Seinfeld’s Parking Garage is Weirdly Existential

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Claire L. Evans is the lead singer of the pop duo YACHT. She lives in Los Angeles.

Seinfeld, the defining 30-minute sitcom that dominated the entire decade of the 1990s, was the brainchild of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. For over a quarter of century, so many remain consumed and entertained by this masterpiece of television production. The show was more than just a comedy though. For some, it was a spiritual guide prognosticating ethics, morals and virtues. For others, it was religious "how-to" show guiding one through religious stereotypes and codecs, and for a small group of existential intellectual highbrows it is an academic study characterizing the philosophical and anthropological identity of the 1990s. This small group of Ivory Tower Mensa Members live in their Upper East Side Manhattan apartments with their German made cars parked below in the garage, looking over the park at what appears to be a different species populating the Upper West Side. These New York west siders are best kept to their 60 square block enclave. When these west siders stray beyond their terrority to the Garden State Mall in Paramus, NJ, they enter the twilight zone. "The Parking Garage" is perhaps one the of the top 10 Seinfeld episodes ever. Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes, George Costanza, and Cosmo Kramer find themselves in a deep existential dilemma.
In the J.G. Ballard story, "Report on An Unidentified Space Station," a crew of travelers discover what appears to be an abandoned space station hanging in the void. The station is small, too insignificant to appear on their charts, and has an unusually strong gravitational mass. Their own ship being kaput, they decide to board the station and explore.
They set out across the central passenger concourse which separates the two hemispheres of the station, and quickly discover that it leads to a far vaster expanse of lounges and promenades. There is no life to be seen. Thousands of empty chairs line the concourses. The travelers surmise this station must have once been a popular transit facility, hosting interstellar passengers alighting on their way to other corners of the cosmos.


—George Costanza









They set out across the central passenger concourse which separates the two hemispheres of the station, and quickly discover that it leads to a far vaster expanse of lounges and promenades. There is no life to be seen. Thousands of empty chairs line the concourses. The travelers surmise this station must have once been a popular transit facility, hosting interstellar passengers alighting on their way to other corners of the cosmos.
As the travelers continue their survey, however, they find that this next concourse is connected to far greater concourses still. Members of the crew, dispatched to explore different floors, never return. They begin to throw furniture down the elevator shafts, but no sound bounces back. They file surveys, each entry reassessing the estimated size of the space station by an order of magnitude. "Our voices echo away into a bottomless pit," they report. As they soldier on, coming across only a monotonous landscape of elevators and terminals, they begin to lose hope. "Is the entire universe," they ask, "no more than an infinitely vast space terminal?
By the end of the story, the travelers have discovered that the station is—at least effectively—infinite. They are long since lost, and they will never reach its end. In time, not only do they come to accept the station's improbable existence, but understand that the entire universe lies, in fact, within the many "vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls." The journey becomes a pilgrimage:

The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whoses destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it.

