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Hit-and-Run Parking

BY RICH HERSCHLAG
12.20.2005 | SOCIETY

Let's hear it for the New York City Council overriding the Bloomberg veto and suspending parking meter enforcement on Sundays. The easing of regulations in an income-hungry, resource-scarce society is a rare, watershed event that--like the birth of the baby Jesus or a small canister of oil lasting eight days--ought to be viewed with awe. The question remains, however, can you smoke in a parked car?

Historically, the parking regulation maze may have seemed onerous and sadistic, but there was always a silver lining. It gave average citizens like myself the chance to experience life as an outlaw. For a few years back in the 80s, I was a parking renegade. My city survival kit included a paper bag and a rubber band to cover and tie off a meter. I carried around an old parking ticket to leave on my windshield. I figured the parking cops would look at it like a dog sniffing a tree that had already been marked. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes I was wrong. In case of a brand new ticket, I carried around a Polaroid camera to take misleading photos of the spot. I was so good at making a vehicle appear 15 feet back from the corner, I had offers to freelance.

But some of my hearings by mail didn't go so well. And once your outstanding tickets total more than your bi-weekly paycheck, there is no turning back. Fear turns to freedom. The city becomes your personal parking lot. Reason lets you park anywhere, and conscience lets you park anywhere but a hydrant. After one memorable nine-month spree, I gave my '76 Dodge Aspen to a bogus charity. The decision was easy. The car was worth about 30 bucks, the tax write-off about 300, and the fines avoided about 3,000. They were probably still ticketing that car while it was being crushed by a hydraulic press.

Then I bought another clunker and started all over again. I quickly reached new heights, even rarified air. My registration was suspended for unpaid parking tickets. Then the vehicle was ticketed for not being registered. On one occasion, the car was ticketed while I was inside the Jamaica DMV trying to plead my case, which taught me a civics lesson I still haven't forgotten. My fiance warned me the vehicle would be towed. I wish. Imagine my disappointment upon returning, time and again, and finding my '77 pea-green Ford Granada still there.

But then my fiance became my wife and co-signer, and I had to go legit. When I finally turned myself in, it was like Jesse James showing up at traffic court. I was a legend in five boroughs. Some employees of the court looked at me with wonderment, others with loathing. Still others just wanted to touch my plates or get a signature on the docket. I settled for 40 cents on the dollar and was released on my own recognizance.

Being a scofflaw wasn't entirely immoral when the law deserved scoffing. In those days, you sometimes got a ticket for someplace you never were, which was great if you were Robert Blake looking for an alibi. Other times, traffic cops started writing out your ticket before you were firmly in a spot, which gave new meaning to the phrase "Don't even think of parking here." So I got tickets, and I didn't even think of paying them. I knew the system was corrupt. Sure I was upset, but I wasn't going to kill myself over it. Then the Queens Borough President did just that. These days, older and better at faking wisdom, I stay within the law. Just barely. I've gone from someone who marginally passed the parallel parking part of his driver's test to a world-class shoehorn. My friends call me the helicopter, but I swear I use only two dimensions. Yes, I've love-tapped plenty of cars, but it was all between consenting vehicles.

Gone are the days when a quarter bought you 30 minutes. Now you might get 10. As a result, I don't merely feed the meter. I give it intravenous. I hire passersby to feed quarters. And here's a little something to feed yourself. My sock full of quarters could have been used by Charles Bronson in Death Wish. When hording quarters, I'll buy The New York Post eight times without reading it once. Also quite handy are those 25-cent packs of Juicy Fruit. I now have enough to stick a piece under every school desk in the city.

I check on my spot from windows and rooftops just to see if everything's going okay. I believe my vehicle and I are connected psychically. Even a half-dozen blocks away, I can sense a summons being written. When I feel a cold sweat coming on, that's a traffic cop taking down my plate. One time, I interrupted a full body massage just to see how my '93 Saturn was doing on 97th and Broadway. I have trouble with eye charts, but I can still spot a ticket on the front windshield from 800 yards. Of course, there are few pleasures in life greater than the relief that comes with nearing what you think is a ticket on your windshield and realizing it's a menu. Makes you almost happy enough to order the egg foo young.

I try not to triple-park. Instead, I hold out for a respectable double-park. The waiting list can be months. Once I'm in, I politely give the giving universal sign language for "No, I'm not getting out." I just wanted to sit and gloat a minute. Is that so wrong?

Cruising for a spot can leave you burned out and jaded. It's like playing hundreds of losing lottery tickets, one after the other. You develop an eye for a faded yellow strip. But it's not yet faded enough. Try again next spring. Then you see a space. You get excited. But it's a house of worship. Or a funeral parlor. Bus stop. No parking here to corner. Driveway. Commercial vehicles only. Note to self: Get commercial plates. Anything but the garage.

Sometimes there are four different no parking signs covering the same block in overlapping fashion. If you have a degree in logic from MIT and are willing to risk the fine, you may eventually figure out that Thursday between four and five A.M. is all good. But by that time, it may not be.

When all is said and done, it's not a personal thing, but pure mathematics. At any given moment, there are more cars in the city than legal parking spots. The difference--minus the cars garaged or actually driving somewhere--represents the number of vehicles circling the block.

Your vehicle, if you still have one, is not a mode of transportation. It's a municipal revenue source. As for me, I have an E-ZPass. Now all I need is an E-ZPark.

     

About the Author
Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002).

Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Also a radio commentator, he can be visited at RichsRant.com.

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