Too big to park, too rich to care

SUVThere were snipers on the roof of the social sciences building.

Nobody had seen them but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Down in the avenue, men in black touched their ears and muttered into their cuff links.

The first lady of the United States was on the move.

The airwaves crackled with code: “Unicorn, what’s your bogey status, over?”

“Roger, Wrangler, bogey status is negative … no, belay that, Wrangler … eyes on your three o’clock; there’s a suspiciously tall guy loitering outside the arts block.”

“I see him, Unicorn … he’s holding a … it’s a … it’s a creative writing portfolio. Do you want me to take him out?”

“Negative, Wrangler, threat level is low. Fiction writers are all hat and no cattle, over.”

“Roger, Unicorn, but I can read the front page and there’s some shit about magical realism and Karoo landscapes and the importance of art. I really feel I should take him out to save future generations of readers.”

“Jesus, Wrangler, why didn’t you say so?! Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

“I don’t have a clean shot.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s worth winging a hippy or two if it prevents another moody, rural parable about fractured masculinity.”

Of course they need not have bothered. I wasn’t even looking at FLOTUS. I was looking at her car. It was the biggest I’d ever seen; a huge, hunched, gleaming thing, as if a rhinoceros had been dipped into molten black glass. I didn’t see Hillary Clinton in the end, but I did see the dents her car left on the pavement. I couldn’t believe that a car could be so big or so heavy.

As I gazed at the rhinomobile, Clinton told the University of Cape Town that a woman would be elected president of the US within two decades. That was 18 years ago. (If she wins in November, expect the far right to seize on that prophecy as indisputable proof that she is a witch.)

For me, it didn’t seem like such a stretch. No, what seemed truly outlandish to me was that car. A woman in the White House in 2018 seemed entirely likely. But if you’d told me that our cities would be covered with ludicrously vast tank-cars, I’d have told you to get your head read.

And yet, here they are, sprawled across our streets, as if a tsunami had lifted 1000 houseboats off their moorings and dumped them inland; doing nine-point turns across traffic; reversing down roads that have been rendered impassibly narrow by having only two lanes. And the parking. Oh, sweet gods of redundant steering-wheels, the parking…

It isn’t ineptness. It’s spatial entitlement.

As a writer, I am cursed with two chronic ailments: cabin fever and ill-discipline. This means that I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, looking out of the window, with the result that I have watched more rich people try to park more SUVs than most. I’m a bit of an expert. And what I’ve realised, from those hours of watching be-Breitlinged mahouts nudge their metal elephants this way and that, is that their clumsiness isn’t ineptness. It’s spatial entitlement.

Not two minutes ago, as I was typing “ill-discipline”, and wondering if “procrastination” were better, and then pausing to ponder the nature of procrastination, I gazed out of the window and watched a man in a white panama hat park his Porsche Cayenne.

I’m looking at it as I write this, and realising that “park” is the wrong word. We need a new word for how the rich stop their cars. Because that’s all he’s done. He’s turned the wheel by two degrees, and put his front left headlight into the parking bay. And that’s all.

I’ve seen worse, though: in some parts of wealthy Cape Town, SUV parking has reached surreal levels of disdain. For example, there’s a street on the slopes of Signal Hill where drivers simply pull up the handbrake. The first time you see it you assume they’ve just run over a kitten and are getting out to check the damage. But, instead of crouching by their front tyres, they stroll into the nearby coffee shop and order a latte for themselves and a babycino for their sprog. The Range Rover stands where it was left, a monument to the solipsism of the expansively rich.

It’s not that these people can’t drive or park properly. It’s that they don’t feel that they need to. As presidents, first ladies or first husbands of their own imaginary superpowers, they inhabit a world of infinite personal space. But, more important, it’s a world in which antisocial behaviour can’t exist because there is no society to be anti. There is simply them, and their human right to drink a cup of coffee before they platz.

Still, it could be worse. They don’t have snipers on the roof. Yet.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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3 comments

  1. Interesting. The rich thinking they can do anything is a problem that faces many middle and low class citizens. Sometimes they need a reality check.

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  2. Interesting history behind the SUV thing. During the 1970s, when supposedly environmental and/or safety regulation finally absolutized the US motor-industry oligarchy, leaving the American automobile as overweight as it had always been but lacking its prior redeeming agricultural simplicity, the law on light commercial vehicles trailed that on passenger vehicles by several years. The American enthusiast press at the time therefore recommended giving passenger cars a general miss and going for a truck, or something truck-based, instead. A Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Bronco, or Jeep Wagoneer was suddenly an object of desire, if only in comparison with the alternative concoction of smog pumps, 5mph bumpers, and safety-belt warning buzzers. The problem is that it stuck long after trucks became similarly encumbered – mainly due to motor-industry marketing in response to this state of affairs. Hence the modern disposable SUV, which has all the vices but none of the virtues of a bona-fide lorry.

    The lead photo shows the unusual situation where the SUV driver leaves the bigger gap on the passenger side. It might be carelessness or a bad sense of scale rather than genuine power parking. When the incorrigibly arrogant deliberately take two bays the larger space is far more often on the driver’s side. And, parking-bay standards being what they are, this usually happily leaves exactly the width of a CitiGolf plus about an inch on either side. If one has a cultivated instinct for the precise width of one’s CitiGolf, and if one’s CitiGolf is a disreputable workhorse which resembles – and I credit the abovementioned American enthusiast press for the description – a burlap bag full of hockey pucks, it is the work of a moment to make the incorrigibly arrogant clamber in inelegantly from the passenger side.

    “… antisocial behaviour can’t exist because there is no society to be anti.” Indeed! I encounter this daily. In architecture, the rich no longer seek ostentation; the rich seek the wholesale denial of the existence of the rest of the world. The moderately affluent have at least the honesty to want a house with an impressive front door, a proud face to turn to the world. The really stinkingly rich want a house with no visible front door at all. They do not value the world enough to boast to it.

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