PARKING SEASON, a six-day event spread over autumn Saturdays and sometimes referred to on the sports pages of the newspapers as "football season," is a combination festival and economic bonanza for people who live near university stadiums -- a bit of a George Washington's Birthday sale, a taste of Mardi Gras and a slice of Thinksgiving Day parade. Whether they profit from it or merely endure it, residents of the neighborhood where the game is held cannot escape the flood of cars pouring down every street and inundating every lawn, every driveway, indeed every inch of available space as well as some not deemed available such as gardens and patios.
While pep rallies and bonfires set the mood for the game on campus, a different sort of preparation is going on near the stadium. Fences are removed. Signs are painted. Everything that can remotely qualify as a vehicle -- from trailers to mopeds -- is dragged from garages and yards and parked on the street. (The serves the two-fold purpose of maximizing the parking space on private property while filling up the free space at the curbs.)
By 10 o'clock Saturday morning the children are already outside waving their signs and hawking their ware: "Park here, a dollar." "Park here, 50 cents." The parking fairy (a distant relative of the tooth fairy) has already laid out the neighborhood in concentric circles: the $2 zone, the $1 zone, down to the 25-cent zone, a hefty hike from the stadium. If the origin of the going rates is clothed in mystery, they are no less stringently adhered to. One couple, having just bought a house in University Heights, were delighted to find their neighbor, a distinguished emeritus professor, waiting at their doorstep when they moved in. But he hadn't come to welcome them; he had come to warn them: "This is a $2 zone. Don't undercut my grandchildren." The right to park cars, a sort of droit de seigneur, passes from generation to generation.
The very young, piping out "park here," don't always understand what is being bought and sold. They can sometimes be observed walking up to any car -- at any time of year -- with palm extended, saying the magic words "park here," as if the phrase itself, a combination of "open sesame" and "buddy can you spare a dime," evoked the cash response. But they figure it out sooner or later and grow up with an exaggerated sense of economic security, aware that no depression will ever deprive them of their yearly windfall.
By 11 o'clock the pace has quickened, and from noon to 1 the streets are jammed with cars whose drivers have only one object in mind: to find a place to park. As kickoff time approaches their plight becomes increasingly desperate:
"Can you squeeze in one more?"
"Sorry. We're full up."
(Angrily) "What do you mean, full up? You've been standing there motioning for cars to come in, and you just took the car ahead of me."
(Contemptuously) "That was a Honda. We can always tuck some little ones in between the barberries and the catalpa tree."
No energy shortage was needed to make Lincolns, Cadillacs and Chrysler Imperials unpopular here.
Once parked, people are free to attend to less basic needs. They eat -- on, in or around their cars. Some pull peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches from brown bags. Others do it up like a Renoir picnic. The tailgate feasts range from Colonel Sanders boxes to seven-course dinners on white damask tablecloths weighted down against the brisk wind by champagne buckets.
And they drink. Whatever may be said to the contrary, alcohol is as necessary to the spectators at a football game as the leather is to the players. And not just sixpacks either. The trunks of many cars open out to reveal fully stocked bars. (One can't help wondering where the spare tires are stowed.) And a thermos of something usually goes along to the game.
Groups of friends are likely to set up a table and camp stools on the sidewalk. Family reunions, replete with roast turkey, photographs, chrysanthemum corasages and loud kisses, take place in the gutter. Old-grad reunions are even more common. One party that gathered around a card table in the corner of our yard never made it to the game. They joked and back-slapped their way through a bottle of brandy, innumerable aluminum-foil containers of Chinese food and the entire afternoon. They were dressed alike in what must have been a uniform of the class of '55 -- deerstalker hats, Harris tweed overcoats and "Go Red" lapel buttons.
As the season progresses and the weather worsens, parkers seek shelter, so our house becomes a public facility. Like a railroad station, it provides a waiting room, baggage storage, a lost-and-found and a bathroom. Motorcycle helmets stack up on the dining-room table. Stray mittens and scarves are draped on the bannister, waiting to be claimed. With every degree that the temperature drops, the line at the bathroom gets longer. In frigid weather people bring their batteries inside, to keep them warm on the kitchen floor.
