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Victory Over Valets

A Driver Seasoned by New York City Streets Takes on the Hardened Parking Pros of Southern California--and Wins

June 01, 1998|GARY HORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I was raised in New York City, weaned on arrogance and inconsideration. In cavalier moments of self-aggrandizing fantasy, I like to think that I'm a pretty tough kid at root. Way too sharp to be manhandled by the warmly smiling softies who so magnetized me to Southern California in the first place, when I decided to move here 11 years ago.

But, recently, I've met my match. Not in the film business. Not on the East L.A. streets that remind me so much of Spanish Harlem in the early '70s. My tough-guy teeth have been cut anew . . . on the valet line.

As I use a wheelchair to get around, I drive an adaptive van (a respectably nondescript, customized 1995 Ford Econoline 150, outfitted with a side-loading wheelchair lift). Left to my own devices, I almost never encounter a problem parking, anywhere. With parking attendants, it's another story.

Recently, my father and his wife came to visit from back East, on their annual jaunt coinciding with my birthday. We decided to eat at Geoffrey's in Malibu, a scenic spot so magical that neither the prices nor the minuscule portions matter a tad. Along with my wife, we headed up the coast for our birthday meal.

There is no street parking near Geoffrey's. I pulled into the lot . . . and encountered what appeared to be a demolition site, but for five spaces and a frenetically waving attendant. I sensed the potential of some weirdness.

"We've got construction going on," read a sign. "Please excuse our appearance." Courteous. Apologetic. How nice. I explained that my truck was operated by hand controls (thus undrivable for anyone but me), and, though confused, the valet directed me into the only remaining open space.

Two hours later, we emerged from our delightful meal to find my van blocked in by a pair of extremely expensive-looking German sedans. And the attendant station shut for the evening. My wife headed inside to flag down the manager, who emerged to inform me that he was terribly sorry, but there was nothing that he could do. I asked him to elaborate, and he explained that he "would never think to disturb his customers by asking for car keys while they were dining. You will just have to wait, until they're done." Not with my kid at home and a $9-an-hour baby-sitter on the clock.

"All your tables are outside, right?" I asked. The man nodded. "My truck has a pain-inducing alarm. The switch is in my hand. You have one minute to get over there, disturb whomever you must, and move these cars. . . . Otherwise, everyone leaves here deaf." He shot me the most dumbfounded of looks. I began, "59 . . . 58 . . . 57 . . ."

I was on the road again in one minute.

Lest you think that I am one of those experienced disability advocates who can instinctively conduct such a Werner Erhard-cum-Angela Davis assertiveness demonstration at the mere hint of prejudice, I will assure you that until the events presented herein, I have rarely felt compelled to make even a peep on my own behalf. If it has taken my oddly latent valet parking karma to spur me to stand up (in a matter of speaking) and act, then so be it. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that throughout my travels here and abroad, people have generally been very accommodating, though often in bizarre ways. To illustrate:

Some years ago, I found myself in the middle of a hurricane, in the parking lot of the Dania Jai Alai fronton, one of the seedier outposts of South Florida culture. My van and I had braved the squall so as to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, wagering on sporting events whose results are unashamedly fixed.

No storm was going to prevent me or my hundreds of gambling compatriots from placing a bet or two with our hard-won wages. Despite the torrents of rain, salvos of thunder and lightning bolts that were crackling off the odd light post or palm tree nearby, we were all rushing from driver's seats to fronton, as if on a pilgrimage. . . .

And then my lift ceased functioning. With me on it. Suspended from the side of my van, in my wheelchair, in what seemed the center of the world's wettest, loudest cyclone. I was 5 feet off the ground, with no way back into my van and no way down, due to what was later explained to be a short circuit. I began praying to the Great Electrician in the Sky, when . . .

I heard Spanish voices and felt a tug. Yes, four benevolent men had stopped in the middle of the deluge to manually hoist my 250-pound parcel of body plus wheelchair from my lift and onto the ground. Without saying a word, they pushed me and my chair, a la bobsled team, into the dry sanctuary of the fronton. When I turned to thank my newfound saviors, they were gone, having already begun to beat their path to the ticket window. No gratitude required by saints so pure as these.

I will wager, with confidence born of recent experience, that no such individuals have ever worked on the valet line.

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