I'm an excellent driver. One of several attributes I share with Rain Man.
I'm not merely excellent at driving forward, I'm above average backward, too. I have been known to amaze sidewalk witnesses with my parallel parking, zipping to within 3 inches of the curb, occasionally to scattered applause.
Sure, I have my off days, too. I'll miss my mark, bonk the curb, pull out and try again, bonk the curb again, pull out again and try again, discovering when I'm reasonably satisfied that I'm still a good 3 feet from the curb. In those cases I draw smirks, not cheers, or so I imagine. Even parking savants have bad days.
So how, I wondered, are mere mortals supposed to navigate the new reverse-angle parking slots in downtown Bakersfield? The newly drawn parking spaces on four blocks of 18th Street, east of Chester, require drivers to back in.
The idea, put into effect last Monday, was to create more parking in this increasingly active and desirable section of downtown. The back-in diagonal parking design provides nine additional parking spaces over a three-block stretch of asphalt from N Street almost to Q.
Nine spaces? I guess it's a start.
Backing into a parking spot sounds simple enough, and under the right circumstances it should be.
Witnesses say it isn't.
"It's gonna be a calamity," said Chris Vanderlei, sitting on the sidewalk outside his 18th Street antique store.
He just shakes his head.
"Not everybody gets it. They back in crooked and then they pull out and don't come back."
What he typically sees is something like this: Driver A, cruising along 18th Street at 35 mph, spots an open space and comes to a complete and, by necessity, somewhat sudden stop. Traffic behind Driver A stops abruptly, too, prompting irritation to furrow drivers' brows all the way back to N Street.
Here is where the similarity to parallel parking ends.
Driver A turns his steering wheel to the left and moves at a 20 degree angle toward oncoming traffic, touching and perhaps crossing over the double-yellow center lines. That gets the attention of an approaching driver who may not have seen this kind of broad-daylight behavior before in a presumably sober driver, and he wisely backs off on the accelerator.
Driver A stops, throws it in reverse, cranes his neck around to the right and backs up slowly all the way to the curb, glancing back at his car's backup camera every couple of seconds to make sure he's staying between the white lines of the parking space. (Your car is equipped with a backup camera, isn't it?)
But not too far back! The curb is so high it'll take the muffler off your Pinto. Eighteenth Street is like a long, half-cylindrical hill, so exaggerated is its road crown slope, engineered to channel water runoff. So Driver A isn't backing up so much as he's backing downhill.
But let's say Driver A makes it unscathed. He hops out of his car and bounces inside Cafe Smitten to buy his $4.25 green tea matcha latte. Now he's ready to go back to work.
The nice thing about backing into a parking space is that pulling out is simply a matter of pulling forward. Simply, I say, unless there's a high-profile vehicle parked to your immediate left, and since one out of every three vehicles on the streets of Bakersfield at any given time is a white Ford or Chevy three-quarter-ton pickup, chances are good that's the case. If so, you inch forward, blindly sticking your car's nose into 18th Street's single eastbound lane until either you see it's clear or someone honks at you.
Leslie Walker, who works at American Business Machines, also has a perfect view of 18th Street from her window-facing desk. She sees drivers break the rules and pull in head-first several times a day.
"I go out there and tell them. 'You have to back in or you'll get a ticket, or at least a warning,'" she said. "So they go, 'All right,' and they go back out and try again. Then they pull out and go park somewhere else."
Karyna Bandy and Khalisa Bianco, who also work at American Business Machines, aren't fond of the back-in parking requirement either.
"You can't see the lines when you back up," said Bandy, who doesn't have the aforementioned backup camera. "It's hard to gauge the curb."
"I parallel park perfectly almost every time," said Bianco. "When you're sideways (having successfully parallel parked) you can see the curb. Here, you can't."
Not everyone is complaining. Austin Smith, who helped develop the hip, newish 17th Place Townhomes, has nothing but praise.
"We are thrilled about the additional parking spots that the new diagonal configuration allows," he said. "This is a clever solution to a tricky problem and will make it possible for more people to visit Eastchester."
The new parking slots line the south side of 18th, which is the north side of the townhomes, so Sage's tenants will have ringside seats for whatever excitement may transpire.
Something happens to us when we get behind the wheel. Our level of impatience with the world quadruples. We fidget when we're stuck behind people who drive slowly in the left-hand lane. We snarl when others won't let us merge. We huff at drivers who fail to signal for their turn after we've waited for them to keep driving straight. We're annoyed by traffic circles, but really annoyed when the driver in front of us is apparently too terrified to enter.
We've learned to cope with those hassles.
We'll learn to cope with back-in parking on 18th Street, too. Or else we'll just drive over to 19th and park.