It’s Not About the Car — Or Maybe It Is

I was meeting my friend Marian at a very popular Mexican restaurant for lunch last week. Unfortunately, we’d come up with the dimwitted plan to meet at noon — along with everybody else in town.

The restaurant’s parking lot was bulging and the nearby streets overflowing. Out of sloth and impatience — two of my less attractive sins — I did something I’ve never done before. I parked in the 15-minute food-to-go slot.

I was a jerk, a loser and a cheat. I assured myself that once somebody else vacated a nearby parking place, I’d sneak outside and move my car. I kept glancing nervously toward the parking lot, but nobody’s car moved. I felt like scum, but I didn’t move my car. I just ordered a burrito.

“I just did something awful,” I told Marian when she arrived, explaining the extent of my crime. “Do you think I’m as bad as Lance Armstrong?”

Marian — who had parked legally and ethically herself — said no. “Did you bully other people?” she asked. “Sue them? Threaten them? Ruin them?

“Of course, you’re not as bad as Lance Armstrong. Don’t be silly.”

Conversations like this about Armstrong, his sins, his cheating, his boorishness, his lies have been going on everywhere — but particularly here in Austin, his home town. Live Strong, the cancer foundation he started, is only a mile from downtown.

Over the past few years, if you were in an Austin bar, you couldn’t spill a drink without disturbing some guy with a yellow Live Strong wristband. That yellow band — symbol of grit, determination, focus, the will to win against cancer and other pumped-up people on bicycles.

Many of the men I knew just loved those wristbands, and Austin turned yellow with them, Properly helmeted, spandexed, sleek and sunglassed, local bicyclists took on a swagger they’d never had pre-Lance. He was our local hero since — don’t forget — it wasn’t just about the bike or Lance himself. It was about cancer.

It was our feel-good story for this shabby, cynical age. As a cancer survivor, I even took a tiny part in a LiveStrong campaign. I looked so fierce and airbrushed in the photos, I was hardly recognizable.

It was good, it was great, it was our local story, it was so inspiring. Except. Except — every one of us who lives here had heard the stories. Lance was also ruthless, mean, a bully, a jerk. We all heard those stories again and again, too consistent not to bear shreds of the truth.

The years passed, the rumors and reports of everybody’s doping and Armstrong’s vicious intimidation of his accusers drew more notice. You had to be deaf or a true believer to go on thinking this guy was clean. Our feel-good story for our shabby, cynical age became more pathetic and tattered than the age itself.

You know the rest. Lance Armstrong has finally confessed, kind of, and apologized a little. And the rest of us, Austinites, non-Austinites, fans, skeptics, cancer survivors, former wristband wearers, bicyclists and pedestrians, have gotten to talk about him, shake our heads, moralize, say we knew it was too good to be true, anyway, and besides everybody always knew he was a dick.

I find myself doing it, too, fascinated by the sheer spectacle of it, trying — like everyone else — to plumb the depths of a storied person’s mind and heart. Maybe there’s something to be learned from this sad story, but there’s also an ugly pleasure in what the Germans call Schadenfreude. Like straight liquor, a little goes a long way; it feels good at first, but it can make you act like a self-satisfied fool.

Like someone else’s life is really your business. Like someone else’s downfall means you’re a pretty good person by comparison. I backed my car out of the to-go slot, drove away and swore to myself I wouldn’t do that again. If I wasn’t going to be an asshole in my own life, then maybe, oh, maybe, I should stop acting like one.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

See a not terribly related post on How Not to Talk to Women



22 comments… add one
  • Perfect scenario–Lance Armstrong stops in to pick up some food and complains that someone is in the 15-minute parking space. Would you have moved the car for him?

  • There is no comparison between your infraction and Armstrong’s. After all, you did not park in a handicapped space! My son was a competitive cyclist for years. He always said Lance and teammates were doping. This was no news to anyone inside the cycling world.

  • You didn’t lie about parking in the spot for years and years and try to bully people not to tell you did it. I think you’re in the clear on this one.

