"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Parking Spaces and War

I live in a a leafy residential neighborhood of Washington, DC, a quiet enclave of young and old professional families, all our kind of people – well-educated, probably well above the DC norm which ranks near the top for advanced degrees; civilized – no loud parties, no breach of decorum.  We all understand the rules of social cohesion, social niceties, and friendly neighborliness.  Except for parking spaces.  These are sacred, inviolable, untouchable - protected and defended like territory gained after a bloody war.  They are extensions of property, and extensions of the people who live there.  Parking, however, is not at a premium in my neighborhood.  Demand is very low. People have two cars, but one is often a Prius, and the biggest never bigger than a Camry.  Because the properties are big and the lot lines are long, there would be enough room for two Hummers in front of each house and their owners could still cruise in without the nuisance of a parallel park.  This is not Manhattan by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps most importantly, we live on a public street.  Although we benefit from a residential parking permit system which allows us to park all day on our street or any in the zone, we have no rights or privileges for that portion of public street in front of our house. 

I often parked for a few hours in front of the neighbor’s house across the street.  From that side I could simply drive down to the major downtown street and be on my way without having to do the acrobatics of a tight turn from my side.  I found ever increasing and menacing notes on my windshield from “Good neighbors do not park in front of others’ houses” to “Last chance – Do NOT park here!”  I had ignored these notes.  It was a public street, after all, there was plenty of room for the neighbor’s cars, and I was careful not to park in front of their front walk. 

One day a neighbor showed up at my door, rattling with rage, almost apoplectic.  She could barely get the words out.  “Do…do…not…park”, she stammered, “in front of my house”.  I knew that I had crossed the line, and escalation was sure to follow.  The rumor was that she had poisoned the dog next door because it had barked too much.  A neighbor farther down the street had snapped after weeks of whiffle balls landing on his lawn and punched the young boy next door.  A friend one street over from mine had all the ignition wires from her car – actually all the wires under the hood – ripped out and dangled hangman’s noose style from all the door handles and radio antenna, all because she had parked too many times in front of the wrong house.

This phenomenon was not limited to my street or the next.  Many friends and acquaintances had made the same assumption about a public street and found hostile and threatening notes on their windshields.  What was going on here?

I eventually gave in.  A few unnecessary parking gymnastics were not worth real neighbor trouble.  Until the other day, I had one consolation - this parking thing was not always an issue.  A close friend who lives in another part of the neighborhood told me this story.  His next door neighbor had become a relatively close acquaintance over the many years that they had lived side-by-side.  They had worked in the same profession, lived and worked in many of the same regions of the country, enjoyed the same food and politics.  Cars were never an issue, perhaps because of the especially low number of cars on the street (many people had garages that dated back to the days when many of the houses were built just before WWII). There was no way that any incident could possibly occur between them, let alone parking.   One day, because his wife had parked close to their front walk to unload groceries, and the neighbor’s car was not there, he took a few extra feet for a cruise lane and parked in front of his neighbor’s house. 

Two days later, he related, he did the same thing – walkway blocked, no neighbor’s car, easy cruise lane, 6 feet in front of the neighbor’s house. 

The phone rang that evening, and it was the neighbor.  His voice quivering with rage he demanded to know why my friend had parked in front of his house, and would not be appeased by my friend’s explanation.  He went on to justify his proprietary interests, invoking every possible argument – all irrelevant, of course, because of the public nature of the street; but there was no disguising the truth – my friend had violated his heretofore inviolable space – that extension of his property, his rights, and himself – and he was out to defend himself. 

It gets worse.  Washington thankfully gets very little snow, but occasionally we get some real whoppers.  Two years ago we had over three feet of snow, and all of us were cottage-bound for days.  About ten years before that, we had the same three feet, schools and the federal government were closed for a week.  In the more modest snowstorms that occurred between the two big ones, people began to put chairs in the spaces they had cleared for their cars; and in this latest storm, many people did.  This was an amazing thing to me.  I had to dig out my own two cars, but it never occurred to me that any one of my neighbors would calmly slip into my excavated space. Even the infrequent outside visitor would surely realize the effort taken to shovel tons of snow.  The chairs were a very visible expression of the erosion of trust that had somehow occurred; a clear fraying of the delicate but strong social bonds that existed between neighbors. 

Which brings me to the point – we have not changed a whit since the dawn of time.  We are acquisitive and then violently protective by nature.  The natural, human sense of ‘mine’ does not disappear once the two-year old is forced to share by socialized parents.  It goes underground, shallow, but ready to emerge at any time.  I thought I had learned this lesson when I witnessed the titanic battles between my young son and daughter – this is my car seat, my glass, my room.  I thought I had finally put the affair to rest after I completed reading Shakespeare’s Histories – the Elizabethan chronicles of the rich and famous who plotted, killed, ravished, and rampaged throughout history to get more of ‘mine’ and to secure it for them and their children.  It was this benign chronicle of used and abused parking spaces, however, made me realize once and for all – despite all the one-world, optimistic, and utopian attempts to make us more generous, more tolerant, and more social -  we will always be fiercely, violently, persistently ‘mine’. 

There will always be wars.  Just look around the neighborhood.

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