Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year in Parking

There were lines everywhere when I returned to the city last Friday, after Christmas in New England: lines of cars, that is—at exits for malls and on ramps to highways and at entrances to rest stops. As I headed down the ramp to my luxurious (yet reasonable) indoor parking spot, an S.U.V. was heading up. I started to back up, but the driver waved me on down. He was one of the professional parkers—Julian or Julian—and was just stopping there briefly while jockeying other cars around. I had to get organized, and as I groped in the trunk and the back seat for my backpack and shopping bags, cars were spinning around me. By the time I left, having asked if I could come back and get things out of the trunk, there was a line of cars in the chute. I had no idea there could be a traffic jam in an underground parking lot.

The garage wasted no time flaunting its ability to fleece me. When I went to pick up the car, five-dollar tip in hand, Julian handed me a crisp white envelope with holiday greetings for 2009. I propped it on my dashboard. Then, in the mail, I got the garage bill for next month. I will have to stay on my toes. It said, “All monthly rent is due on the first of every month.” There is a twenty-five-dollar late fee, but, more onerous, if the check has not been received by the first of the month, daily rates apply. That could be ruinous, especially since I am one of those people who get in trouble with the Book-of-the-Month Club or any or those schemes that prey on procrastinators: you put off writing the check and then can’t find a stamp and forget to carry the stamped envelope to the mailbox, and before you know it you own a copy of John Dean’s “Blind Ambition.”

This time, I marched right over to the garage, to pick up the stuff I’d left in the trunk, and paid my bill in person. Julian of the Bow Tie (it is not clear to me why he dresses formally to work in an underground garage in the middle of the afternoon) asked me to wait while he trotted down the ramp to find my car. I was afraid he had misunderstood and was going to deliver it to me from the depths when what I really wanted was a chance to go down there and see Slot 52 with my own eyes. But he resurfaced, on foot, and told me to take a left at the bottom of the ramp, and I would see my car. There she was, the Éclair, parallel-parked and wedged into a spot with her driver’s-side sideview mirror a fraction of an inch from the concrete wall.

The good news is that I may be eligible for an eight-percent break in parking taxes. I have to fill out a form. Julian didn’t have a form, but he told me I could come back during the week, when Julian is there, and ask for one. This morning I called a number at the NYC Department of Finance: amazingly, a live (not a recorded) woman answered the phone and promised to send the form today.

Two last items to finish out 2008: The Year in Parking. The Times today reported the results of a survey taken in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where alternate-side parking regulations were suspended for two full months last spring while the city changed the street signs. It turns out that parking was no easier without alternate-side rules: it was just as hard to find a spot, and people used their cars with the same frequency (except the owner of Alfa Romeo, who died). And forty-five percent of people surveyed said that, without benefit of street cleaning, “the streets were not much dirtier”—just as I suspected.

Finally, the deluxe version of the 2009 Alternate Side Parking Calendar, suitable for dangling from your windshield, is in its second printing. Order your calendar at All proceeds (if anyone pays) will go to ICBIE—The Brazilian, Italian, and European Cultural Institute, in Bahia (see permanent link to left), where parking is never an issue (because no one can afford a car).

Return to Cadman Plaza

“Dear [Alternate Side Parker]:

“We received your request for a hearing by mail on the summons shown below.

“Based on the violation described, we are offering you the opportunity to pay a reduced fine in the amount shown. If you accept this reduction offer, RETURN THE COUPON with your payment by the due date above. If you pay the fine, a judge will not review your case.

“Alternatively, if you do not wish to accept this reduction offer and want an Administrative Law Judge to review your case, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. You will either be found guilty and you will have to pay the full balance or the summons will be dismissed and you will not have to pay anything. The Administrative Law Judge will not be able to offer you a reduction. A decision will be mailed to you after a judge decides your case.”

