This past weekend I went to run some errands and found that our family minivan’s battery had died. Add it to the ‘last thing I needed’ list. We are lucky enough to be a two car family, and while I thought we had jumper cables in our other car, it turns out we did not. I was spared the opportunity to make myself look extra useful or electrocute myself.
I had to wait until after our older children were in bed before I could call AAA and have our car’s battery tended to. That took longer than I thought, and I wound up paying cash for a new battery. We needed it and I know my wife would not have time to go to a garage this week.
I set out on a drive to get cash from the ATM after using all that I had on me to pay for the new car battery. Some of us have become so accustomed to using credit cards or debit cards for just about any purchase over $20, that our trips to our bank’s ATM are infrequent.
Sunday night after 10 p.m. is a quiet time in the Western world. My part of Queens, New York, is a residential area where people are enjoying their last hours of family and freedom before the grind of the workweek picks up again.
Driving alone at night is one of life’s pleasures I used to enjoy more frequently. I had a car in the latter part of high school and through college, and taking long drives was a time I could enjoy solitude and productive daydreaming (even at night) and listen to music. Long walks and runs fulfill this need in city life, but the lure of the open road can’t be duplicated on foot so easily.
It is interesting to see who else is also on the road, what other strangers are enjoying the quiet time to be out and about while most of the nearby world is cloistered in their homes for the night. Drivers are not rushing to get everywhere as much and there’s a modicum of civility that you don’t find during daylight hours.
Sunday nights in particular, are fun times to get out. You can see this with drinking too. With Monday morning looming, not too many people are at the bars, and Sunday night at the bar was a great guilty pleasure during my drinking years.
Cruising down Willets Point Boulevard, few other drivers were on the road. I had a few errands to run and made some lucky green lights, with few others taking up lane space around me.
I got to my bank and went to use the ATM—the machine was giving out only $1, $5, and $100 bills because our financial institutions are losing their basic competencies. No mind, I set out again to drive to the next closest branch, just a mile or so away. Francis Lewis Boulevard is in the middle of repaving, and a big stretch of road has been milled down to a rough, striated surface. It was rough driving where normally it would be smooth; each manhole felt like driving over a pitcher’s mound.
I reached the next branch of the bank, only to find it was no longer there. Banks are closing branches as more people do all their banking online. I made an illegal U-turn and headed back towards home, stopping at a gas station to feed quarters to an air pump to refill two of our van’s tires. This gas station was a full service gas station, and the attendant stood in his booth, waiting for someone who needed gas. Good for them for being open late on a Sunday,
My business done, I returned home, listening to music and enjoying the quiet streets of Queens before the deluge of the workweek arrived.
I was put in the terrifying position of watching over all three of my young children on my own for several hours. My wife does this every day as I commute to work in Manhattan and back. But she was doing food demonstrations for Flushing C.S.A. at an event at the historic John Bowne House recently and I was on my own with our three girls.
I had not planned what to do but my wife convinced me that taking them to the New York Hall of Science would be good. She was spot on. If you have young children and if it’s convenient to get to, the New York Hall of Science is a great place.
We stayed as long as we could but after about four and a half hours there, our three-year-olds had clothes that were wet from one of the water exhibits and it was time to start heading home. We had arrived before it was open but we left around 2:15 p.m. and I made a bee line straight for home and kept up conversation with the kids as best I could, hoping the motion of driving would not put the girls to sleep, but it did.
Kids napping in the car is a double-edged sword. On one hand the kids are guaranteed to take a nap at the same time. On the other hand that nap will not be that long and you will be stuck in your vehicle for an hour. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes that doesn’t work at all. You can’t go on a long trip because the kids could wake up at any time and start crying and you’ll need to take them home quickly. If you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck and may have to improvise.
I realized less than a mile from home that I was now going to be spending at least the next hour or more in the minivan. I was at peace with that.
Drive time can be a time of much-appreciated solitude. Quiet solitude is remarkably achievable even when you’re living in a city of millions of people. The size of New York gives its citizens a certain degree of anonymity. During my drive I passed by thousands of people, had close encounters with maybe half dozen drivers down narrow two-way streets, and did business with one fast food worker. I could give you the basic pedigree information about the fast food worker but nothing else, and I doubt anyone I encountered during that hour and a half could tell you anything about me.
When you spend most of your days without any peace and quiet, you learn to appreciate any small moments of quiet solitude you can get, and these drive times with napping children can be very valuable. They are something that takes the edge off of the frantic pace of the city, that gives us a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of our own corner of this metropolis without interruption. The same can be said of walks in the park or even walking anonymously down city streets.
Our teeming Gotham demands much of us and part of the thrill of living here is to embrace the breakneck pace of life. But when you get a chance for an hour of respite, no matter how diluted, grasp onto it and enjoy every minute.
Police in my part of the city are looking for a driver that ran down a 76-year-old man on a bicycle and drove away. The man is in the hospital and there is video of the car believed to be involved.
I would love to say I’m surprised but I’m not [insert typical joke about Asian drivers here—the stereotype is generally true but other ethnic groups are much worse]. Driving is terrible here because people get away with driving like savages in New York and the police rarely do anything about it. A woman was killed by a hit-and-run driver in downtown Flushing a few years ago. A three-year-old was run down and killed not far away and the driver was barely given a slap on the wrist.
While the quality of driving in Flushing is awful I’ve found driving to be worse in other parts of the city. I noticed it is extremely bad in uptown Manhattan where I once lived and saw an incident that I think sums up driving in New York and the police’s lack of response to it perfectly.
