The Parking Lot
by Denis Cliford © 2004

 

A new ‘58 Buick raced into the lot. A good omen—fast drivers were usually good tippers. With the flourish of a traffic cop in Florence, I waved the car up to Rob. With a yet more courtly wave, he motioned the driver to the one vacant slot near the entrance. “We’ve been saving this place for you all day,” Rob grinned, as he deciphered the license plate’s county code. “We heard you were coming. You’re the people from Rochester.”

The driver laughed, as drivers usually did to Rob’s opening gambits. “Welcome to the Enchanted Woods,” Rob greeted, his tanned face exuding youthful friendliness. “Would you like a bumper sign on your car sir?”

“A what?”

“A bumper sign!” Rob proudly displayed the green and yellow cardboard sign emblazoned with the Wood’s name.

The man guffawed. “You put one of those signs on my car and I’ll anathematize you.”

“You’ll what?”

The man was out of the car, leading his family towards the admission gate, before he hollered back “Anathematize you!”

It was the first time I’d seen someone handle Rob. Of course sometimes a stiff simply ignored him, refusing to fork over a tip no matter what his ploys. And occasionally others said no, they didn’t want a sign. At this, Rob might smile and reply, “I don’t have one on my car, either.” But this guy bested Rob at his own game. 

“Wasn’t he great!” Rob exclaimed with delight. “What’s anathematize?”

“A fancy word for curse—like a witch’s curse.”

“Anathematize ... a-nath-e-ma-tize,” he memorized. He loved ornate words. “Ain’t people strange,” he chuckled.

It was almost five. Traffic had slowed. Leaning against a car, Rob and I basked in late afternoon sun. Across the narrow upstate New York highway were the ruins of a glamorous 20’s hotel. Just below that was the lake. On the other side of the shimmering water rose gentle mountains, little more than hills.

I’d been working in the lot for three weeks. Our job was to direct cars to orderly parking, and wire a sign to each bumper. Paid the minimum wage ($l.05 per hour), we were permitted to take tips. A lot of tips, Rob was educating me, could be made, if you hustled.

When I’d been assigned to work with Rob, I worried that he might be superior, aloof. I hardly knew him, and he was twenty, a year older than me. He was undoubtedly cool, lithe and athletic, six feet tall, with blond hair, slate blue eyes, and an aura of movie-star handsome. But he was friendly from the start, showing me how to wire signs on different bumpers, and instructing me on the art of extracting tips, an art he was certainly gifted in. “Hey,” he laughed, “Why shouldn’t I live like a prince? I am one.”

Me, I didn’t know what I was. When a grownup asked, “What are you going to do with your English degree?” I’d sometimes quip, “Oh, become a minor poet.” But bravado didn’t alter my fear that earning a living meant becoming a slave in a necktie. My father, like most fathers I knew, did something he didn’t like much in an office, and was often grumpy at home. It was distressingly easy to list what I would not do—just about everything. Business was obviously out. I’d learned that by reading, from The Organization Man to Sinclair Lewis, as well as from seeing all those weary men in my suburban hometown sag home from commuter buses. Law? Mouthpiece for corporations or ambulance chaser? Advertising? Spend my life making up lies about soap?

I could see only one out—become an English professor. I felt no calling to teach, and was certainly no scholar, but I’d have to get a Ph.D. Some future. In a college honors class, a professor queried me whether a poem was properly classifiable as “gothic” or “romantic.” “What difference does that make?” I snarled back. “I want to know if it’s any good.” He peered disdainfully at me, then warned, “You’re going to have to know how to make this kind of distinction when you get to graduate school.” Great—after years of doctoral drudgery, I could write trivial articles and grub for tenure, angling for security and summers off. In Old Moose, the remote Adirondack town where my parents had inherited a funky summer cabin, unfocused dreamers angled for work on the county highway crew: decent pay, security, an undemanding job. Maybe, I’d joke to my English major friends, I should try for the highway crew myself, with the proviso that I got summers off.

I had to come up with something.  No career meant money broke you. Since high school, my demons tormented me that I’d fail, ending up an alcoholic like Uncle Michael.

I’d begun my career search by caddying for a few summers, then started at the Enchanted Woods as a part-time toilet cleaner and had ascended to posing as a costumed Robin Hood. Now I’d risen to parking lot attendant. Daily, hundreds of cars arrived at the wide macadam lot. Rob and I alternated making our pitch. Rob’s standard opening was a welcome oozing charm. The driver would nod back greetings and Rob would pounce “Would you like a bumper sign on your car, sir?” His tone shifted, still friendly, but simultaneously signaling that the sign would cost.

