The Straight and Narrow

The Central Garage at the university is all lines and angles and primary colors. Well lit and dry, an annual white wash keeps the walls fresh.  Angled car stalls are outlined in white against the dark floor like hundreds of chalk outlines at a murder scene. Diagonal crosswalks, the white-striped corridors that offer the suggestion of safety for pedestrians, cut across open spaces between the cars and yellow-painted walkways that lead drivers up and out of the garage into the fresh air.

Three times a week I park in the bowels of the garage.  My assigned parking area is on the lowest level—marked by vivid green —and at the farthest remove from the exit that takes me nearest to my building. So, three times a week, I walk from one end of the parking lot to the other, thoughts tumbling whichever way they will:

Do I need to make copies? Did I bring my key? Is there time for a coffee before class? Will my perennially absent student show up today? Do I care if my perennially absent student shows up today?

Three times a week, thoughts tumbling whichever way they will, I park my car, cross in the diagonal crosswalk to the N-shaped pedestrian ramp from the green zone to the red, and enter the narrow yellow-bordered path painted on the floor.

Sharp right to the end of the row of cars, sharp left along the wall, continue skirting the wall to the exit. Up four flights of stairs and out.

Three times a week, I reverse the process and go home.

It’s unremarkable, really. The parking garage is a utilitarian space for housing my car. It is a space in my day–a physical and mental space–that equates to nothing more than a way—a tool, even—for leaving one thing to do another.

But then one day, I noticed something.

The garage was half-empty as I began my head-in-the-clouds journey from car to exit.

Would anyone actually notice if I parked in the red zone instead of the green zone? Like in that empty space by the exit that I can see from all the way over here? Does anyone even check the permits?

Leaving the ramp, I made the usual sharp right into the yellow-bordered pathway, took a few paces, and stopped.

Just me there, no one else. Not a moving vehicle in sight. The space between where I stood and where the exit sign glowed in the far corner was virtually obstacle free. A direct as-the-crow-flies line was open before me.  And, yet, I had still begun to turn away and unthinkingly follow a painted yellow path along the perimeter of the vast expanse of concrete.

The idea that I’d been doing this—blindly following routines, being guided by painted paths I never really looked at—struck me as simultaneously poignant and silly. Full of meaning, if I wanted it to be. Or not.

It was clear what must happen next. Obviously I had to step out of that path. The narrow path laid out by parallel yellow lines was a painted suggestion, not an absolute.

I stepped out.

But there was an odd momentary pull as I crossed the painted yellow line. Imagined, no doubt.  But it was almost as if my brain wanted to give me a chance to turn back.

“Whoa, there. Are you sure?”

And so it has been. Three times a week, I pull into the Central Garage. I park. I get out of my car. I automatically follow the lines. At the end of the ramp, it takes a few beats for me to remember.

And then I cross out of the straight and narrow, making my way–as a crow does–across, out, and away.

 

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