Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ship’s Log 9/25/2010

Baby Dee came out on the boat with me last Saturday, the day before she played Joe’s Pub with Little Annie. There were several inches of water in the boat (there’d been a hurricane and a tornado since I last saw it), so I took off my sandals, climbed in, and bailed. Dee watched. So did some guys who had been sitting outside the office/trailer. For some reason, it amuses people to watch a lady bail out a boat. One of the guys was big, with a beat-up nose; his sidekick was small and dark. “You know, they sell electric pumps,” the big guy said. He told me, in all seriousness, that once I was out on the bay, with the motor going, I could pull out “that plug next to the motor” and the motor would draw out the rest of the water. What? That plug is the main thing standing between me and certain disaster! This is not a method of bailing I'm going to be testing anytime soon.

Before setting off across Jamaica Bay, I went to see the Boss, to find out what I owed him for getting the outboard fixed and also to ask exactly what had needed fixing. He was resting on the dock, with a tall glass of either iced tea or Captain Morgan’s on-the-rocks. "A hundred," he said. “My price.” (I think that means they would have charged me more.) I was ready to pay up, but he said I should wait till the end of the season, “when we’ll need the money to keep us in kibble for the winter.” He said that the pump had melted, and then he teased me about trying to go boating in sand. I’ve actually never run aground—one of the few mistakes I have NOT made in my boating career—but the awful truth is that I forgot to check for the cooling jet of water before setting off on this year's maiden voyage. When I realized it, I knew I should have turned the motor off instantly and rowed back to the marina, but I didn't. It was a relief to know that I had not completely cooked the motor, only lightly sauteed it.

Dee and I needed a destination, and I always like to go someplace I’ve never been before. I was thinking of Howard Beach. The guy with the beat-up nose recommended Vetro, a new place associated with Russo's-on-the-Bay, the big catering hall on Cross Bay Boulevard. "It's on the left as soon as you enter the channel," he said. "They got new docks and a lot of tables outside." We motored across the bay, between Broad Channel and J.F.K., concentrating on spotting the buoys and not getting swamped by the wakes of bigger boats. On the trestle bridge, an A train from Manhattan passed an A train from Far Rockaway: a pas de deux chevaux de fer. There was a good breeze, so it was a little choppy and we both got splashed. The tide was low.

We passed Bergen Basin (which you can't enter anymore, because of Homeland Security) and Hawtree Basin (which, at high tide, takes you all the way to the terminus of the Air Train at Howard Beach, through what looks like "Deliverance" country) and made a wide turn into the channel at Howard Beach. I would have liked to go up to the end of the channel, very slowly, like Cleopatra on the Nile, but the first mate wanted to go to the first place she saw, Vetro, which was exactly where our informant had said it would be. There was hardly anyone there, but whoever was there was certainly watching as I blundered around, shifting from forward to reverse and finally cutting the motor and using the oar to get the back half of the boat closer to the dock while Dee clung to a cleat from the prow. Such seamanship!

Dee had steak and wine, I had grilled octopus and beer, and the waiter admired my boat, which he called a dinghy. Yachts passed as we dined. On the return voyage, the motor started knocking in an alarming way, and I don't know what that was about. But I slowed down until it was under control, and we reached home without incident.

"Now we will return to the Isle of Manhattan," Dee said. So we went back through Howard Beach by car, and there it was again, this time on our right, our new landmark: Vetro. All in all, it was an eccentric itinerary.

(Photo pirated from Vetro's Web site.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rest-Area Gypsies

I calculate that I have crossed I-80 in Pennsylvania, from the Delaware Water Gap to New Castle, about eighty times since I started driving. This past weekend, I saw a few things I’d never seen before.

One was a lineup of three or four police cars on the shoulder, all with their lights flashing, while, a few yards up the road, a couple embraced. (Had they just had a narrow escape?)

I was playing leapfrog with an army convoy: I’d pass them, then stop for coffee or gas, and they would get ahead of me on the road, so I’d pass them again. At one point, the convoy and I all got off at the same truck stop (I tried not to get behind them in line at the cash register), and I overheard one of the soldiers say into his cell phone, “I can crank it up and drive it, but it’s smoking like there’s no tomorrow.”

At the same pit stop (at the sign of the giant percolator, Sapp Bros.), as I pulled off the ramp there was a van stopped at the curve, with a big plastic gas tank sitting next to it and a cardboard sign that said “Need Gas/Cash.” I stopped, thinking that I could at least drive them and their tank to the gas station and back. A man approached, and said someone had already given him gas. “We run outta cash,” he said. He and his family—he motioned to two large young people lolling near the car—were heading home to Virginia, and they had some seven hundred miles to go. I gave him twenty dollars, and said, “That’ll get you to your next pit stop, anyway.”

I filled my own tank, and as I was getting back on the highway I couldn’t help but notice that the man and his kids were still there, flagging down cars. Sap or Good Samaritan? I will never know, but the whole enterprise did have a Faulknerian flavor to it.

Then, on the way home, I was just pulling out of one of the official rest areas when a clean-cut young man, followed by a woman, waved me down. I thought he was going to tell me I’d left my wallet at the vending machines or something. “I’m really embarrassed,” he began, “but if you could spare a few dollars for gas ... We need about fifty or sixty dollars to get home." I already had my hand in my wallet and was giving him a twenty when he added, "Our parents will pay you back double.” His girlfriend, or sister, seemed very grateful.

It seemed odd that two such different kinds of people would have the same problem on opposite sides of I-80. I got to thinking: Who takes off on a trip without enough money for gas? I think I'm going to have to go with sap.

