12 Oct 2009 10:00 am   //   Filed under: The suburbs

A breach of parking lot etiquette

Last month some friends and I rented a car and drove upstate to the outlet mall.

They have a parking lot up there that’s bigger than many small towns. We arrived early and found a parking spot close to the stores. A few times during the day, I carried our shopping bags back to the car, put them in the trunk, and went back to shopping. Every time, cars would slowly tail me as I walked through the lot, anticipating that I would leave and free up a choice parking space.

I didn’t feel much empathy for these drivers. There was abundant parking elsewhere in the lot. And for people who actually need close parking spaces, there are designated ADA spots. Being followed was creepy. I’m used to the city, where interactions between pedestrians and drivers are inadvisable, since they sometimes turn south. At the mall, I avoided eye contact with the drivers and tried to act invisible.

That was a poor strategy. On one trip to the car, as soon as a driver realized I wasn’t leaving, he lost his shit and beeped the horn. A nearby pedestrian scolded me: “You should have told him you weren’t leaving!” I threw my hands in the air. “I’ve been doing this all day!” I said, exasperated. “He doesn’t know that!” the other pedestrian shot back.

Clearly, I was a stranger to these parts. In the outlet mall parking lot, people live by a code, and I had broken it.

But here’s the thing. It’s a bankrupt code. It awards trifles to people who do nothing but mill around acting pushy. We’ve all fallen for this trap. It’s easy to feel like finding a good parking spot is an achievement. But really, is it? You’re already at the mall. You’re going to walk all day. You’ll probably find a nice pair of pants at a good price. You might get to enjoy a hot, chewy lunch with your friends. As long as you’re in the right frame of mind, you’re going to have a good day. What difference does it make where you park? You were built to walk—your body is one big perfect walking machine. Walking is good for you. Park where it’s easy. Shut off the engine, exit the car, and walk the extra two minutes.

Our life is full of stupid competitions like the mall parking lot. (Ever watch “The Apprentice”?) These rat races encourage us to fight over pellets of food. They train us to think rewards come from luck and pointless aggression—rather than hard work and good ideas.

This is dangerous. A worker gets trampled by people competing to be the first to enter a Wal-Mart. Americans mob fast food counters for two pieces of free chicken. Commuters push each other to get seats on crowded trains. During the knitting craze a few winters ago, I heard stories of shoppers who actually got in fights over balls of yarn.

We need to be careful of systems that encourage us to fight our neighbors for pointless prizes. No wonder so many people feel powerless and angry.