Notes: No Parking

RESTRAINED BY THE Constitution from forbidding car ownership outright, the city fathers of New York have tried to discourage driving in Manhattan by every bureaucratic maneuver known to humanity. Heavy fines are levied for minor traffic infractions, and the streets are covered with signs that say DON’T EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE. Tow trucks prowl relentlessly, ever ready to drag automobiles to a lot in the only part of Manhattan that is farther from the rest of the borough than New Jersey. Manhattan’s Bureau of Traffic Operations is rumored to have a special squad of battered station wagons whose plainclothes drivers park by Braille, reducing bumpers to tinfoil wherever they go. Legend has it that automobile storage on Park Avenue is so expensive that socialites find it cheaper to pay armed guards to sit in the driver’s seat overnight. Garages charge as much per hour as psychiatrists do. “Gee,” out-of-town friends say to me, “you’d have to be crazy to own a car here.”

I am crazy. I own a car in Manhattan. And there must be lots of crazy people here, because there are zillions of cars. The real test of my lunacy is not any of the things mentioned above. It is alternate-side-of-the-street parking. ASOTSP is a fiendishly ingenious system whereby, for the ostensible.reason of permitting street cleaners to pass through, one side of a road is closed to parking for three hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the other side of the street is closed for the same three hours on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Allow me to explain: At a certain hour—11:00 A.M. in my neighborhood — half the parking spaces vanish. No parking spaces open up to replace them. Six times a week a mob of desperate parkers suddenly floods the street. Oh my God, it’s Thursday. Listen, Frank, I gotta get off the line. It’s eleven o’clock—I gotta park

I suspect that the unknown genius who thought up this system believed that ASOTSP would rid Manhattan of cars in a week. Its failure—indeed, the presence of cars in Manhattan at all—can be read as a testament to the human spirit. Instead of creating a calmer, auto-free metropolis, ASOTSP has fostered the longest-running act of collective civil disobedience I’ve ever heard of. Every day but Sunday thousands of New Yorkers, most of them ordinary, middleclass people with kids and dogs and dangerous plaque buildup, go out and commit double-parking en masse. That is, they get in their cars and drive five feet to park next to the cars on the other side of the street. (The strategem works, as far as I can tell, because the tow truck drivers throw up their hands in despair when confronted with neighborhoods packed bumper-to-bumper with doubleparked cars.) When three hours are up, the owners scurry out of their offices and apartments and drive back to the side of the street they started from. I go through this procedure three times a week. In so doing I claim victory over New York City. So do scads of other alternate-side-of-the-street Rambos.

SUCH VICTORY DOES not come cheap. The Big Apple is a tenacious adversary; if you forget to move your car, it will be towed to a vast, dim, hangarlike structure on the Hudson River that looks something like the set for the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the middle of a staggering number of dusty automobiles is a small office and a line of furious people. After showing your registration and driver’s license, you are allowed to fork over almost a hundred dollars for the privilege of learning how much damage the tow truck has done to your suspension. The office walls are covered with dolorous graffiti, the employees have never awarded or been awarded a smile in their working lives, and invariably the man ahead of you has 1) not brought his registration and 2) decided to see if he can argue his car out without paying.

While the city administration battened down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Gloria, every car owner in Manhattan greeted the news of the storm with joy, for it meant that the tow trucks would be garaged. I was raised a Protestant, but I have come to look forward to Jewish holidays like Succoth and Rosh Hashanah, because ASOTSP is suspended. When I pick up my morning Times I immediately turn to page B1, where the parking news is published, in hopes of learning that the city has at last given Saint Simeon Stylites his due and will suspend ASOTSP on his feast day.

In addition to broadening my religious education, ASOTSP has taught me a little-known law of physics: If X is the number of (legal and illegal) parking spaces before street cleaning, X-minus-one is the number during and after street cleaning. This means that if you are the last on your block to try to double-park, you will not be able to find a spot on your street, and you may be condemned to circle the neighborhood for three hours, a grumbling miniature of the Flying Dutchman in a VW Rabbit.

After one such experience with musical cars, you take care to double-park a little early—at 10:50, say, if the deadline is 11:00. You soon notice that everybody else is coming out then, so you begin moving your car at 10:45. Inevitably, crowd pressure would drive the doubleparking time back to dawn if the police did not step in. In my neighborhood a patrol vehicle goes around at about 10:20, ticketing double-parked cars. As soon as it rounds the corner, hordes of double-parkers throng the street, rushing in its path like cockroaches converging on a trail of sugar. By 10:40 no places are left for the tardy.

Parking legally—that is, going back to your original space at 2:00—is even harder. I don’t know why—maybe because there’s a small number of Manhattanites who don’t ever move their cars but instead temporarily move their offices to the driver’s seat. Armed with briefcases and portable phones, they solemnly pretend that they just pulled off the road to sell some bonds on an emergency basis. (I used to know a deli owner in Greenwich Village who sat in front of his store for three hours, yelling at the clerks over a walkie-talkie.) In my area, the Upper West Side, people go down to the street at about 1:30. They hang around outside for a few minutes, eyeing each other suspiciously, waiting for the first fellow to make a move. Somebody jingles his keys and furious action ensues. By 1:35 the show is over.

THERE IS A fine mixture of competition and cooperation in the ASOTSP game. Evolutionary biologists should note that the same people who rush like antic bears for the scarce nutrients (parking spots) also lower their genetic fitness (ability to move around freely) by sticking slips of paper with their phone numbers on the dashboard, thus allow’ing the poor fish blocked in by the double-parkers a chance to get out. This means that on my street half the automobile owners are at certain times trapped in their apartments, unable to go to the corner newsstand because some strangers might want to use their cars. If people can agree on such things in New York City, a town not known for its adherence to the social contract, arms control may be possible after all.

The urge to own a car is said to be etched deep in the American heart. I hope it’s true, because if it isn’t I really am crazy. I have moved to New York, the only city in the United States w’here you don’t need to be a slave to the automobile, and made myself a slave to my automobile. I have become a slave while knowing full well that the idiotic insistence of people like me on owming cars in Manhattan is leading the city to terminal gridlock. If everyone is either part of the problem or part of the solution, then I’m part of the problem. I salve my conscience with the thought that the crime of owning a car in New York (Tty is its own punishment.

—Charles C. Mann