He longed for something exciting to do in retirement. He needed a new challenge, a bold adventure, maybe even a new identity.
One Saturday he was looking for a parking spot at Costco. It was busy. Cruising by each row and scanning for the best spot available, watching as other people took spaces he thought could have been his…he was frustrated.
He finally had to settle for a spot far from the entrance. He sat in his car, fuming.
Then the vision came to him.
The more he thought about it, the more he liked it.
He decided he didn’t need anything at Costco after all and went home.
In the days that followed, he made preparations. If he was to do this well, he’d have to master every detail.
Over the next few weeks, the elements fell into place.
The car for instance. He needed one well-suited to the task.
He thought about something bold and brawny, maybe a Hummer or an old “muscle car” like a GTO. But those would attract too much attention.
He thought about something small and agile, a vehicle that could slip into choice spots with stealth and ease. He looked at Mini-Coopers. But they, too, would attract attention.
He realized what he needed was something humble, common, and bland. On Craigslist, he found a tan, 2007 Honda Accord. People would never notice it. Perfect.
What should he wear? Black leather jacket, dark shades, Oakland and Raider baseball cap? Tempting, but no…again, you don’t want people to notice you. He found what he needed after visiting thrift shops: an old white golf shirt, a pair of Levi’s, a light blue baseball cap with no logo, plain white sneakers. He’d be invisible.
He did find something empowering for his rear-view mirror — a shark’s tooth on a leather thong; he’d always wanted one in high school, and now was the time to claim it.
He’d need sustenance. He got a case of Red Bull and a generous supply of beef jerky, which he kept in the trunk.
A personal soundtrack would be important. The old Accord had a CD player. He burned two songs onto a blank disc: the theme from Jaws, which he would play as each encounter began, and the theme from “Rocky” to celebrate each victory.
The right car, a good disguise, sustenance, the shark’s tooth, and a personal soundtrack: he was ready.
His mission was simple: to become an expert at getting the best parking spot in crowded lots.
He began practicing in large open lots, like one by an old Sears store. He’d go early in the morning and put himself through drills focusing on cruising, sharp turns, and quick stops.
He then began training at more challenging battlegrounds: Trader Joe’s in the late afternoons. The Funk Zone on Friday evenings. The County Bowl just before concerts.
He created a plan. When he entered a lot, he’d circle the permitter, scanning the layout. Then he’d cruise up and down each row. He’d take note of the cars that had found good spots, then imagine what the driver of that car might look like. He became skilled at matching cars and drivers. Then he’d prepare to strike, sometimes still cruising, sometimes idling at the curb in a loading zone. When he saw the likely driver emerge from the store, he pushed the “Play” button for Jaws and inconspicuously shadow the person as they walked to their car. When the person did turn to get into their car, Pete assumed his “strike” position and snuck closer. As soon as the person pulled out, he deftly slid in and claimed his trophy.
Sometimes other drivers would see the spot opening, but rarely could they beat Pete. He took a particular joy in seeing their surprise and frustration. But he never gloated. He had practiced how to look completely innocent as he’d get out of his car and walk leisurely towards the store. He’d always buy something to keep his cover. When he returned to his Accord and drove away, he pushed the play button for Rocky.
He’d unwind at night with his favorite videos, alert for any tips he could pick up: Rambo. Terminator 2. James Bond movies. And any installment of The Bourne Supremacy.
Life was exciting. He felt strong, confident and proud.
Until that fateful Saturday.
The holidays were coming — peak season at Costco.
He drove out for the busy time in the early afternoon. He cruised back and forth near the entrance, Jaws on low volume, making mental notes of possibilities. He saw a well-dressed lady come out with a few items. He guessed she’d be driving the white Audi that was in a prime spot. Then he realized he had a competitor. Just turning into the far end of that row was an old, slow-moving Mercury. But Pete was ready. He was right, the Audi was hers. As the Audi pulled out, Pete slid in. The Mercury driver had not seen Pete at first, but when he saw he’d lost the spot, he abruptly hit the brakes, stunned. The Mercury slowly resumed its quest, turning and heading to the outer limits of the vast lot. Pete put his finger to his lips, touched the shark’s tooth and smiled.
He got out of his car to play the role of a genuine shopper. As he walked toward the entrance, he saw the old Mercury had finally found a spot, far beyond the Tire Department. Pete decided to walk in the direction of the Mercury, curious to see who would be driving such an old car.
He watched from a distance. The driver’s door slowly opened. An older man with a baseball cap got out. He couldn’t move very well…almost a shuffle He went to his trunk and opened it. He took out a walker and unfolded it. He then lifted a steel canister out of the trunk and put it in the walker, then fitted some kind of tube around his neck. Pete realized it was an oxygen tank. The man closed the trunk and began the long journey to the store entrance.
Pete lingered outside, pretending he was waiting for someone.
Finally, the old man with the walker came by. He looked tired. Pete could see what was on the man’s black hat: “Korea Vet” framed by gold braid. He saw the man fumble for his Costco I.D., approach the entrance and then disappear into the store.
Pete was feeling disoriented. His training taught him to always go into a store so he would look like a real shopper, but this time he had no interest in doing so.
He returned to his car. He got in, backed out, and drove. He wasn’t sure where to go. He had no desire to play “Rocky.” He decided to drive to a local beach where he could park and think.
He found a spot away from the crowds facing the ocean. He sat there in silence. He felt empty. He thought about what that vet had been through all his life. And how hard it must be to just get to the store. And Pete asked himself, “I think I’m some kind of warrior?”
A month passed. Pete didn’t go out much. A new vision was forming, and a new chapter in his life began.
When he did go to the store, he no longer had to have the best spot. He figured he needed more exercise anyway so would park far from the entrance, leaving more room for others.
He still enjoyed jerky but stopped drinking Red Bull.
He took the shark’s tooth off the rear-view mirror and put it in the glove compartment.
He didn’t play the CD anymore.
He got a part-time job as a driving instructor. He gave special discounts to teenagers, seniors, and vets.
On days when he knew certain lots in town would be congested, he’d arrive early and act as a self-appointed parking lot attendant. He found he could use his knowledge and skills to help manage parking rather well. He fearlessly would step in front of aggressive drivers, and motion to someone slower to take a good spot, then walk away. He began thinking of himself as a parking-lot Jedi.
When he did go in a store, he would see if any shopper was having a hard time reaching a product on a high shelf. He’d quietly come alongside, ask what they were seeking, reach up and hand it to them.
As he drove around town, he started noticing church buildings more. They had just been places with big parking lots before, but now it wasn’t the parking lots he noticed. He was curious about why people would go there and if he could make new friends in such places.
He spent off-duty time at the parking lot at the beach. Before, he would go there only to review his strategy for the day. Now, he sat in his car for long periods, entranced by the ocean and the sunlight shining on the surface. He watched waves quietly form and patiently break on the shore. People of all ages and backgrounds walked by, and he felt a bond with each one of them.
If you are out and about this holiday season, you may find yourself scanning parking lots, wondering if Parking Lot Pete is out there, working his magic. He may be. But he’s gotten very good at being invisible to the untrained eye.