The car park

There are times when spending a little extra cash could save your sanity. But then, what is your sanity worth when compared to a good story?

This story starts with my daughter Ella and I arriving in Adelaide. We drove around the block twice, looking for an entrance to the hotel carpark. There wasn’t one. The bartender/concierge advised us to park in one of the many carparks in the area.

‘There’s a cheap one right across the road,’ he added, noting my displeasure at having to drive further afield and pay for the inconvenience. 

While I took our luggage upstairs, Ella went to park the car. She returned a short time later with a smug look.

‘I was looking for the pay station and found a note saying it’s unattended. We can park there for free,’ she said, satisfied with her discovery.

The following day, I went across the road to look for a parking attendant. I eventually found a bum-bagged, dishevelled employee to whom I explained that we needed parking for four days. He grunted in a manner that a certain breed of young men has finessed.

‘Sixty,’ he said.

‘Can I drive in and out at any time?’ I asked.


‘We’re leaving on Sunday,’ I ventured

‘Mm,’ he acknowledged without looking up once.

I moved my car closer to the entrance of the unlit, cavernous space. With its broken windows and filthy floors, it would have made a perfect setting for a British murder series. I couldn’t help but look for the acid bath which surely was hidden in a corner somewhere. It didn’t help that Ella and I had listened to a whodunnit while driving to Adelaide. In that story, the body was stuffed into a freezer in a basement.

The following day, I ventured across the road to retrieve my car. I was glad I had parked it close to the entrance as there wasn’t a soul in sight. Not even the young grunt. I drove to Port Adelaide, walked along the schmick, renovated wharf and went past a house where I had lived in my late teens. It was still there but across the road were the ever-multiplying modern townhouses. The area is still far from genteel, but it has climbed up a rung or two in the property market. I took a couple of obligatory photos while the next-door dogs barked incessantly. It was time to leave before someone peered out from behind a curtain and called the police.

I was tempted to drive to the beach but decided against it. The beach could wait for another day. I drove back to dingy parking lot, locked the doors, and bolted across the road to the safety of the hotel.

The next morning was Saturday. We slept in and Ella was running late.

‘Could you drop me off?’ she pleaded after downing her triple shot espresso. Not that it seemed to make much difference to her demeanour.

‘Sure,’ I said, planning a day at the beach with a good book in hand.

As we crossed the road, Ella was first to notice.

‘The roller door is shut!’ she cried.

It is uncanny how a day can turn 180 before the mind has time to absorb the consequences. Ella was already jumping into an Uber while I stood fuming in front of the locked door. I called the number on the sign and listening to a message.

‘The person you are calling is unavailable. No message will be left as the mailbox is full.’

I dialled again in disbelief. Unsurprisingly, I received the same message. Over the course of the next six hours, I became intimate with the recorded voice.

I accosted two police officers in Rundle Mall and explained my plight.

‘Yeah, that’s a pretty shonky outfit. You’d be better off parking in one of the other places. There’ve had a few break ins and I guess that’s why they locked it up.’

‘But it says 24 hours!’ I said.

‘Go back. I’m sure you’ll find that they’re open by now,’ the friendlier of the two advised.

I walked the four city blocks to the carpark, buoyed by the optimism of the boys in blue.

There’s nothing more shattering than false hope. The roller door was still firmly shut. In desperation I asked the bartender if he knew about their opening hours.

‘They’re usually open. There’s a side door off a lane you can try,’ he said while polishing beer glasses. I don’t know whether he seriously thought I could drive my car through a side door, but I investigated anyway.

The lane was heavily graffitied but harmless in daylight. I found the side door jimmied. The deadlock bolt banged against the splintered door frame. Without thinking, I entered. A shaft of light from the open door allowed me to see my car in the distance. The only other vehicle was a white van.

‘Hello?’ I shouted into the void. No answer.

I felt a shiver go down my spine. Surely, it was safer to leave now and come back with Ella. My fingerprints were all over the jimmied door by now. Was I breaking and entering? Surely not. It was broken already. Entering? Well yes. Maybe my partner in crime could work out a way to get the car out.

Ella wasn’t given a choice when she returned in the afternoon.

‘We’re going over,’ I said. ‘I have a plan. We could try to lift the roller door.’

