Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dubious Tradition of Dibs

I've been feeling a bit guilty about not producing any blog posts, so I've had a trawl through my rejection files and come up with something that might be mildly interesting. This is an essay I wrote for a humourish local colour column in an in-flight magazine. It's about an annoyance that's unique to Chicago in the winter.


The Dubious Tradition of Dibs

After five years of living in Chicago, I now live in the suburbs. On snowy days, I gaze happily at my driveway and count my blessings. At the top of the blessing list: I no longer have to compete for parking in Chicago.

Mostly, Chicagoans accept the fact that street parking is a first-come-first-served, finders-keepers-losers-weepers proposition. If you move your car from that nice convenient spot in front of your apartment, you’re probably not going to find the spot available when you come back with your trunk full of groceries. This is just a fact of life, as inevitable as death, taxes, and monumental Cubs collapses.

But on snowy days, the fundamental laws of street parking change. It becomes the law of calling “dibs”. The new rule goes “If you shovel it out and put something, anything, in the spot, it is now YOUR spot and woe unto he who takes your spot.” As the snowflakes fall, Chicago streets take on the look of someone’s unkempt basement. Paint cans, two-by-fours, broken chairs, old ugly sofas, hockey sticks, plywood – you name it and someone has used it as a crude flag to stake his claim to a 12’ by 8’ plot of prime street real estate.

Theoretically speaking, the Departments of Streets and Sanitation has the authority to remove these yard sale rejects and clear the streets of debris. Realistically speaking, they never do. I once saw a press conference in which Mayor Daley said something along the lines of (and I am paraphrasing here) “It’s a Chicago tradition and this is Chicago, so don’t move ‘em if you’re not prepared for the consequences.” Later that day, a woman putting milk crates into her freshly shoveled spot responded to a pointed question about her street-staking claim with an indignant “The mayor said it was okay!”

My husband is a staunch opponent of claiming dibs. He’s been known, on occasion, to remove the claiming material from the street, sometimes for his own personal use and sometimes just on general principle. We once returned to a spot he’d reclaimed to find a note tucked under our windshield wiper. Scrawled on the back of a piece of junk mail, the note read “Not Very Neighborly”, which was funny, because that’s exactly how we feel about the practice of parking space claiming. (And yes, I realize we were lucky to find our car, its tires and paint job in tact.)

Chicago is a city of traditions and most of them are perfectly charming: dying the river green on St. Patrick’s Day, eating hot dogs in poppy seed buns, decorating the windows at Marshall Fields for Christmas… but the tradition of using old mops to reserve your shoveled parking space does not fall into the charming category. It’s an eye-sore creating nuisance that has to go!

Besides filling the streets with junk, the dibs system reduces the number of available parking spaces and not just in the obvious a-claimed-spot-is-not-an-available-spot sort of way. You know that half-spot that no one parked in the day before it snowed because no one drives a European sub-compact? If that spot is surrounded by dibbers, it will never get shoveled out. I’ve seen streets where, if you added up the dead space created by little snow piles between cars, you’d have enough space for at least three or four cars.

If everyone accepted shoveling as a fact of life and shoveled out her car each time, the entire street would more or less be cleared of snow. People could park more normally and space could be used as efficiently as possible. And, as an added bonus, the street wouldn’t look like the set of Sanford and Son.

We once found our car actually frozen to the ground – previously slushy material had seized the underneath of our car and we could not move it. We had to buy and lug home an enormous ice chipper that looked like a flattened hoe and a 40-lb bag of calcium chloride. We took turns lying on the ground, stabbing at the ice underneath the car. It took us several hours of hard labor to free the car from the ground’s icy death grip.

It was cold, miserable work and when our car was free, we had lost our desire to go anywhere. I admit, I’m only human; at that moment, the concept of dibs was very appealing. But the dibs system is fundamentally wrong and we wouldn’t join them even though it seems impossible to beat them.

Calling dibs defeats the whole spirit of the neighborhood and the sense of community. It puts the need of the individual over the public need for clear and clean streets. It has been known to turn ugly and cause unfortunate confrontations. It’s a dubious tradition that Mayor Daley should be ashamed of tacitly supporting.

No one, except for a few hard-core fitness buffs and a couple of transplanted Minnesotans, likes shoveling snow. No one like standing on a crowded L train either, but we don’t let people tape old beach towels to the seats to save them for the next day. Shoveling is just a fact of life in Chicago, an onerous activity that you have to do a couple times a year. Would it really kill you to shovel out a few times if it means the entire street is getting properly shoveled out?

I’m a realist. I know that until either Chicago has leaders who oppose the dibs system or global warming fully kicks in, the unsavory tradition will continue. And sadly, I know which is more likely to happen first.


At 15 December 2006 at 01:50, Blogger Career Guy said...

Dibs on the window seat! Dibs on the couch! Dibs on the last cookie!

Having never seen the phenomenon described in your post, I can only say that it sounds charming. I think it's remarkable that people honor each others' claims and don't just toss the junk aside and bull their way into a parking space.

As long as no one called dibs on my favorite spot.

At 18 December 2006 at 16:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well this sounds like something to add to my list of "Things to see before I die", lol!

At 25 February 2007 at 20:11, Blogger laurie said...

this is hilarious! and absurd! i love the "not very neighborly" sign tucked under your wiper blades.


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