Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Next Wave

As you know, Hurricane Sandy made landfall at the worst possible time for people who built their castles on the sand. To quote a wise friend: You take your chances when you live by the water. Heroic friends helped me start digging out last weekend, and if I can gas up the car I'll go out again . . . after the nor'easter. It's bad, but, incredibly, the bungalows did not wash away. They stood firm on their cinder-block foundations.

If seawater were as nourishing as the floodwaters of the Nile, our scrappy patch of land would bloom like Forest Lawn.

I wish I could lift this whole piece from blog to blog. This is the illustrated version.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy ... so far

The only real precautions I took for the hurricane were to get my flashlight out of the car and to download some episodes of Moby-Dick.

As I write, the tide is still rising in Rockaway. My neighbor Tom and the dog and Dave have moved up into the loft. I haven’t heard from the Master Plumber. If the water in my neighbors’ bungalow is up to their stovetop, my bungalow is full of water. The posts for the pergola are floating. Let’s hope that the worst damage is the sack of quick-set cement I left on my porch, carefully covered with a shower curtain.

Tide still coming in. Take to the lofts! 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Big Read

If you really want something to read, dear reader, check out the Moby-Dick Big Read. You can listen to a chapter a day (they're up to Chapter 20), read by a different person, speaking in a different accent, every day till the middle of January. More background on the project (and my involvement with it; I read Chapter 6, "The Street"), with ukulele accompaniment, here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Picture Car

I was dismayed this morning to see cones along the street where I had parked last night—blue cones and “No Parking Today” signs that were not there last night and that meant, among other things, that I would not be spending the next half hour in leisure mode, catching up on the Moby Dick Big Read. Someone had put the signs up after midnight, for no good reason (a travel show was being installed in a nearby building). A few of my fellow-parkers got belligerent and refused to move. I am not nearly as disgruntled as I might have been, because I drove off and found a spot on the Monday-Thursday side of a 9:30-11 block, squeezing between a car with a deadly tow hook sticking out the back and a shrouded motorcycle, which I found a bit more forgiving than a car, without actually knocking it over. 

On my own street, which has meters, there was no parking because of a film shoot. Alternate-side parkers hate film shoots. Sharply dressed people (extras?) lingered at the corner, near a building that had been redesignated the Office of the Attorney General. Production assistants were all over the place. One of them was giving away miniature pastries to distract people as she encouraged them to take a different route to school or work. A cop directed a traffic jam while simultaneously munching. I could not help but notice that, for a street with no parking, there were an awful lot of dusty-looking beat-up cars lining the curb. I looked inside the cars. On the dashboard of each car was a printed form that said “Picture Car,” and gave a name and contact number. I asked one of the production assistants about the cars, and he confirmed that they were late-eighties models—old Hondas and Toyotas and an ancient Cadillac—parked there for the film set. (The film was “The Wolf of Wall Street.”) 

These were not what you would call “vintage” cars, except in a certain anonymous, nondescript way. Most of them were unoccupied, but in others people were seated behind the wheel, behaving like alternate-side parkers: one did a crossword puzzle, another read, a woman talked on the phone, a man listened to music. Next to one of the cars, a brunette with a clipboard was making notes, and I stopped and said, “I don’t want to interrupt you, but I wonder if could ask you something.” 

“What’s your question, I’ve got a lot on my plate,” she said. 

I hadn’t yet formulated the question, so I said “Never mind,” and let her go back to her glamorous Hollywood job. She was not exactly a good-will ambassador for the film industry.

But here's the thing: I have a dusty-looking beat-up car that would not have looked out of place among the Picture Cars, and I envied their owners. They were getting paid to park! I wanted to know how they got the gig. A friendly-looking man was getting into the passenger side of his Picture Car, and I asked him, “How do you get to park here?”

“You have to do a lot of spinning,” he said.



At home, I went straight to the laptop, found Creative Film Cars, and registered the Eclair. She has a lot of character—she ought to be in pictures. Before the money starts rolling in, I have to supply some photographs. Thanks to my friend NH for this stylish closeup of the dashboard.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

O Possum!

