Trillin Meets Lexus, and the Two Search for Parking

Author Calvin Trillin tries out the automotive gadget of the century: the self-parking car. Trillin finds out that the Lexus LS 460 L can park itself, but it can't find an open spot.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Not everyone has the steady nerves for precision and the eagle eye for depth. Some say maneuvering into a parking spot half an inch longer than your car is a talent, an art form, and not everyone is so gifted.

Calvin Trillin is among the elite few. The staff writer for The New Yorker magazine understands the zeitgeist of parking. He once wrote a novel about it and co-edits Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking. The first issue of that magazine premiered in 1964. The second issue is yet to come.

And he knows about the science of parallel parking, which was why he was asked to test a new gadget that promises to help those less talented with a car that parks itself. Lexus features the Advanced Parking Guiding System in the LS 460 model.

If you have questions about the self-parking car or philosophical questions about parking for the master, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Calvin Trillin wrote an op-ed about his experience for the New York Times and he joins us now from his home in Manhattan. Nice to talk to you.

Mr. CALVIN TRILLIN (Writer, The New Yorker): Thank you.

CONAN: Were you surprised to get the call to be a test driver on this?

Mr. TRILLIN: Well, I was just surprised it took so long for somebody to discern the test driver very deep within me. The sort of nerves of steel, iconic, absolutely sure-handed test driver. I always knew it was there, but somehow it took a long time for anybody to ask.

CONAN: Yet the test driver call came for a car that doesn't need a driver.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah. That's a little embarrassing. It also was more test parking than test driving.

CONAN: Indeed. And in fact the whole idea was really not to drive the car at all.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah. Once you get into the - once you set the self-parking gizmo, then you have to take your hands off the wheel and you actually see the wheel turn by itself. It's a little bit eerie. I compared it to watching a player piano, except in traffic.

CONAN: You also wrote that initially you thought your role in this was to stand on the sidewalk and say, car, park yourself.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah. I thought they needed a commanding presence, but that isn't the way it works at all.

CONAN: And when you're in the car - I mean, how do you engage the self-park system?

Mr. TRILLIN: Well, first you have to pull the car up so that the - assuming you're parking on the right hand side of the street - so that the passenger door is even with the front bumper of the car in front of the parking spot. Then you have to press one of the buttons on one of those screens that ordinarily is used as kind of a location finder, a map guidance system, and put it in reverse. And then it shows you with a sort of a box where the space is and you have to get that lined up with arrows and this whole thing takes a long time compared to parking.

And also what I didn't say is that the spot you find has to be six and a half feet longer than your car, which you mentioned is the sort of spot a New York parker runs across every 14 or 15 years.

CONAN: I assume people in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco have similar observations about the parking spots in their town. So the practical utility of this for most New Yorkers, you suggest, is very limited.

Mr. TRILLIN: Well, I said that it was like some kitchen supply - gourmet kitchen supply place devising a self-carving device that only worked on meatloaf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It would carve the meatloaf beautifully, though. And in this case does the self-parking - if you could find that mythical spot six and a half feet longer than your car - does the system park it successfully?

Mr. TRILLIN: Yes. Or that is, I should say, it makes one swoop back and that's one of the reasons it has to be six-and-a-half-feet longer. The sort of jockeying up backwards and forwards you have to do yourself. But it does make a beautifully kind of curved swoop back and to the right, or I guess - I suppose to the left if you wanted to do it that way.

And so in a way it works in the same way that the self-carving device would work on meatloaf.

CONAN: And while it's doing that, and the wheel is turning itself, as - you in the driver's seat, what are you looking at? Are you looking at the rear-view mirror, waiting for disaster behind you, or are you just covering your eyes?

Mr. TRILLIN: I think most people in this situation would have their eyes closed or covered. You do have some work to do. You have to let the brake off gradually. I mean, you have your foot on the brake when it starts, and you have to gradually get your foot off of the brake. And so you're going in little bumps. And it works. I said that the parker who might find it valuable is the parker who's driving himself home from rotator-cuff surgery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Some people have also said the likelihood of anybody who's got a car this expensive actually parking it on the street anywhere in the city of New York is so remote that this device is useless.

