Lileks: Life’s lessons learned while trapped in a parking ramp

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2014 - 9:20 PM

If you’ve ever wondered how long it would take a parking ramp full of Minnesotans to sit without making any progress whatsoever toward the exit before someone honks their horn, I have your answer: 24 minutes.

We’d come from a Convention Center event, backed out, joined the line. Nothing moved for 23 minutes. Fury had long since ebbed to despair. Finally, someone honked. The honk echoed through the ramp, bounced off the concrete, went from floor to floor; we all nodded, thinking he speaks for me, that one. Not that I’d honk, but I understand.

A few minutes later, after nothing had moved and everyone’s gas tank was down an eighth, someone honked again — and it was joined by another complainant, a different horn with its own plaintive bleat, and the second horn laid it on hard. Thus emboldened by the madness of crowds, I joined in, tooting my horn three times, and this seemed to be the signal for everyone else on the level to lay into their horn until it sounded like a New York intersection.

I turned to my daughter: “Did you see how Daddy enabled the formation of a mob there?” She nodded. Well, I had. One horn is a rebel; two are troublemakers, but the third horn gives license to everyone else to lose themselves in the anonymity of consensual fury. But like any riot, it spent its self and died away.

Not one car had moved an inch.

“What is going ON,” my daughter fumed.

“If I had to guess? Someone called in sick so there’s one person staffing the booth. The mechanism that raises the gate broke, and someone got out to raise it, but he was so furious he had a heart attack, and then the accumulated carbon monoxide overwhelmed the person in the booth before they could call for help. For all we know there’s an ambulance up there right now, helping them, so we must be patient and calm. See how calm I am? Calm.”

She noted that I was not only gripping the steering wheel quite tightly, I had actually snapped it off the steering column.

While we waited, other people trickled into the lot and got into their cars. The moment their brake lights went on, you felt a sense of sadness. Regret. Remorse for all this would end. Because they actually thought they could pull out and get in front of someone who had been sitting in their car for 27 minutes.

Oh, they can try. But no. I’m usually the guy who waves people ahead, because it’s what I would want someone to do if I was trying to make a turn or enter traffic, and I have accumulated much driving karma for this. I was fully prepared to spend every iota to keep someone from getting in front of me. Mind you, nothing had moved, but those brake lights, that was a challenge.

I considered walking up to the car and tapping on the window. “Here is my iPad. It has two ‘Hobbit’ movies, director’s cut, plus making-of featurettes. You will probably watch them all and get started on the trailers before the line moves. Amuse yourself, and keep the iPad. Just don’t try to cut in line.”

But the car went forward. Instead of backing up to join what I now considered to be Our Line, it went through the concrete pillars to budge into the lane on the other side. I got a horrible chill: It’s all starting to fall apart. Must have said it out loud; daughter asked what was falling apart.

“The social compact. The unspoken rules that bind civil society.” I pointed to the car that had just made a move for the other lane — which, as you might imagine, brought a sharp toot of protest from the cars behind. “It’s going to be every man for himself soon enough.”

By now 40 minutes had passed. Nothing was moving. No radio to amuse us, of course; four floors down in the depths, no signal can penetrate. Phone was at 10 percent; I turned it off in case I had to send a farewell-we-love-you message home, because at this point I expected we would be found here six years hence, in skeletal form.

Daughter: “I really have to-”

“Don’t. Don’t even say it.”

“-use my time wisely when I get home because I have a paper due tomorrow.”

Oh. But now there is one thing in my mind, and it’s that hot 16-ounce cup of Starbucks diuretic I had two hours ago. This cannot get worse.

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