Nov 9, 2007

Alternate Sides

Her smiling face was perfectly framed in my side view mirror. Our eyes met and she said something cheerful like ‘I think it’s time’ as she adjusted the bottom of her sweater down over her hips. She kept looking in my mirror, eyes locked on mine.
This was quite an invitation--I stuck my head out the window.
‘Wow this was really something,’ I said. ‘My first time.’
‘You never done this?’ she smiled, hefting a suede patchwork purse over her shoulder and then flipping her heavy curls out from under the strap.
‘I only discovered this block a few days ago, but I’ve never been here when the sweeper comes through.’
‘Oh yeah, that’s really crazy, right?’

The signs on this street say ‘No Parking 8:30am to 10am’ but we’ve all been here since before 9:30, most def initely ‘parked’. It was an odd sight to see all of these cars lined up here at 9:30 looking like sitting ducks under the ‘no parkingtil 10’ signs above them. But it was a welcome sight as I circled in this direction looking for parking and found an available space behind a blue Jetta.
People sit behind the wheels of most of the cars, doing crosswords, talking on cell phones, meaning technically--?--that their car hasn’t really been parked (does parked mean abandoned? left alone?). Some of the cars are only loosely guarded. One of the ‘drivers’ smokes cigarettes on the sidewalk next to his dented brown sedan. A collegiate guy sits on a stoop near his Passat with the paper and a
coffee. A woman ahead of me entertains her dog at the curb by her Volvo station wagon. A guy in a plaid shirt seems to be responsible for two different cars--he sits in one for awhile then hops out and sits in the other. It has a Goldilocks kind of flavor--I imagine him thinking this one’s tooo hard and this one’s tooo soft.
These 90th street people all seem to know each other, nodding hellos and mutterings about the weather I can hear from my own open window (it’s a gorgeous crisp May morning). This small cluster of neighbors must go through this together several times a week (with a reprieve on Wednesday and the weekends when *gasp* it’s all legal). Here today, like on a few previous days, I slotted my car in guiltily,
almost worried that someone more regular might show up and demand his spot.

In a decade of having a car in the city I’ve never gotten used to all of this legal law-breaking.
Double parking is gently overlooked on some blocks, including my own in Brooklyn, during the alternate side parking times posted on the signs. But keep your car double parked for one minute past the time when it’s ok to be back on the opposite curb and you could get a hundred dollar ticket. You could get towed.
Double park to pack your car up for a weekend getaway and you could get a ticket, even with your intentions advertised by a popped-up trunk and blinking hazards. But double park for a full hour and a half, trapping strangers’ cars against the curb, while watching soaps a block away in a living room (waiting for the beep of the oven timer to announce it’s time to move the car back) and traffic cops look the other way.
It’s overlooked to a fault. Once years ago (pre-cell phone) I dropped my boyfriend off for some minor out-patient surgery and went across town to make an appearance at work before returning later that morning to pick him up. When I came out of work at 10:30 to get my car to fetch him I discovered that I was completely walled in by a presumptuous row of double parked cars. I called the police to complain. I really really needed access to my own legally parked
car. They said there was nothing they could or would do. The owner of the car that proved the biggest obstacle had neglected to leave a phone number on his dashboard. For his crime he received an angry note from me under his windshield wiper, not an expensive orange ticket. I was livid. I was screwed. I was one of the only drivers that morning who had obeyed the law, and I was the one whose day was
most ruined (unless you count my pitiful drugged up boyfriend, waiting with a crutch, a cast, and a portable urinal across town).
This whole world took a bit of getting used to (the do-gooder in me just can’t believe I’m actually disobeying something) and now that I’d discovered this new block that worked with my current schedule of classes, I was aware that I didn’t know the particular quirks. Do we have to sit here til the moment parking’s legal or can
we leave our cars a few minutes early? I watched the people around me, in a when-in-Rome kind of way. Perhaps some day I’d be a regular here too, like the happy curly-haired Pinto-driver who keeps smiling at me now.

I eyed the clock. 9:54. Parking would be officially legal at 10, but my clock was a few minutes fast, or was it slow? All I can remember is that sometimes it works in my favor that it’s off a few minutes, but I rarely remember which end of on-time the favor is. I hadn’t sat in the car for half an hour to risk getting a ticket by cutting it too close in the final minute.
I laid out my belongings on the passenger seat next to me. I gathered them up slowly. I went to check the side view mirror again for the woman but she was standing at my window now. Beaming. Was she waiting for me? Is this something the regulars do?

