Consider the lowly parking lot: You drive on it. You park on it. You ignore it. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself, right? Wrong. It's wonderful. And it needs your love.
On the surface, it's little more than a featureless piece of asphalt. Unless you're a civil engineer, a museum curator, or a hooker, there is little difference between a good one and a bad one. Its primary purpose is to hold parked cars, a task that most people view as dull. To Joe Public, the lot is little more than a civil appliance.
We beg to differ. In fact, we'd like to offer up a revolutionary thought: The parking lot is important. It matters. It is the car's unloved (and yet wholly necessary) offspring, and it has soul.
Think back to the first time you drove somewhere on your own. Chances are, if it wasn't a friend's house, it was a parking lot. Remember what it felt like to climb out of the car, to realize that you had finally gotten somewhere real on your own? Would it have meant half as much if you had pulled up to a valet, left the car running, and simply strolled away? How would you have felt if you hadn't been allowed to get out and walk around?
Without parking lots, we would have places to go, but we wouldn't have anything to do when we got there. It starts early; Americans may live in their cars, but they grow up in their parking lots. What teenager hasn't leaned up against a borrowed car on a boring-ass Saturday night in the middle of nowhere? What suburban mall lot hasn't played clubhouse, garage, and impromptu bar for thousands of high-schoolers? Is there anyone out there who didn't spend at least part of their youth under the fizzy glow of a twenty-foot halide?
We see The Lot playing a pivotal role in film so often that we tend to ignore it. Films as diverse as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the cult documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot have effectively made lot culture a part of our collective memory:
Even Say Anything, Cameron Crowe's quirky ode to teenage love, contains a key piece of Lot Theory. Crowe is fully aware that lots are where we go when we have nowhere else to be:
Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack): I got a question. If you guys know so much about women, how come you're here at, like, the Gas 'n' Sip on a Saturday night, completely alone, drinking beers with no women anywhere?
Joe (Loren Dean): By choice, man. We choose this.
Happily, there's also something called The Parking Lot Movie, an independent film that focuses on one lot and the obsessive people within it. It contains the following quote, which summarizes Lot Theory in a nutshell: "That's like the word of the day at the parking lot — hanging. Can you hang? It's a combination of being really relaxed and not letting someone talk you down." (For reference, the film is a riot.)
The list goes on: Football tailgating. The unplanned, pre-concert lot party — hippies make this sort of thing last for weeks — that takes place before stadium shows and club gigs alike. Autocrossing, where weekend racers compete on the cheap in their own cars. The blue-collar cruise-in. Cars and Coffee. Any of these could happen without a parking lot, but they wouldn't be half as accessible, cheap, or fun.
Like any American icon, the lot's family tree runs far and wide. Consider the drive-in movie, which is little more than a parking lot with a giant screen in front of it. (The town of Ann Arbor, Michigan once took this concept to its meta conclusion, showing films on top of a multistory parking garage.) Or take the Midwestern-style field party, which requires little more than a grass pasture, a keg of beer, and ten or fifteen pickup trucks. (Hello, impromptu lot.) The Lot is versatile, it changes with the times, and it loves you.
That love aside, nothing lasts forever, and lots are no exception. Given enough time, the parking lot as we know it will disappear. It will likely be replaced by automated garages, more effective mass-transit systems, and future infrastructure we cannot yet imagine. When this happens, we will have lost one of our greatest unintentional achievements. And we will be worse off for it.
Douglas Adams once pointed out that people like to congregate at boundary conditions — where land meets water, for example, or where earth meets sky. We like to be on one side, he said, and look at the other. Parking lots — where people meet pavement — fit nicely into this theory. They're not without flaw, but they matter. They deserve our respect. The next time you park your car, do a Lot mitzvah: take a moment to say thanks.
Good on ya, Lot. Long may you run.
Photo Credit: iMorpheus, Ben McLeod, Ypmiley / Flickr