Sunday, November 30, 2008

Parker's Digest

There has been a lot to digest this Thanksgiving, foremost a humongous article on parking tickets in Friday’s Times. It had so many charts and graphs, and a map of the city with blocks color-coded by number of tickets handed out … I didn’t know whether to avert my eyes or get out my magnifying glass. Was my street one of the dark-blue high-volume ticket blocks?

My own relationship with the Parking Violations Bureau has come to the point where I now recognize their return address in the mail: Cadman Plaza Station. That same day, I received from the Parking Violations Bureau a “Notice of Outstanding Parking Violation.” It surprised me that I had an outstanding ticket, because I hate getting tickets, and my way of dealing with them is to pay—or, actually, contest—them promptly, in the hope that the pain will recede that much sooner into the past.

A few hours earlier, I’d made a special trip out to Rockaway to start up the car and take it to the mechanic's to have it winterized. The Éclair was in the driveway of my friend MQ, its former owner. She had given me a key to her house, so that I can use her bathroom when the water is turned off at my place, and I was on my way up her back stairs to avail myself of the facilities, wondering if I should knock just in case she was there, when she popped out the door and screamed at the sight of me. Suddenly I didn’t need to use the bathroom at all anymore.

The first thing she said to me, after recovering from the shock, was “I can’t come to dinner.” I had recently invited her to dinner in Manhattan (we are neighbors there, too), as a way of thanking her for letting me park in her driveway. She won't let me pay her (I've offered), though she has occasionally allowed me to buy her a Bloody Mary. Anyway, she had accepted my invitation and we had set a date. But MQ is incredibly stubborn, and when she says she doesn’t want to get paid, she doesn’t want to get paid, not in cash or in vodka or in dinner invitations, and she had figured out that I was trying to reciprocate. I was disappointed that my scheme would not work. “Is it just me?” she asked. She wanted to know if I was trying to fold her into a general dinner party. "Yes," I said. “Well, nothing elaborate. Make it simple,” she told me. I didn’t have anything in mind up to that point, but now I’m thinking one of those expensive ten-minute frozen pasta dishes with shrimp and asparagus might satisfy her.

When I approached the car to back it out of the driveway, MQ said, “When you bring the car back, would you pull it up a little closer to the garage?” “Here?” I asked, standing at the latitude of the drain, about three feet in front of the garage door. “No, not there—step back a little.” I took up a position about three feet on the opposite side of the drain. “There,” she said. I don’t know why she is so particular about where I park—maybe something to do with being able to see the car from inside? Being able to walk around it comfortably outside? Keeping a shovel's distance between the car and the drain? I desperately want to please my parking benefactor, but I’m starting to feel as if the Éclair and I have been miscast in an episode of the Princess and the Pea.

Anyway, I go to the gas station, where things are jumping. Both Bullochs are in the office, the older (Big Bulloch) and the younger (Baby Bulloch). Big Bulloch finishes taking a lady’s money and greets me. “I want to get the car winterized,” I tell him. “You know, tires, battery, antifreeze.” “You don’t need nothin,” he says. “You got the oil changed the last time you were in here. To tell you the truth, I’d just be taking your money. You don’t need nothin.” And he sends me away.

Gosh. On the surface, it seemed kind and fatherly of Big Bulloch. The lady whose money he had just taken was impressed. But I couldn't help but suspect that he just didn’t want to be bothered. I went to the Wharf, which Bulloch also owns, had a quesadilla and a beer while the lights of Manhattan popped on in the dusk across Jamaica Bay, and read the Wave. The Wave is the opposite of the Times. The lead story was about how the M.T.A., in casting around for ways to save money, is considering rolling back the free ride that Rockaway residents get over the toll bridge from Broad Channel. The man who first got the city to give Rockaway residents this special status is Dan Tubridy, a local hero. At the time, in 1996, he lived in Broad Channel and his wife worked in Rockaway, so, to make his point and avoid the toll, he would sit in his car on the Broad Channel side of the Cross Bay Bridge while his wife walked over it. He has since moved to Arverne-by-the-Sea and warns that it might not be possible now for Rockaway to keep its exception.

