Forget about hen's teeth. It's restaurant parking spaces that are scarce in the South Bay during the lunch and dinner rush.
"There's not enough parking around here for sure," said Bill Oakes, assistant manager of Marie Callender on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. And that's bad for the cash register, Oakes continued, explaining that every time a potential customer drives away because he can't park, the restaurant loses $10.
So the restaurant--whose parking-hungry neighbors include two other eateries and a health spa--started a dinnertime parking patrol a few weeks ago, with busboys doing double duty as monitors of the 100-space lot.
The other evening, the parking duty fell to Tim Roberts, a strapping 17-year-old who says he's gotten some sass from spurned drivers, but no one has ever become violent or abusive. Roberts figures maybe it has something to do with the fact that he's 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds.
Marie Callender is not alone in safeguarding precious parking. Patrons of a popular Sizzler on Sepulveda Boulevard, also in Torrance, were taking up a convenient row of parking spaces almost next to the building. Trouble is, the spaces belong to an office complex next door, and the management recently turned for help to a security company that, among other things, patrols restaurant and office parking lots.
For guard Andrea Barnes, this adds up to a three hours a day of walking up to people as they are about to park where they shouldn't, and telling them not to.
"A lot of people move, especially when there's other parking available, but a lot get angry and try to argue the point," she said, adding that some people say they can't believe she is getting paid to babysit a parking lot.
And not everybody is agreeable about Barnes telling them to move. Take Laura Mitobe of Redondo Beach: "She waited until my windows were rolled up, and then she walks up. She could have told me before. Then I drive around, and there was no place to park, and someone almost hit me. It makes me mad."
The office complex rambles and its long parking lot circles around the building. Barnes said some people drive way to the back and park. "Those are the ones who stay," she said. "There's no way I can stop everybody."
One illegal parker she chose not to stop the other day was a police officer in uniform. "He has a gun," she laughed, with a what's-a-person-to-do look on her face.
Parking patrol work involves fielding a variety of human attitudes, listening to excuses from people about why they should be the lone exception to the parking ban, and fighting off loneliness.
"It's a 50-50 thing," Roberts says about the way motorists react. "Some say, 'All right,' when I ask them to move, others put up a hassle and say, 'Where else will I park?' or, 'It's empty, why can't I park?' I tell them that in a half hour, it'll be full."
He said women are the nastiest about being told to move on: "They get frustrated and start yelling and threaten to leave the car." But it was a man who one day parked and challenged Callender to tow his car away.
It was towed.
Barnes said that even though people usually do leave when told to, they do it with "weird expressions" on their faces.
And the excuses about why they really should be allowed to stay? "One woman said, 'I have a baby,' and a lot say they're only going to be there for a minute."
Some are downright insulting, Barnes said, explaining that when she did similar work at a Fat Burger, "Someone told me I looked as bad as the hamburgers."
For Roberts and other Callender busboys on the parking patrol, keeping cars away is only part of the job. Their presence cuts down on thefts, and sometimes people will tip them for watching their cars.
"One time a guy was backing out of a space and he hit a car. We got his license number and they tracked him down," Roberts said.
But it does get lonely out there.
" I turn my watch over so I don't watch the time," said Barnes. "Sometimes I sing a song. They're about God making it better, or a love song, whatever comes to mind."
Roberts said some of the guys bring radios, but he spends his time watching girls, or just thinking. "It's my peaceful time to think. Most of the time I'm on the run, or watching TV."
One of the things he thinks about is the time, after college, when he's an engineer and won't have to watch parking lots any more.