Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Parking Lots

At 19 and 20, I was a parking attendant at two restaurants in Malibu. I felt the job conferred a certain amount of panache because Edd “Kookie” Byrne, the coolest character in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip, had parked cars. At one of the two restaurants, the Tonga Lei, just south of the Malibu Pier, there was a fair amount of danger involved. When the small lot in front of the restaurant filled up, we had to start taking cars across Pacific Coast Highway, to a lot behind a lumber yard, and then dash back through traffic. I wouldn’t have trusted me with a bicycle, let alone an expensive car, but I drove everything under the sun — Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Jaguars, the lot, and damaged none of them, though sometimes it took considerable frantic experimentation either to turn on the ignition or get the damned thing into reverse.

My friend Dave and I, in the way of teenaged smart alecs everywhere, would amuse each other by seeing how much we could get away with. If someone slid in behind the steering wheel without giving us a tip — the standard was 25 cents, with high rollers giving us a buck — we would beam and say, “Fuck you very much.” We got some funny looks, but never punched in the nose; who said that English isn’t an inflected language? In the same spirit, if diners came out requesting a black, for instance, Lincoln Continental, the one who’d been asked for the car would bellow, “Black cunt!” to the other. We enjoyed looking down the blouses of lady passengers as we helped them to their feet. Good clean fun!

I’ve never made love in a parking lot, if you define love as coitus ending in ejaculation. But I remember not seeing two minutes of The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, in a drive-in movie parking lot. My first-ever girlfriend and I leapt into the back seat almost before the opening titles were done, and didn’t come back up for air until the feature gave way to animated importunings to visit the snack bar.

The first words my second life partner and I exchanged were to do with parking lots. After a screening for the press of Robert Altman’s Nashville, she came over and pointed out that I had a loose thread on my jacket. I was slightly intimidated by her good looks, and when intimidated often get too droll for my own good. I told her with a perfectly straight face not to pull the thread because it led back to the parking lot, and would help me find my car. She thought (quite accurately!) that I was odd, but allowed me to take her home a few weeks later from the Rainbow Bar & Grill, where so many of my ultra-short-term romances in those days began, so how odd could she have found me?

Over the years, I have often claimed during my car-parking days to have helped myself to the contents of diners’ glove compartments, but that was just crass self-mythologizing; I never stole so much as a cigarette lighter. Wait, that’s inaccurate. We were supposed to give the restaurant all our tips, but I would commonly keep 75 cents with which to phone my girlfriend up in the Bay Area.

It's worth bearing in mind that those 75 cents would be worth $27 in today’s money. I’m hyperbolizing for comic effect.

Since returning to the USA from the UK in September 2007, I have been driving the silver Subaru SUV I bought sight-unseen from my sister’s then-fiance because he gave me a good price and vouched for it. A silver Subaru SUV, though, is the last car whose location in a crowded parking lot you want to forget, or to remember only fuzzily. When we went to a Hudson Valley Renegades game last summer, we must have walked back and forth across the parking lot 10 times trying to find it when we got bored with the game. The modern American parking lot doesn’t exactly want for silver SUVs.

One night at the Tonga Lei, I’d been working with a new guy when an XKE just like James Bond’s pulled onto the lot. The new guy said he’d park it. He jumped in and headed north. To my knowledge, they still haven’t found him.

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