- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore
It wasn’t a matter of choice: I had to move. I had been living in downtown Long Beach for two years. I loved it, and I was damned if I would move far. I found a great new apartment just a few blocks down Ocean Boulevard. The only problem was the rent: it was $100 more than I had been paying—no small matter in my tax bracket. But I did the math and figured I could eke by.
Except for parking. One of the ways I minimize my expenses is by driving a motor-scooter rather than a car. The place I’d been living had an on-site parking structure, and because I didn’t need an actual space but only a tiny bit of out-of-the-way wall space, I’d been allowed to pay only $15 per month. But my new home had no such amenity, so I needed a solution. My fellow residents rented spots from a nearby parking structure at $50 a pop, but I didn’t really have the fiscal room to spare and was hoping I could find something more amenable to my penury.
You can’t miss the Pike Parking structure, a stack of seven football-field-size levels of gray-white cement that announces THE PIKE in high blue lettering running down each side, with a relatively modest, black-on-white PARK above and below. I phoned them up and was told yes, they rent monthly spaces, but that the price was $60 each.
The guy on the other end of the phone was named Brian, a manager for AmeriPark, the company that had recently taken over Pike Parking.
“Look,” I said to Brian, talking to him like a fellow human rather than a cog in a goods-and-services machine, “I don’t actually need a parking space.” I explained to him about my forced move, my tight financial straits, my motor-scooter.
I told him I had scouted out the Pike structure and that there was ample wall space that was unusable for cars and yet completely out of the way of the flow of traffic. He pondered my situation, then offered to allow me to park at the employee rate of $30 per month, but that was the best he could do, because they had to supply me with a device to raise the toll arm. But I didn’t need a car or fob or remote control or whatever, I said: I could just maneuver around it. I had been paying $15 per month at my last place, because I didn’t need but two cubic feet of otherwise unusable real estate. All Brian had to do was allow it.
And that’s what he did. I decided to talk to this guy I’d never met as a fellow human rather than as a faceless employee of a faceless company, and the guy responded in kind. And for the last seven years I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Brian’s empathic kindness, even though he left the company years ago. Because I’ve been paying quarterly, four times per year I’ve wandered into the Pike Parking offices and cut a $45 check to “City of Long Beach” (the owners of the structure itself, who in turn lease it to DDR Management—the company that runs the Pike—who have AmeriPark manage it). Employees have sometimes been confused, but each time they’ve processed it, grandfathering in the deal Brian made with one poor soul.
This month that came to an end. A very young woman—a girl, really—was manning the office when I arrived, and she became addled when confronted with this unusual arrangement. Usually in and out within four minutes, I had been waiting more than 10 when her superior—we’ll call him “Ortho”—approached the window and stated that he had checked with his superior, and since AmeriPark generally offered no such rate, they were terminating this arrangement (though they would allow me one final month to make other arrangements).
What, I wondered, had suddenly changed? Why was our arrangement workable on April 1 but not on July 1? Was there new accounting software? new management? Apparently it was nothing of the sort. I simply had the bad luck to encounter employees who couldn’t/wouldn’t color outside the lines.
Of course, there’s a case to be made that they shouldn’t. Rules are rules, after all, and they should apply to everyone equally. Why should I receive special treatment? Still, that seemed somewhat beside the point, and so when Ortho said that “Brian should not have made that deal,” I thought it might be worth talking to Ortho as a fellow human, too. I wasn’t mad about the parking deal, I just wanted to understand the thinking of the person on the other side of the counter telling me that his predecessor’s minor act of compassion was something that should not have been extended to me. I explained to Ortho that what I appreciated about Brian’s gesture even more than the sweet parking deal was what it represented: a spark of humanity within the bureaucratic machine.
Ortho was unimpressed. “You can call it bureaucratic,” he said of AmeriPark’s revocation of Brian’s fiat, “but I call that being ethical. [… One has] certain responsibilities, including following the rules.”
Despite my lifelong disdain for mindless rule-following, I get Ortho’s point. I just don’t care about such practices when they blind us to the situation in front of our eyes. While Brian’s deal was in place, the City of Long Beach got $15 per month, I got parking I could afford, and no one was put out by the tiny patch of wall fronted by my scooter. Now, with (as Ortho put it) the ethical choice in effect, the City loses $15/mo. (since I still can’t swing $60/mo. for parking), I need to find somewhere else for my two-wheeler, and AmeriPark and its other customers get nothing. No one benefits; there is only loss, however small.
That’s one of the many problems with bureaucratic thinking: it is the thoughtless application of a procedure, unmindful of the effect brought about by the cause. Another problem is exemplified by Ortho’s response to Brian’s act of kindness: He should not have done that. You want to follow a rule? How about this: No act of kindness that does not cause harm to others can ever be wrong. Brian didn’t give me special treatment because we were drinking buddies or because I was bribing him. He simply recognized that I was in a bit of a bind and decided to help me out, since not only would it be to no-one’s detriment, but it would generate $15 per month that the City would not otherwise get. We could call it a random act of kindness, except that “rare act of kindness” is probably more accurate. You have to look hard to find humanity within our society’s bureaucratic web. And where you find it, its existence is not random, but the product of one cog in the machine choosing to upset a bit of the status quo because of the net gain that results. Even if the rules are bent.
Brian was, apparently, one of those rare people. I met him only once. He was in the office seven years ago when I made my first parking payment. I’m glad I took the time to shake his hand and thank him, that I explained why I found his act so heartening. He seemed a little embarrassed with the praise. I think that in his mind he was just doing the right thing. What’s the big deal about that?
That handshake couldn’t happen today. Recently the Pike Parking office was walled in half, so that instead of walking in and occupying the same physical space as the AmeriPark people, you are now stuck in a claustrophobia-inducing chamber, half-yelling to employees on the other side of a monstrously thick plastic window. I suppose it was a fitting precursor to my little drama, as one little company has made one little choice to further blend into the arid bureaucratic landscape, where human footprints are increasingly rare, fossils at least a few of us regard with nostalgia.
A certain mechanization of the world is afoot. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it’s largely for the best. But we humans don’t have to play along. Our spirits should be ghosts in the machine, spirits free to float as we will, to move along with the mechanical processes or drift outside of them when they do not best serve our needs. Yes, in this particular case the only need not served is mine; that is completely beside the point.
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