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Parallel parking in a parallel universe

It was fun running into Deb Mueller last week, even though I almost did it literally.

At first, I didn’t know it was Deb. But that should have made any difference, since I try not to run over strangers as hard as I try not to flatten friends. Besides, honestly, if I’d smushed Deb, it wouldn’t have been my fault. Instead, the blame for Deb’s near-brush with death lies directly on my lame driver’s ed class and the Empire State’s driver’s license manual of 1963.

Here’s last week’s scene: It’s early evening. I was in my car, on Broadway, in front of the Owl’s Nest, parking my car. Or more specifically, I was TRYING to park my car. Or most specifically, I was trying to parallel park it.

Does that mean I can’t parallel park?

That simple question has a rather complicated answer. The easiest way to explain it is to say I both can and can’t parallel park.

For decades I parallel parked perfectly. Then of late (“late” being the last 15 years or so) it’s been a hit-or-miss affair. Sometimes I can, other times I can’t, and when I can’t, I don’t know why. Of course, like everything else, I’ve got a theory about it.

An anemic-blooded American kid

When I was a kid, the last thing I cared about was driving a car. Yeah, I know — that was every red-blooded American kid’s dream … but not mine. I think it was the same reason the Inca’s never invented the wheel: Since they had no draft animals but had slaves galore, they didn’t need it. And I didn’t need a car, or even access to one. Everything I wanted was within walking or biking distance: the town, the woods, the swimming places …

To me, driving was more a hassle than a convenience, especially since I’d have to take tests to be legally allowed to do it. But I had a bigger hassle at home — my mother.

According to my mother, driving was an essential skill everyone needed. Period. And there was as much negotiating with her as there was with Genghis Khan, and company. But after my many childhood skirmishes with my mother, while I knew frontal attacks were futile, I’d figured out an effective strategy: If after token resistance I made a partial concession to her, it’d keep her off my slouching back … at least for a while.

The way this shook out with the driving shtuss was I got my learner’s permit and went for drives under my mother’s draconian direction and became a competent driver. What I did not become was a license holder. I went through three driver’s permits before my mother finally put the hammer down and insisted I get a license … just in case. “Just in case” to my mother was followed by unstated morbid statements like if I have a heart attack, or if a gas line blows up, or if the Russians bomb Plattsburgh. Though where, and how, I’d drive under those circumstances eluded me then, and since.

Anyhow, if I was going to get a license, then I had to take driver’s ed, since it’d lower my insurance rates and would allow me to get a senior operator’s license when I was 17. It would also teach me how to master the bane of my driving existence — parallel parking. Or so I hoped. But it, like almost all my adolescent hopes, was all in vain.

For one thing, the course lasted only half a semester. For another, we drove only two days a week. And since there were four kids in the car (and a jittery driver’s ed teacher), each kid probably got to drive no more than 15 minutes a week. And while we did parallel park now and then, the teacher was smart enough to have us do it not between two cars, but in back of one car that had no cars behind it for at least a half-mile. The result was that at the end of the course I was as skilled a parallel parker as I was a lion tamer.

Success … and failure

But then something amazing happened. I actually looked in the booklet the state prints for people going for driver’s licenses. And in it — Oh, wonder of wonder! — were the instructions for parallel parking, complete with diagrams. I followed the instructions step by step, and — Holy Moly! — they worked perfectly. And thus my parallel parking was flawless, even in tight spots, for at least the next 40 years.

But then, as I said, about 15 years ago, my parallel parking skills became erratic. Yeah, sometimes I parked perfectly, even between cars with little spare space between them. Other times, I ended up either on the curb or 4 feet from it.

I talked to a bunch of people about it, and while everyone had some sort of theory why things had changed, no one they knew why. Of course, I also checked the internet, where theories abounded. But because there were so many theories and they were all so different, I finally accepted that maybe no one knew. Parallel parking had become one more of Life’s Great Mysteries, like how they built the pyramids, what caused the collapse of the Aztecs, and why I’ve bought probably 800 cans of WD-40 but at any time I can find only one.

Caution on The Great White Way

And what does any of this have to do with Deb Mueller?

I was getting to that. Don’t rush a beautiful experience, OK?

Back in front of the Owl’s Nest, I pull up next to a car, getting ready to parallel park … for the second time. I tried once already, in front of the Post Office Pharmacy and almost ended up clipping the front window. But there was room a-plenty behind this second car, so I was figured getting in was a lead pipe cinch.

I checked my rear-view mirror to see if anyone was walking behind me. All clear.

Then as I put it in reverse, I saw a hooded figure on the sidewalk in front of me, headed toward me. I stayed where I was. When the person walked past my side window, I waited to back up until I saw them in either my rear view or side mirrors. But neither happened.

Was that person wearing not a parka with a hood, but an Invisibility Cloak of legend?

I checked the mirrors again. Still no person.

Finally, I swiveled in my seat and saw the person standing on the sidewalk, out of my mirrors’ view.

The person motioned for me to back up, which I did, to within maybe 2 feet of the curb — an unqualified success, in other words.

When I got out of the car, I saw the hooded figure was not a sorceress but the much-aforementioned Deb Mueller.

We said our hellos, and then I said, “Ya know, I saw you standing there and was waiting for you to cross the street.”

“Well,” she said, “I saw it was you, so I waited till you finished backing up before I crossed.”

“Why?” I said. “I’m a careful driver. I wouldn’t make a mistake like backing into someone.”

“I read your column,” she said. “I see how much you write about making mistakes. I just didn’t want to star in one that involved you and a car.”

It was a funny line, and we had a laugh over it. But later, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.

But don’t get the wrong. What bugged me wasn’t that she’d said it … but that I hadn’t said it first.