Friday, June 27, 2008

Final Exam & Review

The white dog’s face was poking out of the Lexus S.U.V. when I arrived at my fabulous parking spot this morning, at seven-thirty on the dot. The owner was early, having learned her lesson on Tuesday. The dog is a toy poodle, of the color that I think is called apricot. The street cleaner came at 7:39, and afterward the poodle-and-Lexus owner was nice enough to pull up a little so that my rear end cleared the corner with ample space. I forgot the baking soda again, but when I went back with it later (I am hoping it will have the same effect on mildew in a closed car that it supposedly has on odors in refrigerators), two motorcycles had parked behind me, forming a buffer between me and any turning semis.

Yesterday I woke to a written parking problem in the form of a note from my sibling Dee. She had blasted out of the house at dawn on Wednesday to move her car and now, on Thursday, the morning after her show at Le Poisson Rouge (and it was an excellent show: she looked very happy to be onstage with such excellent musicians as Matt Sweeney and Andrew W.K.), she wrote, “I am on the east side of [Nevermind] Avenue between [Blank] and [Dash] Streets. When do I have to move?” It was like a trick question on the written portion of a parking exam. At first, I thought I knew exactly where she was: on the Monday-Thursday side of the street, in a 9:30-11 spot, meaning she could sleep till nine and sit in her car for an hour and a half, or she could get out there a little earlier and try to score an 8:30-10 spot, squandering only a half hour.

I found Dee’s faith in my parking acumen moving—so moving that I was soon assailed by doubts. The cross streets that Dee had mentioned are near a sort of alternate-side fault line: I can never remember where 9:30-11 A.M. leaves off and 11:30-1 P.M. takes over. It was early, so I walked over there, and a lucky thing, too, because I was wrong on both counts. First of all, I had the east side of the street mixed up with the west side of the street (the old geographical dyslexia kicking in again): Dee was on the Tuesday-Friday side. And she was south of the fault, on an 11:30-1 P.M block. She had found the best possible parking spot for someone who deserved to sleep in on a Thursday morning. I resisted the urge to wake her up to tell her so.

There is always something new to learn in the world of parking. Yesterday someone left on my desk a slim paperback called “Tired of Parking Tickets,” the self-described “essential street-by-street guide to parking in Manhattan.” I opened it with some trepidation: Would it reveal the locations of all my precious spots? K’s street? The Sanctuary? Those heavenly precincts where, if you are retired and have nothing better to do than sit in your car for three hours in the middle of a weekday afternoon, you can park unmolested for an entire week, or even three, depending on suspensions for legal and religious holidays?

I must say that the guide contains an admirably concise and educational (if ungrammatical) definition of alternate side parking: “Alternate Side is when the North and West sides of the block has ‘No Parking’ in effect Mondays and Thursdays, and the South and East side of the block is in effect Tuesdays and Fridays.” How can this have escaped my notice? It turns out that I should have known just from the word “east” in Dee’s note that her spot was good till Friday.

Basically, the guide is a miniature street atlas with each block color-coded according to the parking rules in effect. At first glance, it is incredibly confusing. Some maps have as many as nineteen different colors: grids of purple and red and black and yellow and both pea and grass green ... If I were going to use such a book—that is, if such a book were going to truly be useful to me as a serious parker who was not color-blind—I would look for blocks where alternate-side parking has the shortest waiting times. I looked at the map of my neighborhood and was relieved to see that, according to this publication, none of my favorite half-hour spots exist. Whew! Either whoever compiled the guide lives near me and has an interest in obfuscation, or it's just too complicated and would require a grid of thirty-eight colors. Either way, I can link to the Web site for Tired of Parking Tickets, without worrying about creating competition in the field.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sunday Night Fever

There was a grubby blue Crown Victoria with Pennsylvania license plates double-parked ahead of me at 7:30 this morning, hoping for a spot on the Tuesday-Friday side of the street. I lucked into this spot on Sunday, when I rushed home from Rockaway to meet my sibling Dee. I’d left the Eclair in Rockaway for almost two weeks, on a street of houses that are still new enough for the city not to have put up any signs yet. The car's mildew problem seems to have cleared up a little. My cousin, who visited a few weeks ago, when the problem was so bad that you could smell the car from a distance, had the brilliant idea of spreading kitty litter on the floor of the back seat (after removing the mats), to soak up the moisture and alleviate the odor. Over the weekend, I rolled down all the windows, and even parked the car perpendicular to the breeze, in a beach parking lot, to air it out. I keep meaning to take a box of baking soda out there. By the end of the summer, I hope to be able to once again offer a ride to my friend M.Q., who sold me the car, and who I know would be troubled by the mildew.