Mr. TRILLIN: Well actually, it's become safe, pretty much, to park your car in New York in the last 10 years or so. I mean, the last time I saw that tell-tale sprinkle of glass on the sidewalk was years ago. But still I think most people who have a car like that, which I think this one the bare-bones model goes for $70,000. So I think that no matter where you were, even if you were in an idyllic little farm community, you would probably be better off keeping it in a garage.

CONAN: We're talking with Calvin Trillin, the Zen master of parking, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, deadline poet for The Nation and author most recently of the book "About Alice."

If you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Let's turn to Jason(ph). Jason's with us from Amherst in Massachusetts.

JASON (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

JASON: Good. Actually, you know, I'd have to really say that parking is an art, especially parallel parking. I think it's one thing to pull into a parking spot. But the other thing that I'd like to say is that I think that any normal person with a healthy, unimpaired nervous system can park. I think we have some innate abilities of geometry to figure out space and distance, and I really think a lot of people are averse psychologically to parallel parking.

They often go by spaces - I've driven in Rio de Janeiro, I've driven in Boston, parked in Boston, parked in (unintelligible) and all over the world where people take much greater risks than here in the United States. Oftentimes, people will just drive by a parking spot. And I say I can get in there, and I, you know, it may take me a little bit longer than the average parallel-parking spot, but I can do it.

You know, I really think - I think the rotator-cuff joke was pretty good. I mean, I think (unintelligible) people can actually do it - you know, mind over matter, and you know…

CONAN: Well, let's - we're going to get a response from Calvin Trillin. Jason, we're going to have to let you go because your phone is incredibly annoying and we apologize for that. But it's not your voice, it's the sounds the phone are making. But thanks very much for the call. Calvin, more trick of the mind than hand-eye coordination?

Mr. TRILLIN: Well, I suspect if you tried to find out which part of the driving test people most often failed, it would probably be - I'm just guessing -parallel parking. In Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, we went into some of this and also talked about what we called Pepper Martining, which is going in from the back, named after Pepper Martin, a great St. Louis Cardinal Gashouse Gang base runner who used to slide head-first when he stole bases. And that's a little easier, but again you have to have a spot that's pretty large.

CONAN: I think bowlers would call this coming in Jersey-side in a…

Mr. TRILLIN: Yes, that's right, and the - and of course some of the parking arguments that start begin when somebody is in the proper position next to the car in front of the spot and waiting to gather up his nerve and his talent to get into the spot, and somebody Pepper Martins in from the back. Those are usually - well, some of those of course are violent altercations.

CONAN: Indeed, and I have to ask you about a couple of other items of terminology that you discuss in terms of parking. Slicing the bread? What does that mean?

Mr. TRILLIN: Slicing the bread is getting in a spot that allows for only a slice of bread between you and the car in front and another slice between you and the car in back. It's usually - it's a sign of somewhat skilled parking, although not as skilled as what's called breaking the matzah. That is allowing only a width of a matzah, or if you're a Presbyterian parker, say, a soda cracker.

CONAN: I was going to say something about a quarter of the width of the standard slice of Wonder Bread.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yes, that's about right, yeah. Breaking the matzah, of course - I got a letter after this piece from someone I know who said that she went beyond breaking the matzah. She got in a spot in which there was no room at all between her bumper and the bumper ahead and behind through a sort of a bouncing of the rubberized bumper in her car. I did not witness that personally.

CONAN: And of course…

Mr. TRILLIN: I would have written it up for the next issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, if I'd seen it.

CONAN: I understand the magazine has been having some production problems.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yes, yeah. The second issue hasn't come out yet. But we're - I mean, we can re-energize the staff at a moment's notice as soon as those are cleared up.

CONAN: We're speaking with Calvin Trillin. His New York Times article is about the self-parking car. You can read that by going to our Web page. You can also see a video of him parking the car: npr.org/talk. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Tom(ph). Tom's with us from Trenton in Tennessee.

TOM (Caller): Hi, fellows. I've got to say I'm a big fan of both of you.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much.

TOM: Yes, sir. And I just recently got my CDL this past summer and am now driving a tractor-trailer.

CONAN: CDL, of course, commercial driver's license.

