My husband and I had just realized we'd lost the ticket that was our exit from the parking garage when a woman approached with troubles of her own. Someone had stolen her car, she said quaveringly, and she didn't know what to do.

My husband and I had just realized we'd lost the ticket that was our exit from the parking garage when a woman approached with troubles of her own. Someone had stolen her car, she said quaveringly, and she didn't know what to do.

I could relate. My car's disappeared dozens of times -- from the mall, from city lots, from the curbs of suburban streets and, until I finally learned to park in the same far corner of the grocery store lot every time I food shop, from the supermarket. I'm a repeat victim of grand theft auto, and you can't imagine my indignation until I find my car in the next aisle over or on another street or in front of Penney's instead of Sears.

Are you sure you parked on this level? we asked.

Oh yes, she said. I followed the sign to the handicapped section, right here.

We all looked at the half-dozen blue wheelchair symbols painted on the concrete floor. Did the garage really have a handicapped section, a special compound for the disabled? It seemed unlikely. Surely each parking level had its own share of wheelchair icons.

We suggested as much to the woman, who said, well anyway, she knew she'd parked on the green level. Again, we looked around. On every green post and all over the green walls were the words "Green Level." Sometimes the message was extended: "You have parked on the Green Level," and "Remember to return to the Green Level." It seemed the parking lot designers were well-acquainted with human nature.

After some discussion, we all concluded that the three of us should get in our car and drive around the garage to make sure the missing car was well and truly stolen.

I climbed in the back seat so that our new friend could lean out the passenger window, pressing her car key's "lock" button. Sooner or later, we thought, we'd surely hear an answering beep.

My husband drove slowly around the Green Level while we strained to hear a car horn. When that proved fruitless, he drove down the ramp to the Yellow Level. "No, I'm sure I parked on the Green Level," the woman was saying when she spotted her car, nose to a yellow wall, about 12 feet below the spot where we'd all met.

"Isn't that funny," she said. "I was sure I parked on the Green Level." As one, our three heads turned to look at the signs on every post and wall: "Yellow Level," "You have parked on the Yellow Level," and so on.

Yellow can look a lot like green, my husband said nicely, if obscurely.

Now we deal with our missing ticket, I said.

"Yes, what are we going to do?" the woman cried, fully engaged with our troubles now that her own had been solved.

"Oh, they'll let us out," I said. "I'm sure we won't have to start life anew down here."

As I spoke, I became aware that as a younger woman I'd been known to panic out of proportion to minor calamities such as lost parking tickets, while I tended to approach serious problems with a breeziness that failed to appreciate the real dangers. Had my present-day brain reached a sensible compromise, or was I making light of a true crisis? I know someone who years ago spent the night locked inside the snake house at the zoo. Could we be looking at a night inside the parking garage?

"How about this?" said our new friend. "I'll pay for my ticket, and then you stay close and follow my car out, quick, when the gate opens."

My husband and I considered this proposal. My husband later said he thought immediately of the cameras that were undoubtedly everywhere in the garage; I pictured a line of police cruisers bearing down, Thelma and Louise-style, on our little Toyota.

I guess not, said my husband.

Thanks anyway, said I. I'd rather sleep in a parking garage than be arrested for breaking out of one.

As the woman approached the pay machine, my husband knocked on a nearby door marked "Employees Only." A young man emerged.

My husband explained our difficulty around interruptions from our friend, who was struggling to understand what the pay machine wanted her to do. Finally the young man stepped over, swiped her ticket and pressed a series of buttons, all while talking over his shoulder to my husband. "Five dollars," he told her. "I'll let you out," he told my husband.

And he did. The young man stood by the exit bar, and when we approached, he lifted it manually, releasing us into the evening traffic. We'd lost our garage ticket, sort of helped a person in need, and received an afternoon's free parking. Never has a good deed been rewarded so promptly.

In years past, I might not have found such satisfaction in this incident, but I'm more grateful now. We spent an entertaining few minutes with pleasant strangers, and we didn't have to hang out in a downtown parking garage all night.

As days go, it could have been a lot worse.

Write to Margo Bartlett at