Tuesday, January 16, 2007

King Day

Having a car in the city is a little like having a
dog: you’re up and out in the morning, rain or shine,
whether you like it or not. It was raining last Monday
morning when I went to secure my spot. I was on my
second-favorite parking block; I’d found the spot on
Sunday afternoon, when there is still some wiggle room
in the Manhattan parking grid. It happens to be right
outside an apartment building where a friend of mine
lives, though I’ve never seen him while parking on
this block and I don’t believe he’d recognize my car
if he saw it. I’ve imagined the cacophony of car horns
he hears in the morning (his windows face the street).
Sometimes I worry that he’ll think I’m stalking him.
Sometimes I worry that I am stalking him. But it’s
such a great parking spot.

This block is brutal in that you have to be in your
car at 7:30 A.M. but sweet in that you only have to
sit in it for a half hour. Then, because you’re up so
early, you can accomplish something before work, like
drop off clothes at the Chinese laundry or do the
grocery shopping. Because I’m still full of resolve
first thing in the morning, I buy only fruits and
vegetables, whole grains and canola oil. This spot has
revolutionized my life. It is one of the best kept
secrets in New York.

As usual, only when I’ve approached the door with key
in hand do I remember, on seeing the cylindrical hole
where the key used to fit, that I have to unlock the
car from the passenger side. It happened right after
Halloween: I was vandalized. I’d parked next to some
dumpsters outside the hotel on the corner, and someone
bashed in my rear side window—the small segment that
doesn’t roll down—and emptied out the contents of the
glove compartment and the ashtray. There was nothing
in the car worth stealing, unless you covet the
ten-cassette audio version of “Moby Dick”
(unabridged). I got the window fixed that weekend, but
there didn’t seem to be any emergency about the door.
So I go around and unlock the passenger side, lean
in—setting my takeout coffee on the dashboard and
dumping my reading materials on the seat—and unlock
the door from the inside, then go around to the other
side again, collapse my umbrella, and climb in.

This is a prime spot, just west of a fire hydrant.
Nobody can get in front of you, so you can’t get
parked in. There’s an SUV hovering at the hydrant.
Just before the street sweeper comes, he gets lucky:
the guy in front of him pulls out. I worry that there
won’t be room for me after the street sweeper comes,
unless everyone behind me compacts himself in good
love-thy-neighbor fashion. (There is plenty of
opportunity to exercise the Golden Rule when you’re
parking in Manhattan.) After some jockeying back and
forth, there is room for all of us. 7:44 and all is
well. A latecomer cruises by, but this block is all
parked up. Ten minutes later, I realize that my
headlights are still on, from the flurry when the
street sweeper came by. I was more nervous than I
thought.

Everything looks so beautiful once your car is safe
and your space is secured, even in the rain: three
yellow taxis with red brake lights stop at the light;
a woman goes by carrying a child’s green dome-shaped
frog umbrella. It’s the stuff of haiku, or maybe
Kahlil Gibran: A mug of joe, a New York Times, and
thou, sitting beside me in the parking spot …

* * *

On Thursday, the jockeying for Martin Luther King Day
began in earnest. I had a last-minute scramble getting
out of the house, because the keys were not on the
bookcase where I could grab them on my way out. I knew
exactly where the spare keys were, but still—too much
bumbling. I like to tear out of the house like a
fireman responding to an alarm: pull on the pants
already in the boots, throw on a coat, grab the keys,
and go. There’s no pole toslide down, but I take the
stairs instead of waiting for the elevator.

There was a half moon waning in the middle of the
stairwell windows, and outside the rosy fingers of
dawn were touching the top of the neighborhood tower
and tinting it and the massive building next to it a
pink-orange. The sun itself, just risen on a cold,
clear day, is lined up with the cross street. This
only happens for a few days a year, three weeks on
either side of the winter solstice (I read this in the
Times), and it points up the orientation of the
island, which doesn’t run due north-south but is
tilted some degrees to the northeast. At least I
think it’s the northeast.

On the avenue a delivery truck is blasting Mexican
music. Thursday is garbage day at the hotel on the
corner. There is also a laundry truck outside. I
barely had time to get settled in the car (after the
usual sight gag at the driver’s-side door) before the
street sweeper came, at 7:40. There was a limo in the
spot at the fire hydrant as he approached, and a cop
coming on foot from the opposite direction. I couldn’t
move with the limo in front of me, and the guy in back
of me couldn’t move unless I moved. The street sweeper
was honking and flashing his lights. The man behind me
honked, too. I gestured helplessly, a big shrug as if
to say (as I actually was), “What can I do?” Finally,
the cop got the sluggish limo to move so we could pull
out and make room for the street sweeper. When we were
backing in again, the man behind me motioned for me to
stay up near the hydrant to give the people in back of
us room to straighten out in their spaces.
“They said they’ll give me a foot,” he said when I
got out to investigate.
“It’s kind of tight,” I noted.
“Yes, it wasn’t so the other day, but the other fella
jumped in here, and we can’t throw you out of it.”
No, indeed, I thought. He had an Irish accent.
It was a cold morning, and the pickup in front of me,
on the far side of the hydrant (New Jersey plates),
had his engine running, with the heat on. I had the
window cracked and was a little cold, I admit. It was
the first time I parked in my new winter coat. I felt
overdressed.
At 7:47, I focussed on two guys in my sideview mirror,
hands in pockets, talking, both with dark hair, one
with a darker complexion and a mustache and pointy
chin. The other one lives in my friend’s building and drives a
black Jeep Cherokee. He was there the morning my
window was broken, and offered to get me a plastic bag
from inside his building. The Irish gentleman, I see
in my rearview mirror, has a yellow smiley-face
dangling from his rearview mirror.
8 A.M.: The Irishman waves as he walks away. I go
back along the line of cars before heading over to the
Chinese laundry. There are five cars on the near side
of the hydrant, in spots that are good now for a week:
mine, the Irishman’s (a pale-gray Intrepid), then a
big Dodge Caravan with its rear end sticking out (this
woman had the worst of it, right in the middle with
that huge car), then the Jeep Cherokee , and finally a
funky white and black Jetta from New Hampshire with a
“BI” bumper sticker (Block Island). The cars at this
end are really jammed up against each other, one
almost hooked under the bumper of the one before. I
guess they aren’t planning on going anywhere over the
weekend.

