I’m a condo parking-spot hoarder!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, FEB 29, 2008

I have two spaces and only one car — but that doesn’t mean you can just use my spot!


Dear Cary,

I’ve lived in the same condominium complex off and on since the mid-’80s. I live in my family home, which I bought from my mother when she recently remarried. For 20-odd years, my townhouse has been full of family members, but since I bought it a year ago, I live alone.

Here’s where the issue comes in. Parking is a scarce commodity in my complex. Each unit is allotted two spaces. My township frowns on overnight parking on all city streets, so that’s a limited option for residents and their guests if there are more than two cars in a household. Because I live alone, I have one spot that is usually unoccupied. I don’t often have guests over. Needless to say, my neighbors have noticed this. I have tried to dissuade people from parking in my spot by leaving notes on their cars if I catch them in my spot. I am reluctant to have anyone towed if I can avoid it, so I usually stick with the notes as a deterrent.

There is one group of neighbors in particular who have an interest in my spot — a townhouse owned by a single woman who has a roommate, a boyfriend and many guests. She has asked before to use the spot, and I’ve let her. Lately, though, she’s been using my spot without asking first. It has been a problem because those were the rare cases when I actually needed my extra spot, so I had to walk over to her house to ask her to move. (That really irked me. I shouldn’t have to involve my neighbors in my plans to use my own spot.) The neighbor has also broached the subject of renting my spot in a few months, because she plans to have her boyfriend move in.

Here’s where I stand. I don’t want to rent my second parking spot. I don’t want to have my spot be the neighborhood guest spot. Not because I’m a greedy, horrible spot-hoarder (I hope!). It’s because what I value most about my living situation — living alone, owning instead of renting — is a sense of autonomy. I love that I don’t have to consult anyone else about my plans relating to my living situation (as long as my plans don’t cause a public nuisance, of course).

So I resent that my neighbor’s plans to have her boyfriend move in now make the boyfriend’s parking issues my problem. I resent that I am being put in the position to either have to say yes to be a nice, good neighbor, or say no and be a big old bitch.

I like not having parking issues — that’s the one perk of having to shoulder all of the responsibilities of homeownership alone. If I have a friend over, or a service person comes to call, there’s a spot available. But if my spot is shared with the whole neighborhood, that means that I have to involve them in my plans when my spot is needed. I don’t want that. I also don’t want to rent the spot, because if my situation changes — say I have more regular guests or acquire a roommate — my neighbors’ parking issues become my problem. I’ll have to feel guilty about the fact that X won’t have anywhere to park when I rescind the spot.

I just don’t want to be involved. I’d prefer it if the extent of my involvement with my neighbors was to say “hi” in the parking lot. No more, no less. Beyond that, I don’t want to be affected by developments in their household. I have no control over their choices, so why should I have some responsibility toward them?

So, my questions — Am I a big old spot-hoarding bitch? Am I being a bad neighbor? Am I obligated because the request was made and I do have a free spot? I feel like I am, and that there’s an expectation that I’ll agree to their requests. And I resent that, because if someone makes a request with the expectation that I’ll say yes — well, that’s not a request, it’s a veiled demand.

(I’ve noticed that I’ve written the word “resent” a lot. That’s the crux of this. I resent that I have to think about this. I resent that I have the choice of being either a bitch or limiting my own options by giving up my spot.)

Parking Spot Hoarder

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Dear Parking Spot Hoarder,

Put a plant there.

Call it “The Greening of the Parking Space.”

Who can argue with a plant? Who is going to drive over a plant? Who among your (I am guessing) politically correct neighbors is going to argue that a car is more important than a plant?

If you put a plant in the space, you are doing something amusing with the space. If you want to let someone park there, just tell them in advance, “Move the plant.” Moving the plant requires a little more psychological involvement than just pulling into the spot. It requires touching somebody’s plant. A stranger is not likely to feel comfortable doing that. It’s almost like they’re touching you, moving you. The plant is an intimate stand-in.

Believe me, I thought this whole thing through and wrote a ton of analysis before arriving at this. Then, because it’s journalism, I put the nugget right up front. So if you’re in a hurry, you could just take the nugget and go. Put a plant there. QED. Yep, I told you Cary Tennis was crazy.

But if you’ve got some time, or are curious about the various things that go on in my head, read on.

