Unwritten Masterpieces: Great Parking Lots of America


Today’s installment of Thus Spake Daniel Kalder is a little bit different from the norm. Rather than compile a round-up of things published elsewhere and mix in some bonus material, I decided to write an essay unique to this newsletter; a look at one of the many books I have not written. 

Yes, you might very well ask: Daniel, why is it that you have published only three books since commencing your career as an author in 2006? That’s not very productive. But that would be to ignore the many books I have conceived, developed and considered writing over the years, before deciding not to bother. This list of unwritten masterpieces is vast, or at least quite long, and I am still quite fond of some of those books that exist only within the confines of my skull. 

So today I am going to describe one of these books, and how it never came to be. Certainly, it is one of the most tedious books I have ever not published, which is why I want to write about it here: because even in its purely imaginary state it manages to excel, outdoing even some very tedious books that actually do exist. And that has to count for something, surely. 

The title of this lost work was GREAT PARKING LOTS OF AMERICA, and what I like about it to this day is that this was no mere metaphor, nor was it a clever title applied to a book that was really about something else, a la A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. No: it was exactly what it said on the tin — a record of the places where Americans leave their cars when they are off doing something else.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, now that I come to think about it. The title was ironic: GREAT PARKING LOTS OF AMERICA was going to be a history of the shittier parking lots of America. But not shitty in an interesting or dangerous way; not those places where you might get stabbed, or witness a drug deal going down, or hide from bullets flying past as rival gangs of Hell’s Angels  shoot at each other, or where you might stumble upon a cop, head in bag and huffing glue, crying to himself as he wonders what has gone so wrong in his life that here he is inhaling solvents he has just purchased from a Lowe’s instead of going home to eat dinner with his wife and children. No, my parking lots were not the type that came with stories; they were instead un-places, transitional zones of nothingness, sites where people left their vehicles behind to go and have experiences somewhere else. I was especially interested in those parking lots you find in busy city centers, the tiny ones located at the ends of ropey side streets, so small that they usually fill up very quickly and are difficult to get in and out of; you know, those little squares of tarmac where perhaps an old house or convenience store used to stand, only now nobody remembers for sure. Who has sung the song of these neglected corners of our urban landscapes, I wondered? Who has limned the saga of their existence before they pass into oblivion? Who even sees them or recognizes that they, too, possess a certain essence, all their very own?

I remember the precise moment the idea popped into my head. How late it was, how late: I was walking back to my car after attending a gig (the Secret Chiefs 3, if I recall correctly) on Austin’s Red River Street when all of a sudden I passed by a completely empty and anonymous parking lot that belonged to the city. I had walked past it many times before, but I had never noticed it, and certainly not its near-luminous mundanity. It existed to provide bureaucrats working in one of the buildings nearby with a place to leave their cars when they were busy during daylight, exchanging their labor for the paychecks that covered the costs of their continued existences on this earth. But at night the bureaucrats were absent, and so were their vehicles: the lot was completely abandoned. The streetlamps picked out the markings for where the cars ought to be nevertheless, while those little concrete blocks that are intended to prevent drivers from going over the borders of their parking spaces threw long shadows across the artificially illuminated tarmac. Even now, past the witching hour, the parking lot was completely unmysterious, strikingly dull, resolutely empty, easy to not notice. 

But I had noticed it. And lo, suddenly I had a vision, of a luxury coffee table art book filled with glossy photographs of parking lots from all across these United States. From New York to San Francisco, from Lubbock to Jacksonville, from Muncie to Goodwater, to all kinds of other places that nobody ever really chooses to visit, I would capture the blank expanses in front of underwhelming strip-malls, the tiny patches of tarmac on the outskirts of town centers, next to repair shops, or Ethiopian restaurants, or adjacent to municipal government offices. Places without history or any kind of psychogeographic resonance; places where nothing much has ever happened or could reasonably be expected to happen, places where nobody ever stays, but which they are always leaving. 


Then, only a few footsteps later, I had an idea for a sequel: GREAT CAR PARKS OF THE BRITISH ISLES. Immediately I noted the nuances of language distinguishing the two titles: “parking lots” (God Bless America) vs. “car parks” (God Save the Queen). What in fact was a “lot”, and could it even exist without its partner-in-crime “parking”? I couldn’t think of any other places that were referred to as a “lot”. The British variant, “park”, meanwhile, had a hint of the bucolic, a whiff of this green and pleasant land, while also containing a play on words, as the noun implied the action that took place at this location.

Yet, despite the poetry of the British variant, it was the American parking lot that had more powerful associations for me; these strange little scraps of territory bringing in money day after day for mysterious micro-land barons. Car parks I did not imagine had individual owners, but rather belonged to Her Majesty’s local government authorities, or the businesses and organizations to which they were adjacent; but parking lots, located as they are in the land of free enterprise, well, I often imagined belonging to some secret entrepreneur, who might also own a dollar store franchise, and a chain of slushy concessions along the coast of northern Florida, perhaps even a string of Waffle Houses in Louisiana. On the other hand, I was very fond of the British term “multistorey car park”, which contains a strange, flat poetry which is totally absent from its simpler US equivalent, “parking garage”. Indeed, Multistorey Car Park was one of my favorite imaginary band names. But I decided not to include multistorey car parks or parking garages in either of my books; they were too interesting, as demonstrated by the fact they regularly feature as dramatic settings in films, from Get Carter to Robocop.

By the time I reached my own car, parked in the street near the Texas State History Museum, I had sketched out the entire plan for both GREAT PARKING LOTS OF AMERICA and GREAT CAR PARKS OF THE BRITISH ISLES. And I felt certain already that they were by no means the most ridiculous ideas to be collected between covers, and that it was entirely possible that such books could exist. In fact, it seemed to me that a great many photographers had already done something like this, that the core aspect to a certain type of photographic career was to identify a schtick — pictures of road signs, say — and then repeat it mercilessly ad nauseam, over and over again, and then again, for years if need be. There was a vast infrastructure that existed to support this kind of thing; grants to be applied for, exhibitions to be held, catalogs to be published.

 All I had to do to participate in this grand festival of art-making was take a lot of photographs of parking lots and then, over the course of some years, take many more, gradually establishing myself as the master of parking lot photography, taking the time to post my photographs of parking lots to Twitter several times a day, while perhaps also selling mugs and T-shirts through Café Press, and in between this go on trips to take photographs of more parking lots in more towns and cities, until I had firmly established my professional brand as the world’s premier photographer of parking lots. And if I succumbed to despair, which I certainly would, and found that I hated myself for the manner in which I had wasted my life, well I could even do it ironically, as a mocking commentary on the bullshit world of arts grants, although I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone that all these photographs of parking lots were actually an incredibly elaborate satire, as by this point my livelihood would be dependent on maintaining the flow of grant money, augmented by sales of prints and postcards and mugs, and I might very well have secured a position lecturing at an art college somewhere. Also, the world of arts grants was such obvious bullshit that it didn’t actually seem like it was worth satirizing, and certainly not at the expense of however many good years I had remaining. 

By the time I was halfway home along the I-35 I had the cover designs for both books finalized in my mind. And then, all at once, GREAT PARKING LOTS OF AMERICA became vapor, and drifted away into the night.

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Daniel Kalder