After a year of permit driving my daughter turned 17 and on her birthday, full of anticipation, went to the DMV to finally earn that most liberating article of identification; a driver’s license.
She returned home devastated. She had brushed a cone parallel parking and flunked her test.
In a year of supervised driving with me, we had never parked on the side of a street. There was just never a need.
Her twin brother immediately panicked. He was to take his test the following week.
You see, I had forgotten that parallel parking is the nemesis of drivers everywhere. Even experienced drivers. But in particular, the uncomfortable act strikes fear into nervous teenagers driving with clipboard-carrying DMV officials for the first time.
“Why do I need to parallel park anyway?” my daughter asked frustrated. “I can just park in a garage or a lot somewhere. And if it is still far away from where I need to go, I’ll just Uber.”
Granted we don’t live in a dense urban area where street parking is the only option, but parallel parking is still a driving skill that must be learned. And when you live in a city, it is a skill which must be mastered.
And the only way to learn it is to do it. Many times. And the only way to master it is to do it even more times.
“Back when I was your age I had to parallel park a stick shift on the streets of San Francisco,” I told them. “It was uphill, both ways,” I added just for fun.
Actually, when I earned my license I lived in the suburbs of Chicago where there were wide open streets and no hills. But I didn’t tell them that.
Because after college I did have to parallel park many times on the hills of San Francisco where I was then working. At the time I was sheepishly driving a four-speed exploding Pinto that I often needed to back into tight, street-side parking spaces working the brake, the clutch, and the gas all at once. This is hard with only two feet.
I learned a trick. I called it kissing the bumper. When backing into a spot downhill I would gently rest my car against the vehicle behind allowing me to take my foot off the brake and work the clutch and gas to slither forward.
I used this trick when no one was watching and hoped the car behind had the emergency brake engaged. But given that I was driving a car known to explode on rear impact, this probably wasn’t the best idea, even if it worked well.
Many years later I lived in Manhattan where the only affordable parking options were on the street. I had long since graduated from my exploding Pinto into a much nicer sedan.
In the city I zoomed around blocks of one way streets stealthy competing with other motorists for any open spot that did not reveal a fire hydrant.
By necessity I learned to squeeze my car into the tightest of spaces. Pull up. Look back, left shoulder, right shoulder. Turn sharply . . . now! Back in at an angle and start reversing the wheel the other way. Slither back and forth like a falling leaf. Kiss the bumper in back. Kiss the bumper in front. Stop somewhere in the middle with inches to spare.
And then I would check the hidden street signs to see when I had to come back to move the car again. I got a lot of experience.
But here and now it was time to quickly share this experience with my kids in one easy-to-learn parallel parking lesson.
This is when I realized that parallel parking is an art, not a science. Big cars, little cars, long cars, short cars, tight spaces, wide spaces, high visibility, low visibility. There is no fast and hard rule that works in all situations.
But the object was not to teach my kids how to parallel park among real live cars parked on real live streets. No, the object was to teach my kids how to pass their test by parking between plastic cones placed reasonably far apart.
There would be plenty of time to really learn how to parallel park once they got their licenses.
With some rough guidance on where to look and when to turn the wheel, I let my kids practice parking between orange cones in front of our house. Since they couldn’t see the low markers I stood alongside the cones so they could better see.
Let me tell you, the very definition of trust is to stand in the middle of the street while your child in backing in around you. It could be as stupid as exercising the back bumper of an exploding Pinto on a hill in San Francisco.
But after an hour or so they were both comfortable maneuvering the car and ready to take their tests
They passed easily.
And nervously, I wrote a big check to the insurance company as they asked for the car keys to start driving and parking on their own.
Dad? Tell us again how you kiss the bumper?