In downtown Minneapolis, there is a parking garage at 9th Street and La Salle that looks like it will collapse at any minute. I called it the House of Cards Ramp, but it was cheap and close to The Saloon, where I was most likely to be found on a weekend evening, so I parked there often.
After a certain hour, the parking attendant no longer took money by hand, and drunk drivers were forced to insert dollars and quarters into a machine that controlled the exit arm. (Many times have I received an annoying 68 quarters after inserting a $20 bill.) The attendant was still on duty at this time, but hiding out in the little office, and he would only come out when the machine malfunctioned and the drivers were making enough of a fuss about it.
One night, a new person had started working the booth. She should have been a librarian or a high school hall monitor. She was a largeish woman, shaped somewhat like “Martha Dumptruck” from Heathers. She was probably in her mid-30s. She had large plastic-frame glasses, curly hair, a penchant for wearing pink sweaters, and such a pleasant and sweet demeanor that I wondered how long she would last at this particular job.
She was the sweetest thing, always saying hello and good-bye, efficiently counting my change and dropping the coins smartly into my palm. She was a little too nice sometimes, and not at all helpful usually. But somehow, when there was a problem with the after-hours machine, and the cars were lining up behind me expectantly, and she’d stand outside of my door encouraging me simply to try it again, try it again, try it again, the extra attention was always charming and reassuring.
She began to recognize me after a few weeks. She always made me smile on my way out of the House of Cards Ramp, no matter what drama I was escaping at the Saloon. It was fun to be just a little bit flirtatious with her. And one night I asked her for her name. I saw her so often, I said, I might as well know what it is.
I told her mine. And she told me hers.
And I promptly forgot it.
I always felt bad for her, having to deal with all the drunk homos pouring out of that ramp every night. Some people were downright rude to her. And it was beginning to show in her expression. So, I determined to be The Nice Guy.
The next time I saw her, I apologized. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but can you tell me again what your name is?”
She told me again.
The next time I saw her, I was excited to call her by her first name. But to my acute embarrassment, I realized I had forgotten it again. I played it cool. I didn’t use her name, nor did I ask for it again. I just tried to forget about the whole thing.
Over the months, her attitude began to change. She stopped smiling. She stopped talking. She would give me my change without looking up. When the machine malfunctioned, she would not come out and “help” anymore.
The job was getting to her. It was dragging her down. I tried my Nice Guy thing again and asked her for her name one night. She looked up at me, screwed up her mouth, cocked her head to the side, narrowed her eyes and did not answer me. You’ve got to be kidding me, that look said. I recoiled. The smile dropped from my face. I sat back in my seat, and I drove forward.
She had been transformed from a trusting, friendly, kind-hearted school nurse into a heartless, jaded downtown parking attendant. She was meaner than the men who worked there. I felt even worse about her situation and tried to be nice to her — until she started being rude to me.
Sometimes I wouldn’t have three dollar bills, and I’d have to give her a $10 or a $20. And she’d sigh heavily and avoid eye contact, throw open her drawer, and slap down the dollar bills. And I’d have to reach out of the car and grab for it myself. I’d drive away without comment, but strangely my feelings would be hurt.
Then the price went up to $3.50, and I always seemed to forget it. (After years of $3, $3, $3, you think you can count on something.) I’d hand her $3. At least it was correct change, right? And she’d look at me, thrust out her hand, and jab it forward a few times emphatically.
“Three fifty!” she’d bark.
And she’d jog my memory. “Ope! I’m sorry!” I’d say in that in-line-at-the-grocery-store voice. “I forgot again…”
And she would sit there, scowling and thrusting her hand again. I was flabbergasted. It was like being falsely accused of stealing. Maybe she thought I was teasing her. Whatever. I’d drop the precious 50 cents into her palm, and she’d let me be on my way.
She never got better. Sometimes she wouldn’t even shout “three fifty!,” but she’d just stare at me, waving that fucking hand of hers. One time when I forgot the 50 cents and she gave me that attitude, I lost it.
“Look! Calm down! I’m not trying to give you a hard time! I. Just. Forgot.”
But she never cracked that stony exterior. I never saw that nice lady in the pink sweater again. She had became The Raving Bitch of the House of Cards Ramp. That was her official title. We referred to her as The Bitch for short. My friends and I grew to hate her. There was always an edge of sadness to the stories we would make up about her as we drove away, because I remembered how she used to be. But she had lumped me in with the rude idiots who park in that ramp. She mistook my forgetfulness for intentional troublemaking. Before long, her attitude was justified.
I still don’t know her name. Maybe if I’d remembered those years ago, I’d have been able to maintain that small bridge to her kinder side.