Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Parallel Lives

The art of the parking-lot attendant

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 off Bishop Street—one of thousands of lots across Montreal. In his ten years on the job, Greg’s learned to back up a car 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 the 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 festivities. From the lot you can hear the thump of a subwoofer and the sound of a bilingual emcee urging the crowd to cheer for the middle-aged men competing in a pit-stop challenge. It’s only 2 pm 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 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 twenty dollars today. Grand Prix weekend,” he tells them.

I find out later that the Park and Shine, at about ninety-five by fifty feet, is a relatively small lot. Maximum business means maximum strategizing: attendants are constantly double- and triple-parking on the street, 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 the few additional quarters.

Watching the attendants—exacting, delicate, swift—I can’t help but think of On the Road. It’s in this novel that Jack Kerouac immortalizes his friend Neal Cassady (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 the 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, few attempts have been made to roman-ticize 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 is 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 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 fourteen-novel Necroscope series.

But for Kerouac—and, one gets the sense, for people like Greg Bozikis—what made parking cars more interesting than the average low-wage job was getting to be the caretaker of one of the most powerful metaphors in American life. Road movies, Indy racing, The Great Gatsby and about 60 percent of Bruce Springsteen’s œuvre have all helped 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 pay twenty dollars to hand over the keys of your Ford Explorer to a grinning Greg Bozikis.

And this, it seems, is a problem. The reality of driving is constantly knocking up against the ideal. The parking lot, where drivers have to give up cash and keys to strangers, lies on this fault line: there’s something about paying for parking that inspires real anger. Harassed street-parking attendants in Montreal will tell you this, as will their colleagues in England, some of whom are pre-emptively, 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 twenty dollars to park his modified tank. “The driver picked him up and threw him right through that window!” Karim says, pointing at the cracked panel in the parking booth.

Ned Mahoney, a former parking-lot attendant, thinks this aggression comes from all the 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.”