It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m waiting for an appointment in front of a building on Riverside Drive. Grey clouds hang low in the sky while an eastward breeze carries the laughter of children playing in a park past my ears. I look up at the dour sky and wonder for the millionth time where the sun has gone. New York has felt more like Seattle during the past week and if the sun doesn’t show it’s face soon I’m afraid we’ll have to resort to human sacrifice. Maybe we can burn up some politicians inside a wicker statue. Hey, it couldn’t hurt.
I lean against the building’s cool masonry and look at my watch. My appointment’s running late. I shrug internally. After several months interviewing people for my book I’ve gotten used to delays and complications. As the wind ruffles my hair I decide to kill time by looking at the people walking the streets. Clusters of schoolchildren paroled from their daily captivity loudly clot the sidewalks, forcing the dog walkers wrangling the pampered canines of the Upper West Side into the streets. An old lady dragging a cart full of groceries pauses to let a group of energetic children pass by and sadly shakes her head. Maybe she’s annoyed at the foul language the kids are using. Maybe she’s remembering her own girlhood and wondering how time passed by her so fast. I’m not in her head so there’s no way to know.
A man carrying several shopping bags emerges from the building I’m leaning against and walks up to a parked car with Jersey plates. As soon as he pops open the trunk with the remote on his key fob a passing motorist screeches to a halt, makes an illegal u-turn, and pulls alongside side the man and his car.
“Hey,” the motorist asks. “You leavin’?”
“I’m gonna be a while,” the guy with the Jersey plates replies.
The man shrugs. “A while.”
The motorist shakes his head disgustedly and drives off without saying a word. Nice.
I smile to myself. That motorist is a perfect example of the vultur area stativa Novum Eboracum – The New York City parking vulture. In a city where free parking is a commodity as valuable as food and water, these rapacious Manhattan residents will run red lights, cut people off, and steal spots other drivers were patiently waiting for. I’ve actually seen people get into fist fights over parking spots. And in the winter? Oh, it gets much worse.
The man from Jersey goes back into the apartment building. After a few minutes he reemerges with several more bags. As he’s arranging them in his trunk another parking vulture makes an illegal u-turn and swoops in.
“You pulling out?” the driver, a young man with his baseball cap on backwards, asks.
“Nope,” Jersey Plates replies.
The motorist screeches off, saying nothing. As Jersey Plates loads his car a gaggle of parking vultures repeat this predatory cycle several times.
“Can you believe this?” Jersey Plates asks me after another frustrated motorist pulls away. “The minute you touch the door handle they’re on your ass.”
“I’m from Jersey too,” I reply. “I believe it.”
“Drives me nuts.”
“They’re like vultures smelling dead meat a mile away,” I reply.
“Not like this in Jersey.”
“Unless you live in Hoboken,” I reply.
“Oh brother,” Jersey Plates says. “That place is awful for parking,”
Another another parking vulture in a Volvo swings his car around and asks if the man is leaving. Jersey Plates waves him off.
“You know something?” Jersey Plates says. “I must be a jerk. I actually enjoy telling these people to go away.”
“You’re not alone,” I reply. “Calvin Trillin once wrote a story about a man who sat in his parked car until his time on the meter expired. When motorists hunting for spots asked him if he was leaving he’d reply that he paid for the spot so he was going to stay there. Drove ’em nuts.’
“Sounds like a funny story.”
As I watch the man finish loading his car I remember the one thing I truly DESPISE about Manhattan – the parking. There’s never a spot when you need one, the byzantine signage about parking rules is confusing, and the meter rates are positively usurious. In New York, a dedicated parking spot can cost as much as a home in the Midwest. I once read about a woman who was closing on a two million dollar apartment. When she asked where her parking spot would be, the realtor replied that she’d have to shell out $200,000 extra for a spot. The woman took a pass on the apartment. I don’t blame her. Maybe she moved to Jersey.
Once, when I was toying with the idea of living in New York, I inquired at parking garages about the monthly fee to store my car. The prices were astronomical. When I did find a garage offering monthly parking for around $300 a month I was elated, only to be told there was a two year waiting list. Many people who live in New York don’t own a car, that’s fine, but I’m the kind of guy who has to have access to mobility on demand. I don’t like having to race to Port Authority to catch the 2:00 AM bus or risk waiting an hour for the next ride home. I don’t like the thought of renting a car to go to IKEA or make a leisurely jaunt to Connecticut. If there’s an emergency I want to be able to get in my car and go now.
