How I Learned to Love Parallel Parking (and Myself)

I am an excellent parallel parker.

Seriously. I’ve won free drinks more than once by betting dubious passengers that I can squeeze my boat of a Buick into the most snugly appointed of parking spaces. And I always win.

Driver in Mexico City - Erin J. Bernard

Driver in Mexico City – Erin J. Bernard

Free drinks aside, I recognize that this mightn’t read as much of a standalone accomplishment. But that’s fine, because I’m not presenting it to you as a standalone accomplishment. I’m presenting it to you as an ability rendered exceptional when considered in the larger picture of what I do well and what I do poorly.

I am not spatial. I scored “Ds” in geometry class, and that was only by cheating off a sympathetic classmate. And I regularly become lost driving around in Portland – the town I grew up in. In fact, if you asked me to point north at any given moment, unless I am standing outside in Portland in clear view of the Cascade Range, I am unlikely to get it right.

When I was 18, my dad and I took a trip to Europe. In Germany, we spent a few days holed up at a non-descript brown and beige hotel in a non-descript brown and beige hamlet called Planegg. The hotel may well have been designed by a few of those manic-depressive German Abstract Expressionists (old conjurers), so full of narrow, winding corridors as it was. Very European. Very grim.

Anyway. In Germany, my father devised a way of beginning our mornings that he found hilarity-inducing: when we were ready to leave our room to go downstairs for breakfast (dark nutty bread smeared with Nutella or gloriously smelly cheese; I can still taste it), he’d hold the door open, allow me to exit the room first, and then wait for me to commence a comically gauche attempt at navigating us to the elevator. Despite whatever generous laws of probability come into play when one is dealing with the 50-50 odds presented by a left turn / right turn framework, I don’t believe I got the way right even once. Not a once.

I also took Tae Kwon Doe lessons for a year in South Korea. I attended class five days a week, I practiced at home, and I was an unmitigated martial arts disaster. I mean, I really sucked. Before the year was out, I’d scrambled and clawed my way to a red belt with name embroidered it in both Korean and English, but that was mainly because during tests I timed my movements to fall just a half-step behind yet another sympathetic classmate (Shoutout to Sarah and Megan!), and, once again, shamelessly copied her. When I think back on those classes, what I hear in my mind, first and foremost, is Mr. Ku shouting, “NOOOOOOOO!” as the younger kids giggled evilly and I contorted my body gracelessly into various backwards poses.

Yes, a few prominent spatial deficits might well sully my inherited hand of traits, but I do have my gifts. An excellent memory is the genetic bequest that’s proven most useful in life so far, and it’s acted as a fine stand-in for the spatial challenges that plague me in daily life.

When true north so devilishly eludes me and I find myself wandering, undignified and disheveled, about a parking lot long after dark, this is my polestar and/or my compass.

Aside 1: I’m not really sure what a polestar does, and I care not a wit, as both polestars and compasses fall under the broad umbrella of astronomy, which is about nothing if not space – as mentioned above, not my wheelhouse.)

Lost in that parking lot, I invoke a host of minute details – the license plate of the car next to me, where in the sky a streetlamp was positioned, what building I saw when I stepped out of the car and looked up – and these are my psychic breadcrumbs. I navigate the world by memorizing it.

Aside 2: In an ironic and rather cruel twist of fate, I am exceedingly terrible at the game Memory, in which you must flip over a spread of cards two at a time, looking for pairs. Seriously. I have never beat anyone, ever, even when you count the times I played against my kindergarten students in Mexico and South Korea, and they were operating at a considerable deficit themselves. In my defense: I feel that this game is deceptively titled, as the game isn’t about memorizing things. It’s about memorizing where things are in space. That is very different, and long, unsmiling rows of overturned cards don’t offer a whole lot in the way of psychic breadcrumbs. Alas.

So what’s any of this got to do with parallel parking? I’m glad you asked.

First, a paradox:

One: Is there anything more shameful than attempting to execute a 10-point turn into a narrow parking space in front of a busy restaurant, ramming the back wheel up onto the curb, bumping bumpers fore and aft, and then giving up and driving onward in abject humiliation?

Two: is there anything more awesomely hilarious than watching someone else attempt to execute a 10-point turn into a narrow parking space in front of a busy restaurant, ramming the back wheel up onto the curb, bumping bumpers fore and aft, and then giving up and driving onward in abject humiliation?

Here’s the secret, and the answer to the riddle: parallel parking doesn’t actually require finely honed spatial skills or even superior navigational chops. Those things help, yes, but I see intelligent-looking people in Escalades completely butcher the task on at least a weekly basis here in Portland. Clearly, they were smart enough to either make enough money to buy said Escalade or smart enough to marry someone who makes enough money to buy said Escalade, so it’s not like they totally suck at life. And yet they can’t park a car to save their flashy, overwanking tire rims.

What parallel parking does require, above all, is a bit of faith and a bit of unflappability. And after all those many math classes nearly failed, the maps torn in frustration, memory games lost or forfeited to spoil-sport six-year-olds, faith and unflappability are two things I’ve definitely got. In veritable spades.

When I park, it goes like this: I drive around looking for a parking spot. I find a parking spot. I gird my loins and I slam on the turn signal and I pull up alongside the car in front of the spot, as close as I can get without rubbing side mirrors. Unapologetically close. Because that’s what it takes.

Doubt rises in my gorge, sure, but I push it aside and let my excellent memory remind me that Not Looking Like an Idiot is hardly a Commendable Life Goal, and is, in fact, a pretty good guarantor instead of Never Doing Anything Interesting Ever Again, and almost a certain guarantor of parking a mile away from everywhere you ever want to go on a Friday night ever, ever again. And that is an undesirable fate, indeed. Because it rains a lot here.

As I slam my champagne-colored Buick into confident reverse and crank that wheel around, I also let my excellent memory remind me of all the improbably tight spaces I’ve squeezed into and back out of (literal-figurative) in my days, even when the odds looked terrible.

I use my mirror, yes, but I’m navigating, at this point, almost entirely by instinct and feel. I’m creeping in. And just at the last second, I whip that wheel back around and it’s done. Then, I pull forward an inch or two, just to correct. And I am in.

Then I turn off the ignition and I step out of the car, and at that point I am sort of hoping that somebody was watching, just because it’s so fucking hard to believe in yourself, let alone anybody else, and to manage both at once makes for a pretty fucking great day on earth in my book. And I congratulate myself profusely and sometimes even aloud, just because it’s so fucking easy to forget what’s important, to lose that horizon, no matter who you are or how many paths you’ve navigated by feel all those other times before. Forget those other times before! Doubt can descend as quick as a fog, and then you’re in the muck with the rest of us: creeping along blindly, remembering only every single bad thing anyone ever told you about who you were and what you could do and couldn’t do, and looking only for a place to park your tired rattletrap bones, just for awhile.

It’s so very, very easy to forget; I work hard to remember this.

And that is why I am an excellent parallel parker.

Friends in Mumbai - Erin J. Bernard

Friends in Mumbai – Erin J. Bernard


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