Talk of the Town - One-way ticket to Bonneville July 22 2004

Parking is such sweet sorrow

A woman stopped me on the street the other day. Surely she was moved to speech by my flashing dark eyes, which are the toast of six continents and mocking scourge of countless outraged husbands.

No chance. It was car trouble. Of a non-mechanical nature. So she asked: "Can you help me parallel park?"

Not so devil-may-care as to forget the venue — i.e., liability-happy America — I wouldn't get behind the wheel and later be told I'd damaged the frammis, resulting in repair bills greater than the gross national product of Sweden. But I stood curbside and politely guided her into port.

And who can parallel park anymore? Owing to uber-malls, 15-story parking decks and all the other atrocities associated with suburban sprawl, it has become a lost art, as dead and distant to modern civilization as cave painting and the full-service filling station.

How did it go in the old instruction manual?

1. Align rear tires with rear bumper of the car you will park behind.

2. Put car into reverse. Turn wheel hard right.

3. Back up until you are at a 45-degree angle. Stop. (Stop is right. What is a 45-degree angle, anyway? Will 44 degrees be enough? Is 46 too much? Does the car freeze if the angle falls below 32? Do I need a geometry textbook to make this happen?)

4. Turn wheels all the way left.

5. Slowly back up until parallel with the curb.

6. Screw this up.

7. Start over. Repeat as needed.

Because parallel parking is a gift — like blowing perfect smoke rings, improvisational jazz and severing a chicken leg from its thigh with one stroke of the dinner knife — it can't be taught. It's intuitive.

This doesn't stop it from appearing on driver's tests across the nation, or keep countless drivers from sweating howitzer shells over a maneuver they'll never perform in the real world of head-in parking.

On nights when sleep won't come, I can still flash back to my parallel beginnings as a fledgling motorist during the Ahemumble administration. To say I was timid about the whole thing is to indulge in shameless hagiography.

Most teenagers took their driver's test a nanosecond after they got their learner's permit. Not me. I am one of the few people in the history of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to renew a learner's permit after its one-year lifespan was up. DMV bureaucrats, flummoxed by such slacker behavior, had to customize a new rubber stamp to accommodate my lameness. I don't think it's been used since.

This excruciatingly slow development as a driver — it made a glacier look hyperactive — was due, at least in part, to my father.

Lest you think this a Freudian cop out, let me explain that, at the time, Pop was an insurance adjuster. This role placed him in frequent contact with strange, eclectic — and above all, cheap — third- and fourth-hand motor vehicles that might have been in the McKinley funeral cortege. Many had an unpleasant habit of winding up in our driveway.

One of the newer models was a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville. Land version of a Nimitz-class flattop, it was long enough to have F-15s take off from its roof. To complete the naval picture, the car was — what else? — battleship gray.

"If you can drive this," Pop proclaimed, "you can drive anything!" He paid 55 bucks for it, 15-inch deck guns not included.

At age 16, this was not what I had in mind as a way-cool set of wheels. Even Pop's company car, a '73 Plymouth Fury, would have been preferable. At least that car resembled police cruisers of the time, a fact that gave Dad no end of pleasure when other motorists hastened to get out of his way.

First time behind the Pontiac's wheel, I felt like Mark Twain piloting the Delta Queen down the Mississippi. This particular steamboat offered power brakes and power steering, unusual back when it was made. But when the car conked out — and it stalled more than a crime boss called by a grand jury — both steering and brakes cut out. Leaving me in charge of a runaway aircraft carrier.

To this day, I don't know how I passed the driver's test first time out. It had something to do with everyone in the neighborhood getting out of my way. (That story about me having the learner's permit for more than a year had gotten around.) Anybody who saw this behemoth bearing down on them, terrified teen at the wheel, was well advised to evacuate.

But you know something? Pop was right. To this day, I can parallel park, first time, every time.

I just have to be driving a '66 Bonneville.


Glen Slattery is curbside at a 45-degree angle in Alpharetta.