The Crown Victoria moved along when a cop cruised by and stopped to ticket the car in front of me, a silver Lexus S.U.V. The cop was still writing the ticket when the S.U.V.’s owner showed up: a young woman with a little white dog. She looked disconsolate as she climbed into the car with her dog and her orange parking ticket. Busted. I heard the Broom on the avenue behind me at 7:37 and started up the car, but instead of turning down the street, the Broom continued through the intersection: false alarm. The woman in the Lexus, having thought it over, got back out of the car with her dog, tucked the ticket back under the windshield wiper, and left.

“The ticket says seven-thirty on the nose,” she said to me as she passed. “She couldn’t have waited one minute?”

I sympathized. “She turned the corner right on the dot of seven-thirty,” I said.

“Whatever—I’m leaving,” she said. She had already gotten a ticket for not being there—what was the point of staying?

The Broom arrived a few minutes later. I was the closest car to the corner, and I got out of its way. It went around the Lexus, and then gave the whole stretch of cars ahead of it a free pass. So who prevented the Sanitation Department from doing its job today, the demoralized Lexus owner or the overzealous cop who provoked the Lexus owner into blowing off her civic duty?

I was glad to have scored a Tuesday-Friday spot this week, because I went out with Dee on Sunday night, and I didn’t feel so good on Monday. Dee is in town to play a show on Wednesday at Le Poisson Rouge, formerly the Village Gate, on Bleecker Street. (She got an excellent writeup in The New Yorker: scroll down to Poisson Rouge.) We went over there after dinner on Sunday to check out the venue and see Rickie Lee Jones. I say this as if I knew who Rickie Lee Jones was. All I know now is that she is female, blond, and her show was cancelled.

What to do? Dee, who is using a cane these days (bad back), remembered that her friend Andrew W.K. had opened a night club at 100 Lafayette Street, below Canal, so we hobbled over to Lafayette and headed downtown. It has to be cool to have a friend who owns a night club, right? When we arrived, the club wasn’t open yet: they were still setting up the bar downstairs. But Dee learned that Andrew would be coming in, and they gave us a drink and we sat in the conversation pit of this big black box of a space, which gradually filled up and turned into a disco, mirror ball, strobe lights, deafening music, and all. The first one there (after us) was an older gentleman, wearing a gray T-shirt with a black squiggle on it that looked like an upside-down backwards comma (O.K., it looked like a sperm). He hailed the disc jockey as he came in, and informed me that this was the best d.j. ever, who had worked at Studio 54 back in the day. The elderly man looked like someone’s boss at an insurance company: come nine the next morning, he would be back at his desk in the underwriting department, but tonight he was a dancing queen.

I understand that disco is back. There was a piece in the Sunday Times about Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, and a band called Hercules and Love Affair, recording a disco song that has been a huge hit in England. But Sunday night's music all sounded the same to me: heavy drums, a screaming diva, and the occasional police whistle. The gentleman in the sperm shirt danced by himself mostly, waving his right arm around as if winding up a lasso and not moving his feet much. He was occasionally partnered, whether he liked it or not, by a somewhat ungainly-looking woman in horizontal stripes who wore white latex gloves, the better for the strobe light to show her windmilling around on the dance floor.

Andrew W.K. showed up and said hi to Dee, but then he had to go to a meeting and he did not reemerge. We left at about midnight and walked home. All I knew about Andrew W.K. was that he played drums and electric bass (to fantastic effect) on Dee's CD "Safe Inside the Day." On Monday morning, back at my desk in the underwriting department, I googled Andrew W.K. and learned that he is (1) into heavy metal, (2) a huge commercial success, and (3) a party genius.