This really happens: Whenever you contest a summons, the Parking Violations Bureau automatically offers to settle for a lower rate. I contested this summons, on the ground that I had never seen it, and later discovered that it was issued while my car was at the mechanic’s (see below, November 30th, Parker's Digest). I am in a bit of a quandary over it. I have still not seen a copy of the summons, and unless there is something wrong with it, in which case it will ultimately be dismissed, the Parking Violations Bureau will hold me responsible for the actions of my mechanic. The reduced fee is $90, down $125, for parking in a No Standing zone. As long as I hold out, clinging to the theory of irrational numbers, I enjoy the illusion of having made $35.

There is also the question of how to deal with the mechanic. I like my mechanic, and though apparently I shouldn't trust him, I don’t want to lose him. Am I stuck in a dysfunctional relationship? Or is it possible to say, in an unheated moment, “Mr. Bulloch, sir, I paid a parking ticket that I think—no, I know—the car got while it was in your care,” and have him give me a free oil change? Or might he fall back on the many times he has let me leave my car in his lot, without charge, for a week at a time, plus ten more minutes while I run across the street to the deli for mortadella on a hard roll with a trace of mustard? And there was also that time that I took the liberty of stealing my car out of his lot when he was closed (though I did come back to pay at the first opportunity).

I’m thinking of calling Car Talk. Once I wrote to Dear Abby to ask for advice when my landlord in Astoria blamed me for a flood in the basement after I left a skylight window open in the bathroom during a storm; after that, whenever it rained he would stand in the street and look up at my second-floor windows to make sure they were closed, even if the rain was coming from the opposite direction. As I composed the letter, in the sweltering heat of my apartment in summer, with the windows closed against rain that wasn’t coming in (have I ever mentioned that I have a touch of claustrophobia?), it occurred to me that Dear Abby didn’t even have to answer, because the mere act of writing the letter had told me what to do: Move.

In this case, simply contemplating a call to Click & Clack clarifies my course of action. I have a feeling they would say: Pay. Don't drag this into the New Year. By never mentioning it to the mechanic, you will bind him to you forever, the louse.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shoes of the Journalist

Of all the stories of the season—the collapse of this, the collapse of that, the suspension of alternate-side parking during snowstorms—the greatest has been the one about the Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush. The “Bush shoes” were destroyed by investigators, but someone tracked down the manufacturer in Istanbul, who has received orders for tens of thousands of pairs. Meanwhile, Zaidi was beaten by the security detail and tortured in jail. His brother Uday was finally allowed to visit him. This poignant detail was in yesterday’s Times: “Uday al-Zaidi said his brother told him that he had bought the shoes—used—at a market in Cairo.”

Before leaving office, George Bush should pardon Muntader al-Zaidi. The guy was wearing used shoes, for god’s sake. I hope he survives and is celebrated as a great folk hero who will live forever in the hearts of peace-loving people all over the world.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Bush. Happy New Year, Mr. Maliki. Free Muntader Al-Zaidi!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Free Parking

On a weekend jaunt to New Jersey I discovered that the town of New Brunswick throws open its garage doors to the public on Saturday afternoons. That’s right, parking is free. The arms of the toll gates are permanently in the raised position. Of course, that leaves aside the fact that there’s not a lot to do in New Brunswick on a Saturday afternoon. New Brunswick is the site of Douglass College, my alma mater (some people, when the time comes to make their big break, go to Boston, New York, or Paris; I went to New Brunswick). There was hardly anyone on the street or on the campus. They were either all inside studying or had driven to the mall. Gas was incredibly cheap—$1.47 a gallon!—so they could afford to drive to the mall. I got a little misty on finding that the only two places in New Brunswick that I had frequented with any regularity were gone—the head shop and the pizzeria.

Picking the car up at the garage on Saturday morning was a delicious sensation. I had three dollars in my pocket, in case I decided I had to tip, but Julian, after pulling my car up, skipped back to his booth so fast that I don’t believe he was expecting anything. It feels less as if I’m paying rent for the car than as if I’m paying to keep my horse in a stable. The car had been warmed up: the ventilation was perfectly adjusted—air intake, fan, temperature. Having this garage is like living in a fairy tale.

