The Old Man And The Space

A memoir of four years of night classes at Columbia College, published in the literary journal “South Loop Review.”

The Old Man And The Space

He was an Old Man who drove alone in a truck to the South Loop, and he had gone eighty-four days now without paying to park. He could pay to park, but he did not like to. He could, if he had money, give some to the Greek, who would let him put his car in a warm stall. He had no money to give the Greek, who had many parking spaces. Once the Greek would have given him a space for much fewer dollars, but times had changed. The Old Man had not changed with the times.

He knew the tricks, and he knew the road, and he knew the wind and the rain and the snow. All of these made up for him being old and poor. He knew to creep along slowly. The younger men would zoom around the blocks looking, but the Old Man had learned patience. He knew that if you idled your truck at the end of a block and watched carefully, and you were ready always, you could spot a driver preparing to remove their car. Then you would rapidly accelerate to the spot and reserve it by illuminating your blinker. It was yours then, and no one could steal it from you. When he was younger, the Old Man would fight mightily for a space. These times were gone.

He cruised slowly. He looked with his sharp eyes for exhaust from a tailpipe or a head in a driving seat. It was a slow day for parking. He had his radio, and wished he could listen to the Bulls of Chicago, or the great Gordon Liddy. The tall buildings blocked the sounds from his radio. The Old Man thought, “It does not matter. I have been without a radio before.”

He cruised still. He had a pocketful of quarters, but he wanted not to use them. They were for his dinner if he could park free. He was growing hungry, and thought about a cold soda and a bag of Ruffles. He wished he could have something more. ”Do not wish,” thought the Old Man, “it is useless to wish for things you cannot have. If there are to be no Ruffles, I will make do.”

He thought about the boy and wished he was there. He could jump from the truck and run ahead. He would use his body to save the space, because the boy was young and strong. The boy was learning the tricks. He could already spot an expired meter much ahead, and understand that this meant an impending ticket and therefore a driver returning soon. He knew the special restriction hours, and that you could park with ease in front of the Wabash building if you arrived just before nine a.m. He understood why the Old Man did not like to give his money to the Greek, even though the Greek and the Old Man had been friends for many years.

The Old Man spotted a space and surged his truck forward, but found a hydrant. All parkers hated hydrants, as they ruined a good space. If you parked where a hydrant was, the nasty metermaid would come and put a slip on your car that meant you had to pay the State many times the amount the Greek would ask. The Old Man hated the tickets, and felt they were unfair and restrictive on the few men who still bravely drove their cars to the Loop.

The Old Man had been driving around searching for a space to park in for over twenty minutes. He wished again that his radio was not blocked by the buildings. “If I had a bigger antenna,” he thought, “I could listen to the great Michael Jordan, who is going to drop fifty on the Jazz of Utah tonight.” Then he reproached himself for his wishful thinking.

The Old Man found that he had gone around without paying attention, and thought, “If I had some food, I could pay attention and not miss my space. When it comes, I must have my strength.”

He rummaged in his truck and found some old Doritos in the glove box. He ate the Doritos and wished that he had some dip. If he had known it would take so long, he might have stopped on the way down for some dip and perhaps a Pepsi. Still, the Doritos gave him strength to keep looking.

He was not paying attention and thinking about when he was younger and parking was easy, because the Greek did not charge so much. A car surged out of its space perhaps fifteen feet in front of him and he quickly put on his blinker, to tell the other parkers that this was his space. Some of them honked angrily as they passed, but the Old Man forgave them. He had once been young and wild, not understanding that patience was important to parking.

The car, a Tracker, finally slipped loose its space and he could see it for the first time. It was wide but short, and the Old Man wondered if his truck would fit. It was a magnificent space, glistening with oil and on a meter that stopped at six o’clock. The Old Man paused to give thanks for the magnificent space and to ask the Virgin for the skill to land his truck in this space that seemed short.

The Old Man lined up his back bumper with the back bumper of the Sunbird in front of his space. He cut his wheel sharply starboard and backed up gently, until he reached an angle of forty-five degrees to the curb. He spun his wheel back right all the way to port. He backed a bit more and his tires bumped the curb. The space was not so wide as it had looked. He pulled out of the space, and paused to look carefully at the car behind him, a beautiful Buick LeSabre. It was white, which would help. He could watch his back-up ligI1ts and when they came into focus on the Buick’s bumper, he was as close as he could be.

He lined up the bumpers again, and again cut the wheel to starboard. He watched carefully his lights on the Buick as they slowly came into focus. He bumped the curb, having concentrated so wholly on the lights that he forgot to spin the wheel back to port.  He pulled out again, saying, “I must pay better attention, and park well and true and honorably. I will say three Hail Marys and an Our Father each day for three days if I can get into this space.”

He settled himself and prepared the wheel. He began to back up again and a taxicab pulled up close behind him and honked. The Old Man waved angrily and pointed at the space and his blinker. He hated taxicabs. They were discourteous and did not understand what it was to drive well and true and honorably. The taxicab continued to honk as it pulled around him. The Old Man ignored it. Courtesy need not be shown those who do not show it to you.

He backed slowly into the space and cut the wheel perfectly. He was aligned perfectly to slide into the space. The front bumper of his car struck the Sunbird. The space the Old Man had sought and sweated over for thirty minutes was too small. He would have to pull out and give his fine space to the other cars. His dinner money would belong to the Greek and he would not eat tonight.

The Old Man had suffered defeat before, but it was never something he got used to. When he was forced to pay to park, he always paid the Greek, because the Greek’s rate was the lowest. The Greek allowed you to get your slip stamped, which gave you a reduction in the amount of money he took away from you. The Theater parking was the worst of the South Loop. They charged eleven dollars and would block his truck in with cars. The parking behind the Mexican restaurant at Wabash and Balbo was a flat fee, which the Old Man found most unfair. You paid the same if you parked for an hour or a day. The North Loop was out of the question. The parking lots were all run by taxicab drivers who did not know anything but money. You could always find free parking south of Eighth Street.  But the Old Man had once parked there for twenty minutes and his radio was gone when he came back. He thought about the many fine parking spaces that went to waste there and was sad. Things were not as they used to be. As his friend Washburn said, ”Parking in the all-day lots at prime locations has roughly doubled over the last decade.”

He pulled out of the space, looking in rage at the taxicab waiting. He drove rapidly around the block, moving much faster now that he was not looking for a space. He passed a Blazer, nearly his size. The great Michael Jordan had a Blazer. “Buy a Blazer,” said Michael Jordan, on the television the Old Man watched sometimes while having a beer at Santiago’s bar. “What is the point of a fine car like Michael Jordan’s if you cannot park it?” wondered the Old Man.

He pulled into the Greek’s garage. He took his parking slip stoically, like the man he was. The Greek would want five dollars to keep his truck, and possibly six. The Old Man was hungry. He would have no supper this night, because the Greek would take his money. “Do you notice,” said the Old Man, mostly to himself, “that Doritos no longer last in my stomach as they once did?”

The Greek and the Old Man nodded at each other, for they had known each otller a very long time. The Old Man shuffled away to his class, while the Greek thought about respect, and friendship, and honor. The Old Man had found many fine parking spaces, and the Greek knew that his skill was above all others. He would have liked to have let the Old Man park free occasionally, out of respect. But, it was the Old Man’s part to find the parking spaces, and it was the Greek’s part to take money for the spaces he had.

Sometimes the Greek hated his job.