“Ah ... yeah ... I  guess … How much?”

“There’s no charge. You can tip if you like.”

“Oh sure.” Expansive now that it was only going to cost a quarter. “Slap one on.”

In those Eisenhower years, most drivers truly wanted a sign—as a souvenir, or for the kids, or, most of all, to show their neighbors that they’d had a real vacation, gone somewhere. What people want, Rob taught me, they’ll pay for—maybe reluctantly, but pay they will.  With an immigrant’s vitality, he strove to make sure that no one who took a sign escaped paying. After convincing our boss to buy us uniforms, he located white pants with inordinately deep front pockets, which we loaded with nickels at the start of the day. When we ran to an incoming car, we sounded like a moving cash register. “Gets ‘em thinking,” he smiled, his intense eyes narrowing in appreciation of his cunning. For prospects who wavered, he had a ready supply of encouraging lines. The sign was useless? “Oh no, it keeps the bugs off your bumper.” The wires could harm the car? “Oh no, we use special anti-rust resistant wires.” His manner was so reassuring that I never heard anyone catch the literal meaning of that phrase.

Occasionally, during slow periods, we’d both work the next car, perhaps offering a serenade, complete with mock Al Jolson gestures, to accompany the music that broadcast from the park’s loudspeakers (I still know all the lyrics to “Never Smile at a Crocodile”). Or, if I seemed to be having trouble extracting money, he’d saunter by, ostentatiously flipping a half-dollar, and calling out, “Half a buck tip on that last one.”

Before I returned to college that Fall, my father had a rare talk with me. Worried about my future, he queried if I was drifting, and wasn’t preparing myself for what I called “the hard cruel world.”  I joked that I wanted to find a career offering the parking lot’s delights: working without supervision, outside in summer sun (when it rained, we loafed, sheltered inside the park), meeting people, making enough money so I was functionally rich, and having someone like Rob to talk with.

The next summer, Rob and I resumed our dialogue. Among our favorite topics was the wisdom we derived from the parking lot. “People are either sports or stiffs,” Rob declared. “Sports ... they know how to live. Big. They have fun. They tip. Now your stiffs—look at ‘em. Those stupid sun hats and their mousy little faces. Held in. And cheap! Why they won’t even pay a measly quarter for the bumper sign they want ... You know,” he mused, “I don’t think sports have more money than stiffs. They got spirit. Stiffs are afraid. They expect life will  go wrong and get them, so it does. They’ll never have enough money to have any fun.”

What about people who didn’t want a sign, I asked. We agreed that they too could be divided into sports and stiffs (also dubbed “Zorros” by Rob). The few representatives of the rich we encountered were surely stiffs. They’d peer warily from their Imperial or Cadillac, as if they’d arrived for a tour of Harlem, and disdain anything as vulgar as a bumper sign. Their groomed children, freed from boarding camp for a day, seemed as muffled and joyless as their parents. On the other hand, sports with taste simply didn’t want a sign, no flaw in itself. A few sports even tossed us tips in exchange for keeping a sign off their bumpers. But whether they wanted a sign or not, sports laughed with us, enjoying life rather than regarding it as threatening.

Stiffs were more than moral symbols; they were threats to our prosperity, so we enforced our morality.  Rob had long ago devised effective counters for most feints a stiff might try.

Stiff, “A sign? Yeah, the kids might like it.”

Rob, “The kids gonna pay for it?”

Or:  Stiff, “A sign? Sure, a little free advertising, huh?”

Rob, “Free? Who said anything about free?”

If a driver simply said “Yeah, put the sign on,” our craft was waking him to his obligation to tip. Often, all it took was a little forcefulness.

“There you go sir,” Rob announced loudly. “The sign is on your car.”

“Oh ... ah ... (fake surprise) ... is there a charge?”

“No, but you can tip ... “

If a stiff didn’t respond to Rob’s voice or other initial prods, he would escalate, looming by the driver’s door, barring easy escape. Rob’s arms were folded; his eyes, radiating expectancy, bored into the driver’s face. Most stiffs cracked under those pressures.

Occasionally a persistent stiff ignored all of Rob’s efforts, determinedly avoiding his glare, and slithered away. “Arg!” Rob might scream, dropping his handful of signs and wires, clutching his stomach, moaning, staggering, falling to his knees, to the astonished amusement of arriving customers. “Zorro got me! Stabbed me through the heart. I’m dying ... dying ... no money ... no money for the kids’ food.”