TOM: Yes, sir. And one of the things you have to do to get your CDL is parallel park the tractor-trailer with a 53-foot trailer. And you can't touch any of the cones, so you can't do the - you can do the matzah thing, but you can't do the no-touch. You can't touch the cones, and you've got to get it in there and you've only got three pull-ups.

So you've got to get it in there straight and then pull up once. And if you pull up more than three times, you're failed. And as far as finding a spot goes, that's what truck drivers do every night when they're looking for a place to sleep. You've got to find the perfect spot.

CONAN: Don't you call that I-95?

TOM: Well, no. You park there sometimes, but you've got to sit up and wait on it to clear up, I mean as far as at the truck stop or something. And the ultimate parallel parker was my dad, who raised 10 kids, and I'm the ninth one. And he drove on the other side of the car as a mailman for years. And when he was teaching me to drive from that side of the car, he just - he'd get so frustrated, he'd finally say oh give me that and just parallel-park it one-handed from that side - the other side of the car, from the British side on the American steering wheel because that's what he did every day. He drove from that side of the car.

CONAN: Calvin Trillin, are you taking notes for your article for Beautiful Spot?

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah, this might be - this would be one of those warm-hearted family stories that we specialize in.

TOM: Oh yeah, it's very warm. Yeah, actually hot sometimes, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call, and good luck finding parking spots for that semi rig.

TOM: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: So long. Let's turn now to - this is Mary(ph). Mary's with us from Tempe, Arizona.

MARY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MARY: Yeah, I was just excited to hear that there is another parking enthusiast out there. Parallel parking makes my day. I will specifically like look for a parallel spot just to make my day a little better in the morning. And last week I was parking in a particularly tight spot, and I was really proud of myself when I got in there. And as I got out of the car, a man on the street turned to me and said, that was a beautiful park. And it just made my life a whole lot better.

Mr. TRILLIN: Of course, that's sort of like in New York if you go out for the evening, just say somebody's house for dinner, and you find a beautiful spot and you manage to get in it, then you realize you've sort of peaked for the day. I mean, nothing at the dinner party could be possibly - could beat finding that spot. So that's the problem of doing that early in the morning.

CONAN: And do you find yourself then looking for the parking signage to find out when it might be required - you're not going to move that car again until you absolutely have to, until the alternate side of the street parking kicks in.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah, I mean even if you have to walk all the way home.

CONAN: Absolutely.

Mr. TRILLIN: Yeah, the…

CONAN: Or take a cab.

Mr. TRILLIN: That's what New York parkers call good for tomorrow.

MARY: I've actually had the pleasure of parking in New York and finding that perfect spot, and I didn't move my car for a long time, a whole day, pretty much.

CONAN: A whole day. Mary, do you turn your nose up at a spot that has three feet to either side and wait for that spot where it's a challenge for you?

MARY: I do. I like the challenge. I look for those - I don't know what did you call it, bread-slicing spots? I look for that. I love it. I love the challenge, parking - because it's one of the few things I think I'm really good at. It's my talent.

Mr. TRILLIN: Well that's exactly what I said in the piece. That if I were asked what's your talent in the way that the Miss America contest uses the word, as in Miss West Virginia will now do her talent, I would say parallel parking.

CONAN: Mary, it sounds like you could win any talent contest across the country. All you need is a jury with an open mind and an open parking spot.

MARY: Sure.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mary.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: With this device, Calvin Trillin, where does the future lead? Surely they will invent one that needs less than six-and-a-half feet of clearance space.

Mr. TRILLIN: Well, I think that what they need is to move in another direction, and that is find - have a device that actually finds the spot. I mean that can tell within a four or five-block area where there is some opening between cars that is not next to a fire hydrant or a driveway. And so I think if they can combine this sort of tracking thing they already have in cars with the parking, then we're on our way.

And I have to hand it to Lexus for sort of being the pace-setter in this field. I mean, it's what we would I think in five years we'll think of as sort of a primitive device. I compared it in the piece to a cell phone that actually is used for making and receiving telephone calls, I mean something truly 19th century. But that Lexus for the price of only $1,200 has shown the way on this. And so I expect, you know, Mercedes to counter with one that will find a spot and maybe Infiniti to get one that will combine finding the spot and parking in it, and…

CONAN: Calvin Trillin, I'm afraid we have to end it there. The future's now. Thanks so much for being with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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