I don’t remember the make or model of the car. I only remember the sunlight glinting off its roof as the vehicle began to move. I was at my local farmers’ market to do some shopping, one of my favorite errands to run in Fairfax, Virginia, my home during three years in graduate school. The vendors at the farmers’ market set up their tents in a business parking lot just along the edges of Old Town Fairfax. The white peaks sheltered displays of flowers, jewelry, crepes, olive oil, honey, fruits, and vegetables. They filled half the parking lot, leaving very little room for their customers to park. As a regular, I knew if I weaved through the crowded rows long enough, if I was patient enough, it would happen: I would see a car begin to move. And, there it was.
Finally, I thought as I noticed the shimmer of sunlight and saw the car’s hood peek into the aisle. I applied my brakes and flipped my turn signal, claiming the soon-to-be-empty parking space as my own. But then, as though to the rhythm of my clicking blinker, the other car stopped moving. I watched the driver check his mirror, adjust his wheel, and then crane his neck to look behind him as he began to reverse.
I shook my head.
What is going on? I wondered.
I sat with my foot pressed on the brake pedal, transfixed as the other driver repeated the back-and-forth motion, each movement becoming a little bit quicker and shorter until his car finally rested in the center of the spot. I realized that this driver was not leaving the market; he was reverse parking (the technical term for backing into a parking space).
For the love of . . . I thought, resisting the urge to slam my palm against the horn.
The farmers’ market was not the only place I encountered this behavior. It happened in the parking garage of the university where I taught and took classes. In the parking lot of my apartment complex, of the grocery store where I did my weekly shopping, and at church every weekend.
I hate it when people reverse park.
* * *
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where driving in traffic meant, maybe, sitting through two red lights. In my mid-twenties, I moved to the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., one of the most congested traffic areas in the United States, where very few roads are less than six lanes wide. I had expected to find new opportunities, fulfilling work, and good friends in graduate school. I did not realize that moving to a new place would also involve setbacks and disappointments. I did not expect the process of creating a new home to be so slow-moving. And I certainly did not expect to find the traffic.
On any given day, it might take forty-five minutes to travel five miles. Then, to wait for a parking spot only to discover that the other driver was not leaving but reverse parking — the frustration was sometimes too much to bear.
After a couple of years, it became easy to spot a reverse parker. First, the car rolls backward towards the parking space. Then, it begins a repetitive, jerky forward-reverse, forward-reverse motion. The wheels grind gravel as they turn back and forth in an effort to straighten, adjust, and fit between the two lines of the parking space. When I encounter a car at this point in the reverse parking process — its rear resting safely within the lines of a parking space, but its hood still protruding into the aisle of the parking lot — I have to slam on my brakes to avoid a collision with it. When my car comes to an abrupt halt, I look up, even though I already know what I’m going to see: a driver who has turned his head to look out the back window or who has glued his eyes to the rearview mirror. Sometimes, the car sits, maybe only for a few seconds, in the middle of the row, blocking the passage for all other drivers in order to align perfectly with the space, before simply drifting backwards. All of this occurs in exaggerated slow motion.
While all reverse parking looks the same to me, Jim Smith, the senior vice president of training at the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute, told me there are actually three ways to reverse park: straight back parking, right side backing, and blindside backing.
To practice “straight back parking,” a driver must pull directly in front of the desired parking space and simply reverse until he finds himself within the lines. When “right side backing,” a driver turns to the left as he backs in. Although his car is now open to being hit along the sides and the back, the driver can still look out his window to see the arc of the turn. In “blindside backing,” a driver tries to back into a spot on his right. As the name implies, blindside backing makes it difficult — almost impossible, really — for a driver to see anything as he rolls into the parking space.
Since 1952, the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute has trained professional drivers, guiding them with the belief that all collisions are preventable if the right driving habits are learned, practiced, and applied consistently. According to their website, the Smith System provides training to fleet drivers — for BP, Shell, Chevron, and Frito-Lay, among others — in ninety-eight countries. Harold Smith, the company’s founder, based his training on five good driving rules: aim high in steering; get the big picture; keep your eyes moving; make sure other drivers see you; and leave yourself an out.
