Parallel Lives: The Art of the Parking-Lot Attendant

Maisonneuve Magazine, 2005

There’s no official champion in the sport of parking. But if there were, I’d put my money on Greg Bozikis. He’s one of three attendants at the Park and Shine lot off Bishop Street and one of thousands across Montreal. During his ten years on the job, Greg’s learned to back up faster than most people go forward, he can nestle an SUV between two sedans with enviable tenderness, and his three-point-turn is a thing of beauty.

“People don’t believe the way I park,” Greg says, grinning. “The speed, the small spaces, everything. People say to me, ‘What did you do? Did you fold it in half?’”

I visit the Park and Shine on a disgusting day in the middle of the summer’s first heat wave. The air is hot and smoggy and thick with floating fluff from poplar trees—flecks of white that look cruelly like the flakes of a Montreal snowstorm. Grand Prix weekend, the biggest tourist weekend of the year, is in full swing. The Park and Shine is just one block away from the noisy epicentre of the weekend’s festivities, and from the lot you can hear the thump of a subwoofer and the sound of a bilingual MC urging the crowd to cheer for the middle-aged men that are competing in a pit-stop challenge. It’s only 2 p.m., but already the small lot is near capacity and there’s a steady stream of vehicles flowing past the booth.

I’m there for less than ninety seconds when Greg bellows, “Quick, grab that spot for me.” I look around dumbly. “There! Just stand there!” He points to an empty space on the street. I run over and stand in the spot, confused, and sheepishly wave off a few irritated drivers before Greg appears, backing a huge Chevy Suburban out of the parking lot—Greg backs-up faster than God—cutting off a Francophone man in an Audi who curses and honks his horn. Greg dismisses him with a wave, spins the hulking SUV into the slot, brings it to a bouncing stop, rushes back to the booth to get some quarters, sprints to ply the metre with change, then charges back to the lot where three drivers are waiting for him to take their keys. He leans casually into each window and smiles: “It’s $20 today. Grand Prix weekend,” he tells them.

I find out later that the Park and Shine, at about 75 by 50 feet, is a relatively small lot. Maximum business means maximum strategizing: attendants are constantly double and triple-parking, tactically shifting the vehicles between the few available spaces like pieces in a mosaic puzzle. When they can park an extra car on the road, it’s always worth a few quarters.

Watching the attendants—exacting, delicate, swift—I can’t help but think of On the Road. It’s in that novel that Jack Kerouac immortalizes his friend Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the book) as “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world.” He vividly describes Cassady’s prowess behind the wheel and in the lot, from his sprints to the ticket shack, to his inspired use of the emergency brake. The story of Cassady driving to work without touching the breaks or gas, using the natural inclines to speed up, rubbing the wheels against the curb to slow down, and bringing the car to a silent stop by gently rocking it back and forth between two shallow divots, has become one of the legends of the beat generation.

Since Kerouac, however, there have been few attempts to romanticize the parking lot attendant—perhaps because being an attendant isn’t particularly romantic. The pay is close to minimum wage and the tips are miniscule. “You want to write something about parking?” Greg says to me after a BMW rolls out with nothing more than a friendly wave. “I’ll tell you what to write. Write ‘Why the hell don’t people tip parkers?’ That’s what you write.”

In the winter, the job entails huddling against a space heater in a barely windproof booth, occasionally trudging out into the wet snow to park a car, before going back to the shack, by now wind-blasted cold from the open door, to listen to the radio or read a book. On slow days, it can be incredibly dull. James Fambois, a younger attendant who’s been at the Park and Shine six months, has finished Brian Lumley’s 13-novel Necroscope series.

But for Kerouac—and, one gets the sense, for people like Greg Bozikis—what makes parking cars more interesting than the average low-wage job is getting to be the caretaker of one of the most power metaphors in American life. Road movies, Indy racing, The Great Gatsby and about sixty percent of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre have all helped to turn the automobile into a colossal symbol of individualism, mobility and private freedom.

Unfortunately, the truth is that modern driving is less about freedom than constant compromise. Car commercials feature sleek vehicles flying down empty stretches of highway while actual driving means sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, being cut off by bike couriers and battling your way downtown only to have to pay twenty dollars to give the keys of your Explorer to a grinning Greg Bozikis.

And this, it seems, is a problem. The ideal of driving is constantly running up against the reality, and the parking lot, where drivers are forced to give up their cash and keys to strangers, is one place of convergence. There’s something about paying for parking that seems to inspire real anger. Harassed metre maids will tell you this, as will the street-parking attendants in England who are preemptively, and perhaps pessimistically, issued “anti-stabbing jackets.”

Twenty-year old Karim Elali, an attendant at the Impark lot just a few blocks away from the Park and Shine, tells me that most of the customers are great, and that he even gets to meet the occasional celebrity. “But sometimes there are problems.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. Ask a parking lot attendant for his best story and odds are it ends with a punch in the nose or a chase down an alley. People are aggressive about their cars. The general formula, though I wouldn’t say the rule, goes like this: the bigger the car, the bigger the asshole. At Impark alone, SUV drivers are responsible for a broken nose, at least one lawsuit, and a nightly parade of moderate belligerence. The day before I spoke to him, Karim spent hours in court testifying against a Hummer owner who got violent when an attendant told him it would cost $20 to park his modified tank. “The driver picked him up and threw him right through that window!” Karim says, pointing at cracked panel in the parking booth.

Ned Mahoney, a former parking lot attendant, thinks this aggression comes from the all stress of daily living compounded into a moment at the car park. “Parking becomes a medium for people’s happiness. It’s such a battle to get to work or to get anywhere that by the time they get there, finding a parking spot is incredibly important. It can be the difference between a good day and a bad day, right there.”

Karim has a simpler explanation: “A lot of people are kind of assholes about their cars.”