The Amateur Parker
‘Play Red Dress Fat’
Melissa Bean Sterzick
The headline was ominous – they usually are – scary gets more attention than cheerful. It said, “Patron receives year of free parking for insult written on valet ticket.”
I had visions of an innocent valet customer picking up her car and finding a cruel and profane note on her receipt that said, “Park somewhere else next time, loser.” Or “Get a real car!” Or even something more immature and graphic, including mention of the parker’s mother and a greasy stripper pole.
So I clicked on the link, and at the top of the screen was a picture of the offending valet ticket. It said “Play red dress fat.”
I racked my brain trying to think of how this could be considered an insult. It was written so strangely, too matter-of-factly to be derogatory; too ineloquently to be a direct attack. I finally realized these were the valet’s notes. These were the words the valet wrote to help himself identify the customer. “Play red dress, fat.” It was ill-conceived, but was it malicious?
I wondered if this woman were really wearing a red dress, had recently been in a play, and was, in fact, fat. If it’s all true, then how can she blame the guy? Sure, it’s inconsiderate to label someone fat. We don’t even use that word to describe individuals who can’t get out of bed without the help of a crane. There are a dozen more polite ways to describe someone who is largish, including sturdy, full-figured and Rubenesque.
When is an adjective an identifier and when is it an insult? Is it an insult if it points out something obvious that is also a source of embarrassment? The truth is, the valet involved did not “call” this woman fat – it seems he simply chose the most easily identifiable characteristic he could to hastily scribble on the ticket so that later he could hurry up and retrieve Miss Play Red Dress Fat’s vehicle. He described her as “fat.” Calling her fat would have involved his saying or writing on her ticket, “Hey, you’re fat, you fatso.”
I worked for a dot-com during the early years of that ill-fated boom. The company was flush with misguided investment funds, and we all enjoyed a host of perks. We feasted on catered lunches, lounged in a comfy and snack-filled break room, and spent as much time as possible surfing the Internet so we could better understand our responsibilities. I gained 5 pounds. The rules were still fuzzy, and each day brought a thousand deadlines and a thousand inventions.
One rule we had to learn the hard way was the dangerous visibility of the URL. If you’re not sure what a URL is, you might want to step out of your cave once in a while, but anyway, it’s the tag in the search line of your browser that identifies where you are online. For example, www.parkingtoday.com is a website, and if you are looking for John Van Horn’s “Death by Parking” series, you would need to be at URL http://www.parkingtoday.com/dbp.php.
So here we are, a bunch of twenty-somethings with various backgrounds in journalism, programming, English and so on, publishing the news online. A story of interest would come over the wire or directly from a local bureau, and we would convert that article to html format, give it a name and link it to the website.
Stories were often named according to their main idea: “Mayor trips,” “School awards,” “Dog bites,” or “Parking law passed.” One unfortunate, but valuable, learning moment came when an article about a tragic death was named “Dead guy,” and the finished product was posted with a URL www.blahblahblah.com/local/deadguy.
Readers were not pleased, and they let us know. So we had a catered lunch meeting and agreed that we would think of more tactful ways to label stories from that day on.
Maybe valets need to attend such a meeting.
A little tact goes a long way. People’s feelings are important and, if I’ve interpreted the trend accurately, are becoming more important than their behavior or the truth. Still, good business practices must include respect and a bit of sensitivity.
I wouldn’t want to be identified by the features that make me most self-conscious. I would feel terrible if I heard (or read) myself described as: “big feet, short neck, crooked bottom teeth,” but fortunately, those descriptions are way too long to fit on a tiny valet ticket.
I would consider it awfully thoughtless if my valet used my flaws as a mnemonic device – but I would be demanding an apology, not a year’s worth of free parking.
The winner in this story is the valet operation for being so apologetic and gracious. The boneheaded valet will have, hopefully, learned his lesson. And unless I’ve missed an important aspect of the story, it’s my opinion that Miss Play Red Dress Fat needs to stop whining and get a grip.
Melissa Bean Sterzick is PT’s Amateur Parker, sometime
writer, and proofreader. She can be reached at
Article Abstract from February, 2013