It has been some months since I've reported in this space on mail. I have a very large pile of letters on my desk, arranged so I have to look at them daily and suffer commensurately about my dereliction in not responding.
If I spent half as much time answering letters as I do feeling guilty, I'd be further along than dealing with the mail of last June, which is where I am now. But I'm determined--rather like the pile of unread New Republics and New Yorkers beside my bed--to get at these letters, and someday I will.
Meanwhile, I'd like to summarize some trends in the correspondence that seem noteworthy--and sometimes surprising.
Two quite disparate columns produced by far the most mail in the last six months: the column on valet parking and that on the AIDS quilt. Response to the former was totally one-sided, while the AIDS column prompted sharply differing views.
I touched an unexpected nerve with valet parking. A lot of people are as angry as I am about being forced to turn our cars over to sometime jockeys who drive the cars 20 feet and park them for us in frequently near-deserted parking lots.
Ray Kovitz, who once worked for The Times, wrote about looking into this practice some years ago and discovering that "the kids did not get to keep the tips but made an hourly stipend. Patrons who thought they were helping some poor student through college were sadly misinformed."
Harry Prince of Laguna Hills chastised me for "overlooking the obvious method of cure. It's very simple. Mention the offending restaurants by name. . . . Other restaurants would think twice before instituting a similar disservice to their customers." (The point is well taken; I didn't do it because I didn't want to single out two offenders when so many are guilty of the same practice.)
And Myron Simon of Anaheim, who "dislikes having someone park our car," described watching a TV news program "which stated that the person who owns the car is totally responsible for his car no matter who is driving it" and suggested I "investigate and give us a follow-up column."
I did. I talked to Dan Angel who ran a highly successful Orange County valet parking company for eight years and got out of this business three years ago for the same reasons that are disconcerting a lot of us today.
Angel said there are three systems of valet parking now in use by local restaurants and hotels: the in-house method, in which the parking attendants are employees of the hotel or restaurant; legitimate valet companies that charge the facility a fixed rate for each car parked and who carry liability insurance; and marginal, often fly-by-night operators who may or may not have insurance and run their own show while the restaurant or hotel management looks the other way.
In the first instance, says Angel, customers can be sure who's responsible, although whether or not attendants keep their tips depends on the policy of the facility; in the second instance, the customer can be assured that the attendants keep their tips and are also paid a minimum wage ("That's the law," says Angel simply), and that the valet company carries liability insurance ("Although," points out Angel, "they are responsible only if there is negligence on the part of the attendant"); and in the third instance, virtually anything goes. Attendants may be stripped of their tips, insurance may be non-existent, and the operation could be pushing the edges of illegality.
Angel got out of the business when he found that he was being undercut by operators who were being hired with no questions asked at no charge to the facility. "There are all sorts of marginal people getting into this business now," said Angel, "and it's extremely difficult for a solid, totally dependable operation to compete as long as the hotels and restaurants are willing to look the other way."
Angel suggested three questions consumers should ask parking attendants when faced with compulsory valet parking:
1. Is this an outside concession or part of the hotel or restaurant?
2. Do you have liability insurance?
3. Are you allowed to keep your tips?
Maybe if enough of us do this, the restaurants and hotels will get the word that we don't like this gun at our heads. And that it may very well drive us to take our trade elsewhere.
Moving along to the column on the AIDS quilt, the response was deeply divided--and highly emotional.
On the affirmative side, here is part of what Mark Shier, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Fullerton, wrote: "So many times I have intended to write you in appreciation for this column or that. . . . What has pushed me over the edge from intention to action is the column on the AIDS quilt.