How to Park a Car
I had this parking spot on South Broad between the Popeye’s and the RiteAid. It was on a small stretch of curb in between the two store driveways, and the signage wasn’t exactly clear. If you really pushed, I’d say the signs indicated no parking. The first time I took a chance, I didn’t get a ticket. No ticket the second time either. I parked in that spot a few times a week without a problem.
This went on for a couple years. Other people arrived late to meetings or rehearsals, breathing heavy and saying, “I couldn’t find parking.” I shrugged and said, “I have this secret spot.”
It was one more thing I could add to the chip on my shoulder about being a native Philadelphian watching newcomers criticize Eagles fandom and our accents. Nobody cared to get advice from me, but I gave it out freely so no one would forget that I was here first. Get Steve’s Prince of Steaks instead of Pat’s or Geno’s. For pizza you want to get Allegro’s on 40th. The best soft pretzels are only sold out of shopping carts on the street. Parking you have to figure out where the loopholes are.
One day I had some business in Center City. I drove to Broad, parked in my spot, went off, and came back. My car was gone.
I felt as if a boyfriend of ten years had forgotten my birthday. I wanted to call up the Philadelphia Parking Authority and say, “Hey, it’s me. What happened?” I thought we had a deal.
Okay. I had to get my Kia back. I knew the PPA tow lot was near Columbus, so I looked up the cross streets and got the bus down to Oregon Ave. I stood in a long line of other unfortunate people waiting to retrieve their cars. I stepped up to the window and they looked up my information.
My car wasn’t there. It had been taken to a tow place across the city at 39th and Girard.
I decided that I knew where I was going and I would make my way there without looking up a specific bus route. I knew where 39th and Girard was. I’d just get a bus going west, and when I got into the thirties I would get off and catch a bus going north. It wasn’t that complicated.
I went to the bus stop at the corner and got on the first Septa bus that came along. It was pretty empty, and I got a window seat in the solid middle of the bus. At the next couple stops a good number of people got on, and someone took the seat next to me. I had to move my backpack. I had an enormous backpack, since I’d expected to only have to be on foot for a few blocks that day. It was as stuffed as a bag carried by a short-in-stature high school junior who’s taking five Advanced Placement courses and when jostled from behind while traveling from the third floor to the second between class goes head over feet due to the sheer weight on their back and tumbles all the way down the staircase. (Net force is equal to mass times acceleration. Newton’s Second Law.)
I decided to shove my big backpack onto the floor between my seat and the seat in front. I positioned my feet on top of it. The puffy jacket and extended elbows of the person next to me had me pinned to the window.
There’s rules on a Septa bus. You don’t make bodily contact with anyone. If it’s unavoidable and you have to make bodily contact, do not make eye contact at the same time. Avert your eyes, stare out the window, and pretend you are piloting a plane solo through a cumulonimbus cloud.
I kept my head turned, waiting for us to get to a spot westward enough for me to get off. The bus moved down Oregon and passengers continued to crowd on at every stop. It was full now. People stood in the aisle packed in like a New York subway. All of a sudden the bus took a turn south and gained speed. I no longer recognized where we were. Rows of houses disappeared and a gray industrial stretch appeared before us. We weren’t making stops anymore. The driver barreled along, making time like we were in Speed (Sandra Bullock, 1994).
One brain cell on duty in command central pressed a neon button and cleared her throat. Attention! You don’t know where this is going and you’re getting lost. You need to get off the bus.
Another brain cell popped up from a ball pit, holding a Mountain Dew Big Gulp. Let’s just see where it goes! Why not? Stay on the bus! You’ll magically get to your destination!
For ten minutes the brain cells argued. “She needs to get off! You’re getting hoagie juice on my blazer!” “You’re boring! Everything will work out! Did you know your hand is bigger than your face?”
I was frozen in my seat. I didn’t recognize anything, but I kept waiting to see if I would recognize something soon. Should I go in my bag for my phone to figure it out? This was not an easy proposition. Unearthing the phone from the deep pocket in my bag would be a process. I would have to disturb the equilibrium with my neighbor. Moving my body would be acknowledging that our bodies were in fact touching, and continuing to shuffle around as I went into my bag would be stretching that acknowledgement out to an uncomfortable length of time. I’d have to do a real dive to unzip the bag, and my elbows would poke into my seatmate. Plus, the bag was so full that it would take some unpacking to get to the phone. On top was my jacket, stuffed in, and it would expand to eight times its size once removed from the bag. Under the jacket was a book, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. I didn’t want to take that out and hold it in full view of other passengers. They’d think I was a real nerd.
There were also binders sharpied with exclamation points, a laptop case, notebooks, a tupperware with the shell of a hard boiled egg, and a water bottle. I couldn’t do it. I stared out the window and accepted the journey I was on. The second brain cell, satisfied, dove back into the ball pit.
