Sunday, August 22, 2010

The time New York City beat me up, took my car and $700

Thursday night we attended a reading downtown. We left at 6:30 but didn't arrive until 8, thanks to a series of delays caused by the dreaded transportation phrase "an earlier incident." It was another hour on the way back. Three stops from home, on the A train, a man in his twenties stumbled into our car. He sported a bushy red beard and a green shirt. I mistakenly thought he was blind. As the doors opened, his eyes also remained opened but he didn't step on. Instead he felt around for the door before staggering inside. He sat about three feet away from us. When I said the guy was blind, Louise responded, "What? He's drunk. Didn't you see the puke on his shirt?" Since the vomit apparently matched his shirt color, I had not.

Thirty seconds after he sat down, the man added to his shirt's decorations by vomiting on the floor and his clothes. Fellow riders scrambled away while we waited for the next stop so we could switch cars. The guy didn't react, other than to wipe his mouth with the soiled shirt. Surely this was a low point in his life, or perhaps not. Might have just been a typical Thursday night in Washington Heights for him. He changed seats but not his behavior. He puked again, further debasing himself, New York, the MTA, guys with beards, the Irish (presumably), and humanity itself. We changed cars but saw him get off at Dyckman Street. He staggered toward the exit, looking very much like Joe Frazier in the final seconds of his bout against George Foreman.

Several times throughout the night - whether we were stuck on the train going nowhere or stuck on the train watching the green-shirted demon lose his intestines - I wished we had a car. How much easier life would be without having to deal with the subway delays and the pukers. During the work week, I often have the same thought, usually when I walk into our apartment at 7:15, ending my hour-long commute that takes about 15 minutes in a car. God I wish we had a car, I'll think.

But then I remember my first night in the city after I moved here in 2004. I remember my car being towed and the $715 it took to rescue it. I remember the three months I had my car here and the fact the only times I drove it was to move it from one side of the street to the other. Then I realize that being caught up in endless subway delays and being trapped with violently ill drunks is one type of hell, but not the worst kind.

When I moved out here in 2004, I drove with Louise from Minnesota to New York in my 1998 Chevy Cavalier. We pulled into the city on a Sunday, about 10 p.m. It was the end of our three-day trip. We'd seen Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and points in between. All I had to do now was find a parking space. Forty-five minutes later, I was still searching. Louise patiently explained that this was normal, especially on a weekend night. Finally a spot opened up. A small slot, but plenty of room for someone with my incomparable, Minnesota-trained parallel parking skills. Unfortunately, I overrated both my parking abilities and the size of the spot, because I eventually realized there was no way I could fit in without bumping the car in front of me.

"Go ahead and bump it," Louise said. "It's what New Yorkers do."

"They do?"


So I did. I gently nudged an SUV (Damn gas guzzler, serves it right!), moving it maybe six inches, just enough room to let me slide in. When I stepped out of the car, I realized a woman with a rottweiler - or some other type of dog that has been trained to eat men - watched the entire spectacle from the steps of her brownstone. When I walked past she shook her head, probably wondering what in the hell the city had come to. Or maybe she recognized me for what I was: a newcomer, a wannabe. An inexperienced, hapless, overmatched Midwesterner who would have already been robbed of his dignity and belongings if I didn't have Louise watching over me.

Tuesday morning I woke up at 8, grabbed a donut and walked the three blocks to my car. I turned the corner on Manhattan Avenue and saw...nothing. The same small spot that existed before I crammed my Cavalier into it two nights earlier again sat unoccupied. Two possibilities: It'd been stolen or, most likely, it'd been towed.

I was a ticket fugitive, but until that moment I guess I always thought I'd get away with my sins. A year earlier I racked up four tickets during a summer trip to the city, but I didn't pay any of them. I figured I could pay them if I ever moved to New York. But I thought I'd have a grace period, a few weeks to fix the situation. The city obviously had other ideas. Panicked, I sprinted back to the apartment, called Louise, blubbered incoherently, listened to her do the same, watched the final moments of The Pretender on TNT and waited for her to figure out what had happened. She said she'd look at a website that would show if it'd been stolen - by the city. And indeed, New York had taken my car.

Total cost of the unpaid tickets and tow job: $715. Payable only in cash.

Louise gave me the instructions to the place holding my car hostage. Some dump in Brooklyn. I'd never been to Brooklyn. Didn't really know anything about it other than it had a bridge named after it and the inhabitants still loved a baseball team that hadn't played there in 50 years. But I set out for Brooklyn - without my dignity but with the cash. When I emerged from the subway, I only had to walk a few blocks to my destination. Unfortunately, this wasn't a one-step exercise. Instead it was like some type of perverse treasure hunt. I paid the fee here. The car? That's in another area To get there, I would learn, all you have to do is follow the incomprehensible directions provided by a guy who looked like a former Navy SEAL.

It was a small office, run by the SEAL, a middle-aged secretary and an elderly woman with a harsh hairdo and kind face. I gave the woman my license and registration.

"This isn't your registration," said the old woman, who, until that point, had sort of reminded me of my grandmother.

