The Moment of Choice

If you watch a movie at Union Station in Washington DC, the guy at the theater will stamp your parking receipt on the way out. But a “Three-Hour Stamp” does not mean you get three hours of parking for free — you still have to pay a dollar. Not a big deal. The way they get you is that if you stay for longer than three hours, the price goes up to six bucks, even with a Three-Hour Stamp.

I was aware of all this when I parked at Union Station tonight, and even bid early farewell to my moviegoing companions in order to make it out of the parking garage in ample time. I did not despair when I found several cars ahead of me at the exit; I had ten minutes to spare. Those minutes were quickly eaten up by the excruciating slowness with which the lady in the booth ahead of me conducted each and every transaction. Nevertheless, I pulled up to the booth with a minute to spare, according to the clock on my cell phone. I handed over my parking receipt and a dollar bill.

The lady in the booth looked at my receipt. “Six dollars,” she said, avoiding eye contact. “Two minutes over.”

Staffers of parking booths the world over fall into two categories: those who hate catching a customer just two minutes over, and those who love it. This woman was definitely one of the latter. In anticipation of my objections, she turned her monitor so that I could see the screen. “I go by this,” she said. By both my cell phone and the little clock in my car, the clock on the monitor was four minutes fast.

Thus, my moment of choice. Not unwittingly, I had stepped into the jaws of a petty commercial trap, by choosing to park at that garage in the first place, knowing full well how the pricing structure there worked. Now, face to face with the personification of that petty greed, I had to choose whether to make my stand.

Mind you, the most pathetic thing to do would have been to quibble: to point out the discrepancies between the clocks, or to complain about the fact that I had taken pains to exit on time and was thwarted only by this very person’s lethargy. To take a stand, none of these things need be said — certainly the woman knew them full well. To take a stand, I would just have had to wait. Wait until the horns started honking, until the shouts of the impatient queue came bubbling up behind me, the shouts of other customers caught in the same bind as me and seeing their parking fee multiply by six in the space of a second. Wait until this woman came to believe that I would wait as long as it took, until those angry customers started coming out of their cars to find out what was going on, until I started a scene, until the cops arrived. Unless she was a true master of her godforsaken profession, she would, before that point was reached, raise the gate and let me leave.

I thought about it. I really did. All that was ugly about modern America was caught up in that moment, and I thought that if I fought it, I’d be doing my small part, at least for that one day. But in the end I coughed up the extra five and drove home. It wasn’t a case of picking my battles so much as retreating from the field. At least in this case retreating — i.e. making a mental note never to park in that stupid place again — does some miniscule damage to whatever company runs the place. This is a war that will be ultimately won by disengagement, though it will never be won by one person alone. Opportunistic greed in the form of raw deals for the customer isn’t limited to parking garages, and one can only disengage so far, especially when one regularly finds oneself at Babies R Us buying diapers.

Next time, though, I’m taking a stand.