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All We Want for Christmas Is a Parking Space . . . : Mall Trekkers Can Be Naughty, or Nice


OK, Thanksgiving is just a bad case of left-over indigestion. Now 'tis the season to be jolly, right?

Get real. Today is D-Day at a local mall near you, the busiest shopping day of the year. It's time to pack up the kids and your nerve and head out on the highway lookin' for consumer adventure--or maybe just a good parking spot near Nordies.

You and hordes of holiday shoppers will be vying for a finite number of parking spaces. It'll be war out there in the department store parking lot, a battle ranking up with Antietam and Dunkirk. Don't fret. You can conquer the long and winding road that leads to the department store door.

"Everyone should be prepared for people who will be discourteous in the parking lot or out on the road," advised Officer Linda Burrus of the Highway Patrol's Santa Ana office. "It's not worth playing chicken to see who gets that parking spot first."

Burrus recommends driving slowly in parking lots during the crowded shopping rush. The crunch of traffic and pedestrians makes the season ripe for fender benders or worse.

Lt. Jim Winder of the Brea Police Department said people often concentrate so much on getting a parking space that they forget the regular dangers of driving. He's seen motorists make unsafe turns or other errant maneuvers while they hunted for spaces.

"Their attention is spread between a number of things," he said. "On a routine shopping day, they know they're going to find a space and so they focus more on their driving."

The sensible ones among us know we should stay home during these first frenetic days of the holiday shopping rush. But, hey, this is Southern California! How could we?

So out we'll go, packing a wallet fat with credit cards and an ankle-length list of toys for children of all ages. As if such consummate consumerism isn't stressful enough, there is the chore of just getting safely inside the store.

There are the holiday vultures circling the lot in their cars. There are the dingbats, folks who make a ritual of gouging your Beamer's shiny sheet metal with their clunker car doors. There are autos queued up for that single spot opening up a quarter mile down the row. There are the tigers in their '72 Toyotas, ready to pounce.

Faced with all that, motorists should concentrate on keeping their stress level in check, experts advise. Losing a parking spot or waiting for some klutz to clear out of the way is no reason to blow a piston. Hum a Christmas carol. Let sugarplums dance in your head. Do anything to avoid rage.

"The key thing is to realize its not going to be just another normal day at the mall," said Andrew Lesser, a physician specializing in stress-management and author of "Drive With Less Stress," a handbook of tips to keep your Angst in check behind the wheel. "People should tune in to the radio and tune out on the traffic. And they should go into the holiday shopping experience not expecting to get a parking spot at the front. Then it's easier to accept having to walk a bit."

Lesser said a cardinal rule is to never fight over a parking spot. It's just not worth it.

"Simply because you see one doesn't mean your name has been automatically written on the curb stop," he noted. "People take possession of a parking spot in their minds and are unwilling to give up something that they believe is theirs, but it's not."

Managers of the malls share many of the same tips.

"You're going to be walking a lot anyway, so when you see a spot, take it," Huntington Center Marketing Director Pat Rogers advises. She also urges politeness. "Try to be courteous, we're all in this together."

Rogers has seen car passengers jump from vehicles and run to open spaces and then stand and wave off would-be parkers to hold the space for their friends. "That to me is kind of cheating, but people do it," she said.

Susie Plummer, Fashion Island's assistant marketing manager, said that the time people spend looking for an up-front spot amazes her. "When I moved to California, I couldn't believe people spent so long looking for a spot," said Plummer, who generally takes whatever space is open and walks.

Out on the freeway, traffic can get a bit heavier, but the only mall where cars regularly back up down the off-ramp during the holiday shopping season is South Coast Plaza, Burrus said.

As a result, motorists should be careful along San Diego Freeway at the Bristol Street exit. Burrus suggests coming in the "back way" off the Costa Mesa Freeway along MacArthur Boulevard.

Other tips from traffic experts and mall managers include:

* Arrive before noon or shop in the early evening, when many people eat dinner. Avoid arriving between noon and 4 p.m. Most shoppers will be ensconced in their favorite stores, so parking lot turnover will be slow.

* Use side streets to avoid major thoroughfares, often congested with motorists more concerned with getting to the mall than avoiding an accident. Also, every mall has side street entrances that will give you quicker access to parking lots. Seek these out.

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