The first time I saw an opossum, loping along at dusk in the vegetation at Fort Tilden (it, not me, though actually it was both of us), I had just come back from Tuscany, and I thought it was a wild boar. It paused and looked back at me. I do not think it thought I was a Tuscan boar hunter. I have since viewed possums a number of times at their condominium in Rockaway. Once, after a party (ours, not theirs, although we can't know that for sure), a possum sat on the roof of a bungalow receiving slices of Wonder Bread tossed up by my neighbor. Last weekend, the possum population reached critical mass. Here is a link to Night of the Opossum.
Be prepared to scream!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Boot

The alternate-side-parking season got off to a dubious start this week. I returned to the city late on Monday (Labor Day) and, knowing that the pickings would be slim, passed up a Tuesday-Friday spot in the hope of scoring a Monday-Thursday one so that I wouldn’t have to devote two hours to sitting in the car on Tuesday morning. That is like standing on the subway platform and letting the local go by, in the hope that the express will soon be there. Not a good strategy. That Tuesday-Friday spot was the only one within a twelve-block radius.

On Tuesday morning, I tried again, but I still didn’t feel like sitting in the car for two hours, even though there was an excellent article to read in the Times about the arcane origins of the parking rules in the West End of Rockaway. I guess I’m out of practice. 

No Parking Saturday & Sunday, May 15-Sept. 30
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The Eclair is in pretty good shape going into the fall: new exhaust system, new front brakes, two new tires. After a trip one Saturday to Stony Brook, I grudgingly heeded my neighbors’ advice to put air in the left front tire, because it was low. Running my hand over the tire, feeling for the cause of the leak, I scraped my finger on something. A nail? A row of acupuncture needles? Holy Camaro! I was feeling the steel in “steel-belted radials.” This tire was not just low—it was bald. I pumped it up anyway, and the next morning the bald tire was completely flat. (Warning: Inflating a tire may dislodge the nail that is holding the air in.) I called AAA, and a guy came out and put the doughnut on, after which I hobbled out to Brooklyn and got in line at Pep Boys. This was not my idea of a fun Sunday, but the alternative was to take time off work to go back to the mechanic who, after inspecting the car just two weeks ago, had let me drive off on bald tires. 

Anyway, I surrendered to the fifteen-dollar lot by the river, and the guy in the booth was very sweet. I took a chance and left the car in the lot overnight. This morning, after seeing off my house guests—my cousin and her husband, with whom I had had a riotous time in Rockaway, possum hunting (stay tuned)—I walked to the river to move the car. It was right where I’d left it—hadn’t been towed—but the left front wheel had a boot on it. I was not that surprised. It was almost as if I’d been waiting all my life to find out what happens when your car has a boot on it.

The same sweet guy was in the booth. I told him about the boot, and asked, “What do I do?” He said, “You pay me thirty dollars for parking overnight, and I take it off.” Fortunately, I had some money in my pocket. I’ve discovered that I like having money in my pocket. “Let’s go see your car,” the guy said. He unlocked the boot, which opened like a jaw. It was bright blue. “It looks like a toy,” I said. “It works,” he said, opening and closing the jaws. I gave him two twenties, and he gave me two fives. “I didn’t put the boot on,” he said. “The night guy did that.” I gave him back one of the fives.

Now it was Wednesday morning and I was cruising for a spot, and everybody knows that nobody moves on Wednesday, because very few blocks have street-cleaning rules on Wednesday. That is why it is such a waste when, say, Yom Kippur falls on a Wednesday.

I carried on—somebody had to be giving up a spot to go to work—driving to my most reliable 7:30-8 block. There were cones set up on the Tuesday-Friday side, but on my preferred Monday-Thursday side there was one free spot that I managed to wrangle the Eclair into. On another block where I hadn’t been able to park yesterday, because some people were making a stupid movie, a police tow truck had been at work, removing a whole line of cars. Summer is over.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rumble in Rockaway

Celebrating Labor Day with a piece on mud wrestling! (Photo by Bryan Fraser)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On and Off I-80

Reports of the Éclair’s demise were premature. The air-conditioning continues to put a strain on the engine, but with clean oil, a new exhaust system, and new front brake pads she made it through Pennsylvania and back on I-80 during the heat wave.

I hadn’t been planning on driving to Cleveland, but I picked up two hitchhikers who wanted to go there, and one of them was my nephew, so I took them. My nephew, Pat, is from Oregon, and it was the first time he’d ever been in Pennsylvania. His vision lent interest to tired old I-80. Pat had the same response that I had had to a certain sign I first saw more than thirty years ago, when my father drove me out east to college. “Scrotum?” he said, as we passed the sign for Scotrun.