We traveled another ten minutes before I knew we were truly approaching the end of the world. It was Erin Brockovich territory (Julia Roberts, 2000). Blank gray towers belching smoke, intermittent trash dumps, empty lots parked with derelict trucks. The place was a wasteland. I couldn’t believe we were in a part of the city I didn’t recognize. Why had they kept this from me? Were we even in Philly anymore? Had the bus time traveled? I made a move. I pulled the bell to get off.
Getting off the bus with a full backpack is a misery beyond making physical contact with your seatmate. I said “Excuse me,” to my neighbor, reached down to extract the bag from between the seats, and hauled it up. I couldn’t avoid hitting three people with it as I strapped it to my body. Then I took two minutes to make my way to the front, bumping everyone with the bag as I went. The bus was so full and the process took so long that the entire bus of people were watching by the time I stepped off the bus and saw the building in front of me, the only building for miles, which they must have assumed was the reason I got off with my enormous bag. I looked up at the sign. It was a strip club.
The bus zoomed off. I stood on the corner in front of the strip club and looked around. Highway, desolation, a pile of junk cars across the street. I had the elbow space now to go into my bag and get my phone out to figure out where the hell I was. I opened up the web browser. It was 2015. Rideshare apps had been available for a couple years, but I didn't have any on my phone. At the time, I just didn't believe in Uber.
I figured I would google a taxi company and get a cab. I looked up a place and called. On the second ring, my phone died.
Okay. I looked up and down the road. Would I hitchhike? Was I someone who could successfully complete a hitchhike? I could try. What do you do, I wondered. Do you just kind of flop your arm out and rotate your wrist a little? Do you show a little ankle like she did in It Happened One Night? (Claudette Colbert, 1934).
I approached the edge of the road and put a hand out in a half-hearted wave. Pardon me. Seem to have lost my way. The cars were all going seventy because no one else wanted to be on this stretch of road either. The sky, ground, air, metalwork, trash, fencing was gray. It was the most depressing place I’d ever been.
Okay. I would walk.
Twelve summers I’d worked at outdoor camps leading kids through the woods. I tried to remember what we’d taught them. Didn’t we say moss grew on the north side of trees? That’s how you could tell which way you were going? There were no trees here, though. I’d completely bullshitted those children. I had no survival skills. I couldn’t orient myself out of an unknown location. I knew the sun sets in the west, but right now it was cloudy.
I took a guess at which way was north. I started walking.
On both sides of the street were a stretch of junkyards straight out of Stephen King. Lot after lot of rusty vehicle carcasses. Scrap heaps, tire stacks, barbed wire fences protecting it all. No one had been here since the 70s. Was this the Apocalypse? I looked through every fence, expecting a tough broad in a canvas jumpsuit to hear me snooping around and come out to investigate, cigarette in mouth, one hand holding a bottle of Wild Turkey and the other a half-eaten sandwich (Dietz and Watson baloney, Stroehmann white bread, Hellman’s). There was no one.
I walked and walked and walked. More barbed wire, tires, no people in sight. This would be the perfect murder. No one would find my body parts. They’d go in that stack of tires over there. It was getting dark. My phone was dead. Nobody knew where I was.
The most frustrating part was that I knew exactly the conversations my family and friends would have if I died. “Of course her car was towed, she didn’t ask for directions, and her phone wasn’t charged. Are we sad? Yeah. Yeah. We are. We are. Are we surprised? No. No. No, no.”
Everyone would be so focused on the circumstances of the death that I’d be cheated out of them remembering my Halloween costume collection and my signature vodka jello cake. It wasn’t fair.
I walked on. Woods popped up to my left. I saw a human, walking his dog, but my brain was fixated now and I ignored him. Just gotta walk north. I was in a neighborhood again, with rows of houses, and it threw me off. Was I still going the right direction? Streetlights buzzed to life above me and lights switched on from living room windows. I wandered like a seven year old refusing to come home for dinner. By the time I tumbled onto Baltimore Avenue, blinking and disoriented, I’d been lost for three hours.
A cab came by and I grabbed it. They drove me to the tow place at 39th and Girard. I walked in, relieved, and half fell across the counter. The guy shook his head. Cash only.
Okay. I went to the corner store across the street, got two hundred and fifty bucks out of the ATM, and returned to the window. He gave me a handwritten receipt, pointed, and hit the button to roll up the metal grate. There it was. I got in my car and sat in it.
How embarrassing. I was supposed to be a local. I couldn’t tell anybody about this ever.
I drove to Allegro’s Pizza on 40th, got two slices of plain, and ate them in the car. After that, I stopped parking in my secret spot. Do I have a new one? Come on. You think I would tell you where it was if I did?