Where you park in L.A. is important.
After all, the car -- large and containing a single driver -- is a legendary cultural symbol of Los Angeles. The city's sprawl and lack of center is homage to the freedom of getting behind the wheel and... well... just driving wherever you want, whenever you want.
This is the place where a two-day closure of a single stretch of freeway was heralded nationally as the coming of "Carmageddon."
So it's no surprise that the handicap parking space -- large enough to avoid dreaded door dings and only steps away from the destination -- has become a highly sought after commodity.
And it has set the stage for a controversy that is testing the town's liberal social leanings as they collide with its love for the unshackled automobile.
More and more able-bodied drivers are using the handicap spaces as preferred parking either because they don't care or simply desire the most convenient spot in the parking lot.
Los Angeles' royalty in particular sees nothing wrong with bending the rules just a bit if that's what it takes.
Earlier this month, star Lakers center Andrew Bynum was caught on camera parking his pricey black BMW convertible across two handicapped spaces at the upscale Bristol Farms market in the tony beach town of Playa de Rey. The lot was filled with empty spaces, some just a few steps away.
All over town, it's hard these days to miss the sight of seemingly healthy, and often buff, young people climbing out of cars in handicap spaces without the slightest hint of embarrassment.
Adding to the problem is a recent revelation that the California DMV -- always a model of government efficiency -- had been issuing handicap placards to the deceased because of poor record keeping. While many of these placards were returned to the agency, tens of thousands turned up on the streets. Because it's nearly impossible to tell by sight who is actually disabled, relatives and friends of the dead end up with preferred parking in a place where such things have more value than a ticket to the Oscars.
It's akin to all those dead people voting in Chicago.
Some scofflaws do have a point. Many municipalities make legal parking almost impossible and then cash in on harried drivers who feel they have no choice but to break the law.
In West Hollywood, a bastion of liberal social agendas, apartment dwellers lobbied to get much of the city placed off limits to daytime parking, except to holders of special permits that prove they live on the street.
The fact that these streets are all but vacant during the day apparently did not enter into the decision.
On the few non-restricted streets, spaces are almost always parked to capacity and outfitted with money-devouring meters. The city balances its budget on expected revenue from these meters and the numerous parking violations that are certain to follow.
Having a handicap placard solves all these problems by allowing users to park free at meters and ignore most local parking restrictions, including time allowances. Violations can cost about $350, but relatively few are caught. And the placards can be obtained legitimately fairly easily if you're really handicapped or have a good relationship with a sympathetic physician, nurse practitioner, midwife, physician's assistant, chiropractor or optometrist.
Over the years, there have been attempts to crack down on violators, but little has come from it. This despite a DMV recommendation to launch a series of law enforcement sweeps, a major media campaign and appoint volunteer vigilantes, like the Guardian Angels, to fan out across the state and issue citations on their own.
If it sounds as though I have a personal bone to pick, it's because I do.
I had a run-in recently with a staph infection that oddly attacked my right hip and left me unable to walk on my own for about 9 months.
I hobbled around on crutches and a cane. While I had use of a temporary handicap placard, I was seldom able to score one of those coveted parking spots. Repeatedly I was aced out by people who looked like they had just returned from a vigorous session of kick boxing.
If you ask me, the answer to this problem is simple:
Man up, Angelenos.
Defy the lyrics from the Missing Persons song, "only a nobody walks in L.A.," and take those few extra steps. After all, in this region known for self improvement and fiscal fitness, more than half the population is either overweight or obese.
The $3.43 billion expended on health care each year for this could obviously be better spent... on cooler cars and valet parking.
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