I secured my same spot this morning, as did the car owner from Washington, D.C., in front of me (it's a woman). The strategy of backing up into the hydrant space worked great, but a school bus and stream of taxis followed the street sweeper, so we all had to wait on the other side of the street till traffic cleared before backing into our spots. By 7:42, all was well. I got in and out on the passenger side today, humping it over the gear shift. With the seats back and the seat belts disengaged (they're the kind that automatically try to strangle you when you start the engine), even with my new winter coat on, it wasn't so hard. I wonder if there is a Pilates exercise that targets one's getting-into-the-driver's-seat muscles.
I have been leading a blessed parking life of late, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get tired of this business. It can get pretty cutthroat. Once, I parked someone in. By that I mean not that I double-parked and someone couldn’t get out but that I parked so close behind him (possibly to clear a fire hydrant?), and he had parked so close to the person in front of him, that he couldn’t get out. I knew it wasn’t nice and that I shouldn’t do it, but it was a highly desirable spot and I was desperate. Maybe the person in front of him would move. I walked away thinking, After all, what can they do?
Slit your tire is what they can do. At the time, I was driving a 1985 Ford Escort, a horrible, unmaneuverable little vehicle that I called the Death Trap. It was a dull dark blue, like a policeman’s uniform. It had been given to me, third hand, by a friend. In its earliest incarnation, it had belonged to a policeman. I think my friend said she’d bought it from his widow. There was still some kind of plastic gold lion’s head stuck on the side of it that would have been a signal to other policemen. My friend had tried to pry it off, but it wouldn’t come.
I know the conventional wisdom is Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and I didn’t, but I should have. If someone is giving away a car or, say, a vacuum cleaner, chances are it doesn’t work very well. Chances are it is a piece of junk. Chances are you’ll be driving down the road one day and you’ll hear—or even feel—an ominous ka-chunk and smell something that could be a tire fire big enough to alarm the entire Rockaway Peninsula. Or it could be you.
I got the car fixed that time, to the tune of seven hundred dollars. The mechanic, a Pakistani at a Mobil station in Rockaway, suggested over the phone that the car was of an age that I should consider not fixing it. It was also due for emissions inspection. But if it would pass inspection and I could get it fixed for just seven hundred dollars, I’d have wheels for the summer. The mechanic inspected it while I was on hold, and it passed. So I went for it.
The car didn’t feel right on the drive home. It was more unmaneuverable than ever. I took it back, they agreed that something was wrong and realigned it, and I drove off again. But it still didn’t feel right. The action of the steering wheel wasn’t smooth; it had a hitch in it. Stopped at a light on Woodhaven Boulevard (the main road through Queens out to Rockaway), I turned the steering wheel to the right, then I turned it to the left and returned it to center. When the light changed and I pressed on the gas, the car wouldn’t go anywhere. I got out and looked: the right front wheel was aimed straight ahead, but the left was pointed sideways at a sixty-degree angle. No wonder it wouldn’t go anywhere.
I didn’t have a cell phone, thank God, or I would have been tempted to sit in the car while I called Triple A. I put the flashers on and crossed over to the sidewalk, where there was a pay phone. While I was on hold with AAA, a car came racing up the road to zip through the green light, and smacked into the back of my car. Not far behind it was a tow truck licensed by AAA. I settled with the guy who had hit me. I think he gave me sixty dollars, and wanted something in writing to the effect that I wouldn’t pursue him or contact his insurance company. I didn’t give it to him, but he needn’t have worried. I was fuming about the garage that had sent me off on the road in a dangerous vehicle.
I had the car towed back to Rockaway and they fixed it again—told me it was defective parts—and they were mad at me, because they’d had to replace additional parts at their own expense. Then I was in a bit of a bind, because, on the one hand, who wants to patronize people who have done this to you? And, on the other hand, if it was an accident, or at least not a deliberate attempt on my life (don’t mechanics take some kind of Hippocratic oath?), they would have to be really, really good to me. I continued to drive the car, though I did put in a call to “Car Talk,” to ask Click and Clack if I should get rid of it; “Car Talk” did not call back, leaving me to draw the obvious conclusion. Meanwhile, I got a new mechanic. This was not long after 9/11, and it had occurred to me that the Muslim mechanics might be part of a terrorist cell dedicated to killing off capitalist car owners, one infidel at a time.
But back to the flat tire. The one time I had been parked in, all I had been able to think of to do by way of reprisal was to spit on the offending car’s windshield. I had had calluses on my hands by the time I got out of that spot. (Did I mention that the Escort did not have power steering?) After all I’d been through with this car—it frequently refused to start in rainy or cold weather, and I knew it was just something about the connections, but I always got ripped off for a new battery or a new starter—that flat tire almost sent me over the edge.
By the time AAA came and put on the doughnut and I limped out to Rockaway, I’d resigned myself to the price of a retread. We went on for a while longer like that, the Escort and I. Most of the time, I left it parked out at the beach, on a street with no parking restrictions—basically, I would drive it over the edge of the asphalt into a ditch. It gave one more ka-chunk in the autumn of 2003, and this time the mechanic advised me against repairing it. The back end was so rusty that if I stopped short one day the whole car might break in half. I put it back in the ditch and found a charity to donate it to, and was sitting in it a week or so later, having salvaged my evil-eye worry beads from the rearview mirror, when the tow truck came to take it away. It was a huge relief to know I wasn’t going to die in that car.
I have never parked anyone in again.