"Well, the registration's in the car. Here's my license. Can I just pay the fine, please?"
"Is it valid?" (What, the license or my existence?)
"Is it valid?"
"I'm sorry. Is what valid?"
"Your registration."
"Yes. But I don't have that with me. Can I just pay the fine?"

By that time the woman no longer reminded me of grandma. Perhaps my kindly grandmother would have acted like this after a lifetime in New York, enjoying these little power plays, toying with the emotions of the beaten-down, ticket-evading masses. I doubt it. There was something sinister in this woman that had been there since birth. A lifetime spent in this cramped office certainly didn't help her disposition, but she'd enjoyed busting balls long before she ever stepped foot into these suffocating, poorly decorated confines.

As we conducted our updated "Who's on First" gag, the secretary screamed at a person on the phone, telling them that it was "CASH ONLY! How many times do you have to hear that to understand it?" Finally the head guy told the elderly woman to run my license to see if it was "valid." It was and I paid the parking fees. But I still needed to claim my car.

"The vehicles are kept elsewhere," he told me.

The man gave me directions, which seemed designed to provide the minimum amount of help with the maximum amount of confusion. I eventually asked a cop, who was fighting street crime and the war on terror while yawning and checking out the assets of passing females, how to find the B61 bus. He pointed the way and a few minutes later I settled in for what I figured would be a short ride to my car. My precious, blue, beloved Cavalier. I hope no one hurt you, baby.

I waited patiently for Coffey Street. By the 45-minute mark I started to worry. The guy made it sound like a short trip, not a tour around greater Brooklyn. I finally asked the driver if my stop was coming soon. The soft, pitying chuckle gave me fair warning about the coming answer. But still, I needed to hear the words.

"Son, that's the other direction. You're going the wrong way."

At this point in my New York City life, I didn't quite understand the public transportation system. It hadn't dawned on me to ask the policeman which way I wanted to go on the bus. In retrospect, that seems like information he could have volunteered. Instead, I hopped on the first one I saw. The driver told me to get off and walk a block over to the correct bus. When I finally found myself on the proper one, I asked the driver how long it'd be to my stop. Fifty minutes, he estimated. Fifty plus 45. Ninety-five minutes. That's how long I spent on the New York City bus that day, searching for the lot that held my car. Now going the correct direction, I settled in and listened to my fellow passengers. A young rapper regaled the bus with tales of hookers and heroin. A middle-aged woman with a large bosom and bigger voice provided a running historical commentary on every third building we drove by. "That used to be a hospital before they shut it down. That's where they tore down the grocery store."

When we reached my stop, I wandered off in a daze, beaten down by the parking tickets and the bus's fumes. The tour guide walked off with me. Sensing my confusion, she grabbed my arm. She asked if everything was okay. I told her I didn't know where to find Coffey Street. She told me to walk a few blocks and I'd see it.

The lot finally came into sight. Turns out it was a father-son operation. Junior manned the desk. He was about five inches short of six-feet and six pounds shy of 300. He wore a smirk, as if he'd just convinced a customer to pay $500 for a $29 oil change. I claimed my car and paid the rest of the fine. He retrieved the Cavalier while I asked his proud father how to get back to Manhattan. He pulled out some directions that looked like they'd been written by a child, for a child.

A native New Yorker - or anyone who'd spent more than, say, four hours in Brooklyn - would have surely crossed over a bridge and into Manhattan in a few moments. A guy spending his first day in New York? A frazzled, defeated guy? Two hours. I'd see the skyline and head in that direction, only to get discombobulated and realize I was now driving away from the skyline. Three times I stopped to ask for directions, but the helpers only confirmed my suspicions that ninety-eight percent of any city's population is utterly incapable of providing even the most elementary directions. Even if they've lived there for two decades, they won't be able to articulate how to get to Point A to Point B.

I found my salvation in McDonald's. The old gal had always provided comfort in the form of her chicken-like McNuggets. Now she provided me with a way home. The 10-year-old in a hairnet behind the counter gave clear, easy-to-understand directions. A short time later, I drove over the Manhattan Bridge and into downtown Manhattan. Now all I had to do was drive 104 blocks in rush-hour traffic. I nearly killed a pedestrian, a well-groomed businessman who responded by slapping the hood with his rolled-up Wall Street Journal. I wanted to roll down the window and apologize, maybe offer to shine his shoes. I was vulnerable. In that 50-minute drive through hell, I transformed from a meek Midwesterner into a New York driver. At first I let people in and waited for the hand to acknowledge my good deed. Then I'd patiently wait for someone to let me into whatever lane I needed. After being honked at a half-dozen times and never once being allowed into a lane - not even by some farmer with Iowa plates who really should know better - I simply started veering into traffic without looking, depending on the below-average reflexes of my fellow drivers to keep me from getting into an accident.

Finally, at 7:10 p.m. seven hours after I had walked onto the subway for a simple ride to Brooklyn and back, I double-parked in front of our apartment. I sprinted inside, used the bathroom, hugged Louise and ingested some Coke - the capital C version.

My ordeal was nearly over. Now I all I had to do was find a place to park.

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