Monday, February 19, 2007

Stunt Parking

“Do you have any qualms? Because if you have any qualms I’ll just drive into the city and put the car in long-term parking at the airport on Thursday.”

“I have no qualms.”

I was in Rockaway, in the car with M.Q., who sold it to me a few years ago, when I needed a car to make frequent trips from New York to Cleveland to visit my ailing mother. According to the hospice workers, Mom was on her deathbed, but, according to us, her children, she kept getting up, to ride downstairs in the chair on rails that my sibling D. had had installed for her. I had my beady little eye fixed on Mom’s silver-gray 2000 Volkswagen Beetle, and D. at one point actually told me to take it (I had flown home for Christmas and was cadging a ride back from a friend), but I knew that the second I started backing it out the driveway Mom would wake up and ask D., “Where is she going in my car?”

So I called the mechanic who had pronounced on the Escort, and who had said at the time that he sometimes heard of good used cars for sale. I had thought it over and described in detail what I was looking for: an older car—I didn’t care about the body—that got good gas mileage and didn’t have many miles on it. “I know what you want,” he said. I got excited, thinking he had divined my needs and, like the guys on “Car Talk,” was going to suggest a make and model. “What you want is a creampuff.”

That is how I learned the term of art for a clean, well-maintained, if not particularly stylish, car that has seen very little use: a prize among pre-owned vehicles. My mother’s car was actually not a creampuff: D. had a tree business at the time, and the tree guys barrelled all over northern Ohio in the Beetle. There were wood chips and bark in the trunk, and the blinkers didn’t work. It did have one nice feature, however: heated seats.

As I set out on my quest for the holy grail of used cars, I realized that I had never bought a used car from a stranger. The Plymouth my mother had given me, with some urging from my father; decades later, when Mom bought the Volkswagen, she offered me her white Oldsmobile Ciera, but I declined on the ground that it would make me middle-aged before my time. Instead, I took up with the Death Trap. In between, I had owned a 1986 Honda Civic hatchback, an excellent car, which I bought from a friend at work and which got stolen off the street in Queens, just before I moved to Manhattan—providentially, because at the time I hadn’t a clue how to go about parking without going bankrupt.

So, after answering a few newspaper ads and browsing on Craigslist, I emboldened myself to call up two women who I happened to know were harboring creampuffs. First I called L., a famously cranky retired proofreader who had salted herself away in a retirement village in Connecticut before her time. When she moved up there, she bought a red 1990 Honda Civic hatchback, an adorable little car. “Chianti,” she always said when she described its color. “It’s Chianti red.” (She pronounced the last two syllables “ante,” as in “ante up.”) She drove only to the supermarket and the Honda dealer and the gas station to top off the tank. I actually asked her, when the car was brand-new, if she would leave it to me, and she said yes! Anyway, I called and asked how she was doing, and the conversation naturally turned to cars: “So, how’s your car?” I said. “Oh, I love my car,” she said. It had 12,000 miles on it, and she was nowhere near giving it up.

Then I called M.Q., who grew up in Rockaway and kept a car there to use when she visited her mother. She was always having trouble with the battery, because she didn’t use the car enough. On weekends, she would make a run out to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Howard Beach. It would not have occurred to me to call her, except that at her retirement lunch (we knew each other slightly at the office, and bonded over Rockaway) she mentioned her car to me—she had given me a ride in it one day when she saw me waiting at a bus stop on Rockaway Beach Boulevard—referring to it significantly as “your [my] next car.”

Sure enough, she was ready to get rid of it. She thought it over for about ten minutes. Her mother had died, and she had recently had to get towed home from somewhere in Brooklyn. Her brother probably had his eye on the car, for one of her nephews. It was a 1990 four-door Honda Civic, charcoal gray, with 27,000 miles on it. I test drove it, thrilled at the sobriety of the vehicle: it looked like a nun’s car. I all but drooled on it. It lacked two things that I was looking for in a car—a stick shift and a moon roof—and it had those automatic windows that I despise, but it was a creampuff, all right, and she sold it to me for the Blue Book price, minus the cost of having the timing belt replaced.

Since then, I have been in a delicate situation with M.Q. I like to offer her a ride whenever I can, because it was so nice of her to sell me the car. (I don’t call it the Creampuff, by the way; after I told my friend G. about it, and about the concept of creampuffs in general, she had a dream that I was driving an éclair. So I call it the Éclair.) But I hate for her to see the car when it’s not clean, when there is sand in the air-conditioner ducts, say, or granola-bar crumbs on the seats, or when one of its headlights has been gouged out or, as happened recently, it has lost the use of a windshield wiper.

M.Q. has invited me to park in her driveway from time to time, which is very convenient, but I don’t want to take advantage of her. After all, the whole point of getting rid of the car was not to have to worry about it anymore, and I know that when I park it there she feels she should start it up once in a while to make sure the battery doesn’t go dead. I tell her she’s free to use the car, of course, and perhaps she has, but I know she doesn’t take it on any long trips. It is a shame, however, for such a nice car, a pampered car, a car that, before it got involved with me, had spent its nights in a lovely suburban garage—for such a car to be parked on the mean streets of Manhattan or relegated to the desolate long-term parking lot at J.F.K.