“How about that guy with the two cars?” I asked, sticking to the safe subject of our shared experience. She was, after all, a perfect stranger. And I was sitting here with my window already open. I wanted to keep it light.
“Oh yeah they get paid to do that, you know. Not fair to the rest of us out here.”
I nodded knowingly, enjoying that I was considered one of the honest, hard-working law-breakers--my third time on 90th street and already a member of ‘the rest of us.’
“Well I don’t know how he does it, I had a hard enough time managing with my own car.”
It really had been quite a feat. In my dabblings with the double-parking I’d never been a part of such a scramble.

Fifteen minutes earlier I had been immersed in my New Yorker because Howard Stern was on a commercial break, when I realized that the Jeep a few cars up was pulling out suddenly into a double-parked position across the street. The cars between me and the Jeep followed frantically. Like in the movies when the coffee cup starts to dance around in its saucer before the townsfolk realize the earthquake is happening, this sudden and jerky disruption of our orderly curbside line-up confused me--until the rumbling of the street-sweeper sunk in.
I caught site of it swishing and lurking ominously about seven car-lengths behind me, and jammed my car into gear (whoops the engine was off, restarted it, switched it into gear...) and nudged the front of my van across the street in what became more of a show of my intent to move than a successful getting out of the way. The problem was that I was as interested in how the guy with the plaid shirt was
going to move his two back-to-back vehicles across the street as I was in getting my own car clear of the sweeper’s path. I was simulataneously checking him out in my side-view mirror and checking out my own clearance. Was I pissing off the woman in the Jetta? I couldn’t understand if the look on her face was anger towards me or
comradic anger about the guy with the two cars. I shrugged noncommittally back at her--a carefully designed shrug meant to indicate either ‘yikes! sorry’ or ‘that guy’s some kind of nutjob.'

By the time the sweeper groped its way up the curb, we had managed to turn this narrow side street into a four lane road. One lane of traffic remained parked on the left, our line of cars ooched over to create a double parked lane next to that, the street sweeper did its business along the right curb, and there was still room for the occasional poor sob to inch his way through. It must have been a
bizarre thing to witness from any of the thirty-floor high rises that lined the block. Enormously ungraceful. Not very satisfying--not like the slow choreography of two opposing lanes following their own left-turn signals down on Houston and Bowery, or at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge--which always feels like water ballet to me. Somehow we all reshuffled ourselves back along the curb on the
right. I ended up leapfrogging over three vehicles and was now ahead of the Jeep. I’m not sure how that happened. The more I try to figure it out the more confused I get.

The lady was firmly planted next to my door now, looking down the block, sighing like I was holding her up or something--like we’d been assigned to each other and I wasn’t keeping up well enough.
‘Do you work up here?’ I asked--still interested in driving this conversation, worried that she might lead us somewhere religious and awkward if I let her have the keys. She was middle-aged and hispanic and had the kind of overly happy face that makes you wonder what sortof touchy feely corner you might find yourself roped in to, what sort of pamphlets she might be carrying in the outside pocket of her
“No I live in that building.” She indicated one of the highrises cheerfully. “You?”
“I teach a few blocks away--my first class isn’t until ten fifteen--if it were any sooner I wouldn’t be able to wait in the car like this.”
I checked the time--10:00 (but did that mean 9:58 or 10:02--not knowing could be costly)
“I’m always too nervous to leave the car too early” I explained, nodding at my dashboard.
“I know,” she laughed. “I always try to figure out how long it would take the traffic cop to get from the end of the block to the middle.”
“Me too!” and I really used the exclamation mark--I love it when other people confess to the weird inner math that I live with. “I always wonder how long it takes to write a ticket, and I try to figure out when I can go...’
“Me too!” she said, with her own exclamation mark.

Together we looked up and down the block, nodding in agreement that enough people were leaving their cars that it would take an honest ticket-writer more than a couple of minutes to discover our own vacant cars and by that time we’d be parked legally.

She stood by while I grabbed my bag and locked my car. We ambled down the block slowly, in the middle of the road.
“I’m an art teacher” I offered.
“Oh! my son’s a tattoo artist” she said.
“Wow that sounds really neat!” I said, suddenly thinking that being the mom of a tattoo artist must be really neat.
We introduced ourselves, still using exclamation marks, and parted friends. Excited to see each other for the next installment of ‘break the law before breakfast.’
For the next few days I aimed for that block at 9:30, only to find it full up with cars. Each time I’ve found a spot several blocks away. I park on these other blocks willingly but begrudgingly. 90th street remains my first choice. Because one day, thanks to this woman (whose name I’ve already forgotten) I was one of the regulars.

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