"The Parking Lot," Rich Motherwell

The other night I was driving home after dark and noticed a new parking lot at Sonoma State University. I did not realize that it was a parking lot at first. Not only was it dark out, but it was a bit foggy that night and I noticed a glow in the haze ahead of me. My first thought was that it might be a large, shining UFO in a field, but as I got closer and closer, I noticed that the light was not radiating from an alien spaceship, but rather from row after row of tall, metal light posts that had sprouted from a field of cement. The empty parking lot was an eerie sight, and the radio in my mind began to play the Joni Mitchell tune "Big Yellow Taxi," in which the lyrics declare, ‘They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

The parking lot has become a necessary evil of modern society, as necessary as your car itself, and it is perhaps the most overused, yet underappreciated, of all public spaces.

At one time or another today, everyone who has a car will inevitably use a parking lot. The features of most parking lots are not so different, yellow or white lines glowing on a background of blacktop. It isn’t like anyone would mistake a parking lot for anything else. Rows upon rows of boundaries for individual driving units lined up one after another. You would never look at a parking lot and think to yourself that maybe it is a park or a playground or an airstrip. A parking lot is a parking lot, a place where you drive your car in and drop it off for a stay while you go about your business; similar to the way a cowboy in the old west would tether his horse outside the saloon. The parking lot always has a prominent place right in front of an establishment and sometimes even surrounds the building.

The venues of parking lots vary dramatically, however, from the local library parking lot, to the sports arena parking lot. People using the parking lot at Wal-Mart are a world away from those using the parking lot at the university, just as the conversation outside the local ice-cream shop will not sound the same as the conversation you might overhear in the airport parking lot. None the less, one would expect to find a parking lot almost everywhere you drive.

Parking lots as gathering places are not so new. Drive up to SBC park for any home game and you will observe a great American past time, the tailgate party. Since I was a young boy, the tailgate party has been a part of most every sporting event I have gone to. You can spot the professional tailgaters right away. They are the ones with the Toyota Tundra half ton pickup, the tailgate down, a Weber grill with the coals burning, and a pop-up picnic table with a yellow and green striped umbrella to shield the sun. These people have contacted ten or fifteen of their closest friends prior to the event to set up a meeting time and place. They arrive early for a prime location, pull out five Coleman ice chests filled with beer, soda, marinated steaks and some potato salad, and proceed to commence a party in the driving path of 35,000 other fans. It is always fun, while trying to park, to avoid the party goers while they eat or play catch, but no one ever seems to get hurt.

Avoiding tailgaters is not the only frustration that can be found in a parking lot. I remember an episode of Seinfeld where the four main characters exit the mall and enter the parking garage, only to find that they can not remember where they parked the car. What level, second or third? One person remembers they parked in section J and another thinks it was section T. The remainder of the show the characters wander aimlessly through the parking garage trying to find their car.

My wife and I had a similar experience on our honeymoon. We rented a car at the airport in Orlando, Florida, and spent a couple days at the Walt Disney World Resort. If you haven’t been to Disney World before, let me just tell you that they may very well have the largest parking lots in the free world. I have been told that each parking lot is so big that they have their very own zip codes. Each one is named after a Disney character and has big banners on the light posts to help you remember where you have parked. The first morning of our adventure we parked our car quickly so that we could catch the tram that was soon to pull out for the Magic Kingdom. We made a mental note that we were in the Goofy parking lot when the driver of the tram mentioned some tourists have been known to never find their car again. After a long, hot day we boarded the tram once again to head back to the hotel. We got off at the Goofy parking lot, but it seemed much bigger than before. At this point the familiar saying about trying to find a needle in a haystack became synonyms with trying to find a car in a five acre parking lot. We had more than just the parking lot working against us, though, because we also could not remember what type of car we had rented. It was white, we remembered that, so how many white cars could there be? An hour later we found our car at the end of a line of six white cars.

The usefulness of a parking lot is endless. After hours they can be used by baggy-pant teenagers, with skateboards, as skate parks. Sometimes the parking lot becomes the retail establishment when the contents of the buildings spill out for a parking lot sale. They are used for fund raising if a local cheer squad or church youth group wants to hold a car wash. So, the next time you park your car, take a look around. Paradise is gone, but in its place is a useful, asphalt slab just waiting to be appreciated.