An analogy: If you had a detached house with a driveway with room for an extra car, would you let your neighbor park his car in your driveway? Probably not. He probably wouldn’t even ask. It’s obviously your property. The space is visually connected to your house. So one regards it as your domain.

So I’m guessing this condo parking spot is visually separate from your condo. Like, you probably can’t see it from your kitchen window. So to an onlooker it feels like just one anonymous parking space in a sea of parking spaces.

Another analogy: As to the argument that you’re not using it so why shouldn’t she: Well, if you have money in the bank and you’re not using it, does that mean somebody else can just come in and borrow it until you call them and tell them to please put it back because you need to use it? No. Owning it means it stays there untouched until you come to use it.

But you sort of can’t blame people, right? They look at an empty parking space and they think, “You’re not using it.”

But you are using it. Your use of it does not consist of always placing a car in it. Your use of it consists of having it always available to you. I get that.

But it’s hard for some people to get that. There’s this cognitive leap that must be made. Admittedly, it is a small cognitive leap. It has to do with property rights and condo laws and stuff. In fact, that is what really interests me — how your problem illustrates cultural attitudes toward property rights.

We Americans are half-rancher and half-villager.

Being half-villager and half-rancher, we have conflicting desires. We want to be part of community but we want to use our God-given property rights to set ourselves apart from it when our convenience requires or our legal prerogatives allow. It throws into relief just how deeply emotional and contradictory is the right of property itself. Yes, you can own that spot. Yes, it can remain empty. And yes, its remaining empty seems absurd when there are people who need to park.

It hints at the underlying uneasiness we have about property rights. How absurd that one can own a field and let it lie fallow when the poor could grow crops there! That one can own a building and keep it vacant when the poor could live there! That one can own an old house and tear it down when those who lived there before have stored precious memories there, when the community itself has rested its memories in that building; that one might own a marshland where beautiful birds nest and in one summer dig canals into it and place timeshares there when the birds have been there for millions of years; these are all the things that our property laws allow. And they offend our sense of justice. And this parking matter is a microcosm of that: Private property rights are in conflict with emotion and what seems to be common sense.

And, you know, this whole municipal business about no overnight parking on the streets, that’s just to ensure that households do not grow in number, to enforce a kind of economic discrimination, you know, making sure that only people who can afford their housing on one or two salaries can live there, and giving the area a kind of English village look, and making sure that no red-blooded males move in and start working on their cars in the yard. In the reputable social classes, everybody takes their cars to a reputable mechanic, right? Nobody works on their own cars in this neighborhood!

And what about the somewhat misguided municipal policies that make owning cars inconvenient in the belief that such policies will bolster use of public transit? I think public transit use increases with the convenience, affordability and safety of public transit; if transit is no good, you’re just going to piss people off by making car storage inconvenient, right? People have to put their cars someplace.

OK, enough about Menlo Park. (I don’t know where you live, actually. I suppose many municipalities have similar laws.)

So I think we ought to face up to what we are, and what we believe. We do believe in the sanctity of private property. And urbanism implies anonymity and isolation from neighbors, and ownership of private property allows for that. We are not one big community. So get it clear with your neighbors: That parking spot is yours, and if you want to keep it empty all the time that is your legal prerogative. And if you want to put a plant there … well, good luck with the condo committee and its bylaws!

Anyway, it was my meditation on fallow cropland that gave rise to the idea of putting a plant there. There must be certain plants that thrive in parking spaces! What about a Lotus? Or a Caryota? That sounds like a car that I would drive!

Like I say, who can argue with a plant?

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My next-door neighbor died and I didn’t do a thing

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 29, 2006

Am I a terrible person, or just a normal American?


Dear Cary,

Before I begin, I want to preface this by explaining that by nature, I’m a fairly shy person. I hate calling people, I hate confrontation; I prefer to keep to myself. It takes a bit of coaxing to get me out of my shell.

The reason I’m writing is that my next-door neighbor died last night. I’ve lived next to her for two years. We rarely spoke: a few words over weeds in the summer, stories exchanged while passing out Halloween candy. She’s a nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and I could never imagine myself going next door to visit. She never made any overtures, either.

My neighbor was older, but by no means elderly. However, she was in poor health. About a year ago, she developed heart problems and we didn’t see her very often. My husband and I could some nights through our open window hear her coughing at all hours. I should have gone over to see how she was, if she needed anything (she has a huge family that visited frequently), but I could never get up the nerve to go.

