July 1, 2013

A Canuck in Kantuck: In a parallel universe

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — There is a woefully large amount of things I have never been able to do. I cannot juggle. I cannot do a cartwheel. My knot-tying skills are non-existent. I can only whistle one note. But in my admittedly small bag of tricks, there is one stunt I can pull out on command. Boy howdy, can I parallel park.

I learned this during the years I lived in Washington, D.C. There, parking on the street is at a premium and people have been known to grow long beards and have their hair turn grey while looking for a spot. So when a space — regardless of where it is — becomes available, you have to act fast. In Washington, that’s tough. First, people cram their cars into spaces like sardines. Second, the city is just hilly enough that you often find yourself trying to parallel park while fighting your car’s inclination to either roll forward or backward. Third, there is constantly a line of cars behind you whose only goal is to get around you.

It’s the pressure of these people waiting behind you that I believe makes parallel parking so difficult for so many drivers. It’s not only the fact that people are waiting, usually rather impatiently, on you, it’s also the pressure of the performance. We’ve all watched someone try to park and laughed at their failed attempt. Sometimes, they steer in so sharply it’s as if they’re trying to perpendicular, rather than parallel, park. Then there are those that park so far away from the curb, they are essentially still in traffic.

When we go to Montreal, the place that we stay offers an incredible vantage point to watch people’s parallel parking attempts. My stepdaughter Gabrielle especially loves to watch them as my husband has taught her to viciously criticize the failures.

“Look at this yahoo,” she’ll say giggling. “He just hit the car behind him trying to get in. Oh! He just hit the one in front. Oh! He just did it again!”

The best is when people try and try and then just give up and angrily drive away, pouncing on the accelerator to release their frustration. Gabrielle especially loves this and I have, on occasion, actually seen her doubled over laughing after witnessing an especially blustery surrender.

Of course, at 13, she does not yet know the complexity of parallel parking, and I look forward to helping teach her. I remember my first efforts while I was learning how to drive. The instructor — a bland, seemingly medicated man whose voice seemed like it was trying to replicate the rolling of ocean waves — had placed cones in a parking lot in the industrial park. He then started explaining where my tail light needed to be in relation to the cone and how the angle of the rear passenger tire needed to be at 45 degrees to the curb.

Once he started talking about angles and degrees, I quickly tuned out, the idea of having to perform math in my head suddenly far more terrifying than the idea of parking in a pinch. I looked at him, let my mind go blank, and suddenly pulled the car perfectly into the spot.


“Exactly!” the instructor screamed, opening the door and seeing the curb a mere four inches away. I could tell he thought his mathematical approach had really done the trick and I let the poor guy continue to think that. Actually, in reality, it may actually have worked as it showed me that the only real way to parallel park successfully is not to overthink it.

I realized this especially when I lived downtown in Winnipeg. In the winter, nearly all of the street spaces were unavailable at night because of the snow routes, but the ones that were available were available all winter so that meant when the snow plows would come through, they’d repeatedly push snow against the cars parked there. As a result, these spots were perfectly surrounded by hard, polished moats of snow so you really had to rev your engine to launch yourself into a spot, which was a little tricky since you were usually just inches away from the car ahead and behind you.

Of course, living in a small town, parallel parking is a talent I rarely get to show off. But every once in a while, there is a reason, so I swing my car easily into its spot and resume my efforts at trying to whistle a tune.


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Now that school is out, what are your family’s summer vacation plans?

A. No major plans. We will probably hang out around Laurel County.
B. Going to the beach!
C. Kentucky has a lot of wonderful state parks, and we plan to visit a few and enjoy quality family time.
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