Sunday, February 11, 2007

PARKING PRINCIPLES

During a particularly busy holiday season, I came around a corner and headed into a just-opened space in the crowded parking lot of my local supermarket. I was halfway into the space before I noticed a sedan that had been waiting for the same spot with its blinker on. Before I could either pull the rest of the way in or back out, the driver of the sedan had parked directly behind my car and jumped out.

"Didn't you see me waiting?" he shouted, finishing his question with a colorful epithet.

"Not until I was halfway in," I replied. "Back up and I'll let you in."

He turned to walk back to his car muttering the same colorful word, loudly enough to be heard by me and by his young daughter, who was sitting in the back seat of his car.

He was right about the space being his. He'd been waiting for it and, if I'd been paying more attention when I sped around the corner, I would have noticed him waiting. I would have driven on and looked for another opening. Had I been waiting when someone else swooped in to take the space, I would have been equally annoyed.

Did his lack of civility change his dibs on the space? Not as far as I was concerned. His use of foul language in front of his daughter may suggest questionable parenting skills, but my choices were either to be uncivil in return or to do the right thing by giving him the space and moving on. I chose the latter.

Scott Latzky, a reader from Queens, N.Y., wrote to me about a similar experience. The differences were that there wasn't any colorful language involved and that he was not the interlope but rather the guy who had been waiting for a space to open up near his home in Jackson Heights.

One Sunday afternoon Latzky had been waiting for several minutes when another car came along and double-parked to wait for a second space to open up. On the crowded streets in his neighborhood, such jockeying is common practice.

After another five minutes, a car began to pull out. The other car, which was parked a little closer to that spot, began to go for it, but Latzky cut him off and reminded him that he had been waiting longer.

"He complained that he thought that I had gone for a spot further back," Latzky writes.

The other driver indicated that, when he had lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side, whoever parked closest to the spot was the one who got it. Latzky reminded him that he wasn't on the Upper East Side and that this is how it works in Queens.

"He wasn't happy," Latzky concludes, "but he gave up the spot."

Latzky was in the parking space, but was he in the right?

He and the other driver both did the right thing. In matters of this nature, in which the law provides no guidance, local custom -- not to mention simple courtesy -- prevails. The fact that both drivers managed to avoid colorful language in sorting things out speaks well of them and of Jackson Heights.

Doing the right thing won't always make us happy. But the marginal convenience of beating someone to a parking space or the ephemeral pleasure of retaliating in kind when someone behaves badly are not the type of factors we should allow to define our own characters.

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