Dispatches: How to Park a Car in Downtown New York City

Propositions:

1) If you’re only staying for an evening, a weekend or until early the next morning, it’ll be a piece of cake.  Simply arrive in town around 5:45pm.  There are many “No Parking M-F 8am-6pm” places all over New York.  Just park and you’re good for the night or the whole weekend.  For instance, Soho has a wealth of these spots open every night and all weekend on its north-south streets, Mercer, Greene, Wooster, etc.  Get there as they turn over.  The next morning, leave before eight and there you have it.  If you want to park for longer…

2) Here’s where it gets a little complex.  You need to deal with one of the local practices that make New York New York: alternate side parking, the system in which you can’t park on most residential streets for an hour and a half one or two times per week.  During this time the street cleaning vehicle makes its slow, rolling pass, spraying and brushing.  You’re supposed to move your car and come back when the time’s up, but that would be way too cavalier a way to treat one of your most prized possessions: your spot.  What actually happens is this: you get in your car and sit there for sixty to ninety minutes, moving into the middle of the street when the street cleaning truck comes by, and guarding against parking tickets by being in your vehicle (you’re actively standing, not passively parked).  Some people sleep, some drink coffee, some read the paper, neighbors get out and shoot the breeze. 

3)  If you’re in an alternate-side spot the first thing to do in the morning is call 311 (the NYC information hotline, a super-cool Bloomberg brainchild).  A recorded message will say: “Alternate side parking regulations are in effect today… and tomorrow.”  This is crucial because you might be able do something else or sleep a lot longer if they are suspended for a holiday or something.  But more likely, they’re not.  So go find a spot.

4) A good working knowledge of the streets and what times the street cleaning occurs helps.  For instance:  the alternate-side spaces on Rivington are a nicely timed 8-9:30am street cleaning, beginning just as the 8am-6pm’s expire.  They are also well policed by an old crew of regulars.  They keep things fairly orderly, and they will stand outside their cars and commiserate with you about a ticket received at 9:31am the other week.  The far East Village has a lot of 11-12:30pm spaces in case you’re stuck around that time.  Park Slope and Dumbo both have only once-a-week street cleaning spots, for some unknown reason (all those yoga moms got organized and lobbied the city?).  Just park and ride.  Over time, you develop a mental map associating blocks and times.  If such a map exists on the internet, please tell me about it!

5) It is good to have fallbacks in case your usual block is full.  I recommend driving over to Ninth Street Coffee (on 9th and C) to caffeinate and strategize.  Also, the two-hour meters on Chrystie or on LaGuardia can buy you needed time.  I have a secret spot near a police station where no one gives tickets because they assume the cars all belong to cops.  I almost want to tell you where it is.  But if you’re really stuck, here’s a tip: drive all the way east on Houston Street, and turn right as if you were getting on to the FDR.  On the right, you’ll see a bunch of street-cleaning spots, not often filled.  It’s a long walk back to civilization, but you’ll be parked.

6) Often, a well-meaning person takes it upon himself (always it’s a man) to direct traffic once the street-cleaning Zamboni comes by, after which there’s always a slightly mad slow-motion scramble to retake your spot before a nest-invading passing car does.  After that, it’s back to waiting.  I bring my laptop and occasionally type up something, or if there’s a wireless network available, Google myself or whatever.  It surprising how much work you can get done.  As a matter of fact, I’m sitting in a vehicle right now, on the corner of Mott and Spring at 10:37am on Monday. 

7) Crime: basically, don’t drive a Honda.  They are the most often jacked, because their locks are about as Mickey Mouse as locks come (just jam a screwdriver in and away you go), and because there are so many that chop shops prefer them.  Also, don’t leave anything, like laptops, in your trunk.  I’ve never had a break-in, but my friend with a Honda had her laptop stolen out of her trunk.

Inferences:

1) It turns out that parking a car on the street in New York isn’t that hard, but it requires an annoying time investment two mornings a week.  It also requires some perseverance and the ability to keep your head under pressure: after that cleaning vehicle goes by, there is a dash to get back in place, and the easily rattled can be outfought musical-chairs style.  It’s not exactly Hard Knock University, but it is a moment in which you need to assert yourself with some discernable form of gusto.

2) If you can share the burden with someone else, the price of having a car in the city becomes a pretty manageable one ninety-minute session per week.  And having the car is great: you won’t even notice that you went from Red Hook to the Navy Yard to the L.E.S. to Greenpoint in one night, journeys that would total about three hours by subway and bus. 

3) I wonder if there are bosses who force their interns to sit in their cars for them during street-cleaning time.  I must admit, I have had fantasies about just such an arrangement.  (Though I suppose rich people shell out for a garage.)  Would that be disgusting and elitist and cross the line between work work and domestic work, like when bosses make their assistants pick up their dry-cleaning?  Probably.

4) This whole ritual can be a little monotonous, but has one major benefit: it forces you to look at the street and the people on it.  Many small epiphanies are had here: how beautiful the variety of people is, how funny their morning moods, how interesting all the plants on that balcony you never noticed.  Right now, Laura from the deli is sweeping the sidewalk, the Italians are opening up their cafes.  A Hummer pulled up behind me, then got tired of waiting or something, and gave up his spot, which was taken by a more patient man in a Bronx sweatshirt driving a van with a ladder on top.  A young woman crossed the street just now, looking somewhat blank.  Now here comes another, smiling broadly and beautifully as she steps back to allow a truck its rightful right of way, one of those rock-forward-rock-back-to-the-curb manuevers.  Now she’s crossing, looking straight into my face to check for oncoming traffic.  I smile.  She increases her smile briefly to acknowledge my witnessing her little move a second ago.  A bearded man with friendly eyes, crossing the other way, looks at her too, then at me.  He smiles.

Street Parking and Love:

1) The difficulties posed by street parking can be shared, but the car will be ticketed, booted, and finally towed unless they are shared with someone who has some baseline level of responsibility, competence, and common sense.  Do these not seem the very same qualities useful but not always present in girlfriends and boyfriends?  Let this suggest a litmus test.  Whether or not someone can handle street cleaning together with you is a good indicator of how able they are to perform shared endeavors, hopefully somewhat reliably and in good humor.  Think about the person you’re with or want to be with.  Can you imagine sharing the parking of a vehicle in New York with them?  Could they handle it?  Could you?  Would they want to?  Would you?  And, maybe, let that separate the flings from the real things.

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