Years ago, I read a poem in which imagined aliens peered down at a freeway and, seeing the streams of cars whooshing along, assumed that cars were the dominant life-form on Earth.
Perceiving shadowy soft forms inside, the aliens wondered whether what they were glimpsing through the windshields were the cars' brains, or their guts.
Out here in the West, we mostly encounter other people as drivers, clad in our machines like Transformers, or like Ripley in the great battle scene at the end of Aliens. The vehicles all around us inevitably take on personality: the bullying SUV that honks at you when you stop for a pedestrian; the faintly criminal banged-up compact weaving in and out of traffic; the dithering old boat with its brake lights flickering on and off. (This is in no way an endorsement of the Cars franchise, by the way. The first movie gave me a headache, and, à la Larry David, you'd have to pay me $30,000 to see the sequel.)
When you think about it, it's peculiar—the way we range over the Earth in our great, wheeled bubbles, surrounded and affected by thousands of other people but, if we're lucky, almost never encountering them. (That, of course, is called "having an accident.") So where do we really have to deal with all these strangers on a daily basis?
In parking lots.
Having spent my adult life in space-rich, laid-back Tucson, parking has not been the preoccupation for me that it is for folks in real cities. (And let me be the first to confess that, as a typical Arizonan, I am constitutionally unable to parallel park. I can get a Volkswagen Beetle up any primitive track you care to name, but lining up against a curb without 10 linear feet of clearance is beyond me. And I drive a Mini.)
Nothing could be more mundane than parking, but it has the power to affect human happiness. When my son, for instance, lived in Berkeley, he hated going into San Francisco. Having experienced that fabulous city as a taxi passenger, bus rider (briefly) and pedestrian (extensively), I was puzzled by his attitude until he explained that the traffic there is awful, and the parking is nearly impossible. It was a completely different city for him, an automotive human, than it has been for me, an ambulatory one.
Even in Tucson, parking can create intense feelings. Slowed down, at close range, and forced to fit our beloved, dentable cars into little painted slots, we become human to one another—often not in a good way. There are the idiots who go too fast, as if the lanes were streets, and those damned-to-hell individuals who treat the lane nearest their destination as a parking space. And. Just. Stop. There.
It's hard to forgive these things. I used to work with a guy who arrived early and, almost every day, left his car slantwise in the same space, one slot from the end, making the last space unusable. I probably never would have noticed this—there were usually plenty of spaces—except that a woman in my office was driven insane by his carelessness, or bad spatial judgment, or need to take more than his share, or whatever horrid flaw it was that made him do it. She started each workday in a righteous fury and entertained fantasies, which she shared with me, of taking pictures of his heinous behavior and posting them—on the Internet, on the company-shared drive, on the break-room bulletin board, on his windshield. It would totally have been another Pentagon Papers, you see, except it would have been all about being 4 inches too far to the right.
Fortunately, the guy got another job and moved to Florida before it blew up.
The most amazing parking drama I have ever witnessed, though, was in the lot of a Walgreens on Grant Road. I was stopped at a light in the lane next to the curb when a middle-age man started screaming at a couple of young women who'd just come out of the store and gotten into a convertible. I was appalled—he was leaning into the car and really, really yelling—until I saw what he had seen: They were parked sideways, across two handicapped spaces.
Those girls are lucky to be alive.