He was also amused by someone's having plastered jolly red stickers on many of the deer-crossing signs, just over the deer’s nose, making all the deer in Pennsylvania into Rudolph. He was not amused by the mile markers, which are actually tenth-of-a-mile markers. “These are going to drive me crazy,” he said. Pennsylvania is approximately three hundred miles wide, so that’s three thousand tenth-of-a-mile markers, ticking by at the rate of ten a minute. It does seem excessive.  

On the drive back, I took my usual detour off I-80 at Milesburg and headed over the mountain to Route 45, where I stopped for the night at the Hotel Millheim. Sadly, it looks like my romance with the Millheim is over. I had been hoping to sit outside on the second-story porch with a beer and a book for a few hours at sunset, and although they had the beer and I had the book, the porch had been torn off. My room was a bit depressing, with a fake bird in a birdcage and windows that didn’t open onto the porch that was no longer there. But the worst thing was waking up in Millheim and remembering that there is no coffee for miles around.

I got on the road at seven, decaffeinated. After about ten miles, I came to a McDonald’s, but I wasn’t going to settle for McDonald’s; I held out for Lewisburg, where a friend had told me about a side-street café. There was a parking spot across from it, but the street sign, uncannily, said “No Parking Tuesday 7-9”: that was exactly my window of time in Lewisburg. I turned into a convenient parking lot just past the sign, and pulled into an empty spot. The Cherry Lane Café was lively, with latte and wifi, and I stayed there for about an hour and a half and bought an iced coffee to go.

When I returned to my car, a car had parked perpendicular to me, blocking me in. Taped on my car window was a note: “This is a PRIVATE PARKING LOT. If you want your car, call 532-0527." Sure enough, there was a sign stating clearly that this was a private lot and unauthorized cars would be towed at the owner’s expense; “my” spot even had a number stenciled on it. Oops. Caffeine deprivation can make you blind.

I called the number, mildly irritated that whoever left it hadn't included the area code. A woman answered. I said that I felt very stupid: I didn’t know how I could have missed the sign, but I was the person who had parked her car in the private lot, and I was extremely sorry. The woman sounded nice enough. She said she was involved with something and would be down as soon as she was free. I stood in the hot parking lot with my iced coffee for about thirty seconds before I saw a nice bench under a tree. I thought, How hospitable of Lewisburg to provide this shady bench right near the parking lot I’m trapped in. After a while, an elderly woman limped into view. I sprang up and apologized again, but she was not easily mollified. She didn't like that I wasn't sweating in my car while I waited. “The sign’s down right now, but it could have cost you a hundred dollars,” she grumbled.

Again, I said I was sorry. I offered her the ten-dollar bill in my pocket, but she didn't want it. She wanted to keep complaining. As she got into her car, she said, “You pay to park here, and it’s not very nice when someone takes your spot.” O.K., O.K., I got it already. I said I was sorry. What more did she want? "You better never park here again."

She moved her car, but instead of pulling into the spot I had vacated, she took a different spot. I wasn't even in her spot! My car, with its out-of-state license plates and dashboard moose and Buddha-on-a-spring, had made her day. Vigilante justice on the Susquehanna.

So I escaped the wrath of the self-appointed Sheriff of Lewisburg and got back on I-80, where it was business as usual: Road Work Ahead, Bridge May Be Icy, Expect Delays, Rudolph Crossing, Left Lane Closed Ahead, All Trucks Must Enter When Flashing, Scrotum, Expect Major Delays George Washington Bridge to NYC.

We had gotten out to Cleveland in nine hours, but it took me three days to get back home.

Friday, June 22, 2012


The Eclair went to a memorial service without me yesterday, at the Jersey Shore, and I'm afraid the ninety-nine-degree heat and the air-conditioning and the Garden State Parkway may have conspired to put too much of a strain on her system. After meeting up with my friends to get the keys, I noticed, on the drive back to Rockaway, that she was laboring. I hope she is not a goner.

Actually, I was a little surprised that my friends didn't decline my offer to lend them the car, after I started to itemize her eccentricities. (The shoulder belts are only cosmetic—don't attract attention from the police; don't open the left rear window, as it will never close again; pay no attention to the fact that the right rear bumper is hanging off—she was in a three-car accident while legally parked.)

Lately I have been remembering another Honda Civic, of the same vintage as the Eclair, a hatchback that was owned by a former copy editor named Lu Burke, who had retired to Connecticut. It was red—Chianti red (she always insisted on the manufacturer's description)—and when Lu died, about a year and a half ago, I found myself wondering what would become of her car. She only ever drove it to the grocery store and the Honda dealer, and then to the gas station, to have it topped off.

