Danger: Idiots Crossing

From the files of Funny Yet Disturbing Incidents, I offer the newest installment, The Hazardous Preventative Parking Lot Arm. If I could have predicted such a momentary lapse in judgment, I would have hired someone to film the entire thing so I could enter and win the big prize for America’s Stupidest Citizen. Thankfully, I had a partner in idiocy, my roommate, Lorelei, and we are both thankful to be alive and not in the hospital with debilitating concussions, up to our necks in lawsuits, shame, and notoriety, the rights to our lives being negotiated, a tragic TV movie in the works.

Dismal what-if projections aside, I can’t help but feel this brush with death was meant to happen, because now I’m in a somewhat authoritative position to warn others against walking the same dangerous path that we did yesterday evening. Yes, Lorelei and I will become poster girls for the potential dangers of an automatic robot world. No matter how professedly smart and focused you are, it can happen to you. All the convenience in the world doesn’t stop these things from having minds of their own and trying to hurt us all. We must be on the defensive, especially those of us who have a tendency of turning into space cadets around powerful automatic sensory machinery.

preventative parking lot arm (casual, conversational definition): You know when you’re entering or leaving a pay parking lot, and there’s a heavy, slicing railroad-like arm that comes down and prevents your car from moving forward until you get a ticket or pay the attendant? That’s what I’m talking about here, the unofficial bouncers of the pay-to-park microcosm. You thought those things were tame and under control? Read on and prepare to be convinced otherwise.

Here’s what happened. After almost getting lost trying to find our way to the exit of the Tower Records / Good Guys / Comp USA compound in Glendale (as an observational aside, I must add I saw on display computer software titled, “Identity Theft Protection,” on sale for $29.99 and was reminded why I do not enter stores like these often. Are we entering an age where we have to pay to protect our identities?), we finally found the door, jaywalked across the street, and looked for an in to the parking lot. Since we could not find an alternative, the car entrance to the parking lot looked like a logical place to go, so ignorantly bypassing the sign that basically read, “Not a Good Idea for Pedestrians, Unless Your Idea of a Good Idea is Getting Decapitated” we casually walked in between two cars that were about to enter the lot.

As the car on our right side punched the button and took the ticket, it drove past us. At this point Lorelei, clearly annoyed, said something like, “Why don’t they have an entrance for pedestrians?” I was apparently off in another world and not giving much attention to our pedestrian options because I just laughed and said, “I don’t know…” Then I felt a sudden jolt of activity next to me. Lorelei, on my right, had all of a sudden ducked, as if avoiding some invisible bullet. Without knowing why, I reacted the same way, and out of the corner of my eye, I sensed the enemy coming towards me at lightning speed. The preventative parking lot arm, sensing two living, breathing human beings the same way it does a car or a motorcycle, had come crashing down on us with no mercy, as though we had tried to enter the lot without getting a ticket. I don’t know how close we came to getting hit, but Lorelei’s quick reaction probably saved both of us from painful, embarrassing injury. The only witness, a guy driving in through the other side of the entrance looked at us, shaking his head disapprovingly as we escaped as quickly as possible from the scene.

As with all of my absent-minded mishaps, my initial reaction was to laugh. Hysterically. Call me sick and twisted, but how is one supposed to react after a near freak accident like this, where the “freak” in question is the near victim? We thought we’d laughed it off completely until we left the parking lot, when I almost cowered at the sight of another preventive parking lot arm, looking heavier and more deadly than a guillotine, waiting for us at the exit when Lorelei handed the attendant her ticket. I could happen again, I thought as I eyed the arm’s swift descent behind us. Those things are unpredictable, a menace to society. They must be controlled by humans, just like wild animals.

As we coasted down Brand Avenue, the conversation turned to a comedic flavor of morbid as we meditated on the meaning of life, in a preventative parking lot arm apocalypse kind of way. I don’t remember what I said, but Lorelei was full of hilarious introspection. “What a way to go,” she remarked. “What if that thing would have hit us unconscious, and then some car would have come in and run us over? It’s so sad. That’s how our lives would be defined. Not by how we lived but the stupid way we died.” We pitched possible newspaper headlines, lawsuit winning odds, cracking up to the point that the whole incident seemed preposterous. Later, “We should research and see if anyone has ever gotten hit by one of those things!” (an Internet search of “parking lot mechanical arm tragedy” came up suspiciously empty) Still later she joked, “Radiohead should make a concept album about this experience.” I agreed and laughed at the prospect of being the unfortunate heroine of the morose sequel to OK Computer, but deep down I was consumed by a newfound fear of programmed machinery.

Sure, we should have read the signs. Sure, we should have known that humans are not supposed to enter parking lots where the cars enter. What happened was disturbingly hilarious now that it’s just a memory, a testament to momentary lapse in common sense. Maybe we weren’t complete innocent victims in this scenario, but still our lives had been put into unnecessary danger by an instrument of the private economy that was just doing its job. Simply put, automatic machinery like the preventative parking lot arm is everywhere. It took almost getting killed to open my eyes and wonder why. Removing the human element from the service sector is cost-effective and beneficial to companies, but where will this trend ultimately lead? What is the point of replacing such simple everyday tasks as flushing the toilet and turning on the water faucet with inefficient automatic counterparts? I didn’t think anyone thought this was completely ridiculous until I saw an elderly woman holding her hands under a faucet at the airport last week, waiting for 30 seconds for water to come out, moving to the next one only to experience similar frustration. We locked eyes for a moment in the mirror, silently acknowledging the utter uselessness of lavatory technological innovation.

Even more troubling is the robotification of customer service jobs such as movie theater concessions attendants. At the Pacific Theaters at The Grove in West Hollywood, I glimpsed the future of the robot service worker. You spend five to ten minutes ordering a soda cup (fifteen if there’s a line) at an ATM-like touch-screen ordering system that asks you if you would like “anything else?” with that at least twenty times. Next, someone calls out your number and hands you your cup in exchange for a printout number. Then, you help yourself to your carbonated beverage of choice and enjoy. The result of this innovation is that the service labor is reduced to the handing out of a cup. However, the ATM concessions stand phenomenon effectively increases the overall time and effort that the consumer has to spend, forcing you to run around and do all the work – more inconvenience for the same price. It’s disturbingly hilarious, but all the laughter in the world won’t stop us from getting in line. Soon, they won’t just be providing movie concessions. They’ll be driving our cars, brushing our teeth, making our decisions, and almost decapitating us in parking lots.

Call me thankful to not have a huge wound on my head, but I’m fearful of a time when all of our service sector jobs are taken by the cheapest labor money can buy. As an immoral, faithless liberal, when I think about social responsibility, I may as well be living in a fantasy world because I see universal healthcare, improved public education systems, environmental initiatives, and a progressive end to class inequalities among people and nations—all achieved in cooperation with the corporate world. Automatic machine worker replacements may be efficient and cost-effective, but do they have social responsibility beyond the short-lived economic impact of reducing labor costs? Do they further the human condition or hinder it? If and when I do speak out against this inevitable robot-dependent shift, I will remember the preventative parking lot arm and what it tried to do to us, because it can happen to anyone who gets a little lost and restless trying to locate the pedestrian entrance to the parking lot.


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