Friday, April 15, 2005

Saving face and money

I could pretend that it was for the principle that I spent 30 minutes arguing with a parking attendant, a parking manager, a security guard, a security manager and the center manager.
The truth is that it was to test the power of a well argued case, for the pleasure to win the argument at the end. And for the money.

There is an international film festival going on in town.
I have gone to the showing of "Selling Democracy", a series of several short movies made then to advertise the "Marshall Plan" in Europe. A perfect way to be reminded that Europe reconstruction that is now hailed as an example for Iraq was not as smooth as people remember it, a perfect way to realize what Europe owes to America even if it is hardly acknowledged now.
The movies are propaganda short stories which, like all propaganda movies, end up involuntary showing some greater truth. Seen even 60 years later, they underline the incredible poverty that existed in Europe at that time (no running water in most villages in the South of Italy), the irreversible way in which Europe has changed since then, or the incredible amount of money that the US poured there.
The film is scheduled to last for a bit less than 2 hours. The parking under the center, in this impossible-to-park part of town, is free for the first 3 hours with a movie validation. I arrive about 30 minutes early to get the ticket and grab some food. I figured that I had plenty of time to keep it under 3 hours, except that the festival organizers decided to add 3 or 4 talks from major players of the time (ambassadors, people in charge, who knows??). Each gives a long speech.
Not surprisingly, I show up at the parking exit about 5 minutes overtime on the 3 hours. I expected a grace period but the woman at the booth is quite inflexible. She wants me to shell $7 for the extra time...

A talk to the manager leads me nowhere and he is getting impatient with my car blocking one of the exits. I am arguing that the festival was late, he is saying that this is not his problem. Classic stopping block. It escalated when I decide to get another parking stub from the entrance booth, figuring that I could just get that one validated by the festival people. He rushes and tries to block me. I have no interest in being wrestled by a tall guy in suit. The security guard is called, and then the security manager. I explain my case, insisting that I agree with the rules but that the rules where made for the general movie theater and the regular shows, not for the movie festival which was late.
Maybe because of the presence of the security guard, but the tone changes. The manager of the parking garage agrees that if I can get a letter (or a confirmation) from the festival organizers acknowledging that they were late, he will waive the parking fee. The deal is closed. I move my car and the security manager goes back up to the lobby with me. We find the theater manager who smiles when he hears of the story. Apparently it's a regular scheme that the parking place has. Even one minute extra and the patrons are paying the full hour. It's the first time though that the garage manager has agreed to even discuss the rules.
As we are going down, a movie patron comes with two ice creams in his hand. His movie starts very soon, he says, and he has been forbidden to take the two cups inside. "That's correct, No outside food. That's the rule", says the theater manager. The guy is furious. "Why do you sell ice cream downstairs then?" The answer comes quickly, calm. "We don't. This is a different company".
The argument goes back and forth. I try to joke with the guy ("well, you could eat it fast!") but he looks at me as if he wanted to throw the ice-cream in my face. I shut up and see him walking toward a nearby garbage can and throwing with rage the two large cups there, before hurrying inside to catch his movie.
The theater manager, clearly relieved to have this problem solved so quickly, turned to me and we all proceed to the parking garage to meet the manager.
The conclusion is very swift. The two men obviously know each other and a quick hand shake is enough to clear things up completely. We are now joking around about the festival's schedule. The theater and security managers leave while I thank them profusely.
The parking manager is looking at me now and he just asks "Where are you from?". "From France, what about yourself?" "Ethiopia". His voice is almost admirative as he adds "You're very strong".
"You are very strong too", I reply smiling at what I took as a compliment.
He smiles back. When I show up at the exit a few second later, he is there standing in front of the booth. The woman inside takes my ticket and lifts the barrier.
"You can come back anytime, you'll be welcome". We're all smiling.


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