There were no parking spaces on my block in Mid-Wilshire. This is true as often as it is not. I live not far from a hospital, on an unpermitted street, which means our curb space gets taken up by medical staff who don't want to pay to park. Usually, it's a problem on weekdays, working hours, especially Mondays and Tuesdays, when alternate-side-of-the-street parking is in effect. This night, though, was a Sunday, and I was already feeling stressed.
Earlier, the dog had started hobbling; a slipped disk, the vet opined. My son and I kindled a low-burning disagreement — about what, I don't recall. I went out to see a friend, but it didn't help me crawl out from under the dreary weight of my funk. Funk? No, more like a rash, the start of something and an itch I couldn't scratch.
I circled the neighborhood a few times, looking for a place to leave my car. Finally, I found one a block south of my house. It was behind a late-model Jeep, buffed and Simonized. I tried to back into the space, but I had the approach wrong. I was relying on my back-up camera, but I couldn't see the angles, couldn't figure out where I should cut my wheels. I pulled out again in front of the Jeep and began once more to navigate by way of my dashboard screen.
I heard it before I felt it, the scrape of plastic on plastic, the sound of grinding teeth. Or maybe that was my teeth. I had caught the front left fender of the Jeep with my rear right quarter panel, brushing against it like a sheet of sandpaper along the surface of a painted piece of wood.
Perfect, just perfect. The fitting cap to an uneasy day. I sat behind the wheel for a minute, motor running; then, craning my neck to peer through the back window this time, I wrestled my car into the space and got out to check the damage, already thinking about three years of inflated insurance premiums.
What I noticed first was that the damage wasn't as bad as I'd expected; in fact, it wasn't very bad at all. My car was unscathed, except for a line of grime I wiped off with the palm of my hand. The Jeep, too, had an oily streak on its white front fender, which I also wiped clean. Underneath, however, were two distinct vertical scratches, like a pair of surgical scars. I felt the bumpy edges of abrasion.
I went back to my car to look for paper and pen. As I got in the driver's seat, I noticed something else: a woman, walking her dog, who was now photographing me with her phone. "I hope you're not planning to drive away," she said.
Until then, I was irritated with myself for having been so careless, but now, I was angry with the woman for taking my picture without permission, a symbol of the censorious culture we have created. ("If you see something, say something.") How dare she, I thought. It was an invasion of my privacy, not to mention an assumption that I would do the wrong thing.
And yet, what made me maddest was that she wasn't entirely incorrect. I had no intention of driving away without leaving a note, but I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't occurred to me. It was dark, and aside from her no one was watching. It happens all the time — the hit-and-run, the parking lot ding — and I understand the desire to evade, the temptation to sneak away.
Understanding, however, is not the same as action. We all have impulses to behave selfishly, to go against the social contract; it is not the thought but what we do with it that counts. And yet ethical behavior can be difficult — especially when it goes against self-interest, which in this instance was entirely financial: I didn't want to pay for the damage I had done.
There it was, however; I had caused the scrape, and the choice to own up was left to me. I found a piece of paper and scratched a note with my name and phone number, left it on the windshield underneath the wiper blade.
It took a few days to hear from the Jeep's owner, long enough that I began to hope that I might not. Then, an unfamiliar number showed up on my phone. The caller thanked me for leaving the note; he was surprised. The damage appeared insignificant, but he would let me know. A week later, he called again:The scratches had been buffed out at no cost.
There's a moral here about the value of doing what we should. Not because it will end well (as it did for me) or out of some amorphous sense of guilt or ethics. But because this is how community is meant to work. We live in a culture defined by suspicion, in which everyone has a reason to be in it for themselves. We yell and scream at one another, take advantage where we can.
I understand the narrow impulse, but this is not the tie that binds. Rather, it is the commitment to take responsibility, to care for one another, to think about the greater good. Idealistic? Sure it is. But a little idealism can go a long way — starting on the streets of Mid-Wilshire.
David L. Ulin is the author of "Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles."