A tale of two parking spots
A parable of taking up space and of ceding ground
I checked my dashboard clock as I pulled into the Y parking lot one morning this past fall—I was late. If I didn’t make it to the lobby soon, my walking group would leave without me. I rolled forward along the row of parked cars and saw an opening on the right hand side. I inched forward to pull in and noticed three or four young men chatting at the back end of the spot. I assumed when they saw me, they’d move.
They did not.
One of them waved me away with his arm as soon as I nosed into the opening. The sun was behind them, so it was hard to see details, but the motion was unmistakeable. Irritated, I backed out. There was another opening a few more spots up on the left, so I pulled in, parked, and quickly walked to the Y’s lobby. Fortunately my walking group hadn’t left yet.
“You know,” I said to one of my regular walking buddies when relating what just happened, “If it was a group of ladies in that spot talking, we would have moved.” She agreed. What was with those guys? They’d made me feel like I was intruding on their space, and it grated on me.
It made me remember another parking spot incident fifteen months earlier, when the shoe had been on the other foot, but the outcome felt completely different.
That time, I’d just put several bags of groceries in my trunk and was getting ready to leave Sprouts when my car wouldn’t start.
Not again! I thought. I’d been having trouble with the battery, and had called AAA several times in recent months for a jump. I was not looking forward to the waiting and hassle yet again. But wait! My husband was working from home, and we lived close by. With luck, he’d be able to come to my rescue and I wouldn’t have to wait around for AAA. I called, and he said he could leave in a few minutes.
That’s when I noticed the spot next to me was open, and it was the only one around that was. If someone parked there before he arrived, he’d have to park in the aisle, too far for the jumper cables to reach.
So I got out of my car and stood at the entrance to the open parking spot. And although it hadn’t seemed like Sprouts was that busy, suddenly multiple cars were looking for a space.
I mimed an apologetic face as each one slowed in front of me. I mouthed I’m sorry, I need this spot! while shrugging my shoulders, palms up, in what I hoped would be a universally understood gesture. It felt hella awkward.
I didn’t look too closely at the drivers, but I was acutely aware I was occupying space they wanted. The minutes dragged on. Then a guy, maybe thirty-something, pulled up in a shiny pickup, and I gave him the same pantomimed routine. He gave me a quizzical look before driving up the next aisle into a catty-corner spot that had opened up facing me. As he got out of his truck he looked over and said, “There must be something awfully special about that spot.”
I could tell he thought I was ridiculous—saving a parking space at Sprouts the way you’d save one in front of a trendy downtown restaurant.
“Well actually,” I said, “There is,” and I explained my dead battery, my husband on the way, and the jumper cables.
“Oh,” he said, the smirk leaving his face. “Okay.”
I felt so vindicated. See? I do too need to be here!
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Often when I have a story for a Be Your Own Hero newsletter, I think it’s obvious what it’s going to be about—until I actually get to writing. Then 90 percent of the time I discover the story’s not about what I thought. Or maybe it is, but it’s also about other things, and I have to wrestle my new thoughts into something coherent, wondering all the while why it can’t ever be easy and obvious.
I thought this tale of two parking spots was about the difference in women’s and men’s socialization on taking up space.
I thought it was about how the young men at the Y acted like entitled manspreaders with an attitude of I am here and therefore I belong here. And that when I pictured a hypothetical group of women parting like the Red Sea for someone who needed the space, it grated on me because women are socialized to make way, to be attentive to others’ needs, to cede space whenever needed. And nobody thinks twice about this because it’s just expected. And that the reason I felt so awkward in the Sprouts parking lot is because I was going against norms, holding on to my space for no obvious reason, not ceding ground to anyone, not even a shiny-pickup-driving guy with a snarky attitude. I thought it was about women claiming our right to take up space in this world.
For the record, I still think all those things are true. But there’s also more, which was brought home to me in another incident at the Y just last week, in the lobby, when I realized too late that I kinda sorta maybe jumped the line in front of a Black woman.