Although rules about reverse parking did not make the top five, Jim told me that his drivers are trained to always find curbside parking or to look for an opportunity to pull through a parking space. When pulling through, a driver must look for two adjoining, back-to-back spaces, drive through the first space and stop in the second, positioning himself in the same way as he would had he reverse parked: with his hood facing the aisle, prepared to put the car in drive and move forward when it’s time to go. Backing into a parking space, Jim advises, should always be a last resort.
It validates me to learn that reverse parking is not only obnoxious; it’s also not entirely safe. But based on Jim Smith’s definitions, all parking involves some kind of risk. Reverse parkers run the risk of hitting the cars that surround their spot. But people who pull into a parking space risk hitting — or being hit by — other cars. Even those who pull through run the risk that someone from the opposite aisle will pull into that parking space at the exact same moment.
I’ve never been much of a risk taker, which might explain why I’ve never had an easy time parking — reverse, parallel, or otherwise. Sure, I can park without much problem in spots painted diagonally, but they seem to be magically angled based on the turning radius of my 2002 Dodge Stratus Sedan. If I park in a spot with straight lines, I must position myself directly in front of the spot so I can simply straighten my wheel and drive into the space; or, as Jim suggested, I must pull through to the spot across from it, allowing me additional time to straighten my wheel and most likely end up between the lines. If neither of those options exists, I can’t center my car and I’ll end up hugging one line or being so close to the neighboring car that I can’t open my door. In these cases, I have to slink out of my car and brush my body against its side just to get out of the vehicle. I prefer to park at the far edges of a parking lot, where my car is guaranteed to be surrounded only by empty spaces, and walk to my destination.
Years ago, when I was still in high school and relatively new to driving, I arrived at my school’s gym for a basketball game. Straight spots, but not many cars, filled the parking lot. As I tried to park, I misjudged my turning radius and ended up straddling the line between two spaces. I reversed slightly and pulled back in, still straddling the line. I pulled out of the space completely, drove down another row, and tried again. When I walked inside, I found my friends, standing near the window, having watched the entire parking attempt. “Why are you so bad,” one of them asked, the cadence of her speech seemingly thrown by my driving, “at parking?” I didn’t know how to respond.
I’ve also pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will never master the art of parallel parking. On one weekend during graduate school, I drove seven hours (in heavy traffic, of course) from Northern Virginia to visit my friend Colleen, who lived in northern New Jersey. When I arrived, Colleen waited outside her apartment building — which did not have parking for its residents, let alone their guests — and waved excitedly to me. She pointed to a space along the curb, just large enough for my sedan.
“This is perfect,” she exclaimed. “There is never a spot right up front.”
So, I pulled forward, aligning myself with the truck in front of me, and put my car in reverse. I cut the wheel sharply to my left and began to move backwards. When I felt my back wheel hit the curb, I cut the steering wheel in the opposite direction to straighten the car. I reversed again until I was parallel to the curb, albeit about four feet away. I pulled forward, put the car in reverse, and tried again, only to arrive at the same result.
“Let me try,” Colleen said. She pulled the car next to the truck, cut the wheel, and reversed. I stood on the curb and watched the rear of my car turn toward me at a sharp angle.
“Cut the wheel,” I instructed.
“Which way?” Colleen asked.
“Away from the curb.”
Across the street, Colleen’s neighbor appeared on his porch. He wore a white undershirt and a pair of old shorts. He held a can of beer in his hand. “Do you need some help?” He asked. “I can do it for you.”
Colleen looked relieved. I felt a brief surge of gratitude. Then, I imagined this man climbing into the front seat and putting my car in drive. I could picture him accelerating toward the end of the street, turning right, and disappearing with my car and everything I had packed for my road trip and weekend away — clothes, shoes, CDs, my laptop. When I reported this imagined theft, I would have to tell the police that I gave this man my keys and allowed him to drive my car.
Instead, I looked at my Stratus, positioned perpendicular to the curb, Colleen in the front seat, leaning, defeated, over the steering wheel. “No, thank you,” I said to her neighbor. “I think we’ve got it.” (In fairness to Colleen, she’s now been parallel parking for several years and has become quite adept at it.)
