Parking Garage Of the Darned!!!

Oh, well, I might as well start blogging SXSW backwards, if only to note this little adventure from which I escaped about 30 minutes ago.

Tonight, I was supposed to have dinner with my friends Patrick and Denise, and was running around crazily from place to place when my cell phone — yes, I now have an American cell phone, too, dammit — rang. It was Patrick. He has to go to a training in San Antonio at some ungodly hour tomorrow, and Denise starts schoolteaching again now that spring break is over, so we were going to dine early. I immediately became one of those people I hate: driving along merrily while talking on my cell phone. Grrr.

But I still wanted to see them, and when he mentioned perhaps dining out at Madam Mam’s, I wasn’t about to say no. This is one of my favorite restaurants in the world, and would be even if I hadn’t known Sappachai, the owner, for 25 years, first as manager of my local grocery store, then as co-founder of Satay, Austin’s first Southeast Asian restaurant, I’d still love the place. But that fortune this excellent smiled on Sap is just extra-wonderful. First there’s the story of how it came to be. Then there’s the location: right across from campus. The decision to keep it cheap, too, means that students pack the place out all day long, and the large varitety of tasty vegetarian dishes means you sometimes have whole huge tables of Indian and Muslim students getting together. There’s everything from a five-chile-heat-rated catfish dish, which never fails to knock me flat, to dishes for the very timid.

We met at about 7:15, and at about 8:00 we paid and left. Patrick and Denise went to their car, and I went to mine, which was in a nearby parking garage operated by the University of Texas.

Now, you’ll notice above I said that spring break will be over tomorrow. While it’s on, this parking garage is open and free. Indeed, although the gate was up when I entered, I still punched the machine to get a ticket, but it didn’t respond. Then I remembered why this was so, parked, and went to dinner.

When I got back, the gates were all down. Ah, well, I thought, they have pressure-sensitive plates. All I have to do is drive over one and the gate will open.

Nope.

I went to the machine and punched it for a ticket, but the same pressure-sensitive plate told the machine there was no car there, so I was out of luck. Got back in the car and went to the administrative office for the garage. It was empty and dark. I tried each of the exits in turn, and no luck. I was trapped.

But I wasn’t alone. Two young women were also trying to leave without luck. One was a bit chubby and laughed a lot, the other was more businesslike and didn’t think this was so funny. She snapped open her cell phone and called some UT functionary, who put her on hold. Spring break, after all, doesn’t end til tomorrow. After about ten minutes of what she described as “circus music,” she was told that the only garage on campus with people who could do anything were at Jester garage, some miles away, and were short-handed, but would try to see what they could do. We were to wait. As if we had a choice.

Then another car pulled up, and the driver’s-side window went down, revealing a handsome Middle-Eastern-looking woman. “What’s the story? Can’t you get out?” Like us, she and her date had parked while it was free. Now we were five. Her date, a short, intense guy, got out and made the same tour we’d all made: no one in the office. He pushed the help button on the exit, but that clearly just rang in the office. No go. But he had an idea. His date’s car was outside. She’d roll up to the gate, extract a ticket, and hand it to him. If he got out, she’d do it for each of the rest of us.

Sure enough it worked. For him. I got the next one, and the exit ticket slot said ACCESS DENIED. (More like “Egress Denied,” but I don’t expect great literacy from UT these days). Puzzling. One of the other women tried, and had the same problem. By then, we’d been joined by a really skanky car with two very young Chinese guys in it. We told them what was going on, but, empiricists that they were, they had to try everything we’d tried. The businesslike woman called again, and was assured that help would arrive within 30 minutes.

Just then, there was a squealing noise, then another. A very expensive, new, Japanese car (not a Lexus, but something similar) appeared, with two very well-dressed Chinese student-age women in it. They quickly ascertained that they were in the same boat as the rest of us, conferred briefly in rapid-fire Mandarin, and the taller one walked to the wall, found the button marked POLICE EMERGENCY BUTTON, and slapped it with the palm of her hand. All holy hell broke out over the alarm system, then died down.

Moments later, a UT Police car showed up with a pigtailed lady cop, who disgustedly viewed the dark office, walked over to the exit, and discovered a key code which could be pressed. She tried it, and the gate swung open. One by one, we got in our cars and she punched the code and we left.

It had all the makings of the world’s lamest horror film there for a while, but hey, 90 minutes to get out of a parking garage? What a way to spend an evening. I’d like to find the bureaucrat who decided to go home early and ended spring break at 8pm on Sunday night, myself. I have a horror film for him.

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