But the real story was what wasn’t in the Wave. I noticed it when I got the paper the week of the election, and by now the phenomenon has had time to sink in and generate letters to the editor, which were in this week’s edition: The Wave covered its local political races, but there was no mention of the win by Obama. I had come to realize that Rockaway was McCain country: I couldn’t talk politics with anyone at the boatyard, unless maybe I wanted to get thrown in the water, and my friend MQ had told me she was voting for Sarah Palin. The editors of the Wave might point out, in their defense, that there are bigger newspapers covering politics at the national level, and they are but a humble local weekly. Still, not to acknowledge the historic nature of Obama’s victory is bizarre and a little scary.

I reparked in the suburban driveway, checking to make sure I had hit my mark, and returned to Manhattan through Brooklyn by bus and train. Home again, I examined the cryptic details of my mysterious unpaid summons. I’ve wondered, on seeing tickets lying in the street, what people do when they are held responsible for a ticket they’ve never seen. Was it possible that the cop who can write two tickets at the same time (featured in that Times article) had been on my block? The offense was parking in a No Standing zone, the fee a whopping $125 (including a $10 late penalty). Issue date: 10/07/08. Location: "133 Other—See Comme” There is a place you can check to request a copy of the original summons, and I will certainly do that. Meanwhile, I racked my brain to remember where I was on Tuesday, October 7th. Then I remembered—Hah!—I don’t have to rack my brain: I can look in my blog archives (blorchives?). Scrolling backward through October ... stupid stuff about the New York Waterfalls ... yack yack yack ... Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if after all this parking blogging I had no record of where the car was parked on the Tuesday in question? Aha! My car was in Rockaway that week, at the mechanic’s, getting its leaky transmission fixed—and apparently being road-tested, or test-parked, on Beach 133rd Street, four blocks from the garage. That explains why they wouldn’t take my money: they already had.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


A tiny but ominous headline in Saturday's Times reads "Space Station's Purification System for Fluids Fails." Hold on: it's not what you think. It's not that Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper or Dr. Sandra Magnus had to taste the space water and found it wanting. "The new $250 million system for the International Space Station to turn urine, sweat and other fluids into drinking water is off to a shaky start," John Schwartz wrote in the Times. "Astronauts aboard the station assembled the system ahead of schedule and started it on Thursday, but it shut itself down. The unit was started again on Friday morning, but shut itself down after two hours. The problem involves a centrifuge in the distillation unit whose motor appears to be working too slowly, or it might involve sensors inaccurately reporting problems with the centrifuge."

So who are you going to trust? HAL, the computer, who very sensibly thinks humans shouldn't be drinking their own waste and thereby sabotages his own system? Or the guy, probably someone at Mission Control in Florida or Texas, who overrides the sensors and deems the centrifuge sufficient and the distilled water potable? Somebody up there is going to have to take the first sip. Here on Earth, we wait with bated breath.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lost in Space

This has got to be embarrassing. Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, one of the intrepid space plumbers, and certainly the American astronaut with the most syllables in her name (God only knows what the M stands for), was on a spacewalk, greasing some joints on the space station, when she discovered that a grease gun "erupted inside its tote bag" (from this morning's Times). While she was cleaning it, the rest of her tool kit "floated irretrievably into space." Poor Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper! I know just how she feels. In two separate incidents, I've had a box of Junior Mints explode inside my purse at the movies and gum up my hairbrush something awful, and watched a guidebook slide off my lap into the Venetian Lagoon.

Here on Earth, we've had a cold snap in the Northern Hemisphere, and the astronaut's grease job reminds me that I have to get the Eclair winterized. My Car & Driver magazine from the AAA (not to be confused with AA, of which I am not a member) says I need to check the coolant, make sure the tires have enough tread, and have a look at the battery. Also, I must not forget to pay my insurance premium, due December 9th. I'm sure they are counting on me to be too lazy to do any research into a cheaper policy. Maybe I'll surprise them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Old News

That time of year thou mayst in me behold when trucks sideswipe my car and knock the mirrors off. Also, the long streak of alternate-side-suspended Jewish-Muslim-Hindu-patriotic holidays has ended, and since I have no immediate travel plans, I realized suddenly that I had the car in the city solely in order to park it. So I asked permission of the Éclair’s previous owner, MQ, to park in her nice suburban driveway, and last Friday I commuted to Times Square via Rockaway, a detour that took me through Broad Channel at the hour when all the trucks from Call-a-Head, the portable-toilet company, are lined up on the boulevard, waiting to make their pickups, and clockwise around Jamaica Bay.

