• April 19, 2014

My Kingdom for a Parking Space

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question: I yearn to muse about teaching, writing, and the meaning of life, but every morning I leave home, head toward the campus, and find myself consumed with angst. You know why: PARKING.

Answer: Ms. Mentor thought you had a problem that could be solved. Instead, you're adding to the world's store of melancholy and weltschmerz. You have already ruined her day. She sighs, and then she remembers.

Once upon a time, the chancellor at the University of California described what different groups wanted from academe. According to Clark Kerr, the goals were "sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty." It was 1957, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Everything seemed possible.

In the half-century since then, the easy demands—sex and sports—have been met.

But a good parking space is that one passionate yearning that keeps academics awake at night, gnashing their teeth. Or greeting the dawn with the larks. Or hovering like desperate mosquitos, hoping to glimpse the holy grail, ever shining, beckoning, tormenting ...

Some godlike individuals have found it. The late Robert B. Woodward, synthesizer of tetracycline, had his own reserved parking spot at Harvard. He even had it painted in his favorite color, blue. How did he finagle it? Ms. Mentor wonders. Could it have been his Nobel Prize?

But what about the masses?

As usual, they suffer.

A mild inquiry from Ms. Mentor ("How's parking at your school?") brought forth a torrent of woe. Whimpering parkers are everywhere, and so are nervous ones. "Use my story," some wrote, "but don't use my name. I still work here, and I'm terrified of the parking office."

And so Ms. Mentor will use pseudonyms for all, including "Sasha," a staff member who rashly tried to save money by giving up her parking permit. But one day she drove to campus, parked in a legal spot for visitors—and got a ticket anyway. Why? "Because you used to have a permit."

Scholars who park illegally ("I was only gone two minutes") usually come back to expensive tickets—or no car. One Friday "Stella" found her towed car in a desolate lot across the Mississippi River, where it stayed until she could ransom it on Monday. For $500.

At some institutions, you can buy protection—i.e., paid parking—but there's a waiting list. The newest parkers get spaces high in "Nosebleed City" and have to hoof it from there to the quad. Some keep dry teaching togs in their offices for bad days, so students don't look at the front of the class and wonder, "Who's that wet dog?"

The virtuous are not saved. Some campuses tout their ties with community partners, but when those groups come to the campus to talk about health, literacy, or hunger—there's no parking. At one college, community workers must pay $7 an hour for a distant parking space. Citizens, some of them elderly and frail, "must drag themselves across campus," reports "Maria," "while hale and hardy administrators bounce out of their cars and into their offices with two or three steps."

Parking trumps most issues on any campus. When "Ben" and two adjunct colleagues were summarily fired from their jobs without cause, students "were appalled at the injustice. They wanted to take a stand. But once they bled our cause into their need for better parking, we were invisible."

And then there's that terrible annual moment when you have to replace your old sticker or tag with a new one. You bring your old permit to the parking office, and park there, leaving your car naked and unstickered while you're inside. You and Ms. Mentor both know what you will find on your windshield when you return.

Does a bell ring in the parking office whenever this happens? Does someone get a gift card or a glazed doughnut?

Ms. Mentor decided to investigate, and found that parking is truly an elaborate empire and a cash cow.

At one Big Ten university, for instance, Parking & Transportation Services has 150 full-time employees and 60 part-time student workers. They also deal with buses and bikes, but mainly they reign over 22,000 parking spaces. The department's annual budget is $16-million, and most of it is "self-funded."

They are indeed ticketing your car for the money.

And so Ms. Mentor advises you that it will do no good to scream at the workers writing out the tickets and posting them on your car. They are just doing their jobs. Most campus Web sites do not even include the names of parking directors. Resistance is futile.

You might try praying to the patron saint of parking, St. Otto of Bamberg.

Or you might emulate Danford W. Middlemiss, a political-science professor for 31 years at Dalhousie University. He would have to leave his house at 7 a.m. to make sure he had parking for his 2:30 p.m. class. He measured out his life in parking-office lines. And then, one day, he quit.

Or you can dream. "Perry" sent Ms. Mentor this vow: "I want the right to use my parking space as a burial plot."

He does have a precedent. The bones of King Richard III, killed in 1485, were found underneath a parking lot in Leicester. In Shakespeare's play, the wicked Richard III cries out, "My kingdom for a horse!"—but in real life his reward was more concrete.

Still, if you play it right, you can get a spot without giving up your kingdom. At Rice University, emeriti professors reportedly get "free parking until death."

It is far too tempting, while you're waiting for a space, to start calculating. How long would you have to live to use all the money you'd invested in your parking permit while you were teaching? Would that inspire you enough to eat well, exercise, and keep fit, so you could honk at the parking office each time you rolled by, at age 90, flags flying?

Can it be that defeating the parking office is the new, best reason for living?


Question: When the name of our new instructor, Ms. Beautiful, is mentioned among the men of our faculty, a certain moist look goes from man to man. Should I mention this to Ms. Beautiful?

Answer: Why?


Sage readers: Of academic party games, there is no end. The latest suggestion to Ms. Mentor is I Knew Him/Her in Grad School and You Wouldn't Believe Who They Consorted With and Who They Plagiarized.

Ms. Mentor had hoped to include some best scenes in her annual Ackies (Academic Novel awards). But only two readers have volunteered to be judges, and so she will suspend the awards for this year. Ms. Mentor is perfectly capable of judging the whole world and finding it wanting—but she had wanted to share the wealth and the satire.

As always, Ms. Mentor's mailbox awaits rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and recommends that her flock become regular readers of The Chronicle's forums. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always made murky. Your colleagues won't know for sure that you were today's victim, standing in the road and blubbering over your parking ticket. But they've all been there.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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