Back in my mildewed car this morning, I soberly tried to digest the fact that I’d paid forty-three dollars to fill my 11.6-gallon gas tank on the way back from Rockaway. I’d held out on till I got off the peninsula, thinking I could do better than $4.29 a gallon, and I did see a station on Woodhaven Boulevard where the gas was only $4.27 a gallon, but it hardly seemed worth changing lanes to save twenty cents. I have just thought of a way to get a fillup for twenty dollars, however: buy gas when the tank is still half full.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Poster Girl

I was up and out early today to get a copy of the Daily News, which I both hoped and feared would have a picture of me in it. Yesterday on the way to work I saw a small crowd outside one of the new public toilets and remembered reading in AM New York that Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader was giving away free copies of its twentieth-anniversary edition, as well as sponsoring free uses of the toilet, which ordinarily costs a quarter. Apparently, June is National Bathroom Reading Month. The toilets are like those ones they have in Paris, which completely self-clean after you step out. The trick is to get out of there before they go into self-cleaning mode.

I felt no urgent need, except for the free book. The crowd was really very small: two women handing out rain checks for a “Free Flush,” two men guarding the free books, and a photographer from the Daily News. I was the only one not working the event. Before they would give me a book, they asked if I would mind being photographed outside the public toilet. I didn’t mind. I’m thrilled that New York has these cosmopolitan amenities. There was a row of golden plungers lined up outside the toilet. “How do you get a golden plunger?” I asked. I was hoping to score one for my friend the master plumber, in Rockaway.

“Buy a can of spray paint,” one of the women answered.

Despite this rebuff (I should have phrased my question differently), I posed outside the toilet with my complimentary copy of “Uncle John’s Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader” and a golden plunger, which I held like a sceptre. One of the men seemed inclined to let me keep the plunger, but their day was just beginning, and he decided against giving away the props. He did, however, enter my name and number into his cell phone and say he’d call to get my address and send me one. He never called—same old story. Anyway, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the true symbol of the plumber is not the plunger but the wrench.

Later, I took a closer look at the rain check. It is good for one free flush on June 26th from 12 P.M. to 2 P.M. Was anyone ever so desperate to save a quarter that she'd plan so far ahead?

My picture was not in the paper, by the way, and it’s just as well. I’m not sure I want to be Miss New York Public Toilet.

Monday, June 16, 2008


For some reason I went to church yesterday, at the Episcopal church outside my window. Well, there was actually a very specific reason, which was to suss out the possibility of finding a rehearsal space for my singing group. I thought I should darken their door at least once before asking a favor. I had a houseguest who was willing to come with me. After all, we reasoned, when we travel in foreign countries we always check out churches, and sometimes even go to services, to see the stained-glass windows and hear the language; why not have an ecclesiastical adventure closer to home?

My guest had been raised Protestant, so she knew basically when to stand and when to sit. The seats were much plusher than those in any Catholic church I have known, and the kneelers were also more comfortable, and movable, like little hassocks. We were greeted by a kind older woman, who asked where we were from and offered us programs and cardboard fans. The minister was also a woman, as were the deacon, the subdeacon, the crucifer, and the thurifer. O.K., so there was no thurifer.

I am so used to zoning out when I go to church that I didn’t listen very carefully to the Epistle, but I did pay attention to the Gospel, which was about Jesus sending out the Apostles (it was the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost). It gave the names of all twelve of them. Trying to remember the names of all twelve Apostles is like reciting the names of the Seven Dwarfs or all of Santa’s reindeer. They were: Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James son of Zebedee (the Great?), his brother John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew the taxi-driver, I mean tax collector, James son of Alphaeus (the Less?), Thaddeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. I will have to get out my Last Supper pillows to see who’s who.

After the Gospel, the minister announced that at this point in the service they suffered the little children to depart for instruction appropriate to their age level and commenced her sermon. It was a long one, and I found myself wondering where they took the children. It was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that a woman had said something patronizing about children, the first being the day before at a garden, a fabulous garden in an unlikely place, wedged between a hospital, a highway, a college, and a parking lot, which I discovered when I took a walk after parking my car the week after I got back from the Azores. The woman who ran the garden had a black tusk in her left ear, in a piercing that had been gradually enlarged until it had the circumference of a nickel. Her garden is magical, full of hollyhocks and fig trees, irises, leeks going gracefully to seed, architectural elements, whimsical animal statues, a little house studded with brass fittings, ornamental mosaic paths and borders. Some of the low walls and supports have teapots and porcelain figurines set into the concrete; I assumed it was these toys that the woman was referring to when she said that the garden had been designed to appeal at the level of children.

