Valet honor: Reveal dent, or play silent bystander?

Last fall, to make some extra money, I took a job parking cars at a restaurant in Boston's theater district. I soon discovered that, at 26, I was older than the other valets, who were mostly jovial college-aged men with a gift for gab. Soon, they began telling me stories of how they camouflaged the nicks, dents, and scratches that inevitably appeared on the expensive cars they maneuvered around the city.

A can of wax, a blowtorch, and a handful of dirt were essential parts of the toolkit. I even heard one story in which the owners of the valet company - two affable, middle-aged brothers - had superglued a dislodged rearview mirror back on to a car and told the valet, "Just shut the door real softly after the driver gets in."

My co-workers chuckled as they recounted their tales. I suspect part of the reason was that the victims of these small crimes were rich people who could afford $50 steaks at the fancy restaurant we worked for. As for me, I just hoped I'd never have to deal with scratching a car myself.

For the first month, I drove the BMWs, Mercedes, and Ferraris entrusted to my care with white knuckles and wide eyes. Parking these cars wasn't easy. Our primary lot was an underground garage about four blocks away, which had a tight circular driving loop marked by a series of metal support beams. Often I had to employ six-, seven-, or eight-point turns just to get around a corner.

One night in late October, disaster struck. The manager on duty - a fidgety 20-year-old - scraped a woman's minivan against one of the metal poles.

He ran back to the restaurant and nervously told me and the other valet the plan: "We'll pull the car up on the opposite side of the scratch - that way, she won't see it when she gets in." Then he scuttled back to the garage to rub some more dirt on the damage.

I was gripped by anxiety as I waited for the woman to emerge from the restaurant. Should I tell her about the scratch? Well, I didn't want to be a "narc," and I wasn't the one who scratched her car. But keeping the secret didn't feel right, either. Could I just stay out of the situation altogether? It would be a sin of omission, at worst.

My dilemma got stickier when the woman emerged from the restaurant and I was the one sent to retrieve her car. I couldn't stay completely out of the situation anymore. To watch my manager hoodwink a customer was one thing. But to pull the car up myself, accept a tip, tell the woman to "have a nice night," and say nothing about the scratch ... well, that felt much different.

By the time I got to the underground garage, I called the manager on my cellphone to tell him I couldn't do it.

"Please," he begged. "Don't worry - once you pull the car up, I'll take care of everything."

Settling into the driver's seat, I continued to argue with him. My forehead tightened as I pulled the car into reverse.

I considered offering to drive halfway to the restaurant, then give him the keys to make the final delivery.

But with the manager's voice whining in my ear and an ethical fracas roaring in my head, one ironic twist of the steering wheel changed everything. I lost my concentration coming around one of the corners. WHACK! The side of the minivan smacked into a metal pole. I got out of the car and saw a sizable dent on the left side. Suddenly, the decision had been made for me.

When I pulled up to the restaurant, my manager tried desperately to intercept the minivan. I ignored him, showed the woman the dent, and apologized. She was forgiving, and filled out some insurance paperwork before driving away.

Twenty minutes later, one of the owners of the valet business called me.

"You better pack it in for the night," he told me. When I asked the boss why the manager wasn't also being punished for the scratch he'd made, his reply boiled down to this: "You cost me $1,000 tonight."

I'm not proud of what happened on my last night as a valet. I should've been ready to tell the minivan owner about the damage even if it wasn't my fault. That it was easier to be honest after I'd scratched her car only reminds me how dangerous it can be to justify the silence of a bystander as a "lesser" sin. In the end, a hierarchy of blame means very little to the victim.

The burden of truth was just as heavily upon my shoulders the entire time.

Steve Grove is a freelance writer.

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