Lu Burke left a will, in which she did not bequeath me the 1990 Chianti-red Honda Civic. I didn't visit her often enough, which really is too bad, because she turned out to be a millionaire: she left her entire estate to the Southbury Public Library. I drove up there last month to check out the lucky library, and wrote a story about Lu Burke, the millionaire copy editor (you can find it here, on the New Yorker Web site). I refrained from mentioning the car. But I am dying to find out what happened to it.

Meanwhile, here is Lu, at one of our infrequent lunches at the Friendly's in Southbury.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Baby Dee's Summer Tour

Baby Dee's West Coast Tour Dates


I just had to post this fabulous picture.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Reno is not a place you want to be alone in. I was sitting at a table at the Brew Pub on the mezzanine level of the Eldorado Hotel and Casino. At first, I was seated on a stool at a high cocktail table, but I felt a tremor and, as a waitress had yet to approach, I was about to flee. I’d forgotten the reading material I’d set aside to bring with me when I left the hotel room, and I didn’t think I could get through a meal alone at a restaurant with nothing to read. All I had was the little folder that my key cards came in. (My favorite sentence: “For your convenience, the servibar is touch-sensitive, and anything that you move will be charged to your account.”)

But I ran into the hostess, and the waitress said she’d be with me shortly. Before sitting back down, I told the waitress that I felt a trembling. “That’s because you’re on the overhang,” the waitress said. The what? “The road is underneath.” I looked down at the floor, which was planked, like a deck, and remembered that the driver of the shuttle bus from the airport had told me that the five downtown casinos were connected at the mezzanine level, so you never had to go outside. I asked the waitress if it was OK if I moved to a low table. “Sure,” she said. Would it tremble less at a low table? “Probably not.”

It was a little ridiculous: I had chosen to sit “outside.” Although everything is inside, the architectural details say “exterior.” All the restaurants have facades, as in a mall. There is a fountain, as in a piazza. My eye kept falling on a narrow, pulsing, black horizon that turned out to be the lip of the up escalator. As I watched, heads rose over the little horizon of the casino: a guy in a cowboy hat, a couple who could have been shoppers at the Mall of America, a lush holding a beer in a flimsy plastic cup. There was a tournament of "gal bowlers" in town.

This is when you want an iPhone—I could be carrying on conversations with people all over the world! I could be tweeting the bejeezus out of Reno! I have a pen, but no paper. My own beer, a Redhead Amber Ale, in a tall glass, has already left a wet ring on my placemat. As a last resort, I reach across the table for a dry placemat, featuring all the Brew Pub microbrews—Big Dog IPA, Double Down, Wild Card, Gold Dollar, Carano Extra—flip it over, fold it in quarters, and start writing to keep myself company. This is pathetic.

My day began at 4 AM. Three-thirty, actually, but I stayed in bed. It was pouring rain. I swore I would never fly out of LaGuardia again. It is so stupid when you have a home in Rockaway and a free place to park the car, not to fly out of JFK. And yet I am forever trundling my suitcase to Grand Central to catch the bus to Newark Airport, or taking a cab from Rockaway to LaGuardia at dawn. And here I was again, up with the first robin—I could hear him out there, singing in the rain—having to drive to LaGuardia and put the car in a long-term parking lot before catching a flight to Reno via Denver at 7:49 A.M.

Parking at LaGuardia is more expensive and less convenient than the Long-Term Parking Lot at JFK, no doubt because everything is packed into a smaller area. I had checked it out online the night before. It was hard to know which deals were legitimate, but in the end I had paid in advance to park the Éclair, for thirteen dollars a day, in a lot behind the Extended Stay Hotel, or ESH. I found directions to the parking lot online, but I knew they were wrong—you don’t have to get off the BQE and wiggle around on Roosevelt Avenue to get onto the Grand Central Parkway. My parking lot of choice was well beyond the airport. It sickened me to barrel past it on my way to the Whitestone Expressway, in the dark and the rain, unable even to pour a cup of coffee from my thermos without sloshing the coffee all over the dashboard. The directions printed on the receipt I printed out were in a cruelly tiny font, impossible to read by the roof light while barrelling up the Whitestone Expressway in the dark and in the rain. Luckily, I had called the Extended Stay Hotel the night before and had enough of a memory of what the guy said to get as far as the service road off Exit 15, 20th Avenue. There I could stop and read the fine print by the interior roof light in the car. I had to continue to the light at 14th Avenue, turn left and then left again onto the service road for the Whitestone Expressway southbound, and the hotel would be on my right.

