I don’t like Dibs. Saving your parking spot with a folding chair or a cone or a box of diapers may be part and parcel of winter here, but the whole practice strikes me as a very un-Chicago thing to do. It is basically saying to your neighbors, the people with whom you are presumably on pleasant terms the rest of the year: “I don’t trust you, so I’m going to screw you before you screw me. And if you screw me anyway and park in ‘my’ spot, I’m ritually entitled to turn your car into a Toyota-sicle.” Call me idealistic, but that’s not how neighbors ought to act. And it’s not how most Chicagoans act during the other three seasons of the year.
Why does the snow change us, make us territorial and aggressive and desperate? I heard a nasty story over the weekend about a block in Lincoln Square that paid a private contractor to plow their alley. The contractor, for some reason, left all the snow in front of one guy’s garage, thinking it abandoned, and the guy was so angry that he spent all day shoveling the snow into a pile that blocked the entire alley. Police were called. Words exchanged. And the guy spent the rest of the day shoveling the snow out of the way, cursing at his neighbors, the contractor, and the City.
I decided long ago that I would just dig out my car and hope my neighbor does the same with his. If my neighbor is unable or unwilling to do the work himself, I hope that he can get someone else to do it. I might even do it if he asks me. If I must drive, well then, when I return, if the spot I spent an hour digging out has been filled by someone else’s automobile, that’s life in the city. I don’t own the street, and while there are fewer spots to be had because of the hazardous alley situation, I will surely find another spot somewhere. That’s the way that neighbors ought to act.
This year I spent an hour and a half with a shovel giving my car the requisite breathing room and I drove away, ready to accede the space to whoever needed it. I returned home that night to find “my” spot taken—but not by another car. By a chair. One of those fancy padded camper dealies with the holder for your drink. That was the moment I ceased being neighborly. While I could accept someone else parking in the spot, I could not stomach the notion that some smug bastard was taking credit for my hard work. I snatched the chair and hurled it as far as I could into the adjacent yard, which wasn’t very far, so I tromped through the snow and heaved it again, into a bush. Then I parked in “my” spot. I saw absolutely no hypocrisy in this action, and slept well that night.
The next day, I fully expected to find my car keyed or water poured into the locks, but there was my car, unharmed. The chair owner had been sufficiently shamed, taken his pathetic placeholder and slunk back into his rat’s nest somewhere on our block. The system had worked.
“I can’t believe you threw that chair,” my wife said later that day. As a lifelong Chicagoan, she is strangely ambivalent about Dibs, on one hand finding it silly but on the other willing to tolerate the practice as part of How Chicago Works. “That was a big mistake.”
Why’s that? I asked, ready for a fight.
“Because,” she said. “That’s not the spot you dug out. You dug out the spot behind it.”
The spot with the chair was our neighbor’s spot. And I had thrown our neighbor’s chair into his bush.
Photograph: vxla/Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic