In Dante's "Inferno," there are nine circles of Hell. In Towson Town Center's main parking garage, there are seven. To many shoppers, that's about the only difference.
"Spooky," "intimidating," "nightmare" and "outrageous" are just some of the printable terms that beleaguered shoppers applied last week to what is arguably the most intensely reviled structure in metropolitan Baltimore. Amid the carbon monoxide and the blaring horns, Christmas cheer evaporated into a steaming mist rising from the hot collars of the gridlock- bound.
It's not just Towson Town. There's just something about mall parking lots that inspires fear and loathing. Whether it's the cold automotive cellblocks of a parking garage or the murdered farmland of a sprawling asphalt surface lot, mall parking lots are perhaps the most unpleasant places middle-class people encounter in their daily lives.
Good people, loving people, decent people change in parking lots. Reason is banished, and sweet tempers sour. The beast in us comes out, stalking our bag-toting prey until we can pounce.
"It can make a person quite a crazed individual," said Mary Ward of Takoma Park, as she headed for the relative sanity of the mall.
At no time of year are parking lots more crazed than in this joyous season. And today, the last weekend shopping day before Christmas, might well be the worst.
I think it best you follow me for your own good, and I shall be your guide and lead you through an eternal place where you will hear desperate cries, and see tormented shades.
--Inferno, Canto 1, 114-116
It is 8 p.m. Thursday in Towson Town's Parking Lot C. Traffic is a mess.
Poor Towson Town. Much blame has been heaped upon its owner, the Hahn Co. of San Diego, for the parking ordeals shoppers have suffered since the transformed center reopened last year. But to an unhurried observer (who has already found his own parking space), it becomes clear that the mall's parking arrangements are quite logical for a center squeezed into a mere 32 acres.
It's people who are illogical. Consider:
On a curve on the ground level, a woman in a Volkswagen comes to a screeching halt. She has just spied a woman, laden with gifts, approaching her Chevy Corsica.
The trouble is, the woman in the Volkswagen has gone so far forward that she is blocking the woman in the Chevy from backing out. And the VW driver can't back up because there are now five cars lined up behind her, unable to pass.
So what does the woman in the VW do? She sits. The people behind her sit. The woman in the Chevy sits. Horns honk. Finally, the woman in the VW, her face contorted in apparent rage, gives up and lurches forward.
He entered then, leading the way for me down to the first circle of the abyss. Down there, to judge only by what I heard, there were no wails but just the sound of sighs.
--Inferno, Canto 4, 23-26
Such scenes are especially frequent on the Level C1, the limbo of the lot.
"A lot of our customers want to park on the first floor of the parking structure and they will go around and around and around to see that first set of backup lights coming out of a stall," said Christopher Schardt, general manager of Towson Town. "It may take 20 minutes to get somebody to back out of C1."
Mr. Schardt, a gentle giant who presides over chaos with serenity, is right.
James and Michelle Proctor of Baltimore finally found a space on the garage's ground level after eight to 10 minutes of searching.
"I don't like to go up to the higher levels. I get sick. I can't stand to go around in circles," Ms. Proctor said.
Others complain that the turns on the ramps are too tight, leading to close calls as cars pass. And many owners of pickup trucks and mini-vans are deterred by low clearances that come within inches of scraping their roofs.
The result of such sentiments: ground-level gridlock, preventing even those who are willing to ascend from reaching the ramp.
Into the second circle, that holds less space but more pain -- stinging the soul to wailing.
--Inferno, Canto 5, 1-3
Something there is that does not love a parking garage.
"People prefer not to be in those enclosed parking structures," said Keith Foxe, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's dark and it's dank and they're not pretty places."
But you can't beat them for fitting a lot of cars into a relatively small space. According to Mr. Schardt, the mall has room for more than 4,600 cars. Owings Mills Town Center, with its 100 or so acres, offers about 4,500. And as Mr. Schardt points out, unless you are on the top level, you are shielded from rain, snow and summer sun.
Most of the concerns about garages involve safety, but there's no proof that structured parking is intrinsically more hazardous than open lots. Most of the well-publicized violent incidents that have occurred in Baltimore-area shopping centers in recent years have taken place on flat lots.