Even during the summers, I sometimes questioned our parking lot morality. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the High Art, Literature Division, apparently believed in by the few college teachers I admired. Wasn’t it serious attention to literary and moral complexity that was going to free me? Was our code mere hedonism, without depth? Once I broached these questions to Rob. He laughed, slapped my back and exclaimed, “Ah, it’s all part of the rich pageantry of life.”

I learned my odd trade well, but Rob remained the master. We’d keep rough score during the day of what we were making, reporting how we’d done on the latest cars. Slowly, inevitably, he’d pull ahead, picking up a half-dollar to my twenty cents, a quarter to my nothing. I can’t recall a single day I was sure I made more money than he did.

Not that it mattered. I was making hundreds a week, freeing me from the cramped finances of a scholarship student. And Rob and I had become friends. I was intrigued with his certainties, so different from the witty pessimism I lived with in college. (My roommate would mutter, while grinding out another paper, “Growing up is giving up.”) “First,” Rob proclaimed, “you gotta have money. No money, no freedom. Man, if I was back in Poland, we’d all be fighting over potatoes.”

He was equally sure about love. “When I fall in love and get married, that’s it.” This from a man who courted most of the beauties in the North Country, often several simultaneously.

“How about messing around?” I provoked.

“Ah ... Who can tell?” he conceded. “You know how we men are,” he winked, “animals ... But when you’re married, it’s family.” As always, he spoke of family as sacred, his tone implying he’d kill to protect his parents, older brother or two younger sisters, none of whom he seemed close to.

How could he be so confident, I wondered, that someday he would naturally, truly settle down? I couldn’t imagine him as a station-wagon-driving daddy. The day before he’d suddenly hollered, “We are the mountain people! Free!” and threw up his arms, like a triumphant runner crossing the finish line. But it never occurred to me to risk probing him about his marital certainties. Instead, I asked him what his wife would be like. “She’ll be beautiful and ... I’ll know when I find her. I’ll run the business and she’ll run the house.”

Despite my parking lot riches, when I returned to college my demons resumed their attacks about my future, or lack of it. Surely money wouldn’t always come so easily. Then what? Failure, despair. But then another summer arrived and I returned to the parking lot and smothered my demons with prosperity and adventures. When Arnold Palmer came to town for a golf exhibition, he somehow wound up with Rob, playing pool and drinking at Rob’s cabin until four in the morning. Wen Rob reported a trotting horse race was fixed, it was, at 40 to 1.

Rob was, of course, a ladies man, gifted with the allure of the wicked. When he spoke of the book he was going to write, “Mother’s Big Mistake: I Let My Daughter Work in the Adirondacks,” coeds who worked in the resort hotels sensed with a thrill that he wasn’t kidding.

At an Adirondack boosters’ banquet, a call came from the loudspeaker: “Will the owner of a 1959 Thunderbird, License number YA233 please move it. It is blocking the driveway.” Rob rose, ostentatiously muttered, “Damn!” and succeeded in impressing the waitress who had, until then, been cool to his charms. Rob yanked out his car keys, walked out the front door, doubled back to the bar and waited until the real owner moved the car before returning.

One evening we met two good-looking girls at our favorite bar and made dates for the next night. When the evening arrived, we were both a little weary, and the hotel they worked at was far away, so we decided to skip it. We were sitting in the bar, around 9:30, when I saw the two girls walk in, obviously furious. I nudged Rob. He turned with deliberate slowness as they marched up to us. “Where were you?” he demanded accusingly.

“Where were we? Where were you?”

“We were there,” he proclaimed, “at eight. On the dot!”

I glanced away. The girls were silenced as their anger swirled with confusion, then each spoke.

“You were there?”  “Where?”

“In the main building!”

“We got to the lobby just a couple of minutes after eight.”

“I do not wait,” he informed them.

“Well ... god ... you could have called us ... or warned us.”

Within minutes, Rob had everyone apologizing. He graciously admitted that perhaps he was too demanding, insisting on such punctiliousness.

One evening, talking about our encounters with women, he observed, “You know, right away we start to compete, especially if one’s better looking than the other. We each try to shine, hog attention, and subtly put the other down. Right?” I’d never admitted that, even to myself, but it was true. “That’s stupid,” he went on. “We ain’t in love with them. Why fight? You know what we need?”

“More women?”