So, before the recent snowstorm, when I took the car out to Rockaway to have it winterized, I was already plotting, if not to leave the car in M.Q.’s driveway, at least to make it presentable in case I saw her. Plan B was to drive it back into Manhattan, and hope to find a spot that would be good till Thursday, when I would drive myself to the airport and park it out there. I took the bus to Rockaway on Saturday morning (two buses, actually, transferring at the Junction in Flatbush; it's a route that M.Q. taught me) and went directly to Bulloch’s, the gas station in Belle Harbor where its previous owner had always taken it for maintenance. On the way, I passed M.Q.’s house and noticed that her driveway had not been shovelled.

Big Bulloch, the father of the gas-station family, was not there, but his son, Baby Bulloch, soon arrived, carrying one of those things they use to jump-start cars with. The Éclair was inside, still on the lift. It looked great. He couldn’t remember what they’d done to it, but he started to tot it all up: About the broken headlight, the Marcalite, as it’s called, they’d put more tape on it. The other headlight, on the passenger’s side, he said had been moving up and down, and he fixed that, using a wedge of wood. (“There’s not a lot of wood in cars,” he pointed out.) The windshield-wiper blades had been replaced, and they were working, he said. He changed the oil, added antifreeze. He said it’s ready for a new muffler, but that I should wait till the winter is over. Total: $50. It seemed like a good deal—remember, this included off-street parking during a snowstorm. “I sprayed it, too,” he said. “Got the salt off of it.”

So I paid happily, and then, as I approached the car, which someone had backed out of the garage for me, I remembered the cylinder on the driver’s side door, which Big Bulloch had said he’d look at: it had been fixed. I went back inside to report that and pay for it. “Oh, yeah,” Baby Bulloch said. “The cylinder. Let me call my father.” He reached his father on his cell phone. “Papa?” he said. I was standing right across the desk from him, so he had to be careful how he described me. “You know that cylinder . . . ? How much do you want to charge for that?” Papa was on speakerphone, and there was a long silence. Then Big Bulloch said, “Charge a hundred-fifty.”


Baby Bulloch laughed and said, “You should’ve just left.”

That had occurred to me, but I have been cultivating Bulloch's for a while, and I wanted to preserve my good kharma. Besides, I’d gotten an estimate on the door lock when I had the rear window fixed after being vandalized, and it was $180. And $200 was about what I’d budgeted for winterizing and parking during the storm. I had been going to buy gas at Bulloch’s, too, though it’s the most expensive gas on the peninsula—it’s like a gasoline boutique—but I changed my mind.

* * *

Later, I called M.Q.’s number in Rockaway, and was surprised when she answered. I offered to help her shovel. She had already paid a neighborhood boy to shovel a path from the sidewalk to her front porch, and he had used up almost all the rock salt. Meanwhile, the snowplows had gone by and erected an icy barricade of snow boulders all along the curb, and the driveway had a thin coating of snow with a solid-ice veneer. She gave it to me straight: if I shoveled the driveway, I could park there. We agreed that I would hack away at the barricade, just enough to drive the car over it, and that I could spread rock salt on the iced-over driveway if I took her to the store to buy some more. I hacked away, feeling virtuous. M.Q. is well equipped, with three snow shovels and one ice hacker. The plow did not go by again, though several plows were lurking in the road.

While double-parked by the fire station, waiting for M.Q. to return with the rock salt, I noticed in the back seat a green gift box: It was a Lacoste box, with the alligator symbol, and it contained a men’s green toiletry bag and two Lacoste products, aftershave and spray cologne. I couldn’t remember M.Q. bringing it out of the house with her . . . Had it been left here by someone at Bulloch’s? If so, what was I supposed to do with it? It gave me an excellent excuse to make a U-turn and stop in at the Wharf, a bar overlooking Jamaica Bay, also owned by the Bulloch family. Often enough, after squandering large amounts of money on my car at Bulloch’s gas station, I console myself by drinking at his bar.

I didn’t see any Bullochs there, however, Big or Baby, and I knew that the gas station would be closed by the time we got back. Anyway, what was I going to say? "Did someone here leave this in my car?" The implication is that someone had been driving the car around, probably on Valentine's Day, received this as a gift from a girlfriend, and chucked it in the back seat. M.Q. suggested that I simply thank them for the gift. That gave me a wicked idea: Saturday was K.’s birthday, and I could regift the Lacoste kitbag to him. It was perfect!

There were ice floes on Jamaica Bay, and an old man in the parking lot, the maitre d', as it were, who always offers to detail my car while I'm inside. As we were on our way back to the house, I broke it to M.Q. that not only was I leaving my car at her house (provided that I could get it up the driveway) but that I myself was leaving for Spain. That's when we had the conversation about the qualms. I offered to drop her off before turning in to the driveway, but she said she'd stay with me.

I pulled over to let an SUV in the rearview mirror overtake me: I didn’t want any pressure. I put the car in low gear as I turned, then lumped it over the mound at the foot of the drive and sped up the ice, which crackled beneath us, to a perfect spot by the back door. “A miracle!” M.Q. said. I gave her the extra key to the new cylinder on the driver's-side door and took the bus back.

Wouldn't you know it, when I went to deliver K's birthday present, there was a beautiful parking spot right outside his door.

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