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An escape, and a new appreciation

LAST Saturday evening, I was quite surprised to find myself trapped in downtown Charleston.

Our town is not a bad place to be trapped. Its streets are attractive and residents are friendly. But I didn't want to wake up on Summers Street on Sunday morning.

My dilemma began when I went to dinner with my family. My mother- and father-in-law had driven in from Northern Virginia to visit us.

We'd had a West Virginia kind of day. In the morning, my father-and-law and my wife (we'll call her "Karen") ran the 5K associated with the Charleston Distance Run. My role was eating the celebratory breakfast afterward.

In the afternoon, my father-in-law and I watched about a thousand touchdowns during the Coal Bowl broadcast. And after that, we went to the latest movie starring Charleston's Jennifer Garner, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green."

We worked up quite an appetite.

So for dinner we went to a fine downtown establishment. We piled into two cars to account for four adults and two kids.

Rain was starting, so we dropped off "Karen," her mother and the two kids in front of the restaurant. My father-in-law (we'll call him "Steve") and I started caravanning around downtown, looking for parking spots.

It can be frustrating to circle around Charleston's one-way streets a couple of times, only to find the good spots taken. That's how I was feeling when I finally saw the municipal parking garage on Summers Street and decided to duck in there.

That was 5:55.

I totally missed the sign that said the garage closes at 6 on Saturdays.

An hour later, after dinner, I did not miss the garage's large gates.

They were separating me from my ride home.

Clank.

This, friends, causes your supper to go down uneasily.

I considered my options: a) walk home b) huddle in the garage entrance, all six of us, until morning or c) try to get some help.

I wandered over to a nearby private parking lot and asked the attendant for some advice on retrieving a vehicle from a locked municipal garage.

This kind gentleman supplied a phone number that seemed vaguely familiar. I called and reached Kanawha County's Metro 911.

Fortunately, the number I had called was the non-emergency extension. I apologetically explained my dilemma, hoping my tone conveyed my problem was probably about the same place on the emergency spectrum as a cat stuck in a tree.

The understanding dispatcher did not giggle into my ear. He asked me to hang on for a second. It's possible he walked away to roll on the floor and giggle. But that's OK because when he returned, he assured me someone would come soon to help.

The someone turned out to be a Charleston police officer who later identified himself as "Miller."

Officer Miller did not point at me and laugh but instead assured me this kind of mistake happens fairly often. I sheepishly told him I hoped I wasn't delaying him from responding to something more serious.

Officer Miller unlocked the door and rolled up the gate. My father-in-law and I hustled up to our vehicles and drove them to freedom, thanking Officer Miller as we exited.

And that story, I think, is our town in a nutshell.

Any criticism Charleston receives for packing up and going home after 5 p.m. seems to be deserved.

If the municipal garage in the heart of downtown closes at 6, there seems to be no expectation that people are staying to dine out, eat ice cream, browse books or listen to bands.

While we waited, people were flowing in and out of the adjacent Capitol Center Theater. I guess they parked at meters. But someone, at some point, made the decision that it's not worth staffing a parking attendant after 6 on a Saturday.

The second point is that our city deserves every bit of praise it gets for its wonderful, helpful, friendly people. From the attendant at Spyro's parking lot to the 911 dispatcher to Officer Miller, everyone was understanding and kind about my silly but frustrating problem.

I'm happy to live here.

But I'm also happy I escaped.

Brad McElhinny is the Daily Mail's managing editor. He can be reached at 304-348-1703, bradmc@dailymail .com or at www.Twitter.com/BradMcElhinny.


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