Up the Valley: My wheelhouse

July 2, 2013

Among the skills in my portfolio of which I have always been most proud — right up there with my expertise in hooking up stereo equipment, an extensive knowledge of show-tune lyrics and the ability to bring dead houseplants back to life — is my aptitude as a parallel parker.

My parking prowess was not born in me but was achieved through years of diligent study and practice, particularly during the San Francisco garage-less years. I spent a significant portion of my late 20s circling my Pacific Heights apartment in hopes of shoehorning my beat-up Honda Civic between two gleaming Bimmers. Even under the pressure of heavy traffic, I could reverse right into the tightest of spots — and in those days, cars were low and long and it was hard to see the front end of a black 280Z or RX7 in the dark.

Today drivers sit up high in SUVs, so there’s no excuse for bumping the car behind you (unless it’s a Mini-Cooper, in which case they’re asking for it). But these SUVs also have big tires, and there’s the rub. For you see, I, too, have an SUV, with bald tires that were recently replaced with some all-seasons type with thick, chunky treads that have totally changed the vehicle’s handling. As a result, I can no longer park with my customary aplomb.

You’d think that I could adapt to these new tires in no time. But after a few bumps and scrapes, and more than a few embarrassing public incidents driving my rear tire up onto the curb, I have to admit that I’ve totally lost my parking mojo. Unfortunately, daily affirmations, personal parking pep talks and reflection upon past parking triumphs won’t restore my confidence — the minute you think about it, you’ve already failed. Gliding into a tight parking place needs to come as naturally as breathing or laughing or slithering into a beloved pair of skinny-jeans.

It’s amazing how just one little failure can undermine levels of self-confidence that took years to build. In an instant, one loses the ability to accomplish tasks previously performed effortlessly — like cracking an egg, flipping a pancake or throwing a basketball through a hoop (OK, that last one I wouldn’t really know; I’ve tried to perform it only once, in or around 1987, when the ball swooshed through the hoop, and having nowhere to go but down, I quietly retired from sports). My male friends tell emotional tales of certain “this never happens to them” incidents of poor performance, prompting endless soul-searching, trips to the doctor for little blue pills and desperate late-night online purchases of medical devices which are undoubtedly fully covered by Obamacare.

Perhaps due to some related disturbance in the parking continuum, my parking Karma seems to be on the fritz as well. I’ve always abided by the “everyone will assume the good parking spots are already taken” rule, frequently snagging a spot right in front. Now I am reduced to squeezing into a space labeled “compact” and crawling out the passenger door. Clearly these big ol’ tires have sent me careening dangerously off-balance, like a girl who spent her life in spiky Jimmy Choos suddenly having to navigate the world in a pair of Dr. Martens. I probably suffer from a post-traumatic parking-related stress disorder that can only be cured by one of those luxury cars that parks for you; I wonder if this is covered by Obamacare?

Oh why did I ever replace my tires? And what made me decide to buy this off-road vehicle anyway? The full extent of my off-roading consists of traversing the unpaved overflow parking lot at Nordstrom during the holiday shopping season. Where was I planning to use the dashboard compass, why did I purchase an under-carriage brush protection package, and precisely what was I planning to tie to this roof rack — some moose I bagged during a hunting trip to the Adirondacks?

Maybe I’m just not good at shopping for cars. Come to think of it, perhaps I was never a skilled parker at all. Maybe I was just lucky, and one day I finally ran through my allotment of favorable parking opportunities. It’s even possible that I am parking-challenged, and that my faith in my own ability to park was just raw hubris — like that of those tone-deaf contestants on “American Idol” who think they can sing, or uncharismatic political candidates who think they can be President.

I’m afraid we’ll never know, because a talent for brutally honest, accurate self-assessment has never been one of the core skills in my wheelhouse.

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