In the midst of a snowstorm last month, for a period of time not exceeding 10 minutes, I illegally parked my car in a handicapped parking lot…and used my friend’s expired permit to avoid getting caught…and had my car towed away. I hope my humiliation will dissipate with each reader who recognizes that the same teeny, lazy, manipulative gene that lives in me might horrifyingly make an appearance in her life as well.
I don’t remember the last time I felt the red faced, heart palpitating emotion of shame. Whenever it was, whether I was found to be a liar or a cheater or a thief, the long ago memory is repressed. But the sickening, no-way-out feeling I just experienced was one I definitely lived through (albeit barely) before. Without excuses, (well, maybe a few extenuating circumstances) here is my tale of guilt, the gift, as Erma Bombeck used to say, that keeps on giving.
I had a 10:30 appointment at a local university to drop off a resume and an outline for a proposed class. I wasn’t really nervous because, at most, what would be demanded of me that morning was a firm handshake and some confident eye contact. The real work was in a manila envelope that wouldn’t be judged until I was gone. On a clear day it takes about 20 minutes to get to the school. This particular morning the weather was iffy when I left the house in my brand new navy suede shoes. It started snowing lightly when I pulled away from the drive-through bank window (after waiting forever for the one car ahead of me to get done, leaving me seven minutes behind schedule) and began snowing furiously in that wet, big flake kind of way that doesn’t stick but looks ominous as I got onto the parkway.
I arrived at the school exactly on time. Right in front of the building was an empty faculty/handicapped parking lot with spaces for about 10 cars. What seemed to be a half-mile away (but was probably half that distance) was student parking.
By way of background information, I’ve always hated any self–centered, insensitive creep who felt entitled to park in a space reserved for the handicapped. But this was different. In the few seconds it took to swing into the closer lot, pull out an expired permit from my glove compartment left there months before by a neighbor I chauffeured around after she broke her leg last summer, I made a quick pro/con list to rationalize why it was OK for me to park there.
1. I’d be no more than 10 minutes.
2. There were nine other empty spots.
3. It was snowing very hard- any rational handicapped person wouldn’t dare to venture out.
4. I would be late if I parked properly.
5. Everyone else I knew in my position would park there.
6. I was wearing blue suede shoes.
1. It was the wrong thing to do.
James Thurber said that humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility. The picture of me slipping my way into the building and sliding my way back 12 minutes later to confront a vacant parking lot, then trudging my way to the transportation building (a legitimate half mile away) to reclaim my car, might be funny next year, but I’m not laughing yet.
“Your permit expired,” said the kindly old gentleman in the brown uniform behind the desk, holding up a picture of my car parked under the handicapped sign complete with the permit I’d put on my dashboard.
“I know. I’m so sorry,” I said. “I was only gone a few minutes…”
“It’s a shame, Aileen,” said the man, calling me by my friend’s name, “but it’s not up to me. You’re car’s been towed and I have to give you a ticket. That will be $25.00.”
I was grateful it wasn’t more. I reached for my checkbook, then realized…my name…the name on the permit… “Can I give you cash?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said with a smile, “but we’ll be glad to take a check.”
“No, I’d rather pay in cash,” I said, palms sweatily pulling out one twenty, three singles and two dollars in quarters, nickels, dimes and yes pennies, and placing them on the narrow counter that separated us.
He took in my eccentric behavior, counted the money, stamped my receipt and then said, “OK, now all I need is your license and you’ll be on your way…”
Busted. This is the moment humiliation turned to shame. He looked at my license, then the permit.
“Whose permit is this?” he growled. He looked like he wanted to spit at me.
“My friend’s, “ I said stupidly. It was too late to tell him about my pro list. Or my volunteer work. Or how hard I work at living the kind of life where these moments never appear.
“Get her out of here and take her to her car,” he snarled to a guy standing at the door. His jaw was clenched, holding back what he thought of me. I get chills just remembering the disdain in his voice.
So what lessons did I learn, I thought later, scrubbing blue dye from the soles of my feet. I will share them even though you already know them and probably won’t listen either till you too are smacked upside your head.
1. Just because you do what’s right 99.9 percent of the time doesn’t give you permission to behave like a skuzzball ever.
2. If the one thing in the con column is “This is the wrong thing to do,” don’t. Your mother taught you better.