Lebanon parking is in a world of its own

At night, a very different valet comes out on to the streets to meet a very particular demand

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SARA HUSSEIN - A general view shows traditional Lebanese houses in Beirut's suburb of Jemmayzeh on June 5, 2013.  A new highway touted as a way to ease Beirut's notorious traffic has angered residents and activists who say it will destroy rare old houses that survived Lebanon's 15-year civil war.  AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID
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Whenever I’m in Beirut I make sure I’m on excellent terms with the attendant who runs the car park adjacent to my apartment.

At peak times, when the lot is “full”, he will always find a spot for me and so whenever I come to pay, if I owe him 3,000 Lebanese livres (Dh7.34) I will give him LL5,000, and if he wants LL6,000, I’ll bung him LL10,000 and so on. I suspect I am not alone; Lebanon is after all a country founded on the bedrock of the tip, the bung, the backhander, call it what you will. It’s just how we roll.

At night, a very different valet comes out on to the streets to meet a very particular demand. The Lebanese never walk anywhere. They never take a bus. They drive, but they rarely park their own car. There are very few parking spots and those that are technically free, have been commandeered by the free market. So every time you go to dinner you hand your car to the valet. If you’re lucky he will be wearing one of the liveried polo shirts of one of the handful of semi-respectable parking companies that ply their trade across the capital and which will claim to use “professional” parkers, but quite often you just don’t know to whom you’re giving the keys.

And even the pukka valets will often return your car with the drivers’ seat at a different setting or the radio tuned to a weird Arabic station. That’s if you’re lucky. I’ve seen valets scrape the bodywork and then be rewarded with a hefty tip by unknowing owners.

In 2012, Valet Parking Services, one of the country’s more reputable “parking solution” firms, teamed up with none other than Porsche to try to set new standards in how they treat other people’s motors. Forty VPS “supervisors” attended a day’s workshop at the end of which they were “certified” in parking all Porsche models. I bet that was fun.

Spun as an example of the private sector trying to self-regulate in a country where the government generally leaves the business community to its own devices, it was, if the truth be told, nothing more than an inspired PR opportunity and today the parking “industry” remains as chaotic as ever.

But Darwin exists, even in this murky trade. Last week, a friend drove driving to dinner. We pulled into a very busy parking lot in the Mar Mikhael area that serves three to four very popular restaurants including Prune and Tavolina. “Wait 'til you set the parking guy,” he said. “My wife tells me all the girls love him. He’s handsome with this very arrogant attitude. You’ll see.”

As soon as we pulled into the lot, a slim, louche figure emerged into our headlights. At first I thought he was just customer who had parked up. He was extremely well-groomed, slim and dressed in a blue button-down Oxford shirt, jeans and casual shoes. “That’s him,” my friend said excitedly. “See what I mean?”

He asked the attendant if he could choose his own parking spot. The man raised both eyebrows in that way Lebanese do when they want to say no without speaking. It’s actually very annoying. My friend would park where he was told to park.

“He’s fantastic,” he said undeterred. “He tells everyone what to do and they tip him well. See? I just gave him an extra LL5,000 and I bet he takes at least that from 100 customers each day. He’s making at least US$250 a day in tips. That’s $6,000 a month!”

After dinner, we went in search of our car. The lot had filled up considerably since we arrived and I couldn’t see any way of getting out. But our man knew his job. Within five minutes he had calmly, quickly and carefully maneouvered half a dozen 4x4s out of the way to clear a path for our exit. My friend was so relieved, he gave him an extra LL5,000. “Did you just see that? I didn’t need to do it but I don’t want to be stuck for hours next time. And believe me, others will give him more to make sure their cars aren’t bumped. He’s smart. He knows that if he dresses neatly people with treat him with more respect.”

Earlier at dinner, I’d met a Lebanese man who had made an arranged marriage app for women in the GCC looking to snag a husband. He was charming and dynamic and clearly had an interesting story to tell. He’d apparently sold the app for millions and I made a mental note to contact him as a possible subject for a column. But it was the attendant who really fired the imagination. His chutzpah and the ability to understand that if you are dealing with the wealthier segment of the public it pays to look the part and that if you can fill a gap in the market you will be rewarded. It was, if you like, a very Lebanese success story in a wintry economic climate.