I once even tried to reverse park — eleven years ago, at cheerleading camp the summer before my senior year in high school. I drove a group of girls to lunch and, when we returned, I pulled into the parking lot, prepared to ease into the perfect spot: against the wall of the gym, the second spot in a line of diagonal parking spaces.
“No, no. Back into that spot,” one my passengers said. She pointed to a straight parking space behind us. “It will take longer.”
After four days of sweating, lifting, dancing, and shouting in the hot gym, our muscles ached, and none of us was eager to get back to work that afternoon. So, I pulled directly in front of the straight spot and obeyed as my passengers delivered instructions:
“Turn the wheel a little bit to the left, now the right.”
“Just pull in straight.”
“Okay. It’s okay. Just straighten the wheel a little bit.”
I finally situated the car in its spot. Despite the simple steps — turn the wheel, reverse the car, back into the space — it had seemed like an awful lot of effort to park a car.
But when I left camp that afternoon, I slipped into the driver’s seat, put the car in drive, and left. It was so easy. I had already done all of the preparation: finding a spot, shifting forward and backward, positioning myself to be able to leave.
Vehicles, Jim Smith explained to me, were designed to move forward. In reverse, drivers most often have less control as they steer because the swing of the car in the back is wider than in the front. There’s more vehicle behind a driver. Compare the large windshields in the front of all vehicles to the small mirrors that allow drivers to see out the back, Jim said. When looking out the windshield, there are four to five feet in front that a driver cannot see, but when looking out the back, that number increases drastically.
“You’ll always have a certain amount of blind areas you carry with you,” Jim said.
From the driver’s seat of my Dodge Stratus, there is only a small sliver — maybe three feet — of blind area before I can see the road in front of me. When I look in the rearview mirror, though, that blind spot extends much further — maybe seven or eight feet.
* * *
When I look back on my life in Pennsylvania, I see lightly-trafficked main streets dotted with churches and small family shops. I see myself living in the town where my family was rooted and, like so many people with that kind of upbringing, longing to leave, at least for a little bit. I see my high school transcript filled with the advanced classes and awards that would propel me towards my dream of writing for a well-known publication. I see myself scoffing at the two newspapers that reported the news of my hometown. I see my college — just an easy, ninety-minute drive east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — and I see the additions to my resume: Dean’s list, newspaper editor, internship at an NBC affiliate news station. Most of my twenties has been dedicated to this linear pursuit of success: write for a newspaper, report the best stories, get into a good graduate school, begin my career. My resume tells this story, but in reality, the transition has been much rougher.
While I remember the easy drives down the Pennsylvania Turnpike during college, I can sometimes forget that driving back and forth between two homes, two worlds, created a time of transition and unease. I graduated from college with no concrete plans, except to move back home and continue applying for jobs until I eventually found a full-time job as an education reporter at one of the local newspapers. I felt pride and elation when I landed that first job, and I remember the peace that came with finally making and saving my own money. I remember the plans I could make for my next step: travel, graduate school, and, one day, maybe a house. I remember the joy of the thirty-minute commute to the office, where an open, diagonal parking space was always waiting for me. I forget, however, that first I had to move back home and accept a job at the local newspaper where I’d sworn I would never work, or that in the end the job didn’t even suit me. I remember all my efforts to prepare to move forward, but I forget the jerky reverse, stop-and-go motion that made that eventual forward movement possible.
My driver’s education teacher once told me, when reversing, to pretend that the back of the car is actually the front. Every time I reverse, I have to think really hard about what she meant by that.
I envy people who can reverse directions, who can easily back out of a driveway, or smoothly reverse into a parking space. My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t reverse directions, and it always takes me some time and a lot of thought to check my math using the reverse operation. Instead, I look ahead and prepare for what’s next. I move forward, looking back with a view clouded by blind spots, as nostalgia most often is. I pull through parking spaces so that I can quickly drive forward to the next stop, often too driven or too impatient to park, get out, and look around. To appreciate the effort it took to bring me to this space before moving on to what’s next. I suppose that my disdain for reverse parking (and parking, in general) then, isn’t so much due to my lack of strong peripheral vision or my shaky spatial perception. It stems more from my ambition and penchant for nostalgia.