  • Christine Link

    Oh, so interesting to hear the consistency of those “shreds of truth” in the stories you’d hear. Sigh. So disillusioning.

  • I’ve committed your sin by using an expired handicap pass when there was no parking and I had an important meeting. It’s not at all the same as Lance Armstrong. What I don’t understand, is why our famous liars (Pres. Clinton, Armstrong) eventually break down and tell the truth. Why don’t they just keep on lying forever?

  • Marsha Canright Link

    Don’t be in an ass in your own life … that’s a keeper, Ruth. As for Lance, I wish I had never done anything stupid or selfish or mean-spirited but I’m human too and I don’t recall confessing (as you admirably did about the parking spot). Armstrong did some fantastic things and some terrible things. At least he didn’t support Scientology. Maybe he’ll go on to do amazing things. I, for one, hope so.

  • You’ve shown remorse for your sins, Ruth. Lance didn’t even apologize~

  • I’d say you’re in the clear, Ruth. You didn’t get ticketed or towed. Sometimes a girl just needs a @#$#@ parking spot.

  • I’m pissed at Lance – both as a cancer survivor and a (most-times) ethical human being. What a shame to let so many admirers down after the scam he put on for years and years.

  • Interesting to hear how Austin reacted before and after The Confession. I must admit I don’t get it. Remember Hugh Grant? His apology? Why do celebrities think they can be forgiven if they just get the apology right? I felt very sad about the LifeStrong connection, because Lifestrong seems to be a fine charity, but Lance Armstrong should be ashamed of himself.

  • I love how you own up to the oh not so pleasant parts of yourself, Ruth. And that you wrote, “…besides everybody always knew he was dick.” I love how that just trips off my tongue,

  • Loved this. Great writing, as always.

  • Isn’t it funny how one person’s horrific transgressions can make us rethink our small ones?

  • Ward Link

    Actually, in Austin ’15 minutes’ is surely relative. It’s kind of like the concept of ’15 minutes of fame.’ That’s not really supposed to be 15 minutes. And you kind of took your food to go — just not in a take out bag.
    If you were in Houston, you would have cause to feel guilty. But in Austin, probably not so much. You’re forgiven.

  • Lovely writing. As usual.
    Austin is clearly not the home of a hero with a tragic flaw. It is the home of a whole lot of enablers. Aeschylus didn’t tell us how to deal with that. The Greek choruses always were on the side of right. But until you can do something more onerous than park in a privileged (not needy) parking spot–I don’t think they’ll write a play about you either.

  • I’m so disappointed in Lance Armstrong. But always inspired by you! Thanks for the chuckle…

  • I remember reading “It’s Not ABout the Bike” years ago and being so impressed with Lance. Too Bad. So, can I get a refund for the book price or should I request that the library now file it in the fiction section?

    Too bad, really. He started a great org that’s now tainted too. I hope it does survive

  • I love the irony of this, is there a definition of a “little” cheating? Maybe, but when we compound it by destroying others in the process, that takes it to a whole new level. I’ve always wondered if his doping had something to do with the cancer, since steroid use has been linked to some forms.

  • I’ve found myself feeling bad for his kids. Hopefully they won’t be burdened with his mistakes for the rest of their lives – either publicly or emotionally.

  • I can certainly forgive someone who has lied or cheated. But to repeatedly lie and cheat and then apologize and still not tell the whole truth – no. I agree that Lance Armstrong should be very much ashamed of his behavior. And, though his charity has saved so many lives and helped so many people, I don’t see how anyone in his hometown can give him a pass on this mess.

  • Lance really didn’t apologize in my book. He just made the motions. I have to wonder about all the Austinites (is that a word?) who jumped on the “support Lance’s cause” bandwagon. Do they feel betrayed and used? I would.

  • How lucky you were not to get a ticket; but your lunch was marred by worries about the morality of parking in a spot meant for people in a hurry. It reminds me of an incident when my able-bodied son-in-law, himself in a hurry, pulled into a handicapped spot. A woman coming out of the store gave him a long look and asked, “Is it a mental handicap?”

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