American Times: Century City Shopping centre, LA - Everyday tale of the missing car syndrome

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE all been there. Somewhere in the bowels of the underground car park at Century City Shopping Center in west Los Angeles, a woman with shoulder-length blond hair walks into the parking office looking agitated. "I can't find my car!" she tells the duty officer. "I came in from Constitution Avenue, turned left and parked almost straight away, but the thing just isn't there any more."

The duty officer looks calm. "You're one floor too high. My colleague will show you," he says and escorts her to an electric golf cart for a free ride to be reunited with her vehicle.

This car park employs a special team of officials and security guards, dedicated to helping shoppers find their way back to their cars - one of the many extremes of urban living with Los Angeles throws up.

"People are in a hurry, or have their mind on something else, and all of a sudden they can't remember whether they are in Red Bay 3D or Green Bay 5F," explains Linda Frost, marketing manager for Century City, near Beverly Hills. "They are all convinced they are stupid, but we tell them it happens all the time.

"We ask them how they drove in, how far they drove, that sort of thing. If that doesn't work, we ask them where they went shopping, whether their first stop was Macy's, or Crate and Barrel, or an ice-cream. The trick is to keep calm."

Walk around a large Los Angeles car park - this shopping centre's holds 3,000 cars, and some can take two or three times that number - and at regular intervals you will find sad figures staring quizzically into the middle distance and muttering words to the effect of: "I could have sworn that was the pink wall I noticed as I was locking up."

According to Ms Frost, not only can people not remember where their car is, they frequently cannot recall what colour it is - a symptom, no doubt, of that other LA phenomenon, multiple-vehicle households.

The Missing Car syndrome will be familiar to viewers of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Jackie Brown, in which two lowlifes played by Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda run out of a giant LA mall supposedly with a bag full of loot only to find themselves utterly incapable of locating the getaway car in the football- stadium sized open-air lot.

It's tempting to take the patronising view that only ditsy southern Californian suburbanites could be so dumb as to forget where they left the car. But even the most educated Angelenos are prone to the syndrome. The labyrinthine underground complex beneath UCLA, the city's main university, has one of the highest lost-car casualty rates. As do a number of the large cinema complexes where critics and honoured guests are invited to preview screenings of forthcoming movies.

At an evening press screening of Saving Private Ryan, which took place a few months ago right opposite the Century City shopping centre, one prominent LA journalist was so shaken by the film's battle scenes that the only way he could find his car afterwards was to wait for the rest of the audience to drive out of the underground car park and trek forlornly from floor to floor, scanning the few remaining vehicles.

There are technicians known as "parking lot scientists" who spend their lives trying to take the forbidding edge off vast underground or high- rise structures. The Westside Pavilion, not far from Century City, uses flower names rather than colour codes. Disneyland in Anaheim has a Mickey Zone, a Minnie Zone and so on.

In the beach city of Santa Monica, the authorities had the brainwave of building a series of smaller, more manageable multi-storey car parks around the mall and open-air promenade. But that approach has another, equally dangerous drawback. People might remember where inside the car park they parked; the problem is they frequently can't remember in which particular car park they parked.