I found the driveway and went behind the hotel to the slots numbered 1 through 50 (I chose slot No. 37), put the receipt on the dashboard, as instructed, and lugged my stuff into the lobby of the Extended Stay Hotel. The woman at the reception desk said approvingly that it takes “a cruel woman” to get up early. Her Queens wisdom took me by surprise. As I waited for the shuttle bus, I tried to parse it: The early bird gets the worm: I was early; ergo a $13 a day parking spot near LaGuardia was the worm. I guess it does take a certain amount of determination bordering on cruelty to follow directions past LaGuardia and make a U-turn on the Whitestone to reach the lobby of the Extended Stay Hotel in time to catch the 5:30 shuttle bus to Terminal D, or whatever, in the rain. But what was the alternative?
I had had an extremely complicated weekend (my house guests’ house guests had house guests), and the day before leaving I had the near-deranging experience, as I was getting into the elevator, of dropping my keys—including the car keys—and watching them disappear soundlessly into the gap beneath the elevator door. It was only minutes before the blessed super restored them to me, but it was time enough to calculate the cost of taking a car service to the airport and leaving the Eclair exactly where it was for eight days, in its Tuesday-Friday parking spot, collecting tickets. Three tickets, at $90 each, is $270, plus the car service, and then the inconvenience of not having the car at the airport when I got back and not having it in Rockaway, either. I guess it was worth it.

End of placemat.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day

Just like old times—sitting in the car in the rain in my old 7:30-8 spot, on the Tuesday-Friday side of the street, as a predator lurks double-parked across the street. There’s always the hope that the streetsweeper overslept and the broom is still in the garage, but no: thar she goes, flashing and whirring in my rearview mirror. We move diagonally, like synchronized parkers, then jockey back into place, and by 7:40 it’s all over. We are good till Friday.

Big drops of rain roll down my windshield, on the inside. I have sprung a leak behind the rearview mirror. The Éclair has been back in the city for a few weeks now, peacefully occupying space in the Sanctuary, which I held on to over a weekend in Rockaway with a bold maneuver: I drove to the spot with my friend from New Hampshire, and gave it to her with the cooperation of several motorists who were double-parked. (Note that I have spelled "cooperation" without the two dots over the second "o" and see my highly controversial post on the diaeresis on the New Yorker Web site.) And when Live Free or Die left town, on Sunday morning, we made the switch again, this time without an audience.

The night before, I had parked on my own street. Traffic was heavy—it was the day of the Sikh parade—and I was lucky to nose into a spot at the head of the street, with my rear bumper slightly infringing on the crosswalk. I came out the next day to find on the windshield not a ticket but a slip of paper informing me that an accident report could be obtained at the local police precinct for ten dollars. I circled the car . . . the only damage I saw was to the right rear bumper, which had come loose at the flap where it wraps around the side. I could probably fix it with a large wad of bubble gum.

I went to the precinct anyway, out of curiosity. I was told that the ten dollars had to be in the form of a money order, so I went away and came back, only to find out that the report had not yet been filed. The lady told me to call later, and of course I forgot. I was kind of relieved not to have to hang around there longer—it’s such a dingy, inhospitable place. They did not offer me any of the baked goods prominently on display. As time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that I will return for the accident report.

Recently someone referred to the Éclair as the Tortilla. I hope that doesn’t turn out to be prophetic.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Comma Shaker

Much to my surprise, a piece that I was persuaded to write about punctuation has attracted a lot of attention on The New Yorker's Web site. Who would have thought that the comma would interest people as much as my other hot topics, parking spots and cleaning ladies?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Parade

This was a classic hat to spot outside the cathedral.

Others were less traditional, but you still got the connection (Coneheads, the Egg Man).

Birds were popular.

As were dogs:

And various forms of locomotion:

These bunnies were hopping right along. (Note the shoes.)

Best use of a Segway ever!

The Tin Man was there (talking on his cell phone).

Is he the Walrus? Is the walrus a symbol of Easter?

I don't get it. Is that the Easter Bunny's wife?