Well, it appealed to us, and we didn’t know whether to be flattered for our own sake or dismayed for the children’s. We sat down in the shade for a few minutes, taking it all in: the pansies and nasturtiums, the concrete pig, the sprinklers twitiching in circles, the high-rise parking lot. A woman with a bunch of bananas offered us each an oatmeal cookie, and I felt a little like Hansel and Gretel, except that the woman with the tusk in her ear had no evil designs on us, and we knew the way home.

The Episcopal minister did not have a tusk in her ear. I was afraid she had noticed us, and worried during the sermon that she wasn’t going to stop until she saw that I was paying attention. She greeted everyone in the congregation during the Kiss of Peace (my friend said that’s new—Protestants never used to do the Kiss of Peace). We were the first ones out after the recessional, and the minister was waiting. With genuine curiosity, she asked who we were. I like to be anonymous in church, but I told her my name and said I was a neighbor who lived around the corner and had a view of the church. She said she lived on the seventh floor of the building behind the church, and at first I thought that she was much higher up than I am but then I remembered that I am on the sixth floor, and later realized that her windows look directly onto my living room.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Rumor of a tornado on the Upper West Side last night made me realize that I had been in it. I was walking down Amsterdam with a friend, a Lutheran minister from my singing group. He had just shown me a cell-phone picture of his cat, Shibboleth (she is gray), when a storm came up. We turned east on 60th Street (I think), hoping that a cross street would give us some protection from the wind, but first it pushed us up the street and then it came around and hit us in the face. There was a construction site across the street, and garbage was swirling on the sidewalk. It felt like we were getting pelted with rain, but the rain was not wet. It was weird.

I had been planning on getting the subway at Carnegie Hall, but my friend was taking the crosstown bus on 57th Street, and as the bus was just then approaching the stop, I boarded it with him. I had a feeling the conversation might be worth the detour. He said he was going to take Shibboleth to New Jersey for the summer, to the home of some friends who needed a mouser, or perhaps a moler, for their garden, and I asked how he was going to get her there; I knew he used to have a car, but it got totalled in an accident and he hadn't replaced it. He said he had a car again, and, as he seemed reluctant to elaborate, I asked what kind. It is a 2002 Jaguar. Black, with black leather upholstery. It had belonged to a man in another singing group who died. His widow sold it to him for much less than its market value, because she wanted it to go to a singer. He rooted through his wallet and showed me his parking permit, one of those Policemen’s Benevolent Association cards. Those in his pastoral care think he should get clergy license plates.

The street grit from the tornado had gotten in our eyes and ears and hair. It was disgusting. Just as the bus got to Lexington, big drops of rain began to fall, and as we hustled to the subway, each taking the train in the opposite direction, the rain mixed with the grit. I felt like a cement mixer.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Rockaway Ferry

The weather was fine yesterday, and a bungalow owner’s thoughts fondly turn to plumbing. I didn’t want to spend my first day at the beach plumbing, but by the end of it I certainly wanted the water turned on. So I got out my plumbing notes and my plugs and my wrenches and the stick with the PVC fitting for the underground valve, and my neighbor T., God bless him, did not run and hide when he saw me in my plumber’s garb (oldest bleach-stained T-shirt, baggiest pants, mismatched socks, ancient red sneakers) but came over to help. He is skinny and can crawl under the house, and knows what a compression joint is (I had forgotten that the plumber loosened that connection last fall). We got the job done in record time, and T. even fired up the hot-water heater. I spent a few hours cleaning the porch and the kitchen floor and making a list of all the things I have to do (fix shower door, buy light fixtures, paint porch floor) that I can’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me for having to do, because, after all, I do own a bungalow in Rockaway. Then I treated myself to a cheeseburger and a beer and went to bed.

It rained all night, and was still drizzling this morning, but neither this nor my recent experience sailing in the Azores deterred me from taking the first opportunity to ride the new Rockaway ferry to Manhattan. It came in right on schedule at Riis Landing, where there is free parking outside the defunct Coast Guard Headquarters (I don’t know if it’s long-term parking, but I hope the Éclair is still there when I go back). The boat is beautiful. She is called the American Princess, and has a saloon inside with long tables that seat six, and an upper deck with benches under an awning, and you can stand outside and see Coney Island and the Verrazzano Bridge and container ships in the shipping lane and downtown Manhattan, all shrouded in clouds. Imagine what it’s going to be like on a nice day!