About the Battery

I wish there were a catchy saying, along the lines of “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” for battery terminals. I think I have the color-coding down, thanks to lots of recent experience whipping around the jumper cables: positive = red (blood, life) and negative = black (death). But then you have to remember to hook up the red/positive before the black/negative, and that's where I get mixed up. Red (rhymes with dead) can be dangerous, and black is basic and comes before red in the dictionary. What's a girl to do?

The good news is that I was able to start the car last Thursday all by myself, using the portable charger. The bad news was that I drove straight to the mechanic and he charged me $500 to replace the battery and the alternator.

This seemed high to me. I know what a new battery costs (about eighty dollars), but I didn’t know the price of an alternator. So I asked the mechanic for a bill.

“A bill?” he said, as if the concept were new to him. “You want a bill?”

“Yes,” I said.

We were in the garage office, and he carried the form over to the car to fill it out without me watching. It said: “Replace alternator/Repair wire—$400. Replace new battery—$100.”

“That's it?" I said. "Can't you break it down? You know, an itemized bill?”

“You want itemized?” he asked.

“Yeah, you know … parts, labor.”

“That costs more,” he said.

“It costs more to have a bill?”

“Yeah. I have to use the computer.”

“Look, I’m … curious”—I was trying to avoid the word “suspicious”—“about the price of an alternator.”

So he divided the $400 into two smaller sums, somewhat arbitrarily, it seemed to me: $220 for the part, and the rest for labor. (A sign on the wall said that labor was $95 per hour.)

“Is there any guarantee?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, "Six months, a year.”

"Would you write that down?" I asked.

He scribbled something on the bill and said, “I’m not going to give you a piece of junk.”

"I know," I said. I gave him his five hundred dollars and shook his hand. At home, I Googled the car part. An alternator for a 1990 Honda Civic can be had for as little as $90. It seems that my mechanic had gone out of his way to fix me up with the finest, most expensive alternator on the East Coast.

“You got ripped off,” a friend (male) told me that night. A few days later, another friend (a female) said, “You got a deal.”

So who knows? I'm out $500, but the car starts. On Sunday, the odometer rolled over to 70,000. It happened on the road to the dump, or "Transfer Station" ("No Fish Guts"), on Kelleys Island, in Lake Erie.

Unfortunately, I don't think I can go to that mechanic again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dead Again

I parked my car in the first available space yesterday when I came back from Rockaway. (All last week it was in a lovely spot, observing the Jewish New Year.) For some reason, when I started it up at eight-thirty this morning to go around the block and double-park across the street, all I got was a low rumble and a few clicks. I hadn’t left the lights on … so I don’t know what is wrong or what to do.

For now, I did nothing. It’s not always easy to do nothing, but in this case it was. I could call AAA. I could shanghai a fellow-motorist and involve him with my jumper cables. I could get the portable charger out of the trunk and see if it worked. But if I succeeded in getting the car started, I would have to drive it some distance to recharge it, and all I wanted to do was get out of the way of the street sweeper and then repark.

There is an office of the Department of Sanitation on this block, and the Sanitation police had left a few cars double-parked across from it. The Broom itself was escorted by the Sanitation police. They favor a white Ford Taurus. I got out as the sanitation cop approached, shrugged theatrically, and said, “Dead battery.” The Sanitation guy said, “No problem,” and added “Sorry” as he went past. The Broom swept around me—or tried to. The Sanitation cop had stopped to ticket an untended vehicle parked ahead of me, so the Broom idled in the middle of the street. Everyone idled while the cop issued the ticket. There was no honking.

At 9:15 a woman cop came by on foot patrol. She was beautiful, black, and busty, and walked in the street with her hands in her pockets. At 9:22 a traffic-enforcement car cruised by. At 9:50 a traffic-enforcement van, full of those orange cones, went by. I had been thinking of trying a little experiment, leaving the car after the Broom went by, to see if the cops had become enlightened as to the lack of necessity for people to be sitting in their cars once the street had been swept. Good thing I thought better of it.

On Thursday, I’ll have to do something about my battery.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Yesterday's Times carried this story about cops being expected to meet quotas for writing tickets: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/nyregion/10quotas.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
Are we surprised? We are not.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Not Guilty

September 2, 2010

New York City Department of Finance
Hearing By Mail Unit
Post Office Box 29021
Brooklyn NY 11202-9021

Dear Sir or Ms.:

Regarding Summons No. *********-*, issued to my car (plate NYC MJN, New York) for parking in a No Standing Anytime zone on Wednesday, 8/17/10:

My car was parked on the west side of a narrow median strip on Beach 102nd St. in Rockaway, Queens. At the north end of this strip are two signs, approximately one car length apart. (See Exhibit A, attached.) The sign farther to the north (the one that appears larger in the photo) indicates Thursday parking rules to the south and No Standing Anytime to the north. The one farther to the south indicates Friday parking rules to the south and No Standing Anytime to the north. (Exhibit B shows the same signs from the opposite side, and offers a slightly better view of the print on the southernmost, or Friday, sign.)

I was parked between the signs, on the west side of the median, in a spot that looks like it is governed by the (larger) sign on the pole to the north, clear of the No Standing Anytime zone. Looking at it, who would not agree that this spot looks perfectly legal? The sign to the south looks like it governs the opposite (east) side of the strip. The strip is too narrow for each pole to be closer to the side of the road that the sign on it applies to. Nor is either sign oriented by a slight tilt to the side of the street it applies to. How was I—how is anyone—to know that the signs mean the opposite of what they appear to say?

I request that the summons be dismissed on the ground that the signs on this median strip are inadequate and ambiguous, if not downright baffling. If the above explanation and the attached photographs are confusing, that only serves as further proof that the signs themselves are confusing (though I do apologize for my photography; this is not a very photogenic block).

Thank you for your patience and consideration.

The Alternate Side Parker