I was raised in New York City, weaned on arrogance and inconsideration. In cavalier moments of self-aggrandizing fantasy, I like to think that I'm a pretty tough kid at root. Way too sharp to be manhandled by the warmly smiling softies who so magnetized me to Southern California in the first place, when I decided to move here 11 years ago.
But, recently, I've met my match. Not in the film business. Not on the East L.A. streets that remind me so much of Spanish Harlem in the early '70s. My tough-guy teeth have been cut anew . . . on the valet line.
As I use a wheelchair to get around, I drive an adaptive van (a respectably nondescript, customized 1995 Ford Econoline 150, outfitted with a side-loading wheelchair lift). Left to my own devices, I almost never encounter a problem parking, anywhere. With parking attendants, it's another story.
Recently, my father and his wife came to visit from back East, on their annual jaunt coinciding with my birthday. We decided to eat at Geoffrey's in Malibu, a scenic spot so magical that neither the prices nor the minuscule portions matter a tad. Along with my wife, we headed up the coast for our birthday meal.
There is no street parking near Geoffrey's. I pulled into the lot . . . and encountered what appeared to be a demolition site, but for five spaces and a frenetically waving attendant. I sensed the potential of some weirdness.
"We've got construction going on," read a sign. "Please excuse our appearance." Courteous. Apologetic. How nice. I explained that my truck was operated by hand controls (thus undrivable for anyone but me), and, though confused, the valet directed me into the only remaining open space.
Two hours later, we emerged from our delightful meal to find my van blocked in by a pair of extremely expensive-looking German sedans. And the attendant station shut for the evening. My wife headed inside to flag down the manager, who emerged to inform me that he was terribly sorry, but there was nothing that he could do. I asked him to elaborate, and he explained that he "would never think to disturb his customers by asking for car keys while they were dining. You will just have to wait, until they're done." Not with my kid at home and a $9-an-hour baby-sitter on the clock.
"All your tables are outside, right?" I asked. The man nodded. "My truck has a pain-inducing alarm. The switch is in my hand. You have one minute to get over there, disturb whomever you must, and move these cars. . . . Otherwise, everyone leaves here deaf." He shot me the most dumbfounded of looks. I began, "59 . . . 58 . . . 57 . . ."
I was on the road again in one minute.
Lest you think that I am one of those experienced disability advocates who can instinctively conduct such a Werner Erhard-cum-Angela Davis assertiveness demonstration at the mere hint of prejudice, I will assure you that until the events presented herein, I have rarely felt compelled to make even a peep on my own behalf. If it has taken my oddly latent valet parking karma to spur me to stand up (in a matter of speaking) and act, then so be it. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that throughout my travels here and abroad, people have generally been very accommodating, though often in bizarre ways. To illustrate:
Some years ago, I found myself in the middle of a hurricane, in the parking lot of the Dania Jai Alai fronton, one of the seedier outposts of South Florida culture. My van and I had braved the squall so as to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes, wagering on sporting events whose results are unashamedly fixed.
No storm was going to prevent me or my hundreds of gambling compatriots from placing a bet or two with our hard-won wages. Despite the torrents of rain, salvos of thunder and lightning bolts that were crackling off the odd light post or palm tree nearby, we were all rushing from driver's seats to fronton, as if on a pilgrimage. . . .
And then my lift ceased functioning. With me on it. Suspended from the side of my van, in my wheelchair, in what seemed the center of the world's wettest, loudest cyclone. I was 5 feet off the ground, with no way back into my van and no way down, due to what was later explained to be a short circuit. I began praying to the Great Electrician in the Sky, when . . .
I heard Spanish voices and felt a tug. Yes, four benevolent men had stopped in the middle of the deluge to manually hoist my 250-pound parcel of body plus wheelchair from my lift and onto the ground. Without saying a word, they pushed me and my chair, a la bobsled team, into the dry sanctuary of the fronton. When I turned to thank my newfound saviors, they were gone, having already begun to beat their path to the ticket window. No gratitude required by saints so pure as these.
I will wager, with confidence born of recent experience, that no such individuals have ever worked on the valet line.
Last week, I saw an ad proclaiming the return to L.A. of one of the favorite bands of my downtown New York days. I was perplexed to see that they were playing at the House of Blues, a normally must-avoid scene for me (I prefer to circumvent what my crowd refers to as Genericana: guys with goatees and cigars, surgically enhanced women, etc.).
I threw grandiosity to the wind and bought tickets anyway. So on Friday night, my buddy Jon and I headed to West Hollywood, in my truck, to brave the yuppie-infested night and hear some music. All was well until the valet line.
Whereupon I was informed that there is one handicap parking space at House of Blues. It was taken (by a sports utility vehicle without a disability placard). I was told to park at the Hyatt on Sunset, which, as I explained to the attendant, is located far from the club, up a hill the angle of which would terrify Picabo Street and thus untraversable with a wheelchair.
My reasoning was met with expletive-laden rejection. Upon appeal, I was provided an alternative: Pay 10 bucks and park my truck "in that spot over there." I looked, Jon looked . . . at a compact-sized aperture, in between a pair of very small Italian sports cars. Peering up at the 40-car-long valet line that stood between us and the club's exit, I threw it into reverse and made for the tiny space. Hell, we were here to rock, and I was gonna go for it.
I got 4 feet before nearly decapitating a Lamborghini. I had had enough. I threw it into park. The attendant raced over to me. I lowered the window. I pleaded my case one more time. He responded with the beginnings of a tirade. And, as at Geoffrey's, my alter ego began to reappear.
Without so much as a blink, I found myself pulling my truck forward, thus blocking the entire valet line. If I wasn't going to park, no one else was either. The attendant followed beside me, demanding to know if I were crazy.
"Yes," I told him, whereupon I turned off my ignition, and sat, parked, before a stream of irritated thirtysomethings and their dates, waiting to make their entrances. I suggested to the attendant that he call a cop. I'm still a tough kid, and I wasn't moving.
The manager of the club emerged, a kindly Brit, named, of all things, Barney. I explained my situation and wound up in a primo parking space and, ultimately, in some secretly sequestered section of the club, behind ropes, from which I watched the show.
I think I'll drive my tank next time.