Sunday I went to the boat show, not because I am interested in buying a new yacht but because I like all the gadgets peripheral to boating that people hawk at the boat show: newfangled screw-on bottle tops for flip-top cans (to save bubbles), clip-on lights for the bill of your baseball cap, key chains with inflatable orange streamers that bob to the surface if you drop your keys in the drink. When people at the various booths asked me what kind of boat I had, and I said a rowboat, most of them continued to talk to me anyway. I stopped at the display for Mercury motors and spoke with a man who tried to explain the difference between two-stroke and four-stroke engines (something about a pool of oil). He said that Buster, my marine supplier, was at the show, but I never found his booth. I learned that I can take a course to become a captain in ten days (plus 360 days on the water—at the rate I'm going, it would take thirty-six years). And I donated to a program that teaches kids about boats (they build a flat-bottomed wooden vessel that looks like a sleigh, and can be paddled, sailed, or fitted with a motor) and to a project to reconstruct the Onrust (Dutch for Restless), the first ship built in New York, in 1614, by Adriaan Block, a Dutch captain and the namesake of Block Island.

I talked for a long time to some people about the Hackensack River, and got a lot of literature about lightning and life jackets, and a refrigerator magnet encouraging me to use pumpout stations, and a chart for tracing hurricane paths, and some foam coolers for my non-alcoholic beverages, and a map of the Bahamas. I bought a chart of how to read charts from a guy who suggested that someday, when the weather is good, I might want to venture beyond Jamaica Bay. On the chart of New York Harbor, he traced the route for me, the same one the Rockaway Ferry takes: along Coney Island, under the Verrazano Bridge, through Buttermilk Channel to the East River. I reminded him that I had only a six-horsepower motor. He thought about it and finally said, “That’d be about a thirty-hour day—going and coming.” I think I’ll stick to the ferry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Slot 52

In a moment, I will be calling the garage to ask Julian to have my car ready tomorrow morning. I will tell him I am the gray Honda in Slot 52. This is going to be an interesting sensation. I suppose I will have to tip him. Meanwhile, the Peruvian cleaning lady is fleecing me. How have I gotten myself into this?

Do you notice that I have a tendency, just as the economy is tanking, to spend money like crazy? It's akin to the need to smoke heavily on the eve of quitting, or to eat like a pig just before going on a diet. Only, I never get around to the diet.

I am paying the garage bill by check, making a distinct point of not putting it on my credit card. That's the kind of thing that, when the bill comes due, you have nothing to show for. Better to pay up front and forget about it. To pay for the garage (and the cleaning lady) I am thinking of offering my services as a parking consultant. Order your 2009 Alternate Side Parking Reader Calendar(s) now!

My favorite thing in the Times this morning was a story headed "California: Peacocks Bother a City." "Some residents of La Cañada Flintridge, a small city in northern Los Angeles County, have complained to the city Council about a nuisance they say is being caused by a group of about 40 peacocks. . . . Activities against the peafowl began after a series of messy episodes, including mishaps during mating season in which males attacked parked cars after seeing their reflections on them."

I wonder if my new car-insurance policy covers me in the event of peacock attack.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2009 Calendar

Season's greetings from the D.O.T. The 2009 Alternate Side Parking Calendar is now available. "Motorists are encouraged to take advantage of a convenient feature that allows them to take the calendar on their PDA or to download a PDF version of the calendar from the DOT Web site."

The holly is a souvenir of Brooklyn College.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Who ever would have thought it would end like this? There came in the mail an envelope with the return address “PARKING SERVICES”:

“Dear Manhattan Resident,

“The credit and liquidity crisis coupled with the downturn in the economy has created an unprecedented opportunity for residents in your immediate area to lock-in incredibly low monthly parking rates for as little as $147.84 per month (plus tax) for 6 months guaranteed!”