Undeterred by her mother’s crazy idea, Ella jumped into action. We entered the carpark, called out in case an axe murderer was about to make himself known and made our way to the front. The chain on the roller door was padlocked and I was ready to admit defeat. Sure, I had thought about ramming the door, but my car would have come off worse. As satisfying as it would have been, a thin thread of sanity stopped me from doing a full Thelma and Louise job on the carpark.

‘I can’t believe you are going to give up,’ said Ella.

At moments like these, she is truly my daughter. Of course, we wouldn’t give up! We made our way to the back and found another roller door. No padlock on this one! I tried to pull on the chain, but my exertions led nowhere. Ella on the other hand could move it about 10 cm. At that rate it would be midnight before we could drive the car out. Still, she was a determined young Quasimodo, pulling the chain with all her might.

I went out to see whether I could help push it up from the outside. No hope. That’s when two curious young men walked past. One looked back at me, so I said hello.

‘Do you need a hand?’ he asked.

What does it look like, I thought but I was savvy enough to offer a huge smile and coo ‘Yes please!’

‘We don’t need a hand,’ came Ella’s muffled voice.

‘Oh yes we do!’ I answered as I implicated two innocent men in our trespassing/ breaking and entering operation. The taller one was clearly gym junkie. It took him less than a minute to pull the door high enough for me to drive through it. He even pulled it shut, which I certainly wouldn’t have done. After our heartfelt thank you and waves goodbye, we drove off never to see the men again.

Moral of the story: Park in a reputable carpark.

Alternative moral 1: Be prepared for any crazy eventuality and act accordingly.

Alternative moral 2: Never be afraid to ask for help, especially when doing something slightly mad.

Alternative moral 3: When in doubt, go for the option that offers a memorable story.

Meditation upon my daughter

Sydney, 1996

I wrote this 26 years ago when my daughter, Ella was 9 weeks old. As her birthday approaches, I thought it a fitting tribute to her. It also is a fitting tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk, who passed away today, aged 95. I wrote this piece to read at the Lotus Bud Sangha in Sydney all those years ago.

There is nothing like having a little baby to look after to bring you back to the present. Her thoughts and actions are fixed in the present moment; this moment and this moment alone is all that matters. Show her a new object and she will delight in it, seeing it with a freshness we cannot conceive. Shot it to her the next day and the freshness remains – she is able to look at it as if for the first time, even the twentieth time. She delights in the small things in life. A breeze on her cheek can make her face light up and smile. It is a fleeting moment, but she enjoys it fully, unencumbered by ‘rational’ thought. She does not have to think ‘present moment, wonderful moment’ to meditate upon it. She does it automatically – without words, without thought coming between herself and the here and now.

She is not aware that she is a separate entity. The notion of ‘I’ and ‘me’ are alien to her. She is part of me and part of the rest of the world around her. She is part of space and knows no boundaries. Where she ‘stops’ and otherness ‘begins’ is something she will learn over a long period of time. At this moment, she truly ‘inter-is’. As she grows, she will have to learn other ways of seeing herself and the world. She will move from being a creature who fully feels connected with her surroundings to one who becomes increasingly egocentric. She will recognise familiar objects and no longer see them as if for the first time and she will develop a sense of a past and the knowledge of a future. Her ability to stay in the present will diminish accordingly. In the meantime, however, she is teaching me to look deeper at everything around me. As for my part, I hope someday to encourage her to see things with that same freshness she now takes for granted.

My daughter has taught me very quickly to be mindful of breath. In the past when I have tried the mindfulness of breathing meditation, I knew intellectually that breath equals life, but I never felt it the way I do now. My daughter was born limp and blue, her heartbeat the only sign of life. She was quickly suctioned and given oxygen. With that first breath her existence in the outside world started. Her life will go on as long as she keeps breathing. Is it any wonder that I regularly check her breath? I now see that meditating upon the breath is not simply a device to concentrate on something that is common to us all. Nor is it just a physiological phenomenon which can usefully be employed for relaxation. Meditating upon the breath is nothing short of meditating upon the sanctity of life itself. I now not only understand but feel why it is such a powerful meditation.

These past nine weeks have flown. Every day brings something brand new. While with adults we feel that there is a constant, that people ‘don’t change’ at least outwardly, with my daughter I realise that all of us grow and are forever changing. The baby I held in my arms three weeks ago isn’t the same baby I am holding now and yet clearly, she is! I am learning to enjoy paradox and I am learning to keep my mind open so that I can observe the world with the freshness she has brought into my life.

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