Of Parking Lots, and Traffic

The calm before the storm from the parking lot sentry post

When we moved back to Houston about a decade ago we had two priorities: 1) access to a trail system or a park, and 2) close proximity to a good school for Things #1 and #2.

With the added accuracy of hindsight, I give myself a D- in terms of how our research turned out. We did find a wonderful neighborhood with ready access to a park and trails. Unfortunately, that exposure to nature came with the heavy price of repeat flooding—awful, destructive flooding.

We also found a wonderful school located just across the street from our neighborhood. We foresaw many walks together when our boys were young (and easy strolls for those same boys when they were   older and no longer wanted to be seen in public with us).

The dream-killer that is reality intruded on this walking plan in a number of ways. First, our neighborhood had no sidewalks. Initially, this seemed quaint. We quickly learned that many of those driving the neighborhood streets did so with their foot on the gas and their cell phone perched in their ear.

Most importantly, what separated the neighborhood from the school was a thoroughfare known as Memorial Drive. We had not noticed the peril of this crossing when we first moved in as the city was using red light cameras to ticket offenders.

Shortly after we arrived the city lost a lawsuit involving the use of the cameras and, almost overnight, crossing Memorial became a trial by fire. Once the light turned red you were compelled to count to two Mississippi, and then again look both ways lest you and yours wind up as a hood ornament.

Walking to school was a non-starter. It was, sadly, necessary to up-armor our kids by loading them on the school bus that passed by the end of our street for the two-minute ride to school.

I thought we had left that world behind when we moved to our small town in Costa Rica. Around a third of the streets in our zone are paved, which is good as the accompanying sidewalks keep your hands, feet, and children away from the tour buses, milk trucks and an array of motorcycles, quads, and cars that somehow defy the odds and pass the annual required safety inspection.

The rest of our area, particularly Monteverde proper, is comprised almost entirely of dirt roads. Dirt roads laden with potholes, ruts, and the occasional boulder. There are, in spots, dirt trails that run alongside the dirt roads–but nary a sidewalk.

I achieved an uneasy peace with the local roads. I keep to the sidewalks in the paved portions and stay to the right on the teeth-rattling, suspension-breaking dirt roads which compel vehicles to crawl along—giving me time to jump out of the way of erratic drivers.

Peace was ruptured about two weeks ago when an array of heavy vehicles spread a mix of gravel, asphalt, dirt, and oil on the main dirt road. Much like the disappearing red-light cameras, the impact was immediate.

I am fond of the expression, “If less is more just think how much more more is.” In terms of speed, this has long been the mantra of all local drivers as well as much of the tourist community. Technically speaking the road is improved, not paved, and when the rains come they will bring the holes and ruts back with them. For now, most drivers are hitting speeds never seen before on this now smooth stretch.

Adding insult to injury, a small group of us drew short straws and were assigned traffic/parking-lot duty for a day-long event at the Quaker school yesterday. My bride and I spent about an hour hanging yellow caution tape along portions of the newly smoothed main road which runs in front of the school. The idea was to at least notionally proclaim that these were no-parking areas, preserving enough space for the cars, trucks, and buses to pass. We hung the same tape along both sides of the entrance to the parking lot. We then settled in for what we knew was going to be a long day.

We started with one person stationed up the road to warn drivers that they were about to hit an even skinnier stretch of this 1.5 lane road. This up-road person was also supposed to plead with those attending the event to park only on the designated side.

Back at the already-full parking lot one of us stood out front telling those trying to come in that there was no room while another team member dealt with those who promised they were only entering to drop someone off, then blocked all access by leaving their car in the middle of the lot while they went to the event for whatever amount of time appealed to them.

Pura Vida is, for the most part, a great thing. Many times I have emerged from the hardware or grocery store to find that someone has parked directly behind me. I have learned that the only solution is to sit and wait. The driver will eventually come back, wave, and free you. It might take half an hour, but it will happen.

This approach does not translate to successful parking management at an event where the one and only parking lot has about ten parking spaces. I knew all of this going in. I also knew that the reflective strap I wore gave me no actual power or respect. I counted on this being a painful, but potentially productive way to practice my Spanish.

I found that most people did, eventually, heed our pleas and not block the road or the parking lot. They were directed to spots further down the main road where they could park. Many were not particularly happy about it (more Spanish practice). I assured them that this was not my idea of fun either. 

I should add that many speeding drivers did slow down. I had pleasant conversations with a number of people. I also watched a number of drivers ignore me as they sped through the skinny pass heading directly at a vehicle coming up the road with nowhere to go—a cell phone perched in their ear. A couple of drivers expressed their machismo by taking the suggestion to slow down as a good opportunity to punch it and see how fast that could go.

Telling myself that this, like a bad shrimp, would pass, I did my best to remain calm.  My tranquility was seriously tested when a woman parked across the street from me and, from the confines of her brand new SUV, began berating me. I was back on parking lot duty. I smiled as she delivered her outrage.

“You’ve created a disaster!”

I initially looked behind me, thinking she must be talking to someone else. No.

She went on at length expressing her unhappiness that she had to wait because portions of the road were only passable by one car at a time. I thought perhaps she was talking about the ongoing road work and the cement truck that blocked the road down the way.  Was she speaking about that?

No. She gestured towards me and the school behind me. “It is unbelievable that the whole community has to suffer because of your event!”

I had taken her for a tourist because of her English and her brand new car. I now saw that she had a flag promoting one of the candidates for president draped from the window on the far side of her car (not a touristy thing to do).

“Um…You know this is the Quaker school. Built by the Quaker community. This is a fundraiser for the school. And you’re driving in the Quaker community.”

She shoed my comments away with her hands. “I’ve lived here for years. This is ridiculous! I’m going to write a letter!”

I smiled, a little grateful that she seemed to have finally figured out that yelling at the person not smart enough to dodge volunteer traffic/parking duty was not likely to yield results, and encouraged her to write that letter. I also wondered about her residency claim in light of the fact that road closures and blockages were part of life here in our zone as well as the rest of the country. This kind of thing is not by any means new.

She sat silent for a little while, then leaned out, pointed her finger at me and said, “This is all probably illegal, you know.”

I nodded and smiled.

She wanted more. I did not give it to her. Eventually, a man walked up the road and got in the passenger seat of her car. She scowled one more time at me and drove away—the flag billowing up as they went.

I still had a few hours to go so I decided to let this wash over me. I then had an unhappy thought. Back in Houston, there was once a fun, eclectic annual arts festival in a slightly rough part of town known for its bars. The area had slowly gentrified, and those new residents wanted nothing to do with the seedy, noisy, impromptu outdoor bathroom aspects of the festival. After a few years, those new residents forced the festival to move across town.

As I watched the unhappy lady drive away I was pretty sure which side of that kind of debate she would reside. And, as the cars continued to speed by I recognized that people are the same the world over, and I am batting zero in the game of traffic.