched to a halt in the first and second row of spaces immediately in front of the store entrance, such that he took up four spaces with one car. My friend's reaction: "Alright! You Beat The Clock!" A reference to the long-running game show, this. (Look it up, you'll laugh.)

Fortunately, for most of my life I have lived where non-parallel parking is the norm. Occassionally, though, I find myself in a place where parallel parking is a necessity: for example, my home town of Jersey City, where getting a space on the street for a short time is preferable to parking in a lot for a large fixed fee. And then there's Jersey City's immediate neighbor to the north, Hoboken, which besides being the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and the butt of multiple jokes, was and perhaps still is a regular place for double parking, triple parking and perhaps even quadruple parking if there is enough space. I must admit that there were times I tried to get my vehicle into a space beyond my means and then rationalized that the car was too big for it. As bad as those locations are, of course, they are nothing compared to New York City. One of my closest friends lives in a part of Brooklyn where there is no alternative to parallel parking, and there is the additional challenge of Alternate Side Parking, which allows for regular street cleaning to take place. If you're lucky enough to not be familiar with this concept, here it is: one can legally park on only one side of the street during certain days of the week, and that side alternates. In other words, you have to move your car out of the way of the street cleaners, except on holidays, during snowstorms, and on other days that are seemingly selected at random by the administration. The fact that there are usually more automobiles than legal parking spaces to begin with adds to the merriment. When I visit, my friend often takes pity on me and directs me into a space, which sometimes winds up several blocks away from his home. No matter, though, I'll take it.

However, there is no single place I've been to which illustrates my inability to park more than Valencia, Spain. We were there on holiday. Due to my not remembering that we arrived the calendar day after we left, the original rental car I reserved was given away and I was instead, after some begging and pleading, given an alternate choice that was still available. This diesel-powered station wagon was just a little larger than what I drove back home. In Spain, if not in all of Continental Europe, it was a behemoth by comparsion to other passenger cars.

Our hosts had two residences, one a block in from the Mediterrerean Coast and one in the city. Each had its parking challenges. We'll come back to the beach in a bit, since it was in Central Valencia where driving was cranked up to eleven. And parking spaces were ratcheted down to, well, miniscule, in both number and size. Such is the way in a city that is really made for walking. The rental car was probably a third longer than the typical vehicle. And we were competing for space not only with standard autos, but trucks, motorcycles and cars that were so small that they could park perpendicular to the curb. (I later found out that those cars could be operated by otherwise underage drivers and were powered by what were essentially lawn mower engines, which I believe would have made them not "street legal" in the States.)

In order to avoid having to take public transportation, or a long walk, from the car to our destination in the city, I had to be able to park. And I generally couldn't, not without help from everyone else in the car. There was one particular time when it took no less than ten minutes to inch back and forth, side to side and angle to angle to wedge myself into a spot that was maybe one foot longer than the car. When we got back, it was worse: two other cars had taken the spots each side of my car, and they left even less room to maneuver my way out than I had on my way in. Is it any wonder that once we got the car safely into a legal space, I didn't leave said space until it was time to go back to the beach?

Ah, yes, the beach. We had started our holiday the week before the Annual Descent of Tourists upon the area and so parking there was relatively easy during that time. The second week of the two was much more crowded. However, our hosts had a parking space in a private garage. If you're thinking about most North American parking garages, where the spaces are only a little tighter at, say, a mall, you'd be, well, wrong. As I was. Not only were the spaces a lot tighter than I was used to, but many of them were in dead end corridors. The spaces between rows were also quite smaller than I was used to. That resulted in something more like a W turn than a Y turn to get out of a space. And this was assuming that I was not relegated to one of the spaces that was in between two rather imposing concrete supports. Yes, I know that cars on either side could be just as formidable obstacles as three-feet-around posts, but cars just don't seem to be as intimidating. Plus, concrete doesn't exactly have any "give." I was reminded of a Dairy Queen parking lot in Eastern Pennsylvania, which had mounted on a light stanchion the request, "Please don't hit the pole." Need I mention that the pole, and the sign, had any number of dents, and its concrete anchor a non-trivial quantity of scrapes and gouges?

All of this was brought back to me not long ago in Downtown Toronto. There is a hotel there that carries one of my preferred brands. I was happy to catch a very reasonable rate for a room there—on a Saturday, no less!—and Colleen and I, having just experienced the fun and frolic of vehicle navigation during a weekend lunchtime at IKEA, were ready to pull the car in to the lodging choice and proceed to travel on foot for the rest of the day.

And Colleen, who like me is no stranger to the urban landscape, took one look at the entrance to the parking garage and said, "We have to park there?"

And I, who should have known better since I had actually stayed in this same hotel only a couple of years before, admitted, "Well, yeah..."

The good news is that I was able to navigate the turns that were approximately as tight as that on kids' go-cart tracks without either hitting anything or being hit by anything, such as a car coming the other way, and needed to drop down only to Level Five (or should that be Level Minus Five?) before sighting some open spaces.

Well, some theoretically open spaces.

"You're not going to get in that one," Colleen correctly pointed out about a spot that was directly between two concrete posts that made the pillars in the Valencia beach garage look like twigs by comparison.

"No, I'm not," I affirmed.

I also wasn't thrilled with the prospect of parking in a dead end corridor with little chance of my getting out without inventing new letters of the alphabet to describe the maneuvering required.

Ah, and then before me was a space that was merely between two cars, and would not require Ks, Zs, and Ws to emerge from in the morning. Success. I slipped in, amazingly leaving sufficient room on both sides for each of us to exit the car without potentially life-threatening inhaling. During the trip up the elevator to the hotel lobby, Colleen was "treated" to the account of my flashback to Valencia.

Once I got out of the parking space the next morning—with help from Colleen, I must add—and wound back up the five levels to the street, the rest of the trip did not add any new challenges. There was, however, a look at a state of the art parking garage adjacent to a factory outlet center a ways out from the Greater Toronto Area. This multi-level lot did not include any helixes inspired by nausea-inducing amusement park rides. It did feature a countdown of how many spaces were available on each level, and interior lighting that was dim until a car or pedestrian approached and then became fully illuminated. Nice energy saving touch there.

There was one more attribute of this garage that I couldn't figure out at first, a series of lights that seemed at first to be randomly set on red or green. Colleen figured it out first; this was a system that "knew" that a car was in a particular spot and changed the color of the light overhead from green to red. This light was visible from the aisle, so at once a driver could see whether there were any spaces available at all in that lane. This also eliminated the dreaded "dammit car," which is to say a vehicle that is legally parked but is too small to see until after one attempts to pull into the space that it already occupies. Brilliant! And, based on a quick online search, more prevalent than I thought, even though this was the first installation of "parking space occupany sensors" that I'd ever seen.

Combine that with the self-parking feature of the K2ORS and other models of cars, and before long the car can be its own valet. Had this technology been around the first time I took my Driver's Test, I might have received my license right then and there. Regrettably, I must admit, and my friends will surely concur, that the Art of Parking remains lost on me.

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