For some reason, there were many more women than men on the boat, and the women spent their time yakking away and applying makeup; the American Princess is much better equipped for vanity than the A train. The fare is six dollars (compared with two dollars for the A train). The ads say it has a bar and café, but the smell of coffee was coming only from the takeout cups that everyone except me knew enough to bring on board. I put my bag and umbrella on a seat, but I just couldn’t see confining myself to one corner of the boat, hemmed in by a suit reading the Times and a nerd navigating a BlackBerry, when I could be on deck approaching New York Harbor. I not only want to take the ferry to work: I want to work on the ferry.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Verizon vs. Azores

Here’s something new: I’m walking down the avenue on the way to my wonderful parking spot at seven-thirty on Monday morning, wondering if I should go see the “Sex and the City” movie because of the small role my car played in it (getting towed off the set before filming began), when I see traffic cones and a Men Working sign surrounding my vehicle. Now what? It’s Verizon, the telephone company. They have set up a tent over a manhole and spray-painted orange “T”s on the asphalt.

The good news is that I will not have to move the car, because the street sweeper will observe the orange cones and go around me. The bad news is that they might dig up the street underneath me.

The street outside the house where I was staying in Lajes das Flores, in the Azores, got repaved while I was there. I had rented a car—a red Nissan Micra, a stick shift, which meant I had to remember how to use the emergency brake in order not to roll backwards while roaring into first gear on hills—and parked it along a stone wall outside the house and watched the road works encroach. Finally, someone came to the house, and I didn’t need to understand Portuguese to know that it was time to move “o carro.” I parked it on the main road at the bottom of the hill. That day, the crew churned up the old road surface and plowed it under, and then oiled it, or laid glue on it, or something, to prepare it for paving.

I returned the car, without subjecting it to the road works, and the next day a taxi was supposed to pick me up, along with my housemate, at eleven in the morning for the trip to the airport. At eight, the road crew’s trucks started to gather at the bottom of the hill, and it became apparent that if we didn’t get our asses in gear and our luggage down the hill before they laid the blacktop, we would be marooned. Or we would have to roll our wheeled suitcases through pastures full of cow paddies and somehow get down a ten-foot stone embankment. One solution was to ask the taxi-driver to come earlier, but he arrived just as the workers had begun to spread the blacktop at the foot of the hill. My housemate tied plastic bags over her boots and made two trips, carrying her suitcases. I boldly rolled my enormous suitcase down the hill, leaving inch-deep tracks in the roadbed, and acquiring thick souvenirs of Flores on my shoes and luggage wheels.

The Verizon guy said those cones were just to alert people that they were working; it should be no problem to leave the car. The street sweeper appeared in the rearview mirror, and indeed he did not make me move. The guy behind me had trouble getting back into his spot, because he couldn’t pull up parallel to me and back in. He tried nosing in. In Flores, I would have been nice and pulled up into the crosswalk to give him room. That is because in Flores I would have run into this man again—there are not many people on Flores—and been ashamed of myself if I hadn't helped him. In New York, you don’t have to be so ashamed of yourself for not helping people, because chances are you’ll never see them again.

I am glad to be home, though I wish I could remain nicer. There are things about my time in the Azores that I feel nostalgic for. For instance, the Eclair feels funny because it has no clutch. I’m sitting in the driver’s seat pumping away with my left foot like a maniac, wondering what went wrong. And I miss the animals—the cows and goats and chickens and sheep and pigs and that thing that went “doing-doing-doing” in the night. A man in a suit carrying a ziplock bag full of birdseed comes up the street and empties out his bag at the curb. Pigeons and sparrows swoop in, and I remember that in Flores there was a bird that looked like a sparrow but hovered over the pasture beating its wings like a hummingbird.

A dogwalker goes by with a party of five dogs. The mailman fills a sack from the mailbox at the corner. The steel windowgate creaks open on the vegetarian restaurant across the street. And here comes a man on a scooter—not a motorized scooter, just an extra-large child's scooter, customized with a basket. He rides down the street in the middle lane of traffic, running the red light. I am back.