Seven deadly sins: Survival of the earliest

Competing for grades is one thing. But facing off for parking spaces means all-out war


Lori Gottlieb
October 16, 1998 9:39PM (UTC)

Every war has its truce, and it was during the Santa Monica College parking war truce that I met my friend Ruth.

The problem, which began when Lot D closed, was simple: too many cars and
not enough spaces. At first, students complained to the administration: We
circle around the lot and garage for half an hour, the side streets have restricted
parking, it's impossible to get to class on time. So the administration came
up with an ingenious solution: Leave home earlier. The students left earlier,
then went back to the administration: We're leaving earlier, but so is everyone
else, and unless you get there by 7:30 a.m., you'll never find a space. So the
administration had another brilliant idea: Take the bus. Now, if you've ever
lived in Los Angeles, you know that waiting at a bus stop is like waiting for Godot. You see buses on the street, but they never actually stop to pick people up. So the students went back again, but this time, instead of offering another half-baked solution, the administration issued a terse statement: "It is the sole responsibility of each student to arrive at class in a timely
manner." Clearly, negotiations had failed. This meant war.

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The war, however, turned out to be students vs. each other. While the administrators pulled into their wide, cordoned-off spaces
marked "Staff parking. All violators will be towed at owner's expense,"
students in honking Civics and Tercels darted around lanes like cowboys from
the Wild West. It was mayhem out there, every driver for him- or herself, and the enmity quickly became personal. You got to know your adversaries by the music they blasted or the bumper stickers on their cars. Spice Girls or Sarah
McLachlan, Jesus fish or Darwin fish, Sigma Chi or Phi Delt, pro-choice or
pro-life, animal preservationist or fur lover -- from causes large to small,
it was all ammunition to be hurled as insults in retaliation for a stolen
space.

But one car, in particular, always arrived at exactly the same time mine did. The car was an obnoxious, fire-engine red BMW, with those
stupid-looking graduation tassels dangling from the rear-view mirror and an
"Impeach Clinton" sticker superimposed over a faded "Clinton/Gore '96" sticker
next to another one proclaiming, "It's a woman's prerogative to change her
mind." This was Ruth's car.

In the campus parking wars, Ruth and I were like France and England. We
vehemently hated each other, but we couldn't quite figure out why. It
probably had something to do with the way we waged our battles.

The first tactic both of us employed was the stakeout. Most classes end
10 minutes before the hour, so at exactly 2:50, we'd position our cars
next to the staircase from which departing students would emerge, then follow
them to their cars. This worked well for a few days, but trouble began when
other cars caught on and followed suit. So Ruth and I began waiting in
specific sections of the garage instead of near the staircase. Like cats peeing
on their territory, we'd block both lanes so that no one could get by; but it
didn't take long for the other cars to catch on to this strategy as well, so
when we'd arrive at 2:50, our respective territories would already be
occupied. Now Ruth and I were vying for the same spots. It was time to move
on to Plan B.

I regrouped over a weekend, and on Monday, I pulled in at 2:45, ambushing
Ruth when she arrived at 2:50. Ruth shot back on Tuesday, her Beemer already
sprawled out in my section at 2:44. On Wednesday, I got there at 2:40 and
took over Ruth's favorite stakeout, Section 3F. We kept trying to one-up
each other until Friday, when a black Pathfinder parked crookedly in a
"compact only" space so that the one next to it was unusable. Then the
Pathfinder's friend, a blue Jetta, showed up, and the Pathfinder parked evenly
between the lines, allowing the Jetta to pull into the now viable adjoining
space. Alliances like this began cropping up quickly, but Ruth and I were too
proud to team up. We couldn't imagine fraternizing with the enemy.

The final showdown came on Monday. I pulled into the garage at 2:30, but when
Ruth's Beemer wasn't camped out in 3F, I searched the other levels, then the
outside lot, and finally found the red monstrosity double-parked on the street
with its hazard lights flashing. Ruth was on the sidewalk, soliciting
students with, "Hi, I'll give you five bucks if you'll let me drive you to
your car, five bucks, anyone?" Students swarmed her, like beggars in a third-world country waiting outside the airport for wealthy Americans. I couldn't
let her get away with this. I swerved around, zoomed back into the garage and
drove up the ramps the wrong direction in an attempt to beat Ruth to the
punch. It was a kamikaze mission: I was willing to risk my life for
honor alone.

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As Ruth and her passenger arrived at the girl's car, I tried to get between
them, but someone beat me to it. It was a white Geo, tiny enough to squeeze
by me. Just as the girl pulled out, three guys jumped out of the Geo,
blocking Ruth and guiding the Geo driver into the pilfered space. Then I saw
it happening all around me: Little armies of people were jumping out of cars,
acting as human shields, helping their friends steal spaces. Fights broke out
and death threats were made. I felt like I was trapped in "Lord of the Flies":
The administration left us in this isolated parking garage, and our dark sides
had emerged.

After that, Ruth's not getting the space felt like a Pyrrhic victory. I
decided to drop out of the parking wars, and I guess Ruth did too. The next
day, I pulled into the lot at 2:55, expecting to circle around for at least
20 minutes. But up on level 3, I saw Ruth's parked Beemer, and in the
space next to it sat Ruth in a portable chair, reading a book. When my car
approached, she folded her chair, held up two fingers in the universal peace
sign and signaled me into the saved space. "Bitch!" someone yelled before
screeching around the corner. I got out of the car and faced the enemy. "I
really hated you," I admitted. "I hated you more," Ruth smiled. Dodging
cars, we headed for the stairs. A guy with a Mohawk rolled down his window
and yelled, "You can't save spaces like that! You *!*&%!" Then he gave us
the finger and sped away. His bumper sticker read, "Use words, not
violence."


Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb's new book, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," an L.A. Times best seller, has been optioned for film by Martin Scorsese. She is a first-year medical student at Stanford.

MORE FROM Lori Gottlieb

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