This is the last time I'll do it. I tell myself that every time I drive into Manhattan.
And then I do it, again. But last Thursday was the absolute last time -- the last, last time. I swear.
It's funny, I used to think I knew New York. But I really only knew half of it. I knew pedestrian New York, not vehicle New York. They're totally different places. Pedestrian New York, where I lived for 35 years, is a conveyor belt of conveniences. Vehicle New York is Hades. It's smash-your-head-into-your-own-steering-wheel awful, and it seems to be getting worse by the day.
It's not the traffic or even the potholes, some of which look like they were made from artillery fire. It's the parking, which has become virtually undoable. I finally understand why Calvin Trillin's novel, "Tepper Isn't Going Out," about a man moving into his parking spot, was so funny and so popular.
Just try understanding Manhattan parking signs. They're not confusing; they're indecipherable. I'd place the under-over on Jean-Francois Champollion cracking the parking-sign code at never, and he broke hieroglyphics in two years. If only there were a Rosetta Stone for Manhattan parking rules . . .
After six years as a suburbanite, I have developed my own rough working translation: Whatever the sign reads, it actually means, "Drop Dead!" And if a miracle spot opens up, it's a "we-can't-believe-you-fell-for-that" spot.
Parking garage signs universally read: $40 uptown and $50 downtown. They may include words like "special" or "two hour" or "$19," but don't be fooled. They mean $50.
My travails began last Wednesday night when I had to go to a memorial service on the Upper East Side. I couldn't be late. It was for a friend who had died suddenly, and the service wouldn't run for much more than an hour. The trip was 36 miles or 49 minutes, according to Google Maps. So I gave myself two hours to get there.
It was smooth sailing until Manhattan. (Isn't it always?) And then reality struck. Five-minute-per-block traffic, which I had anticipated. I wasn't even considering street parking for my ugly dented minivan, even though I did see a few we-can't-believe-you-fell-for-that spots. It would be straight to the garage across the street from where the service would be held to be sure I would be unticketed and on time.
But the lot was full. And so was the next one and the next one, the first bead of perspiration rolling down my neck. And then I found a garage that almost looked welcoming. It had all sorts of those "$19 special" sandwich board signs out front, and I pulled in. That's when the yelling started from a parking attendant who must have once worked at Checkpoint Charlie. His arms flailed as he screamed at me in either a new or dead language, I couldn't determine which. The only thing I could make out was that he wanted to charge me $42, plus $10 extra, to park for an hour.
"Why extra?" I asked.
"Because you pay $10 extra," he said.
Pride got the better of me, and with 20 minutes to spare, I headed back into the River of Hell, where I went in ever wider concentric circles searching for something, anything. The beads of sweat multiplied. Then, with seven minutes to spare, a dirty white utility van pulled sharply up alongside me at a red light at Park Avenue and 80th Street. We were window-to-window, so close that our front mirrors actually touched. The man in the passenger seat knocked on my window, and in a moment of extraordinary bravery, I opened it.
As incredible as it might seem, he spoke the same language as the Checkpoint Charlie fellow, but he also spoke English. What he said was that he and his partner could fix the dents in my minivans in a matter of minutes. Now, I'm a jaded New Yorker. I've seen every scam imaginable in the past 40 years, but in my desperation for a parking spot, I actually found myself pulling over with these two men a couple of blocks later, and agreeing to give them $600 (plus a big tip, which will go unmentioned) if they would watch my car for an hour and do whatever the heck it was they were going to do with it -- as long as it didn't get towed or ticketed. "No worry, Mister."
The last thing I saw walking away from my van on Lexington Avenue and 81st Street was these two guys banging away at with hammers. I had no idea what I might be coming back to, but at that point I didn't care. I had to get to the service on time, and a $600 parking arrangement was worth it, even though I couldn't afford it.
When I got back, it was too dark to fully see what they had done with the car, but I dutifully handed over the $600 along with the undisclosed tip and drove away.
It was my wife who first saw their work in the light of morning, and you know what? They did a pretty darn good job. I got bodywork and parking on the Upper East Side for 600 bucks on a Wednesday night. Not bad.
Thursday morning I had to head back into the city for a meeting in midtown. I pulled into a lot with a sign that read, "Early morning special $14.99." I asked the guy what it would really cost. He said, "$62 sir," and I said, "I'll take it."