A few weeks ago, the neighborhood block watch woman called to tell us our neighbor was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. I made noises about going to visit or send flowers, even though the idea scared the crap out of me. But then my husband got sick with the flu that’s going around, and then I got sick, and we were both out of work for a week … and then we got the phone call that our neighbor died.

I don’t know what I’m feeling about this, or what I should be feeling. On the one hand, I hate myself. I’ve always imagined — no, presented — myself as someone who could be relied on in times of trouble. And even though my neighbor never reached out to me, I never made any move toward her. It makes me sick to my stomach to think she was that sick — I guess I assumed she would be around forever — and I feel like I left her to die. But on the other hand, I didn’t know her; I doubt I could call her an acquaintance. And yet I get angry all over again that I didn’t make that effort to befriend her.

I don’t know exactly what I’m asking. We live in a society that’s so cut off from everyone. It’s amazing I even knew her name. I don’t know the names of anyone else on my street. Hell, I’ve never known the names of my neighbors in any of the places I’ve lived. We don’t live in a world where most evenings are spent outside chatting on the porch past dusk. But I never thought I’d be one of those people who never lifts a finger, who says, “Thank God the postman noticed the overflowing mailbox and knocked!” I guess I’m looking for absolution that she wasn’t my responsibility. But in my heart, I know in part she was, and I failed her. I’m a horrible human being for ignoring her suffering and doing nothing.

What Do I Do Now?

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Dear What Do I Do Now?

Calm down and stop calling yourself names. You’re not a horrible human being. You’re just a normal person. You may not be heroically civic-minded, able to rise above the inertial isolation of typical American life. But you’re no monster. You’re just an American living by the norms of American society.

In certain other places and times, instead of ignoring the neighbors one might report their habits of worship to the bishop, who would then consider, at his leisure, whether to have them burned or beheaded. Or you might give their names to a faceless man in a long coat, who would add them to the list he keeps in his decrepit office of death. In other words, at the risk of sounding corny, one might say that this cold anonymity is one of the costs of an extraordinary degree of personal autonomy and freedom from authority of any kind, governmental, religious or social.

If you ask me, and you sort of did, this society is while quite free also quite cold, certainly dysfunctional, and curiously unable to meet certain basic human needs that are easily met by aboriginal tribes, orders of religious nomads and even probably some packs of more civilized dogs: When someone in our midst dies, we want to acknowledge it openly.

That is normal. But if our options are not spelled out, who among us is bold enough to wing it? The solemnity attendant on death tends to discourage the improvised lament. If there is no protocol, one is at a loss. And in this case, as far as you could tell, there was no protocol; no elder of the church called on you; no notice was posted announcing a memorial; no one phoned and requested your presence at a funeral or a wake.

So you naturally were in conflict. Your instinct was clear: My neighbor is dead. I should do something. But what? Dress in mourning? Wear an armband? Raise a banner in front of the house?

So let this be a lesson to you: Always send a card when someone is sick.

And get to know your neighbors. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

That way, if one of them dies, perhaps your name will appear in an address book, or your card will have been filed away by a family member, who will contact all the senders of cards and all the people in the address book, and thus there will occur the ritual acknowledgement of death that is so longed for.

What can you do now, if anything? Try to find a way to make some expression of condolence. To whom? Why, to the family, of course. Find out from the neighbor who informed you where condolences may be sent. Send condolences. Say that you were the neighbor, and while you were not close, you will miss the departed one, and you send your heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones she left behind.

This is the way we live today. Perhaps it is a shame. But this is the way we live.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Breaking Board

Walking up to the cafe on Thursday morning the day before the Mavericks surf contest down the road at Pillar Point, remembering last night’s weather news about the buoys going off along the coast, watching the big surf, and I see a guy walking up the beach with half his board under each arm. “That’s not a good sign,” I say.

“I’m just glad I got to shore,” he says.

At the Judah Street break in the berm where I usually trudge up to Java Beach I turn. For a big surf day there are few surfers out. I watch the lone surfer out paddle for a big, fast-breaking wave. He gets up and comes down the face and then it is as if he is an unwary pedestrian on a street of tall white houses that have just toppled onto him, becoming huge white foam and dazzling mist.

In a few days will be the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. He would appreciate this: the broken board, the huge waves, the sunny morning with a chilly northeast wind.