At this time last year, not looking forward to shivering in the car of a winter morning, I responded to such a flyer, and the best I could do was $275 for a spot a mile away, behind the Morgue. I stayed on the street. This year, I called the number on the flyer, and a man named Julio asked for my address and then gave me the address of a garage three blocks east and three blocks south of me, on a block that anyone would be happy to live on. The price, with tax, was $175 a month. Yes, Virginia, the economic downturn really does have a silver lining.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going to come up with the extra $175 a month. I did switch insurance companies—my new policy kicks in today—and am saving $150 a year (on the condition that I drive no more than 7,500 miles annually), but I squandered that amount instantly on an orchestra seat for “Spamalot,” with a beer at intermission and a souvenir T-shirt that says “I’m Not Dead Yet.” (It turns out that “Spamalot,” which is closing in January, is best viewed from a distance, being rather broad, but by sitting up front I scored more than my share of the confetti that drops from the ceiling at curtain call. I hope I am not giving anything away by reporting that for weeks I found these paper disks in my purse and my bed, until finally I realized what they reminded me of—Communion wafers—and got the joke: oh, yeah, the Holy Grail.)

Anyway, I’d been thinking about that berth in my friend’s driveway in Rockaway, and how it’s free and all, but let’s face it: it’s on the far side of Jamaica Bay. I have to take the A train or two buses to get to it, and the point of having a car, as I sometimes have to remind myself, is to drive it. If I have to take mass transit to get to the car, and again to get home after using the car, I’m getting bitten at both ends.

I have had the sensation, ever since the Mayor’s failed attempt to institute congestion pricing, that things were changing, as if our cars themselves had taken the hint: We know when we’re not wanted. Competition for spots this fall has not been as brutal. The big story in the news (besides the wholesale decline of the American automobile industry) has shifted to imposing tolls on the East River crossings in order to raise money to rescue the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I am finding it hard to get exercised over the East River Bridge Toll debate, largely because for some time now, when I come home from Rockaway, I’ve been splurging on the Midtown Tunnel. It cuts into my EZPass fund ($5), but there’s less traffic (because more frugal drivers are squeezing onto the bridges; I usually take the toll-free Williamsburg on my way out), and when I surface in Manhattan I’m almost home.

So on Saturday, I made one last trip to Rockaway on mass transit. I took the Command bus—that is, the bus formerly known as the Command bus, now part of the M.T.A.—on which I was one of only two passengers, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Red Hook, right near the backward R that I saw last summer from the ferry (though on land it’s facing in the right direction), to McDonald to Caton to Coney Island to Cortelyou to Flatbush. The air was so clear that, from my high perch to the driver’s right, I could see the Marine Parkway Bridge when we turned onto Flatbush. My stop, at the intersection of Flatbush and Nostrand, is known as the Junction, and it is the site of (among other things) a white steeple with a golden cupola that belongs to Brooklyn College. I have always been curious about Brooklyn College, and since I was feeling a little valedictory (who knows when I’ll take this route again?), I went to see the campus.

I had mistaken that tower and cupola for a religious edifice, and to my great joy it turns out to be the Brooklyn College Library. I sailed past all the I.D. checks to a Symposium in Memory of Fred Pollak, a physics professor who died last June. Outside again, I walked around a tiny frozen reflecting pool surrounded by holly, and then continued on the Q35 bus to Rockaway, where I picked up my car, drove to Fort Tilden, took a walk on the beach, and indulged in a quick shopping spree, before heading back to Manhattan.

On the way in, I was worried slightly about traffic, because it was, after all, a Saturday before Christmas, no doubt a gridlock-alert day, and I had an appointment on the other end. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sailing along in the fast lane of the L.I.E., with Ella Fitzgerald on the radio singing “Take the A Train.”

In Manhattan I didn’t cruise for a spot but went directly to the garage, where the attendant, Julian, who wears a black bow tie, did a double take when he saw the rate I had locked in. “That’s a good deal for you,” he said. I guess I don’t have to keep the name and location a secret. Or do I? Perhaps, as a service to my parking brethren, I should be discreet. After all, it was my conversion to the garage that opened a spot on the street for someone—perhaps at the Sanctuary—on this frigid morning, when alternate side is suspended for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.