I’m not going to name the town where I live. Go ahead and feel superior if you like — if you and all your kumbaya neighbors never mark your shoveled-out parking spaces with personal items when it snows — but here where I live, we do.
I don’t know if we’re less courteous than y’all, or more suspicious, or just exhausted from our position here at the crossroads of what forecasters refer to as “the northern and western suburbs.” Suffice it to say we’ve been walloped this winter. We’re sick and tired of it. And we know our own limitations, which is to say we know what we’re capable of should some day-tripper parallel-park himself or herself into the barely-bumper-to-bumper spaces we’ve painstakingly carved out of the snowdrifts that surround us. So we mark our spaces. Trust me; it’s safer this way.
I like to think the habit already existed out here when my husband Doug and I moved to our block from South Philly 20 years ago this month, but I can’t really remember. I do recall that the winter we moved, in 1994, was one of the snowiest on record. We bought our house from a couple with two kids and a big, dumb black Lab named Sparky. As spring dawned and the frozen drifts finally began to melt, we watched as layer upon layer of snow in our little backyard yielded layer upon layer of Sparky’s poo, laid down like archeological treasure. That dog must have had a hell of an appetite.
Among the items we moved here were a pair of bright blue metal folding chairs — the same chairs with which we’d always reserved our parking spot in South Philly. Winter after winter, year after year, they served the same function here, while our children thrived and grew, while we ourselves got older, while we occasionally unearthed more of Sparky’s leavings. Then came the day when we bought a second car. Now we had two parking spots to reserve — one with the blue chairs, one with a set of bright orange sawhorses Doug got from his parents when they downsized their house. And so life went on, and the neighbors were neighborly, and no one ever encroached on anyone else’s demarcated parking spot.
This year, though, I began to notice something. Specifically, I noticed the pair of chairs with which a family down the block was marking off its territory. The chairs were Chinese red, with seductively filigreed metal backs and handsome curving bottoms. Doug noticed them, too. “Some of the people around here are putting really nice chairs out to mark their parking spaces,” he observed one evening.
“I know!” I said. “Those Chinese red ones down the street — I want those chairs!”
“They’re really nice,” he agreed. “And did you see the brown ones on the next block up? The ones with the woven backs?”
“They’re nice, too,” I agreed. “Not as nice as the red ones, though.”
“It sort of makes you wonder what the furniture inside their houses looks like, if they’re putting chairs like that in the street,” Doug noted.
“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully.
The next time I dragged my blue chairs off the front porch and into my parking spot, I looked at them more critically. They were — let’s be frank here — beat. One of them couldn’t really accurately be called a chair any longer, since it only had three legs. I started to think: Were there any other, better chairs I could put out on the curb instead of these old things? I mean, what might the neighbors be thinking, watching me haul these sorry chair-excuses out into the street day after day after day? They were, far and away, the most decrepit snow-saver chairs on the block.
But before I could act on this impulse, Doug did so for me. When I drove home from work that night, awaiting me on the front porch was one bright blue folding chair and one … “What the hell happened to my other blue chair?” I asked him when I had my spot safely staked.
“I threw it out. It was an embarrassment,” he said.
Hmm. So I wasn’t the only one sensitive to the state of our street seats. “What’s that thing you left out there to replace it?”
“A TV-tray holder.”
“Oh, great. Now the neighbors are going to think we’re the sort of people who eat our dinners off of TV trays.”
“What do you care what the neighbors think about you?”
“You’re the one who decided the other blue chair was too ratty to put outside any longer!”
“Because it kept falling over, not because of what the neighbors think. It only had three legs.”
“Well, it’s easy for you to sneer; you’ve got a pair of Look-at-me-I’m-so-manly sawhorses to mark your spot.”
“Do you want to use my sawhorses?”
I happen to know those sawhorses are really heavy. “Never mind,” I told him. There had to be something else in the house I could use.
But there wasn’t, really. A couple summers back, Doug and our son went on a rampage and cleaned out the basement and the garage, tossing into one of those portable dumpster-bags all manner of crap that could have been useful as parking-space markers. Then my daughter got married and set up a household, gleaning just about anything remaining that resembled furniture. It’s true I have a habit of buying what Doug calls “orphan chairs” at secondhand shops, but only wooden ones — and I’m holding onto all of them in case I ever make it onto Antiques Roadshow. (Want to see the splat-back Colonial Revival beauty I scored just the other day?)
I don’t remember place-keeper chairs being so … well, respectable in years past. Seems to me we all used to set out old clunkers. But I guess it’s some new form of keeping up with the Kardashians — declaring publicly that what you have inside your house is even better than the set of lovely Chinese red chairs you negligently leave outside in the elements, to be ravaged by sleet and snow and hail, not to mention regular assaults of road salt. If that’s how we’re playing it, then fine. I’ll add “decent set of folding chairs” to the list of things I search for as I comb through those secondhand shops.
Still, you don’t want to go overboard. I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and he told me he’d had his parking-place chair swiped right off the street in the last storm. “Was it a nice chair?” I asked.
“Pretty nice,” he acknowledged. “Metal, with mosaic tile along the back. It was part of one of those bistro sets.” So now he’s stuck with two-thirds of a three-piece bistro set. It’s a cautionary tale that makes my blue metal chair and TV-tray stand look pretty sensible. Maybe I’ll stick with what I’ve got, and invest the money I save elsewhere. I wonder what my neighbor would ask for those Chinese red chairs?
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