“A non-aggression pact!” he explained gleefully. “No more attacks. We help each other. We’ll take turns or something. You start with some girl. I ask her to dance, and instead of trying to steal her, I talk about wonderful you—yes, you are fun and all that, but underneath you’re actually very sensitive, kind, vulnerable.”

Secretly, I was terrified of any woman I was attracted to, and certainly willing to try any ploy that might increase my ability to hide those fears. To my astonishment then, and chagrin now, our pact proved to be rather effective.

Rob speedily won over my mother, usually an Irish skeptic. “How,” she laughed, “can I dislike someone who swaggers in here and says, ‘My basic virtue is sincerity and my basic goal is humility’?” He’d whirl into our kitchen, raise her arm with an easy grace no other twenty year old would dare attempt, let alone pull off, and declare, “Mrs. Corbett, good to see you again. You look wonderful. Yellow suits you.” Or, “You’ve changed your hair.” His praise was always accurate and his warmth genuine. Deftest of all, his mock-courtly style enabled her to feel comfortably included in his play.

“Oh yes,” she told me, “he’s a charmer. You can’t help but like him, but ... I hate to say it ... I don’t think he’ll bear up well.” I paid attention because I’d learned that her evaluations of people were generally acute. “He may make a lot of money—although I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost it all. But when his charm and cunning aren’t enough … “ She shook her head. “I pity the woman he marries. She’s liable to have an alcoholic on her hands.”

I was silent, unable to disagree. I’d heard many stories, some from her, of people who’d been broken by life. Except for a vague concept labeled “character,” I had no vision what it took to make it.

When I graduated from college, the only thing I was sure I wanted to do was work one last summer with Rob. So while most of my friends awaited graduate school or law school, I returned to my land of lakes, sun and pleasures. My father remarked he’d raised the best-educated parking lot attendant in the country.

Rob and I were together almost continuously. Mostly we worked or partied, but occasionally we were quieter, and spoke with some candor. I described how my heart had been stabbed by my college ex-love. Revealing that he was actually a year younger than me, he said he had never been to college, despite the Syracuse U. windbreaker he often wore. He confided that he valued having a friend who was an Ivy League graduate, and a reader, admiring how I struggled through Gide’s Straight Is The Gate at lunchtime. We continued to avoid topics like sex, or our futures. If that troubled Rob, he surely never hinted at it to me. I didn’t even notice what we avoided. 

My last summer was ending. With youthful melancholy I savored the beauty of the Adirondacks, sitting on our boathouse porch, gazing at a lingering sunset, or watching the colors of the lake. In the parking lot late one afternoon I was dreamily transfixed by the elegance of clouds overhead, while the park’s loudspeakers serenaded me with “Faraway Places.” Days drifted by until Labor Day came. Sadly, I acknowledged the end.

Then, as my parents packed to leave, I realized that I had nothing to return to. Why not stay on? Rob was.

We got bartending jobs and living quarters at the Grand Moose Lodge, a magnificent old hotel declining into impoverished decadence. We worked conventions and chased ladies and adventure, often playing high stakes poker with a 300-pound bouncer, woodsmen who got by somehow, and Charlie Coop, who ran a bar in Utica and was found murdered (supposedly by the Mafia) in the bottom of a well that winter. At work, Rob continued my education. Upstairs, in the Lounge, I delivered drinks to a convention of tie-wearing executives, who called in loud voices for “a double shot of Jack Daniels,” or “the best Canadian Whiskey you’ve got.” Downstairs, Rob poured ‘em all cheap blended whiskey. “They can’t tell,” he assured me. Without exception, the men sipped their over-priced booze with apparent delight.

Autumn worked magic. The mountains blazed luminous intensity, leaves of gold, vibrant orange, luscious red, rich magenta, royal purple. The summer vacationers were gone and their cabins closed. Away from the hotel, all human noises ceased. Rob and I discovered a mutual love of wandering. In the woods we spotted deer, raccoons, once a red fox. Walking at the water’s edge, we heard waves lap against docks and the cries of flocks of migrating birds. We didn’t work days, so once we were up and had staggered off the last night’s excesses, we’d usually idle around the lake, perhaps taking out a boat and drifting, both of us silent, listening to the lake sounds and feeling fall winds, with their message of poignancy, gust against our faces.

Winter came early. No more conventions, only the locals digging in for another bout of eking out a living in freezing snow. Time for us to leave, neither of us knowing for what. Rob expressed vague notions of traveling west. I’d go to Manhattan, maybe get into publishing; I’d long admired Maxwell Perkins.

