I parked and was thinking of the day ahead. I didn’t notice the black shadow approaching my car. When I looked over I was quite startled. Oh no! A flanelinha!
In almost all Brazilian cities, the flanelinha is a fixture. Flanelinha (which loosely translates as flannel man, as in the rag) is the demure name given to the “workers” who divide the streets among themselves and charge drivers to park. Their excuse is that they’re taking care of your car. If you don’t pay up, a fat tire or a big scratch will be a symbol of your chintzyness.
Most people just pay, but I go a different route. I tell them I’ll pay when I get back and, if it’s a place I don’t go often, I just drive off. Not a good strategy where I would be parking in downtown every day now. Instead, I decided to befriend the flanelinha.
Take João. I’ve known him for about ten years when he carved out his turf near my former place of work. At first, I ignored him and he didn’t bother me much. Later, his insistence grew. I realized that I needed to acknowledge his existence. Like most flanelinhas, João also washed cars. I asked João how much he would charge me for a wash. We reached an unspoken compromise. In return for washing my car every once in a while, he largely left me alone. To further improve our understanding, I would also give him old clothes on Christmas and his birthday.
As time went on, the Brazilian car market exploded. More cars on the street, more competition for parking. Regulars like João started reserving spaces for steady customers like me. Sometimes, I’d arrive at work, double park, hand him the keys and he would put the car away (somewhere) for me. At the end of the day, I would look for João, give him some change on most days, and drive away.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. João would keep my car keys. If it became necessary, he’d fill up the meter. Through his customers’ payments, João became a functional member of society. At first, he came to ”work” on foot or by bus. Then he bought a bicycle. About 6 years ago, the grand prize: He bought a very beat-up, bare bones, 2-door, 80-ish, Fiat Premio. At the time he bought it, the car was worth about R$5,000 ($2,600). Three years later, João traded up to a mid 90s, 4 door Premio. With power steering and windows. On my last few days at work, João surprised me yet again. Working on the streets, collecting change, João had somehow scraped up enough money to buy a shiny, silver, 7 year-old, Uno Mille with AC (newer than my own car!). I congratulated him on his progress and told him I’d soon be gone and he no longer needed to keep space for me. He thanked me and wished me luck.
Back to today, I’m facing the challenge of dealing with these guys again. I handled the situation by not giving the flanelinha any money. Instead, I looked him square in the eye and told him I’d be parking the car there everyday. After my business was done, I returned to my car and silently let out a breath of relief as no damage had been done. Of course, the flanelinha was there. I asked him his name. I asked him how much to wash my car. I grumbled about the price. Tomorrow, I’ll ask him to wash the car. Time to make a new friend.