Morning in Manhattan

Things aren’t looking too good for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for traffic congestion pricing in New York City. Modeled after the successful London version, it would charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 86th St. during business hours, but Albany politics (and even some legitimate concerns, like the fact the some subway lines are already at capacity) are holding up legislative approval. If the plan isn’t passed by Monday, the city will forfeit hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the project.

My problem isn’t driving into Manhattan, it’s the mere fact of having a car here. Soon to be a resident of this fantastical island, I’m in training for my new status as one of the only 20% of Manhattan residents to own a car. And one thing I definitely have to adjust to is the alternate-side parking culture.

Alternate Side Parking sign

It’s morning in Manhattan on a humid, scorching day. Back in my part of Brooklyn, you can double-park your car during street-cleaning hours and leave it unattended for the length of the no-parking period. If the period is 11-2, it doesn’t matter if the sweeper comes by at 11:05, you can stay double-parked until 2 (though if you’re still there at 2:03 you’re likely to get a ticket). To be polite, you can put a sign in your windshield with your address so if someone you’ve blocked needs to get out he can fetch you from your house. But that hardly ever happens. We plan for the hours we’re going to be parked in.

Here in Manhattan things are different. Here, we sit in our cars. Doesn’t matter how hot the day. I think it’s because street parking is even scarcer and you need to grab a spot the instant you possibly can. So at 8:30 AM I hobble out to my car (I’m nursing a sprained ankle, you see), double-park along with everyone else, and settle down, along with everyone else, to wait. I’ve got public radio to listen to and a book to read. Being a typical New Yorker, I try to do both at once, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for any relevant street action. Right away, at 8:35, the traffic cop comes by and gives tickets to a Dodge Durango and a motorcycle that haven’t been moved. We stay in our double-parked vehicles and watch as he moves up the street and out of sight.

The super of the apartment building at #200 is painstakingly hosing down his sidewalk, slightly cooling this stretch of street. A woman comes out of the building with a little dog. A man passes by with two larger dogs. The dogs yip and bark aggressively while their respective owners avoid eye contact.

The sun rises higher, and the shade from the tree beside me creeps forward. The sunshine is already hitting the exterior of my car and will soon slither into my window, so I pull up a bit. There’s still room for a car between me and the next vehicle, and presently an SUV muscles up and parallel parks into it. That’s something you don’t see in the suburbs: parallel double-parking. But the guy’s not here to score a spot on the block. After a short absence he returns to his car lugging two full water-cooler jugs. They look blue and refreshing, but as he hoists them into the back of his vehicle my sprained ankle aches in sympathy. He pulls out and drives off towards Eighth Avenue.

Just after 9 the street sweeper comes by, hissing loudly. As soon as it passes, we fire up our engines and move back into legitimate parking spaces, but we continue waiting in our cars. Even after the sweeper has passed you can still get a ticket for parking on the street-sweeping side during the forbidden hours.

A stiff-haired man in an undershirt and work pants comes out of #200, goes over to the motorcycle, ignores the ticket, moves the bike casually to the opposite side of the street, then goes back inside. Ah, for the life of a rich New York City ne’er-do-well. A lady with a basset hound and a shopping bag full of clean, white towels comes out of #200, but this dog isn’t out for a walk. He’s headed for the bright-orange minivan labeled “Pet Chauffeur” that’s just pulled up across the street. Ah, for the life of a rich New York City hound.

The minutes creep by. These are surely the hour-and-a-halfs that try men’s souls. It’s getting hotter and hotter. 9:20. 9:30. 9:40. I get some good reading done. At 9:50 a restless flutter runs down the block. Arms appear and withdraw. Drivers get out, get back in. Windows close and open and close again. 9:52. Someone gets out of his car, looks up the block, slowly fishes out his keys and locks the doors. 9:55. We’ve all put on our Clubs and gotten out of our cars. We look up the block. There’s a police car on the far corner, across Seventh Avenue, but it’s busy with something not traffic-related. With several looks back to make sure there’s no last-minute ticketing to fear, I hobble off towards the office. I’ll only be five minutes late to work. Until next time, fellow car owners. Until next time.

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