On my way to the Chinese laundry , I spy the limo
parked two blocks away, the driver at his post behind
the wheel, fast asleep.

* * *

On Saturday morning, the car—again, like a dog—wants
to go for a good run out to the beach, and so do I.
When you leave a spot that is still legal, you have to
have faith that someone else is going to have to do
the same thing when you come back on Sunday morning …
yes! I am in luck. There is a big beautiful spot just
on the opposite side of that same fire hydrant, a spot
so freshly minted that though the rest of the street
is wet with rain, here the pavement is still dry. I
pull forward and align myself with a tree fence that
is going to make it difficult for me to squeeze out,
leaving room behind me for a motorcycle or a Mini
Cooper.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! I get to sleep in on
Monday morning and contemplate the great civil rights
leader from the comfort of home. As it happens,
January 15th is also my father’s birthday, and I hope
I may be forgiven for having him more on my mind than
Martin Luther King. My father died about five years
ago, just before 9/11, but his birthday seems more
important now than it did when he was alive. Once,
when I was working in a costume company that made
political buttons and other stuff in the off season
(which is most of the year in a costume company), I
found a button that read “January 15—King Day.” This
was back in the seventies, when Martin Luther King Day
was still in the campaign stages, and I thought it was
just an amazing coincidence that I had found a button
that seemed to mean that on January 15th, my dad could
be King for a Day. When I gave it to my father, he
said “King Day—hmmph. Just what I don’t want.” Dad was
a racist. He was a fireman, and during the race riots
in the Hough area of Cleveland, when the blacks set
the slums on fire, they threw stones at the firemen
who came to put the fire out. It made a lasting
impression on my father.

My father taught me to drive. I’m glad that when I
blast out of the house like a fireman early in the
morning it is only to preserve a parking spot. After
9/11, when firemen came from all over the country to
help at the World Trade Center, I talked to a group
from Cleveland, and found out that my father was
famous. They knew a story my father had told for years.
Once, he was at the wheel of a hook-and-ladder and
left the firehouse without the tillerman, who had
switched shifts with someone who didn’t show up. My father
drove a hook-and-ladder down Euclid Avenue sideways,
wiping out a whole row of parked cars.

MJN/NYC

5 comments:

K-Oh said...

What a wonderful blog!

My God, it sounds so exhausting, this business with the car. How do you manage to go to work after all that?

You know, you should be buying OLIVE OIL-- the very healthiest of them all. You're forgiven if you buy canola oil at the end of the day, when you're too tired to know any better.

Jane Louise Boursaw said...

Fascinating blog! I love your writing, and I'm enjoying learning about this parking subculture.

Living in the Midwest -- where parking is not a problem when you've got 500 acres of farmland out your door -- I appreciate your perspective.

lucette said...

Yay: more parking stories!

erieblue said...

There's so much going on in New York! Or maybe you're just a superb observer. Living in Cleveland, one thinks of the car as a convenience (which your blog seems to contradict). My own car tale of woe involves my driver side door which first wouldn't open from the outside, and now won't open from the inside either. And the window won't open. This morning I had to vault my body over the mid-bump between the seats and stick my parking money out the back window (which only unfroze right before I needed it).

EJM/NYC said...

I don't even have a car, but this blog is terrific! What a great M.L.K. Day story, too. Not to mention the hook-and-ladder on Euclid.

You have disproved, for me, a longtime assumption about the boredom inherent in the topic, as documented in the Joanna Davis novel "Life Signs" (from 1973, since when everything has evidently gotten more baroque):

"Chip cleared his throat. 'Whitney and I were talking, on the way up here, I think she mentioned you have a car, Mona, and I'd like to get your views on this, I find it tougher and tougher these days to find a parking place.'

"Might as well ask Proust if he'd ever given any thought to his childhood. Mona perked up at once. 'I'll say,' she entwined her little fingers in excitement. 'Alternate-side-of-the-street parking,' she rolled her eyes, agitated beyond words.

"'Right, right, right,' Chip understood, but completely. 'Listen to this. A bunch of us down at the office figured recently that between us we spend the equivalent of one full working day a week just moving our cars.'

"Camilla gulped her drink, and thought rapidly; she had always been good at math. 'How many in the bunch,' she needed to know, ' and how long a working day? I mean, say, if there were thirty of you, and the working day is seven hours, no that won't come out even, make it twenty-eight of you, just hypothetically, you'd only be moving your cars, just a second, yes, fifteen minutes each a week.' She waited, expectantly, for praise.

"And got stares instead. Except from Alec [her husband], who practically sneered, before swiveling his chair completely around. Presumably, no one would connect him with her without a face to pin it to. Ostrich, thought Camilla, along with coward and traitor; they're to blame, on simple grounds of boredom. Defiant, she polished off her drink."