I actually said this. I who went dressed as a paschal pirate.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Foot Notes

Some of you may have been wondering what ever happened to the Alternate Side Parker’s right foot. Did it ever heal? Or did she Google her foot surgeon after the fact and discover that he was a barbaric quack? What sort of alternative therapies did she seek for chronic irritability due to minor foot pain? What finally worked?

Answers: Sort of. Yes. Acupuncture. Herein lies a tale.

I did not go out to the bungalow much this winter, though it was so mild. My neighbors, after scaring me last fall by acquiring a car of their own, sent that car back (it had a rusty underbelly) and kept the Éclair, using it to take their little boy to nursery school, thus continuing our winter long-distance valet-parking arrangement. The last time I saw the car was when I got my winter coat out of storage, in the trunk, in December. That day, I puttered around the house for a few hours—my friend C. had come out with me—and only when I was leaving, after I had potted up the last of the tulip bulbs and put the padlock on the door to the back porch, and had come around to insert the hook into the eye on the inside of the porch door, for added security, did I notice that there was a hook, but there weren’t no eye. Just then, C. put her hand to the screen next to the door and lifted it like a flap. Security had been breached.

Because I am always trying to stretch the season, I hadn’t completely closed up the house, which means locking the windows by the rather primitive method of sticking nails through the frames. So anyone who gained access to the porch would be able to open the windows and climb in. I accosted a neighbor and asked him if he’d noticed anyone in my bungalow, and he said, with maddening casualness, “Oh, yeah.” Another neighbor had noticed it, too, he said, but they didn’t have my phone number, so they didn’t do anything. This neighbor, whom I call Pee-wee, and to whom I now reluctantly divulged my phone number, is the kind of guy who, when you take an old falling-apart grill that belonged to your neighbor on the other side who got evicted and that you were tired of looking at and put out on the street for the garbagemen, retrieves said grill and hauls it back and installs it on the other side of the house, where you get to look at it some more. Once, last summer, I heard someone calling my name and went to the door to find Pee-wee, on his bicycle, the basket full of pesticides—partially used spritzers of aphid poison, etc.—that he had scavenged and that he now offered to me like a door-to-door salesman: "Ma'am, can I interest you in these perfectly good insecticides?" And I accepted! So now I am indebted to my neighbor for an unwanted arsenal of bug poison. What was I thinking?

But I digress … The stapler, of course, picked that moment to run out of staples, and it was not immediately clear how to replenish them—at least, not to me and not to Pee-wee—but while Pee-wee went home to get his own stapler, C. read the directions, inserted fresh staples, and calmly reattached the screen to the porch frame. I fretted and went around with a paper cup of rusty nails to drive through the window frames, and made sure nothing was missing (there is not much in the bungalow worth taking), and that no one had slept in my bed or defiled my space with empty Budweiser cans. I had, after all, been in the house for at least two hours without noticing anything wrong, so if there was a squatter at least he was a highly respectful one.

It was only when we were on our way back to Manhattan that I realized the upside of the situation: it was not that I had engendered good karma by giving shelter to the Bodhisattva on a rainy day but that for several hours after the squatter, in the crazed effort to secure the place with staples and fishing line, I completely forgot to remember that there had ever been anything wrong with my foot.

(Cartoon by Joe Dator; The New Yorker, February 13, 2012.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Spots

I went to see the 9/11 Memorial with a friend over the weekend. Admission is free, but you have to reserve tickets in advance and show up at the appointed time. Our time was ten-thirty on Sunday, March 18th.

My friend had driven down from Massachusetts and was willing to give up her parking spot to take the car to the financial district. “How likely are we to find a parking spot down there?” she asked. I honestly had no idea. My friends think I know my way around, and although I used to live in the financial district, I have not tried to park there since the day I moved here from Vermont in my Plymouth Fury II.

It didn’t begin well. The Google map I had printed out did not reflect any of the street closings surrounding the construction of the new World Trade Center or the changing traffic patterns of the Bloomberg administration, a circumstance that was complicated by my deep skepticism and resistance to authority, so that if a sign saying “Chambers St. Detour—Broadway, Brooklyn Bridge” had an arrow pointing left, I said "Turn right." After many thwarted byways, we followed the detour and eventually found an amazing parking spot on Cortlandt Street, right in front of Century 21. Too bad we weren't shopping for underwear.

