Sunday, February 28, 2010

Towed 3 times In One Week (a personal best)

          If you responded to this title, it’s probably because you are either relieved to find someone dumber than yourself or are a true believer that we can learn from other people’s misfortunes. I had been a visitor to NYC a number of times, but my first week driving in NYC was a parking crash course, more crash than course. After college, I lived in California for a while exploring those open spaces I mentioned earlier while a handful of my college friends had moved to the city. I had always promised to take up one of the many invites to the Emerald City and having just arrived on the East coast from driving cross country, I steered south towards Oz. My graduating class all seemed to have relocated to various corners of Greenwich Village and my first adult experiences of NY were of the I’m OK, You’re OK, anything goes, but always quaint and unthreatening Village. The string of friends’ apartments, each island more tropically friendly, always assured me a place to crash and I traveled back and forth for a week.
          I’m not sure exactly when this lovechild was conceived, but this week gave birth to a long life of parking on the mean streets of New York, and it was only natural that it would howl with its first breath. The morning after a night of basking in the glow of our college reunion, when I went to get my car, I found my first New York reality check. There I was, thinking how much I belonged, but instead of my car I found first hand the pain of belonging. I had been ripped off, snared in that TV Nightly News segment on urban crime and New York City lawlessness so often acted out in the California film industry.
          You know this road movie: It’s your first visit to the urban jungle. You are starting to get the hang of the sudden lane changes, the streets reversing direction, your cherished red 63 Karmann Ghia bucking, like a spaceship on reentry, over the cobblestones that your friends tell you are so picturesque, and you park it next to a Free Parking sign (OK, no such thing, but at this point in the movie, life still seemed like a friendly Monopoly game.). You come out the next day and your beautifully preserved California car is stolen! Of course it was spotted. 20 year old cars just don’t look that good in NYC.
          I probably don’t have to tell the hard-core New York drivers that it wasn’t actually stolen. And it wasn’t Free Parking either. And the friend who warned me that they will really tow you in this city so you have to read the signs in front and in back of your car before you leave it was not just showing off her new, New York skills. I was PVB punked, but it took me a lot of years to figure out just how bad. I was towed for being “partially” in a Bus Stop Zone. My relief when I found out that my car was just hanging out somewhere by the scenic Hudson River, kept safely dry and scratch free by the NYPD on some exotic, far away pier, quickly turned to shock when I found out the cost of the tow! (and storage charges were already climbing!) Following the NYPD directions, which included subways, buses and hoofing it through desolate street blocks that looked like a scene from West Side Story, was its own saga of survival and is a whole other blog post, but I made it and stood before the man.
          The gruff voice behind the massively scratched (fingernails?) bulletproof window through which I could barely see a hulking figure barked that I had to pay the tow and there was no discussion. But in a flashback to that more innocent time, they took a check. And another officer, seeing I was a visitor from CA, kindly pointed out that I don’t have to pay the ticket “right away” (a wink) to get my car because tickets have a 7-day response period (in those days) and if I was leaving in a week to go back to CA… “Who knows when you would be able to pay?”
          So, I got my car the Hell out of there and enjoyed a lot more great NY moments until a couple of days later when I found my car was stolen again. Now, I don’t want to seem overly dense. I did read every parking sign carefully after that and when I just couldn’t translate the geometric, counteracting forces of circles, squares and other lingo mounted on a single signpost, I just moved on. But when I found a block that had no parking signs on it at all, and a nice sized space right between two other cars, I thought I even saw that the curb had been painted gold. Imagining a plain yellow would have made more sense. The gruff voice told me if there is no sign on a block, I had to look at the previous block’s signs. This either was not ever true or, at least, is not true today and, many years later, I quote the actual law in the Miscellaneous Info page at the back of the published book of my map.
          Irrational fear is never a good thing, but it could be if it prevented me from being towed a third time. My stay in NY was still a lot of fun, but now I approached every car park with the caution and paranoia of a Vietnam suicide squad entering a booby-trapped jungle. Just get out alive was my mantra. But when I parked on a legal block, getting out of the car (engine still running) to make sure that I was clear of the white crosswalk, I could almost have predicted that my car would be stolen again. The gruff voice, a woman this time, told me that regardless of the crosswalk, you had to park behind the “building line.” I had parked on a block where the building was set back further than usual from the street making the building line further back than the crosswalk. It would not be manly of me to describe my reaction.
          OK, I did suggest there might be a kernel of useful information somewhere in this Blog, but I did not mean because you would learn that I may hold the record for parking idiocy. I have to admit that it was mostly beginner’s luck anyway. Still, I did learn a number of things from this experience. I learned to listen more carefully to my friends, even if they don’t drive. Why couldn’t she have picked up a few survival tricks about the city she chose to live in? Years later, when I came to NY to live, I made a point to learn that the rule is when there are no signs on the block, there are no parking restrictions on that block, no matter what the signs on the previous block say! I haven’t yet learned if that bit about the building line is true. I have looked for it in the parking laws of NYC, asked police and parking police, but still don’t have a reliable answer and still park behind the building line to this day, sometimes to the angry protests of other drivers. Maybe someone reading this will comment on once and for all the legal truth or falsehood of this one. Lastly, I know that somewhere buried but not forgotten in the vast files of the Parking Violations Bureau, a California license for a red 63 Karmann Ghia still has three outstanding parking tickets! (which with interest and penalties…)

          For anyone foolish enough to think they might have bested my record, I have to mention that after I fled NYC, I went to visit some other friends in Washington, DC. While there I had always wanted to see the Capitol Building, so on a free afternoon, I drove in from my friend’s apartment in Alexandria and found a great parking space right next to the Mall. The walk down the middle of the beautifully tended Mall that leads up to the Capitol Building was even more majestic than all the television and newspaper pictures of my youth. The walk back was a little stranger. The first thing I noticed was a couple of crazies had actually driven up onto the grass of the Mall about midway between me and the Washington Monument at the other end. As I walked closer, I realized they weren’t driving, they were stopped there right in the middle of the green lawns, like it was their own private parking space right next to the great old trees and pouring fountains. As I got closer, I noticed one of the cars was a Karmann Ghia. Hah! What are the chances of that!
          Turns out, parking next to the Mall is prohibited during the 4pm to 7pm rush hour, but because I had an out-of-state license, they just towed my car up onto the grass so that it wouldn’t interfere with the traffic flow. There was no ticket, just me, a little winded, as I drove my car off the grassy curb to the street and made my getaway. Later, after telling the story to my friend, I learned that our nation’s capital is a welcoming place. Hmmm.

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