Magazine

Reviving the Engines of ‘Our Parked Civility’

By Astrid Ambroziak

This hour-long flick got a lot of press early last month, and its director, Meghan Eckman, called and asked me to review it. I did watch it but didn’t know what to think. So I asked Astrid Ambroziak, one of the non-parking authors who periodically write for Parking Today, to do the review. JVH
This morning, I heard Matt Lauer, co-anchor of NBC’s “Today Show,” promote a segment of the program called “Is Civility Dead? Or More Alive Than Ever?” After spending a cozy evening last night watching Meghan Eckman’s documentary, “The Parking Lot Movie,” this particular question resonates with me.
It’s fitting, since Eckman’s film, through the voices of about a dozen parking lot attendants, asks this and other existential questions. Who would ever think that a simple corner parking lot can delve into the theories of Jean-Paul Sartre or Kierkegaard and conclude that Nietzsche was on to something when he said, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.”?
In the documentary, set in a small parking lot in Charlottesville, VA, we definitely look into the abyss of our human nature. The only person who doesn’t fall into that abyss is Chris, the owner. Beloved by his employees, he takes it all with a grain of salt.
Chris reminds us and those erudite slackers that work for him, “(to) ease up, people: This is just a parking lot.”
Nevertheless, it is that obscure parking lot hidden behind the University of Virginia campus and neighboring bars and restaurants that shows us that our basic behaviors haven’t evolved much since the days when Thomas Jefferson founded the institution. Quite to the contrary, they have deteriorated and get replaced by a sense of entitlement and belligerence.
From the very first few minutes of her film, Eckman shows us that not all parking lots are the same. After all, we have become accustomed to a garage or a parking lot that, if it has an attendant, that person usually has a foreign accent. In Charlottesville, the guys who mind the lot not only are most eloquent and well-read, but also check “Caucasian” on their voting forms. (That is if they do vote, because I perceive that they see themselves as above such a simple civic duty.)
At the same time, the parking lot attendants emphasize that just as with voting, parking isn’t an entitlement but a privilege. Sadly, most of us – like the jerks who park in this corner lot – think the former: Parking should be easy and most often free. Parking lots are perfect places to make a fool of ourselves, be rude or even throw up all that booze after our nightly binge at the bar. And in a college town with a university of as high a caliber as UVA, drinking and partying is one of the favorite pastimes of those BMW-driving kids.
I have often wondered if it is our character and passion that dictate what we do for living, or do our jobs define what we become? If a friend tries to set me up on a blind date and says that “Larry” is an accountant, not only do I immediately picture a stiff figure with no personality, I refuse to meet him.
We create labels and miss the details of the true essence of the person. The same thing happens in the documentary, yet Eckman shows us that labels and conventions don’t apply here. The fellows who work for Chris are the most entertaining and poignant attendants one could imagine.
The parking lot charges $1.50 an hour for the first three hours. I would gladly spend $4.50 to hang out with those “priests of the Mayan temple” and listen to a good song, see a dance or hear a story about how messed up we all truly are.
Watching them parade in orange cones, build a cardboard addition to their little hut office, write parking poetry on the walls of that hut or stencil “Molly Shannon” on the numerous, often broken, gates, would be a fun afternoon.
Perhaps I could even get an answer to the question that one of them asks: “What kind of a person would have enough money to buy a fancy car and put gas in it but wouldn’t want to pay 40 cents for parking?” Or I could ponder the writing on the walls: “What if Rosa Parks drove a car?”
These philosophers, poets, musicians and anthropologists (those in particular make the best employees of this parking lot, says owner Chris) are not your typical parking lot attendants. And the bottom line is that Eckman’s film isn’t, in essence, about parking. Her documentary is about life.
Yes, it is the existential piece. In this day and age, when we are going through tough economic times, when jobs are scarce, the division between those who can afford a Ferrari (what a blasphemy to have a sports car that is an automatic) or that new Prius covered with hemp stickers is less than we think.
Perhaps after watching this movie we can ask ourselves a question: What is it all about? Is the customer always right even at a cost of that customer being a sanctimonious jerk? Can we stop judging the book by its cover and let Larry the accountant be himself instead of a platitude?
Can we simply start saying thank you and please, and honor and respect the barista that serves our daily coffee or the dude who dispenses our parking ticket? Can we see the person behind a job and value his humanity? Can we bring civility back?
Chris, the owner, says that “this is just a parking lot.” Yet, “The Parking Lot Movie” is so much more. It isn’t just about fitting my Hummer into that compact parking space. It is a slice of life. It isn’t just about “Seeing my world in Black and White,” as attendant Mark sings.
Yes, “God will hand out the Sword of Justice,” as noted in the closing credits. And songwriter Mark ought to know. He’s in law school now to make sure that in the future, if we smash the gates of civility and stop respecting people for their basic work, be it parking or dishwashing, we will pay up. Not just $12 for a day after 5 p.m. But pay up with karma.
Hopefully Eckman’s documentary can, in the words of one parking attendant, “teach us how to be human beings” and revive the engines of our parked (for too long) “civility” into a high gear of human kindness. Perhaps even Mr. Jefferson would find it at least promising.
Astrid Ambroziak is a writer, philosopher and SUV driver living in Los Angeles. She can be reached at astrid@parkingtoday.com.

Article Abstract from December, 2010




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