Jeremy Eaton


Picture this: You're waiting at the bar in a hip, crowded restaurant. You've just left your car for the valet and have yet to be seated. Before the host can call your reservation, however, a valet (not the one who changed the driver's seat setting in your late-model SUV but a different one) rushes in. He appears frazzled, as if he's been overworked, or perhaps he's been the victim of an arrogant Lexus owner who forgot to tip him. He mutters under his breath to the host, who purses his lips before making an announcement over the PA system that there has been an accident. One of the valets has just been creamed in an intersection after running a red light. The valet was okay, but would the owners of a certain, now-totaled SUV please stand up?

All right, now picture this: You're waiting at the curb outside a hip, crowded restaurant. You've just given your ticket to the valet, along with the thirteen dollars you've been charged for the privilege of having your radio reprogrammed. But instead of the valet pulling your cute BMW roadster to the place where you're standing, he slides into a spot across the street, in front of a sister restaurant that shares the service. He opens the door, gets out, looks around for you, then beckons toward you. To retrieve your vehicle, you then have to cross four lanes of traffic. After you dodge the various badly driven cars and cabs, most of which speed up at the sight of you as if you were the target in a video game, you reach the valet, who holds out his hand for a tip as you squirm behind the wheel.

Which scenario pisses you off more?

The second one, of course. Because while both of these situations are true stories, experienced by friends of mine, the first obviously is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Just plain bad luck on your part (and probably a habitually horrendous driving record on behalf of the valet). And hey, the insurance company will cover it. But the second scene happens all too frequently in Miami, where not only are the valets rude and misguided, but you practically have to take out a loan to afford the fees.

Okay, granted we're not Los Angeles, capital of someone-else-will-do-it-for-me. In the City of Angels, or the City of Anglers, so many shops, restaurants, and clubs offer valet parking these days, people assume the service is available, even if they don't see an attendant. The New York Times recently reported several cases involving cars left running at the curb of restaurants for valets. But when the owners of the vehicles finished the power lunch, power dinner, or power smoothie, they walked outside to find their autos right where they left 'em, still pumping out the death knell to the ozone layer (and we wonder why L.A. has smog). Turns out the restaurants didn't have valet service after all.

So I'm not about to demand a reality that is so skewed we invite car thieves to make an easy grab. The ports are full of chop-shop parts as it is. But I'd appreciate it if hotels and restaurants would stop requiring that you park your car via the valet when there's a perfectly good parking lot to be had. In fact it's beginning to seem, overall, that folks in Miami really don't know what the word valet actually means. But before I enlighten us, let's start with what it doesn't mean.

It doesn't mean you grind the gears, blow red lights, and otherwise put yourself in the way of an accident on the way to a parking space that during daylight hours is metered and up for grabs.

It doesn't mean you deliver the car across the street from the customer.

It doesn't mean highway robbery.

The term valet stems from the Vulgar Latin vassus, which was borrowed from the Old Celtic wasso, which means a young man or squire. From there it passed into Medieval Latin as vassallus, went to Old French as vaslet, and gradually became the English valet. But while the word itself went through many changes, the definitions of it remained somewhat constant. Originally a valet was a young man in service to a knight, and became by extension any feudal retainer. So in short a valet was, is, and has always been a servant.

It may be every lottery winner's dream, but some of us don't want to have servants. That said, consider: Any valet who brought his knight's horse to the opposite side of the compound and expected said knight to cross over to him didn't just not get a tip. He probably got tossed into the moat. And the local valets might want to note that while we don't have moats, we do have canals.

I don't begrudge Miami's valets -- those who do their jobs properly and politely -- their tips. After all, as Abraham Lincoln noted, "This is a world of compensation." I do resent paying the valet companies so much money to park my car in spots that are city-owned to begin with. Either the valet companies should pay their employees more, so they don't expect a tip, or they should lower the ridiculous fees. And then maybe we can, on a regular basis, imagine this: our cars, if we should choose to take advantage of a reasonably priced service, delivered right to where we're standing. What a pretty -- and pretty unattainable -- picture.


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