Rob drove me to the highway. Uncomfortable with our feelings upon parting, neither of us spoke until he stopped the car. “Good bye,” his voice trembled. “It’s all been great.” I agreed. Uncharacteristically, he hugged me. We looked directly at each other, held for a few seconds, smiled, and then I got out, promising to be in touch.

Thumb out, I stood hitch hiking, trying to absorb the sights of my last moments free in the woods, and feeling hopeful. So what if I had no career? I could always hustle, or hook up with someone who could. Life would be an adventure.

Years passed. I sent Rob a couple of Christmas cards at his parents’ address, but never heard from him. I only saw him in a recurrent dream. I am—at whatever my current age—back in the North Country, and meet Rob, who hasn’t aged at all. Somehow, we ‘re back working in the parking lot. It’s always a Sunday, our most lucrative day. Together again, we laugh and run in radiant sunshine, pocketing money, free and untroubled.

Then my family had a reunion in Old Moose. I asked around about Rob. Yes, over the past few years he and his family came to his cabin occasionally. Family? Yes, he was married, had four kids, and ran a prosperous restaurant/bar in Syracuse. I called, and was told he was vacationing somewhere near Lake Placid. No, they couldn’t give out a number. They’d pass on my message, if he called. When I drove by his parents’ old cabin, it was closed. Sadly, I conceded we weren’t destined to meet.

My brother and I went out for drinks at the Old Moose Lodge, now in terminal decay, soon to be converted into condominiums. We were busy reminiscing when Rob and an attractive blond woman entered, talking intimately, almost solemnly. His face bore worry-lines, but otherwise he was as fit and handsome as twenty years before. I called to him. He turned, registered astonishment, then whooped with delight, and ran to us. We laughed and hugged, then he introduced his wife, Evelyn. As we launched into the joys of reunion, he surreptitiously slipped a twenty from a huge roll of bills buried in his sweatshirt pocket and paid for a round of drinks.

For the next few days Rob and I lived adult echoes of our youthful friendship. I met his four ebullient children and began to know Evelyn, who was not what I would have predicted. Reflective, a reader, she certainly didn’t appear to be dominated by her husband. Rob and I often stayed up late, trying to sum up the joys, copings and sorrows of two decades. He’d created a prosperous restaurant, where singles, young families, and older working men all co-existed. Now he was restless, pondering moving to Florida, trying for a bigger league. He had never smoked dope (well, once, he admitted), taken acid, felt involved in “the 60’s”, been divorced, or visited what had become my home, California. He wanted to hear about all of it.

Often we talked about our parking lot days, ranging from nostalgia for our wild times to what we now realized we’d given each other. Thanking him for showing me I could hustle, I said I remained impressed that he’d always earned more tips than I had. He laughed with surprise. “You believed that? I thought you were usually making more than me, so I had to exaggerate to keep up.”

Long past midnight, we talked about basics—love, money, family, trust—learning that though we’d lived very different lives, we’d learned many of the same lessons. I described my continuing battles with my demons, and copings with money.  “Yeah, I’ve sure got my demons,” he revealed. “And money ... money’s only part of it,” he spoke softly, and I knew he was talking to himself as much as to me. Then he looked directly at me, and I felt a trust we’d never known was possible during our summers together. “Evelyn ... we’ve had hard times. Some very hard times. Something happens to her when she has a kid. After ... after each one, she sort of broke down. Last time she had to stay in a  ... hospital ... for a few months … God!” he laughed “Me, the king sport, with three kids and a new baby, scurrying around the house, cooking dinner, changing diapers, hiring baby-sitters, and visiting Evelyn,... hoping ... waiting. It was rough.”

“She’s O.K. now?”

“Yeah, she’s fine.” A fondness came to his eyes. “She’s tough.”

“Did you ever think of splitting up?”

“No  ... uh ... well ... yeah, a couple of times. She has too. I haven’t always been an angel,” he chuckled. “I have weak flesh. But abandon my kids? Never ... No.” He sighed. “I used to get afraid - what happens if she never gets any better? A martyr I ain’t. Nah, I knew what I had to do.” He shook his head. “It’s been real bad at times ... but I still love Evelyn. And I sure love my kids.”

I puzzled silently over the mysteries of connection and continuance, then touched his hand. “That makes you lucky,” I told him.

“Lucky?” he challenged, bemused at the inadequacy of applying that word to his life, then suddenly he laughed. “Yeah,” he said, grinning to include me, once again, in his world. “I’ve always been lucky.”

[1991]