The Éclair still had all that vegetation stuck on her, and I know it hurts MQ to see her looking less than her best. I checked to see if the carwash was open on my way past, but got honked at. Finally it occurred to me that I could clean the car the old-fashioned way: wash it by hand. I had in my trunk a couple of sponges left over from boating and a jug half full of windshield-wiper fluid. So I groomed her like a horse, sponging off her right side, brushing the crumbs off the upholstery. The Éclair looked pretty good, parked in its ancestral driveway.

On the bus through Brooklyn, a man who, at first, I thought was talking to a woman seated across the aisle from him turned out to be reciting poetry, for all our benefit: “She was a poor man’s rich girl, but she always played the game.” He got off after a while, so I could concentrate on the Times. Now that we are going to have Obama, I find I can read the Times without wincing--I can read whole articles about politics, even if they don't mention "Saturday Night Live." There was a long piece about how the President-elect’s neighbors, in Hyde Park, Illinois, are being inconvenienced by the Secret Service, but they don’t mind. This made me want to cry. Farther down was a sidebar with the headline “As for the ‘Arab’ Remark …” about Rahm Emanuel’s father's slur on Arabs. He had said to an Israeli newspaper: “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.” This prompted an Arab-American group to write to Rahm Emanuel, who apologized to the president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who happens to be my old high-school English teacher and drama coach, Mary Rose Oakar. This made me laugh.

Then I got involved with a piece on “intrepid space plumbers.” They are sending some specialists to the International Space Station to set up a second toilet and a water-purification system that will recycle the astronauts’ urine into drinking water. It concludes with a quote from Dr. Sandra Magnus, who will be one of the first to sample the space water: “As she explained, water flushed from our earthly toilets eventually evaporates and rains down again, so, ‘We drink recycled water every day—on a little bit longer time scale.’” This news left me nonplussed. It had been raining in Rockaway while I waited for the bus, and I’d seen some very earthly toilets sitting on trucks on the shores of Jamaica Bay. I didn't know whether to be alarmed at the general principle or reassured by the cosmic time scale.

Over the weekend, walking around Manhattan with no car to park, I was like a person who has been shopping for boots and found and bought a pair but can't stop looking in shoe-store windows. In the Sanctuary, one car was taking up two spots, and the Sanctuary is already down from seven spots to four; I had to restrain myself from leaving a note on the windshield.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Never a dull moment, as my mother used to say. When I went out to move my car yesterday, I found the entire passenger side slathered with pine needles and mud, as if mulched by a passing hay wagon. Also, the license-plate holder on the front was mangled and hanging by a plastic shred. I had driven the day before to the Queens International Film Festival, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel near LaGuardia Airport, in East Elmhurst, and parked on a wet and leaf-strewn street, but unless someone was leaf-blowing in the rain, I don’t see how all that gunk could have attached itself to my car.

I had to get two things off my mind before I could consider a car wash. One was the outboard motor, my 6-horsepower 4-stroke Mercury, purchased from Buster’s Marine of Broad Channel on August 25, 2007, which I needed to have winterized and to submit for repairs, covered, I hope, by the three-year warranty (# OR055963). I lugged the motor from the bungalow to Buster’s. It must weigh fifty pounds and is extremely awkward, with its propeller and all, unless your name is Buster and they don't call you Buster for nothing, in which case you can take it from a lady and sling it over a mechanic’s rack as if it were a lantern. I had arrived with the idle-speed control switch, which had broken off the carburetor, sealed in a plastic bag with documentation, and was even ready to submit my ship's log, if necessary, but nobody was the least bit interested. Buster was doing some interior decorating and foisted me off on his helper Dave. Apparently, as soon as they hear the word “broke,” they figure somebody was doing something that made the part break. I maintain that it was defective and broke all by itself, but it looks like I am going to have to take it up with customer relations.

My other item of business was the remaining gas in my three-gallon tank. This gas dated from a time a few weeks ago, when gas cost twice as much as it does now. This gasoline could not sit in the bungalow all winter. There is no safe place for a can of gas except for the tank of a car. So I had to rig up a system of funnels and spouts to pour the gas into my tank. Some of it spilled on the street. O.K., most of it spilled on the street. I just hope it evaporated before anyone tossed a cigarette butt in the gutter.