Strangers wander from room to room, as comfortable as they'd be in a department store or at a garage sale. "Did you see that painting in the living room? Wow! What sort of people would hang up a thing like that?" "Now that's a good idea -- using a ladder under the growlight!" They pick up and read our newspapers, our books, our mail if we forget and leave it out. They pet and feed our dogs. They carry on private conversations, as if we didn't understand the language or didn't even exist. Occasionally they deign to talk to us: "You're dangerously low on toilet paper!" "Where's the phone?" "What did you do with the huge plaster sneaker that used to be in the front hall? I brought my mother all the way from Wauwautosa to see it."
It is surprising to discover that they know us, know our house and its furnishings, that whereas they are nothing to us but Pintos and Pacers, Volvos and Volares, Cutlasses and Chevettes, to them we are a part of an important tradition, along with the pennants, the 10,000 high school bandsmen and the cheerleaders.
Not everyone is a stranger. There are the "regulars," whose spots are held, like theater seats, until 10 minutes before the game starts. We try to save a place for the woman who missed the first quarter of the game once while delivering our cat's kittens. And for the man who comes with a different car and a different woman to every game and is very distressed if we don't recognize him. And of course there's the Winnebago. In general Winnebagos are even less welcome than limousines, but the Winnebago people pay for four places though they take up only three, and they serve us a marvelous lunch of steak tartare, sliced ham, Greek salad.
Five minutes after the opening kickoff, the streets are deserted. Like after the neutron bomb; not a soul stirs. Adding to the eerie atmosphere is the noise in the distance: occasional roars, as of beasts in the jungle; shrieks, as of Christians being fed to lions; sometimes ringing cheers and sometimes massive groans of thousands of people in their death throes.
The dogs go into the backyard to explore the cars occupying their turf. If, as is sometimes the case, one of the cars contains a dog, a territorial dispute takes place that drowns out all other sounds.
Then, at the end of the third quarter, the pattern repeats itself in reverse. The third-quarter syndrome is an inexplicable as it is pervasive. Why do people go to so much trouble and expense to attend a football game and then leave when it is only three-fourths over? What is it about the fourth quarter that no one can bear to watch? They can't leave in the hope of getting away before the crowd. They know that the cars are so tightly packed that they must unpeel slowly, from the fringes, like an artichoke. Yet the habit of leaving before the game is over is so deeply engrained in a university community that it spills over to concerts, the theater, ballet, the movies. Maybe it's a modern version of leaving some food on one's plate so as not to appear greedy. At any rate, people drift back to their cars, listening to the end of the game on their transistor radios. The Winnebago's generators rumble, shaking our house, and delectable odors issue from its ventilation fan. Crowds gather in the yards waiting for the cars ahead of theirs to clear out. Sometimes people are cross -- if it was a bad game -- and they're always cold and tired. It's not the best time of the day. The owner of the car at the head of the driveway may discover he's lost his keys. Or someone whose car is blocking three or four others may decide to wait out the crowd and go off to dinner. Children have lost their parents. Parents have lost their patience. It usually sorts itself out in time, but not always.
One evening after a game the doorbell rang. A very cold and sad young man stood there. "Excuse me for bothering you, but I seem to have mislaid my car. I thought I parked it in your backyard."
"What did it look like?"
"A beige Toyota. I guess I should have come back earlier."
We vaguely remembered it and eventually reconstructed what had happened. While he was off getting his three-hour "quick beer," the people waiting for his car to move out grew impatient. Tired of stamping their feet and blowing on their hands, they had simply picked up the small car and carried it to the curb. ("Anything is portable if you have enough people to carry it.") However, they carelessly deposited it on the noparking side of the street and were long gone when the police drove by, ticketed the car and had it towed away. We drove the young man to his Toyota, and he went off happily enough, but it was a grim evening for the children in the household, whose profits had gone to pay for the ticket and the tow.
By 8 in the evening the street is almost back to normal. There are a few new ruts in the lawn. The dogs find some discarded french fries, but there is almost no trash. (People either use our trashcans or take their debris home with them.)
We become so used to the house vibrating from the Winnebago that we don't notice when it drives away. It's always gone by Sunday morning.