So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

The writer China Miéville referred to this science fiction trope, and particularly J.G. Ballard's uncanny aptitude for it, as the "pornography of infinity." Miéville posits a lineage for "Report on An Unidentified Space Station" which includes H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Olaf Stapledon, writers who have counterposed "the vasty deeps of the universe, the interplanetary sublime, with a specklike human subjectivity to produce a by-now rather well-worn satori of unconvincing humility." I would argue, rather, that if the tradition has origins anywhere, it can be more groovily traced back to Jorge Luis Borges, with his infinite libraries and maps-becoming-territory. But I digress.
I found myself, last night, watching an episode of Seinfeld called "The Parking Garage." It's one of the series' elusive "bottle episodes," which, like the show's canonical The Chinese Restaurant, transpire entirely in one confined space. In this case, the bottle is the parking garage of a New Jersey mall.
"Getting lost in a parking garage" is a predictable shtick in the observational humor of 90s pop culture. And yet, Seinfeld being what it is, "The Parking Garage" is weirdly and specifically existential. Elaine carries a bag of goldfish which slowly die over the course of the hours wasted aimlessly searching for Kramer's parked car over the identical levels of the structure, which blooms into a disproportionate vastness as they wander. It's a sitcom No Exit. The elevators all look the same. At one point, having mysteriously lost Jerry to a lower level of the garage, George exclaims, with a keening exasperation which verges on the desperate, "it's like a science fiction story!"
The more I reflect on "The Parking Garage," the more it evokes a specifically Ballardian nightmare: The pornography of infinity, somehow contained within a New Jersey mall.
"The Parking Garage" was shot, like almost every episode of Seinfeld, on the same Studio City soundstage that normally contained Jerry's apartment. The set was small, but the garage was meant to appear infinite, and so each shot in the episode was a different angle on the same set. It was the first Seinfeld episode shot without a studio audience. The production employed mirrors, lined around the perimeters of the soundstage, to give the illusion of space. In some scenes, the mirrors bend and distort the concrete pillars of the garage, creating pockets of the surreal. Eagle-eyed Internet Seinfeld fanatics have taken the episode apart, finding M.C. Escher-esque continuity errors: cameras reflected in parked cars, and even the cast itself accidentally reflected twice in the same shot. It's enough to conjure a quantum (or Bizarro) Seinfeld universe to mind, one where the characters are still refracted in mirrors, trapped in this concrete prison for all eternity.
Indeed, the more I reflect on The Parking Garage, the more it evokes a specifically Ballardian nightmare: this so-called pornography of infinity, contained within a New Jersey mall. Like the Unidentified Space Station, which conceals, from the outside, its magnificent vastness, The Parking Garage becomes its own world, a replacement—literally, since they broke the apartment set down to build the mirror-garage—for the comfortable parameters of Jerry Seinfeld's ordinary world. It seems to have its own mores; Elaine, desperately seeking a stranger to drive them around the lot and help find the car, only comes into contact with indifference and aggression. No one will help, because on some level no one here is real.
Ballard was a writer acutely cued to his own personal obsessions: time, urbanity, our inherent psychosexual affinity for technology and destruction. One of his most significant tics was the conflation of certain spaces with the entire universe. For example, his novel Concrete Island takes place entirely in a highway median; High-Rise is a Lord of the Flies isolated to a single apartment building; in "The Enormous Space," a man's refusal to leave his suburban house becomes a psychosis in which the house seems to contain all of reality. Ballard thought of his obsessions as “extreme metaphors waiting to be born,” and understood his private vocabulary of symbols as the iceberg tip of his subconscious. Anyway, keyed as we all are to our own obsessions, we’re each prone to reading Ballard (and Seinfeld) differently.
As much as I love Larry David, I doubt that his script for this episode is a knowing riff on anything in J.G. Ballard's canon. Regardless, The Parking Garage calls forth the precise cocktail of anxieties Ballard traded in: repetitive and abandoned landscapes, pathological detachment from other people, and an alienation from architecture and cities so vertiginous that it becomes impossible to distinguish from transcendence. This may be a testament to Ballard's penetrating insight—"we are all post-Ballard now," Mieville writes—or it may be the natural evolution of our relationship to the modern world; where, in the 60s, being trapped in a high-rise, featureless concourse, or concrete island may have articulated a societal unease about the isolating effects of urban development, by the 1990s the whole thing was just funny.
J.G. Ballard was one of a handful of science-fiction writers in the 1960s' New Wave who argued that the future of fiction lies not outward, but inward. While the other New Wavers ported the psychosymbiotic mystery of the LSD experience into their tales of “inner space,” Ballard’s work isn’t druggy at all. Instead, it's a mirror wrapped around the mundanity of modern existence, reflecting and refracting and otherwise jumbling the everyday into something not altogether unfamiliar to the Seinfeld universe: a Show About Nothing.


—J.G. Ballard









Even Seinfeld had technology problems:


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