Every time I looked at the car, I thought, Oh, poor Éclair. I really should go to the car wash. But it suddenly became important to get in a walk on Jamaica Bay. I had noticed the ravishing colors of the trees in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge last weekend. This weekend the colors were somewhat dimmed, but as I was walking among birders at sunset—hopping down to the turtle-hatching beach, to see if I could come here by boat next season—an egret came soaring around a bend, banked when it saw me, and continued its flight, so beautiful and so silent.

On the way home, I remembered the odometer. All the driving back and forth between Buster’s and the bungalow had brought my mileage up sooner than I expected to 59,999. Heading north on Woodhaven Boulevard, past Rockaway Boulevard, I looked down just as the 9s were aligning, and the tenth of a mile rode up—5, 6, 7, 8—until it was 59,999.9, and then, as I braked for the next light, it turned over to 60,000.0. Happy Sixty Thousandth Mile, Sweet Éclair! Still a cream puff at eighteen. I found her a lovely Tuesday-Friday spot, barely clearing a crosswalk, to celebrate Veterans Day. I wish I had sprung for the car wash.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Best of Times

I should have driven around yesterday morning, but after I had picked up a few things at the Chinese laundry I felt compelled to sit in a line of D.P.s (double parkers), waiting for the broom to pass. Ahead, several men were gathered around a black Infiniti. A moving van and a garbage truck squeezed past. Lots of honking.

The broom came at nine, and we all lurched and shuffled into our legal spaces. A black woman in a white Corolla asked me if she could get in front of me and was very happy until she realized that the spot wasn’t good till ten. “Damn damn damn,” she said, and re-started her car and drove in reverse to the parking lot up the street. Her spot was vacant for five minutes before two Asian guys, students, in a gray Acura grabbed it. One of them stayed in the car while the other went to Dunkin’ Donuts, and they breakfasted on the hood. I set out on the sidewalk a pot of rosemary that I had rescued from Rockaway, and watered it from a bottle of Poland Spring. I was going to leave the rosemary out there to breathe, but a dog was headed up the street and I had a premonition that it was a bad idea. Then I relaxed and read the Times.

I have resubscribed to the Times, but my new subscription didn’t kick in till Thursday. There was no Times to be had on Wednesday, with the historic one-word headline “OBAMA.” I meant to get out early to buy a paper, then come back and luxuriate, but I got a late start and planned to pick up a paper on the way to work. Mistake. First newsstand, no Times. Second newsstand, where the cashier, a Pakistani man (I think), one Saturday morning, had come out from behind the counter to tend to the magazine rack when suddenly his store filled up with customers and he dashed back behind the counter, shouting, “Good morning, America!”: no Times. I was headed for a grocery store where I sometimes buy the paper, thinking that people might not have gone inside to look for it, when I passed a third newsstand that had three copies left: Eureka!

Later in the day, at work, where I often expect to be able to cadge a copy of the Times, first one person, then another came in to say she hadn’t been able to get a copy. The first one I showed my copy to, saying “but you can’t have it”; the second asked for it outright, and I said no. On Thursday, my new subscription kicked in, and I couldn’t get enough of the graphs showing the states Obama had won and by how much, and the maps of blue baubles and red squares. Friday, my favorite thing in the paper was the gaffe of Berlusconi, who told the Russian president that Obama was "young, handsome, and suntanned." It turned into a bigger story today, when, for the first time in months, I enjoyed having the Saturday Times delivered to my door. It is so luxurious. I'm still not going to complain about the new format.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

To the Polls!

Alternate side is suspended today for Election Day, and I lucked into a beautiful spot for it yesterday, when I came home from Rockaway, where Jimmy the Plumber and I engaged in our annual winterization rites. His helper, Gary, pumped out the hot-water heaters and turned off the gas while Jimmy removed the plugs from the pipes under the house and my neighbor complained bitterly about the lazy painter her landlord had hired, who was in such a hurry to get out of there that he left the brush standing in the paint can, with paint still in it. It took an hour and a quarter to turn off the water and blow out the pipes and pour in the antifreeze and fit a new four-inch plug into the waste line. It took all day to defrost and sweep and mop and rake and make sure all the windows were closed and shove the precautionary nails through the window frames to prevent break-ins.