I needed someone at the membership desk to punch my “Frequent Y-er” card after my workout, but when I got to the lobby there were a half dozen people waiting at the membership desk. There are never that many people waiting. There were three staffers, but it wasn’t clear if there were three lines, or one line, or if people were just sort of milling in no discernible order. But I know for sure that a Black woman in a head wrap was there before me. I know because I live in a Very White Neighborhood and seeing a Black woman in a head wrap at the Y is unusual.
While I was still wondering how we were organized, one person who was being attended to left, and a guy moved up to the desk to be helped. Wait—did that guy just walk up right in front of that Black woman? I thought. It’s like she wasn’t even there! I prided myself for noticing this—I’ll say it—microaggression, that I might not have noticed previously.
Then not half a minute later, one of the Y staffers stood up from behind the desk, looked over in what I took to be my direction, and said, “Anyone else that needs help?”
Without hesitation I walked right up. I was relieved. I mean, I only needed one little thing. Why should I have to wait behind all those other people? I got my card punched, turned to head out the door, and it hit me—OMG I JUST DID THE EXACT SAME THING!!! But was it the same, really, I thought immediately after? It wasn’t clear how we were organized, and I only needed one little thing. And the staffer was looking right at me (I think). Maybe he didn’t see the Black woman (which, well, is whole other problem).
What struck me later as I went over it again in my mind was how instinctual it felt to walk up to the counter. I didn’t think, I just reacted. I felt—dare I say—entitled to be next.
What I would like to have done is say I think she was here ahead of me to the staffer who looked in my direction.
Which brings me to what I think these stories of different spaces are really about.
It’s not enough to tell people who are marginalized to claim their right to take up space.
What if the Black woman had stood up for herself in that line, said Excuse me, I was here ahead of you. Maybe it would have gone fine. If she said it to me, I probably would have been embarrassed. Oh my gosh I’m sorry. Please go ahead. But did she know that? No.
As far as she knew, maybe it wouldn’t have gone so fine. Maybe she would have gotten pushback, or dirty looks, or been branded as the Angry Black Woman. Maybe getting ignored in the Y customer service line just wasn’t important enough to take a stand. But if the same little thing keeps happening over and over and over (basically the definition of a microagression), it takes a toll.
What if I *had* said I think she was here ahead of me. It could have meant one microagression averted, one signal to the staffers and others in line that this woman was being overlooked and it was important to notice and say something.
What if, in the Sprouts parking lot, the guy in the pickup had assumed there must be a good reason for me standing there, and instead of making a snide remark had asked if I needed help?
It’s not enough to just tell marginalized people to claim their right to take up space, because sometimes doing so can put them in actual danger. (And yes, I’m saying women are marginalized in most public spaces because they are de facto male spaces, and if you are a man and don’t know that well now you know.) That wasn’t likely in the Sprouts parking lot or the Y lobby, but things can get weird quickly.
Just last week swarms of protestors were out in force objecting to a trans woman’s right to change clothes in the women’s locker room at the Santee Y. [What is it about the Y? It must be some kind of liminal space… ]
So what’s the brave thing to do? If you’re a person who feels very comfortable in a space, be aware. Notice who’s being shut out, overlooked, ignored. Make some room, invite those people forward, and make sure others see what’s happening.
Which brings me back around to the guys in the Y parking lot. The whole thing transpired in maybe two seconds, and there were all kinds of social power dynamics going on: car vs. pedestrians, younger vs. older, men vs. woman, one vs. multiple.
Did they have a legit reason to be there? If I had a more generous spirit I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. But the wave they gave me felt dismissive, not apologetic. If I’d said something, I can’t imagine it would have gone well, and I didn’t have time anyway.
So I’m left with the metaphoric grit in my shoe of feeling dismissed, a microagression I might not even have noticed before. I’m not sure if I’m better off or not.
There you have it, my friends. Do you ever obsess about taking up space the way I have these past months? Are you aware of ways you’ve been discouraged from taking up space, or ways you feel entitled to certain spaces? Do you notice when others are being overlooked or pushed aside? I’m so curious to know what your experiences are. Leave a comment—all respectful discussion is welcome.
Well-written, Louise, and oh so relatable. Your story talks about people who are in hurry and often do not have the time or sometimes the inclination to see the other person's point of view. Your story made us think about the importance of others and to live a more tolerant, broadminded life.