Drive-in Theater

Take a front-row seat for the daily drama of street parking

"He's never going to find street parking now!"

I don't know why I found it so funny. But the distraught woman standing on Gay Street, screaming at her cell phone, made me chuckle to myself. It was a Sundown in the City night and it was clear she was trying to talk to someone on the other end of the phone into downtown. The lost prospect of finding street parking seemed to me like comedic drama.

Maybe I thought it was funny because the mantra for years about downtown was that there was no place to park. Personally, I think that was a little overblown. But true or not, that was the perception. The city's addition of the Market Square Parking Garage, as well as new connectivity to the State Street Garage as a part of the cinema project, seems to have largely muffled that myth. But on-street parking remains limited and highly prized—and for some of us, cheap entertainment.

In the movies, when someone steps out of a car in a parking garage you can pretty much bet that something bad is going to happen. Most likely there will be an echoey screech of tires and then a pair of headlights bearing straight on toward the victim as the murderous silhouette accelerates. But protagonists in urban street scenes always find a spot directly in front of their destination, deftly sliding their shiny convertibles into place. Urban on-street parking is a facet of the American Dream. But for one woman, one night, that dream was shattered in a parody of parking pathos.

Gay Street is the premier street stage in downtown Knoxville. It's our most lively thoroughfare and one of the best venues for people (and parking) watching in the city. In fact, watching people park (or try to park) has become a sort of spectator sport that brings out shadenfruede among some downtowners.

I have been known, on occasion, to take up a seat on the sidewalk along Gay to enjoy a refreshing beverage and enjoy the street life. And parking as theater has become an eccentric pastime.

I've watched UPS trucks slip nimbly into scant spaces in a single swoop that made me breathless. And I've watched thrilling installments where mini-vans deploy teams of bumper-watchers from the vehicle like paratroopers to guide them into spots big enough to accommodate a semi.

The most common theme is drivers who simply have no concept of how to parallel park. Many of these, upon spotting a space, dive forward into it, leaving their hindquarters to block traffic. This is the parking equivalent of the innocent misstep in a Hitchcock film. Even if they manage to squirm into the spot, it's often fraught with panic and suspense.

Then there are those who take the more logical approach of backing in. Unfortunately for many of these, this is the extent of their skill. And I have seen the drivers of cars that could quite easily fit a slot perform slapstick as they repeat the same back-and-forth seesaw path without getting an inch closer to the curb.

Often, tension mounts. With traffic stacking up behind them (fellow drivers cheering them on with gleeful bursts from their horns) and having become aware that they have an audience, the frustration builds until players abandon the scene and chirp the tires as they speed away. Often as not, they'll circle the block and skulk back for a clandestine curtain call.

Some months ago, I watched an episode where a black Mercedes with smoked windows and New York tags rolled up on a prime spot like a hit man stalking a victim. It was a tight spot. But the driver skillfully backed into the gap, and in no more than three or four shuffles snugged up to the curb leaving about a foot in both front and back.

The driver, a middle-aged man, had noticed his audience and emerged with a smug look of satisfaction. "What? I'm from Manhattan," he said in an authentic accent, "I do this all the time." Several of us acknowledged his performance and offered raised glasses or applause as signs of approval. Then a woman stepped out from the passenger side.

"I'll tell you what happened," she said. "He asked if I thought he could make it and I told him I didn't know if he could. But I was sure I could."

That brought down the house. Say good night, Gracie. The whole program was parking playhouse at its finest.

And there is no better venue for the form than Gay Street. With few defined spaces and enough signage to make a driver's head spin, it presents a great setting for the show. It's one of the best seats in Knoxville—at least for those in the audience.