Afterward, I drove to the marina, where the Boss, in his pirate bandanna, said, “You’re out of the water”—he pointed to my boat in the yard, still draped in the canvas slings of his boat launch. “You want to get that motor off, or it’ll get stolen.”

“Do you have a tool that cuts locks?” I asked, because the lock was rusted on. Before you could say “Kidnapped” the lock was off and I was driving back to the just-closed-up bungalow with the outboard motor in my back seat. I lugged it inside under the watchful eyes of some new neighbors, young men I’d never seen before, who probably know the value of a 6-horsepower Mercury. I can only hope they don’t have a tool that cuts locks.

Back in Manhattan, I cruised into the very same paradisiacal spot, in front of a doorman building on the Tuesday-Friday side of the street, that I had found on Halloween. There was a woman right on my tail who wound up on the wrong side of the metered-parking sign. I tried not to let any expression of gloating enter my body language as I unpacked—she looked a little volatile. Although vandals spared my car this Halloween season, when I went out to Rockaway on Saturday, the radio was haunted: there was no reception, and I couldn’t listen to “Car Talk.” The sound came back on for the drive home, but the volume went up or down depending on how much gas I gave the accelerator. It had fully recovered in time for the Monday-morning reverse commute, but for a while I thought I had a problem worthy of Click and Clack.

Spending time in Rockaway before the election was instructive. Many of us in New York live in a bubble of liberalism, but out there in Rockaway they come right out and say things like “Do you really believe a black man can be President of the United States?” and “I just can’t vote for Obama.” (They should have practiced during the primary. I even resisted the urge to vote for Dennis Kucinich, whose name was still on the ballot.) My favorite columnist in the Wave, Dorothy Dunne, whose columns have been appearing with less and less frequency over the past few years, so that I fear for her health, began her column with the proposition that Barack Obama could be “OUR COUNTRY’S SAVIOR” if, instead of squandering his campaign funds on his campaign, he simply donated that huge amount of money to solving the financial crisis. Funny, I had the same idea when I was about six years old. I had heard of this guy Rockefeller, and I thought if just one obscenely rich man gave all his money away, he could solve poverty. (Paging Mayor Bloomberg …) But I have since seen that this was naive, like trying to dilute the Atlantic Ocean by dumping in a Great Lake or two. And I was not surprised that Dorothy Dunne went on to write, “I am a McCain fan,” and to give the former POW her ringing endorsement.

This year, for the first time, I gave money to a campaign, for which I have been rewarded with countless e-mails asking for more. It's the only time I've ever hoped that the candidate with the most money wins.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints Suspended

So far, the Grim Reaper has passed over the Eclair this Halloween season. My car was all in one piece yesterday morning—no shattered glass or other vandalism. I drove two blocks, and slid into a spot in parking paradise: in front of a doorman building. I couldn’t believe my luck, and though I know these blocks well, and have even parked right here before, I got out of the car and walked ahead to make sure there were other people sitting in their cars, and to check the sign. In front of me was a white Nissan Pathfinder. Behind me was metered parking (Purgatory). It was glorious. I got to spend almost an hour with the Times, and it was such a pleasure that I am not even going to complain about the new format.

Checking my calendar—the Catholic one—I see that today, All Saints Day, now called Solemnity of All Saints, has a footnote: it says, in red italics set in parentheses, “(not a Holy Day of Obligation this year).” What? We’re going to skip all the saints? Every single last one of them? Is it just because the feast, which the nuns were always trying to tell us was way more important than Halloween, falls on Saturday, and since Catholics can now count Mass on Saturday toward their duty on Sunday, they’re folding the two obligations into one? (My first experience of a hangover was probably having to attend Mass on All Saints Day after a surfeit of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.) I say, let us give thanks to all the saints, let us extoll them, one by one, and pray for their indulgence. And let us single out for special praise the patron saint of self-indulgence: St. Peter Paul Almond Joy.

I noted in the Times an article saying that the Pope has decided not to rush ahead with the canonization of Pope Pius XII, thought by some to be a bad guy. His Holiness is going to have a wee peek in the archives first. Sounds like a good idea. He'll have today off to get started.