Denise Snodell — The suburban jungle

09/23/2013 3:47 PM

09/23/2013 3:47 PM

I’ve never been fond of strip mall parking lots. Reason No. 426 recently popped up when I was running a few mundane errands with my husband.

The incident: We had just checked off our to-do list at this chain-rich shopping center. As the final set of automatic doors yawned open to let us back out onto the asphalt expanse, our purposeful gaits came to a sudden halt. We looked at each other with knitted brows. A conversation like this ensued:

Him: “Hm. Where’d we park?”

Me: “I don’t remember! You don’t remember … either?”

Him: “Nope.” (Just so you can imagine you were there, he popped the “p” on that. Like a champagne cork. “NoPah.”)

The lot was packed. We have a gray sedan. As we squinted across the glimmering sea of cars, we noticed it just happened to be National Gray Sedan Day.

I realized one or more things were probably going on, in ascending value of scariness:

1. Lately we’ve been way too busy and distracted to fully cherish the parking process.

2. Each of us separately assumed the other one took note of the spot’s location. A classic psychology textbook case of “diffusion of responsibility.”

3. Shopping center parking lots are really nightmarish cookie cutter fun-house mirrors.

4. We are totally geezin’ before our time. (No offense to the over 98 crowd.)

No. 3 was definitely a factor, but I’ll get to that later. During our debut in this real life “Lost” episode, we were baffled. At first we randomly weaved through the parking lot. My husband held up the keys like a torch. He intermittently pushed on the remote lock button, hoping our car would wake up and shout in its little beep-beep voice, “Yo! Over here!”

No luck.

Then we tried to retrace our earlier steps. We were saying things like, “Do you remember if we started out closer to Marshall’s, or did we pull in on the other side near Target?”

“Wait!” I said. “I remember when we first got here I was admiring stuff in in the Pier One window. Let’s head west!”

Still no luck.

We had no choice but to apply math by dividing the lot into quadrants. We marched up and down the rows in a robotic grid pattern — left, right, left right— much like the video game characters some kids were probably purchasing in a nearby Game Stop. This method worked, eventually. We found the car.

As we plunked down in our gray sedan, we sat there looking out the windshield. There was no sigh of relief:

“I don’t remember parking in this area. At all.”

“Neither do I.”

We rationalized that our little fiasco was mostly caused by distraction/busy-ness.

Now, about my theory that shopping center parking lots are really cookie cutter fun-house mirrors. If you drive down any commercial street in any suburb, the chain stores repeat themselves every several miles. Look, there’s a new Chipotle! Hey, they have a Kohl’s here, too! Oh, another Shoe Carnival! It’s very similar to watching an old cartoon. Bugs Bunny will be running down a long, endless hallway, but if you pay attention to the details in the background, the same accent table with the flower vase keeps repeating.

Still with me? Because here’s the thing. Sometimes these strip malls mess with us. They have the identical chain stores, but they juggle or reverse the order of these retailers. Yet the parking lots are exactly the same. It’s dizzying. Endless asphalt punctuated with sad, sputtering trees. Everything looks all wavy and hazy in the sun.

I propose parking lot designers take a cue from Disney World. They could name each section with big signs and memorable names, like the Mickey Mouse lot or the Snow White area. Maybe we can find sections with suburban themes. Soccer Mom North. Grill Daddy East. Then all of us, from ages 15 to Betty White, might have a better chance of remembering where we parked the #$^& car.

I call dibs on the Dopey section.

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