We passed Zuccotti Park, which was conspicuously empty and being power-washed, and walked to the southeast rim of the construction site. It hadn’t occurred to me until just that morning that security would necessarily be tight at the site, and sure enough: it was just like an airport, only you didn’t have to take your shoes off—the maze and the trays and the conveyor belts, X rays, and metal detectors, ending in a chaotic bottleneck. Once we were out on the open field, there was still a tendency of the people to move straight ahead in a column.

As you approach the memorial, you see a big square pit of a waterfall in the “footprint” of one of the towers: water combs down four walls into a pool and then pours into a center well, which is black and apparently without bottom. It is an image of heartbreak. The names of the dead are carved in the stone around the edges, and you can put your hand under the slab into the water. It was a gray morning, so the elements—the sky, the stone, the water—were gray and black and silver. An identical fountain (but with other names) occupies the footprint of the other tower. There is also a building containing old beams from the Twin Towers. It is designed to look shattered.

Neither my friend nor I had lost anyone on 9/11. I’m not even sure why I wanted to go down there. It was impossible not to be moved by the falling water and the sense of loss and the thousands of names engraved in stone. After slowly walking the rims of both fountains and running our hands over the names, we found our way out.

I was completely turned around. “Is that where I said the Hudson was?” I asked. Back in the car, I thought we were headed north when we were going east, following that damned detour again, along Chambers Street and over the Brooklyn Bridge to Atlantic Avenue and Washington Avenue, which runs alongside the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and where we scored a generous parking spot amid daffodils and winter honeysuckle, and saw an apricot tree in bloom on our way to the magnolias—saucer magnolias, star magnolias, hybrids, white-white, creamy-white, pale pink, vivid pink, yellowish, with that wonderful thick flesh and that faint perfume you don’t catch until you’re at the end of a very deep breath.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Friday's Times had a front-page piece about parking in San Francisco, featuring our friend Donald Shoup, the parking professor at U.C.L.A. He starts one chapter of his book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," by quoting George Costanza, who, like many of us, felt it was his birthright to park for free. Professor Shoup says that, in the great scheme of things, there is no such thing as a free parking spot. His idea is that the more a metered space costs, the sooner a driver will leave it, making it available for the next guy. The most expensive metered parking spots on the streets of San Francisco cost $4.50 an hour. (On my block in New York it's $3 an hour.) The city has embedded sensors in the streets to track the popularity and availability of parking spots. Professor Shoup envisions a parking utopia, with all the revenue from the meters going toward maintenance of the streets the meters are on and improvements in public transportation.

I looked for Professor Shoup on Facebook, seeking to "like" him, but what came up was a YouTube video of the Professor, looking all tweedy, with a bow tie and a beard, cycling the campus like Mr. Chips. What an odd academic subspecialty: parking theory. And yet how admirable: here is a guy who not only does not pay for parking but makes parking pay him. I suppose I should break down and buy his book to keep in the car in case of emergency—that is, in case I am sitting in the car on an alternate-side morning with nothing to read. But somehow by buying the book (a textbook, which costs anywhere from $29 to $60) I would be spending money on parking and thereby demonstrating the truth of the Professor's theories. This guy is a genius.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Second Cousins

I recently posted a piece on the New Yorker Web site in which I recycled a photo from the family reunion, on the occasion of my cousin Dennis Kucinich's loss of his seat in the House of Representatives. (Here is the link.) I also recycled a mistake in the nature of my kinship with Dennis Kucinich. and here is the correction: Dennis Kucinich, shown here with Baby Dee at the family reunion in 2009, is my father's first cousin once removed and my second cousin.

Various cousins have tried to impress this on me over the years, and I hope I finally have it right. I don't know how to work in the fact that my father and Dennis's mother were double cousins without sounding kinky.

With thanks to Nancy Saegel and Mary Ellen Nowel (both first cousins), and abiding affection for Dennis Kucinich, even though he deleted my post on his Facebook page.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Scene: Bike Lane on Sixth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets, Monday, March 12th, 10:15 A.M.

Bicycle Cop (gliding up alongside citizen on bicycle): Ma’am, what color was that light back there?

Bicyclist: Um, red?

BC (exasperatedly): What are we going to do? You know, there’s a fine for that.

B (sheepish, lowering head onto handlebars): If I promise never to do it again?

BC: I don’t understand. You stopped, and then you went through it anyway.

B (brightly): I let all the pedestrians pass, and there were no cars turning, so . . .

BC (sternly): The fine is $240. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of money to give to the City of New York.