I feel sorry for Gotham’s car owners. One Manhattan friend of mine is often forced to park several blocks away from her building and, when she does find a spot, she has to get up early to move her car so the street sweepers can pretend to clean the street. “I know people who move to Long Island City because they’re sick of the hassle,” she once told me. “At least there you get your own spot.” In NYC owning a car is an ordeal. And that whole process of playing musical cars, spending valuable time hunting for a spots, or running outside to feed the meters can grind you down. Sure, the law of supply and demand’s at work. If you want to live in the Big Apple with a car that’s the price of admission.
I don’t like the competing for parking spots when I drive into the city. The whole process activates my “survival of the fittest gene,” causing me to become irritable, angry, and downright rude. When I was hunting for a spot on the East Side with Brown-Eyed Girl a few weeks ago, she noticed my agitation. I was forced to confess that searching for parking can throw the less savory side of my character into sharp relief. New York’s parking predators piss me off. But I’ll be the first to admit my upset stems from the fact I more like them then not. I’m a vultur area stativa Nova Caesarea– a New Jersey parking vulture. And there are times I’d like to clear NYC’s crowded streets with a 20 millimeter Vulcan cannon. Good thing tank busting armaments are off limits to people like me.
Over the years several Manhattanites, Brown-Eyes included, have noticed this character flaw and advised me to “be positive” when looking for parking. “Throw your good energy out into the universe and good things will happen,” one friend used to tell me. “If you’ve got in your mind that you can’t find a spot you won’t.” I used to think that advice was crunchy granola bullshit. During my years in seminary and mental health I spent enough time around people who hoped for the best but got steamrolled by life’s problems anyway. As a result of that and other formative experiences, I tend to pay more attention to life’s negative aspects instead of noticing what’s good and uplifting. In some ways that worldview has held me in good stead. It’s enabled me to read horizons quickly and identify dangerous situations before I get hurt. That’s a real strength. But like any strength it’s also a weakness.
Ever since that women died in my arms a few months ago I’ve thought long and hard about the beauty and terrors of life. Seeing someone shuffle off their mortal coil has a tendency to reset your priorities. And as I’ve journeyed around the country, encountering different people and situations, I’ve been forced to admit that I’m sometimes a little too cynical for my own good. So, much to my surprise, I’ve been trying to be more positive about the situations I encounter. And you know what? It tends to work. No, I’m not throwing away bitterly won experience. I still call bad things like I see them. But I”m trying to be a more open to life and it’s possibilities.
Is there something mystical about all this being positive stuff? Probably not. I still think saying “throw your good energy into the universe” is akin to abracadabra. But being positive has measurable real world benefits. Quite simply, the more open and positive you are the more positive people and situations will be drawn into your life. Like attracts like. And my angst about parking is illustrative of this. When I’m upset about hunting for spots my blood pressure goes up, my muscles clench, and my vision tunnels to such a degree that I literally cannot see the spots around me. But if I go in being positive, the resultant relaxed physiological state it induces is better suited to achieving my goal. My vision is better, I’m thinking clearer, and my reflexes are more acute. I don’t miss the parking opportunities around me. And that’s a mindset I’m trying to bring into my entire life. But don’t be surprised if you see me fuming about parking in NYC from time to time. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. I’m a work in progress.
Jersey plates finishes loading his car, takes of his jacket, opens the driver’s door. “How long you think it’ll take for someone to grab my spot after I pull out?” he asks.
“Twenty seconds,” I reply.
The man from Jersey laughs. “Less than that,” he says.
As the man pulls away from the curb I activate the stopwatch feature on my watch. The spot is taken by another illegal u-turning parking vulture in 8.6 seconds. As I watch the driver, a smartly dressed Upper West Side woman, clamber out of her car, I feel the urge to complain her about her illegal u-turn bubble up my esophagus. Then I think to myself – be positive.
“Good job on getting that spot,” I say to her.
“Thanks,” the woman replies, smiling sweetly. “You’ve got to be quick in this town.”
As I watch the woman click away atop her high heels I feel like adding, “You have to be positive in this town too.” But I don’t
She’d probably think I’m a nut.