My hands burned against the blistering concrete as I practiced my cartwheels and handstands. Empty shopping carts filled the parking lot like tumbleweeds in a desert. The radio from my father’s car blasted music as he attempted to replace the oil in his car. The day was hot enough for the seagulls to want to hide. I looked around the parking lot to see that it was barren and boundless, truly unsuitable to be any child’s playground—yet, it was mine.
In between the local Kmart and the National Wholesale Liquidator off Route 440 in Jersey City, there is a parking lot where I spent countless hours as a child with my father. Whenever my mother was busy, she would ask my father to take me out and instead of going to the playground, he would take me to this very parking lot. It was a strange place to be taking a child, yet I always found pleasure in the vastness and possibility the parking lot provided. My father’s old Chrysler was always in need of repair. As he spent time fixing and cleaning his car, I patiently waited for him to finish and passed the time by creating my own games.
The cement stoppers that separated parking spots were my balance beams as I pretended to be an Olympic gymnast, carefully treading the lines as if the whole world was watching. The seagulls roaming around the parking lot and desperately looking for bread crumbs were my attentive audience as I pretended to sing to hundreds of thousands of people, rocking out to the songs blaring from the car radio. The gray concrete was my canvas as I used my colorful pieces of chalk to create what my child self believed to be works comparable to Picasso and Monet. I could be whoever I wanted to be in that parking lot. I was no longer the shy, quiet third-grader that everyone knew, but a painter, a rockstar, a gymnast. My identity could be created again and again through those pretend games.
After my father was done, we would sit alongside the lonely tree that faced the stores. We would watch people coming out of Kmart and try to figure out their life story based on the items they had bought. In the parking lot, my father would tell me about the countries in Europe and their capitals and histories. He would tell me basic etiquette rules that I still carry with me today, like to never turn around while you’re walking or point at people. My father also showed me where the radiator and the transmission were located under his car’s hood. He told me stories of how he had met my mother and his youthful days with his friends in Algeria. When it grew dark, my father and I would lie down in the small bed of grass in the middle of the parking lot and gaze at the glittering stars.
I didn’t see it back then, why the parking lot was so important, but it was there where my father and I bonded the most. It was in this very parking lot where I learned the most significant life lessons. Playgrounds were a false representation of life to my father. In a playground, children were already given the equipment to have fun, but in this empty parking lot, it was up to me to create my entertainment. My days in the parking lot taught me that nothing in life would ever be given to me easily. And because of the parking lot, I developed a love for storytelling. There, I fostered my most important quality as a writer: my imagination. The parking lot was my tabula rasa, my blank slate, my utopia in which I was the painter of a world that I could create. I learned how to be a better listener, to be more aware of my surroundings, and to be more introspective. My times in the parking lot have taught me to see beauty even in the emptiest of places.
By Melissa Ouhocine
Photo by Pok Rie