Bicyclist maintains silence.

Cop pedals away.

Moral: Take Madison Avenue.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The End of the Cleaning Lady

Last Friday night, I anticipated coming home to a nice clean apartment. It was my birthday month (I’ve gone from celebrating my actual date of birth to my birthday weekend to my birthday week and now my birthday season), and in a fit of self-indulgence I had called the cleaning lady. I thought the extravagance was justified because I had a cold and was expecting guests. That morning, I had scurried around, cleaning for the cleaning lady: I folded clothes, squared away shoes, weeded the dead roses out of my magnificent birthday bouquet. I cleaned the cat box and washed the breakfast dishes. I stopped short of folding the bath towels, tossing them onto a bathroom shelf and, perversely, leaving one in a heap on a bureau in the hall. I left the bathroom sink smudged (the super had fixed the cold-water tap the day before) and did not bother to sweep up the rose petals on the kitchen floor. The cleaning lady had to have something to do.

I am no good at having a cleaning lady. For a while it was all right: she came every other week, I left her eighty dollars, and when I got home after work the eighty dollars was gone and everything looked neat and burnished. But then I’d reach for the paring knife, or fumble for the bathtub plug, or grope for the lion notepad next to my desk, and nothing would be where it was supposed to be. The cleaning lady had her own ideas of where things should go. She'd toss flowers that I was not yet ready to part with. She recycled newspapers I was keeping for a friend who burns the Times in her wood stove. She threw away the extra bottle of diluted dishwashing detergent that I keep for washing my eyeglasses. Grrrr ... Whenever something went missing, I blamed the cleaning lady.

Then, she replicated herself: she started turning up with her sister-in-law. Now I had two Peruvian cleaning ladies, so I felt I had to pay them both—not twice as much (I’m not that gullible) but something extra every time. It was impossible to negotiate either the amount or the doppelganger, because of the language barrier. (Her English is highly selective.) My strategy was to get out of the house before the cleaning lady (or ladies) arrived, so that I could in good conscience leave money for only one.

So I open the door when I get home and . . . That’s odd: the rumpled towel is still on the bureau in the hallway. Well, maybe the cleaning lady thought I wanted it there. Also the newspapers are still piled in front of the closet door. But that's O.K., because my friend with the wood stove is visiting from Massachusetts. Then I turn on the light in the living room and see the money on the table and I know for sure: the cleaning lady didn't come. So I scour the bathroom sink and sweep the kitchen floor—it doesn't take very long—alternately counting my blessings (I still have my diluted dish detergent) and cursing the cleaning lady (there's a penny stuck to the kitchen counter that I was counting on her to pry off). The place looks fine, at least by lamplight. The cleaning lady has trained me to do most of the work myself.

My friend from New Hampshire arrived a few hours later and parked in front of my building. We would have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to move the car, which did not sound like a fun way to start a Saturday, so we made a midnight foray to see if we could do better. At the end of the block are two spots in a school zone (the sign says No Parking 7 AM to 4 PM School Days), and the spot nearer the crosswalk was vacant. The doorman came out to congratulate us and make sure we knew that we were good till Monday. We were way ahead of him: Monday was Presidents Day, and school was out, so we were actually good till Tuesday. High five!

I called the cleaning lady on Saturday, to make sure she was O.K. She was fine—she just thought I’d wanted her to come the next Friday, which was now “this” Friday. It was hopeless to say that I had expected her yesterday; I could hear her thinking, How can I come yesterday if it is already today? She persisted in saying she would come "this Friday." I repeated that I would not need her this Friday, because I would have time over the weekend to clean the place myself. She was very sorry.

My friend from Massachusetts arrived on Sunday and found a spot in front of my building that would be good until eight on Monday (for MuniMeters, Presidents Day was just another Monday). The idea was that when New Hampshire left, Massachusetts could pull into her spot. But New Hampshire was not to be pressured (Live Free or Die!). This potential source of tension between the states evaporated when we went out on Sunday afternoon and saw that the car behind New Hampshire was gone, and Massachusetts could move into the school zone. Double high five! The two best parking spots on the block, and we had them. Plus a hundred dollars that I didn’t have to pay the cleaning lady.

I couldn't get a good picture of my friends' cars in their holiday parking spots, so here is a picture of me as Mr. Dick (from "David Copperfield") on Charles Dickens' (and my) birthday. I can't imagine why it never occurred to me before to go to a party in drag.