* * *
In the course of writing this essay, I went to my grocery store in Fairfax, pulled through a parking space, and watched the other shoppers arrive and leave. I immediately noticed a champagne-colored Chevrolet 1500 pick-up truck. Its roof towered above the compact cars and SUVs parked in the grocery store’s lot. It moved backwards, very slowly. It paused. Then, it reversed once again. Finally, the truck, now sitting in the center of the aisle blocking any potential traffic flow, aligned itself with its desired spot. With one final motion, the truck backed in and stopped, leaving its hood jutting out slightly into the aisle.
I moseyed up to the truck. A man sat inside, resting his balding head on the seat, taking a drink of ice water. I thought he probably felt relieved to have completed his reverse parking endeavor.
I introduced myself as a graduate student writing about reverse parking.
His name was Frank, he said, and he has been reverse parking for fifty years: “One day,” he said, “it just occurred to me it was easier. Safer.”
His technique: “pull up, back in,” he said.
Backing in, Frank told me, makes it so much easier to leave — backing out of a parking space into traffic is risky.
“Why don’t you just pull through?” I asked.
“Too dangerous,” he said. He worries that cars on either side will block his view as he pulls into the spot.
Frank said he has never had a fender bender while backing into a parking space — not even in the twelve years he’d been driving the massive Chevy 1500, and his truck doesn’t have the reverse camera found in many newer models. He said he’s only ever had problems with reverse parking in one lot in Tyson’s Corner in Northern Virginia where a shadow obstructs his rearview vision.
“I took my lady along. She got out and told me where to go,” he said.
Problem solved, I guess.
“What kind of graduate student are you?” He asked me during a lull in conversation.
“Creative writing,” I replied.
He laughed. “Not transportation?”
“No,” I said. “I can’t even back into a parking space.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I hate it when people back into parking spaces. That I had hoped that moving to Northern Virginia would be the cure-all to the road blocks I had encountered in my early twenties, that I could just pull through and find a rewarding career and fulfilling relationships. Instead, I found myself slowing down and, in some cases, reversing: I had moved back home before I could move out; I had come to Virginia and taken a part-time, entry-level job before I could start a career; I spent evenings alone or making small talk with acquaintances who had not yet become friends. I spent hours in the car, paused in traffic outside of a city in constant motion. I remained in a state of stop-and-go and forward-reverse. I found ever-present reminders that forward motion is never easy.
Frank seemed like a good-natured guy, who had, through his own process of trial and error, found a parking method that worked for his life. That morning, he hadn’t been in a huge hurry to park his car and finish his grocery shopping, and I wondered when he had last been in a huge hurry to move forward and how long it had taken before he could look back and see clearly. If he faltered, he always had his lady to help him.
I drove back to my apartment where I knew, at that time in the morning, parking would be plentiful. I decided to try Frank’s advice: “pull up, back in.” It sounded so effortless. I drove past a parking space, put my car in reverse, and cut the wheel to the right. My car drifted backward. My eyes darted from the rearview mirror to the side view mirrors. I couldn’t see a damn thing.
I braked while a man and his dog walked along the sidewalk behind me. Then, I allowed the car to continue to roll toward the curb. I had no idea how close the curb was to my rear bumper. When my door aligned with the back door of the blue Toyota that had been parked the regular way in the spot next to mine, I stopped. I cracked my door a bit to reveal a three-foot gap between my tires and the white line of the parking space.
I cut my wheel to the left to inch closer to the line and pulled forward, straightening the car. Then, I reversed again. This time, I ended up so close to the Toyota that I could see, pretty clearly, through its tinted windows. I pulled forward one more time, cutting my wheel in the opposite direction and straightening the car. I reversed. I ended up between the lines, but slightly crooked. The back of my car extended across the sidewalk.
You know what? I thought. This is good enough for now.
I straightened the wheel and put the car in park, ready to move forward the next day.
Erica M. Dolson earned her MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) from George Mason University in 2014 and her BA from Villanova University in 2008. She currently lives in New Jersey and teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Montclair State University. Her work has previously appeared on the website www.culinate.com.