I saw a cab driver make a left turn onto Broadway and he not only ran a red light, he didn’t have room to merge with drivers that had just made the light, so he was started driving on the wrong side of the road towards a police car! That’s right, the cab driver was playing chicken with a patrol car of New York’s Finest and essentially won since the police didn’t seem to notice or care. Think about it – you can run a red light and drive on the wrong side of the road in front of cops here and they won’t do anything.
It’s good that the police are at least drawing the line at hit-and-run attacks on elderly cyclists, but they likely could have prevented this if they took vehicle infractions seriously.
When my truck was vandalized late last year, I reported it to the police. Three officers showed up to tell me that there was nothing they can do since a sticker on a window was not considered vandalism for some reason. I was pretty sure that if I had stuck a sticker on the window of their car in full view of them that I’d quickly find myself riding in the back of their car. But I didn’t want to waste time arguing with them when I had to get to work getting the sticker off of my car (and I did it perfectly with no residue left—take that asshole sticker vandal; I haven’t forgotten about you).
I was pulled over once by the police while driving in Flushing. It was because I made a left turn at an intersection where turns were no longer allowed. The city has created a lot of these no-turning zones and it makes driving more difficult all over the city. I didn’t plow over any pedestrians or run a red light. I’ve seen charter busses make real illegal left turns against traffic and running red lights and not be pulled over at all. To their credit, the police did not ticket me when they pulled me over, but told me not to commit that infraction again.
I hope the police catch the animal that ran down an old man on his bicycle. I hope they throw the book at him (or her) and they never drive in New York again. I’m going to continue to be one of the last civilized drivers on the streets of our city. Being right is its own reward, sometimes its only reward.
When I moved back to New York City years ago, one of the greatest benefits was that I didn’t need a car.
My luck with cars has been terrible. My first car, a 1987 Plymouth Horizon, broke down constantly. I was a broke college student who couldn’t afford a new head gasket when my car put itself out of its misery via self immolation.
I bought my second vehicle from a shirtless man in the back woods of Georgia who was drunk at two in the afternoon and called his son “Molson” even though that wasn’t his name. My giant 1977 Plymouth Voyager van was mustard yellow with a big white strip. If you viewed it at the right angle you could still make out the lettering from the church that used to own it. It didn’t perform much better than my old Horizon. Its drive shaft fell off on Interstate 285 in Atlanta once.
My 15-year car-free life came to an end a few years ago when the wife and I bought a used truck. I don’t live in Manhattan anymore and Eastern Queens is not as much of an automotive purgatory as Manhattan. And being involved in music means I have to haul large speaker cabinets, guitars and drunk musicians throughout and beyond the five boroughs.
But the conveniences of city car ownership are paid for with the wages of anger and aggravation.
The roads are full of bad drivers and New York City is rife with people who not only drive terribly but feel entitled to do so. I’ve seen people in Inwood triple park rather than walk an extra 20 feet to a supermarket. I’ve seen cab drivers wait until they have a red light to drive across an intersection.
And parking in New York City is a misery that never goes away unless you are somehow incredibly wealthy. The city’s parking laws are a Byzantine morass of prohibitions that are consistently poorly-signed. A liberal interpretation of a sign can get you a fat ticket or worse, towed. I have not had the experience of paying vehicular ransom at a city impound lot, but every account I have heard from survivors indicates it is a Kafkaesque nightmare that can make someone hate our city for life.
My wife has lived in the co-op apartment we share for more than twelve years and was on a waiting list for a parking space for five years.
We thought our parking troubles were mostly over. We have a regular space. But the perpetual douchery of New York City driving revealed itself again just this past weekend.
My wife had taken our baby girls to visit relatives in Nassau County and returned home from three hours of tied-up traffic on the Long Island Expressway. to find someone had parked in our spot.
Normally the travails of someone with a reserved parking spot would fall firmly in the confines of “First World Problems.” But when you’ve waited five years for that spot and you’re a barely middle-class family with no margin for parking tickets or private garages and someone rudely parks their Mercedes Benz in your spot, violence is justified.
If someone had left a note on the car with their contact info and let us call them to move the car, it would have been no problem. We would have been annoyed but impressed by their willingness to be decent upon notice. Because of the late hour and our building management’s inability to get a towing company right, we were stuck without legal parking for the night.
Normally this would be license to get creative with vandalism. If this car had a sunroof, my dream of justifiable shitting through a sunroof of a snotty dickhead’s car would have finally been realized. I would have loved to stick bananas in the tailpipe, pissed all over the door handles and leave a steaming log of justice on the windshield. It would have given me joy to superglue some tasteless gay porn all over the windows and scratched giant curse words into the expensive paint job.
But since our space is reserved, the authorities would have us as their prime suspects easily. There was little we could do but leave a tersely-worded note stating that they were parked illegally and we had been forced to call the towing service (which was true, even though the towing service was out of business).
So justice has not been served. If you see a dark-colored Mercedes Benz S550 with New York license plate FTX-2898, please vandalize the shit out of it. Thank you.
Since four out of five New York City boroughs are on Islands, living in New York means dealing with bridges (and subway tunnels) if you want to get anywhere. Since I became a driver in New York a few years ago, I have mostly driven over the Whitestone Bridge, which is closest to my home.
Lately the authorities have gotten into the nasty habit of adding or changing names to some of its bridges. The 59th Street Bridge was officially called the Queensboro Bridge until a few years ago when they decided to also name if after former New York City mayor Ed Koch. It’s now the Ed Koch/Queensboro Bridge. The Triborough Bridge has been renamed the RFK Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy, who was a U.S. Senator from New York when he was gunned down. This has been aggravating. I don’t want to call the Triborough the RFK Bridge. Triborough works better – it connects three boroughs and the name sums that up nicely.
The 59th Street Bridge is a depressing and aggravating bridge for drivers. It has all of the congested traffic of midtown Manhattan with the sooty industrial character of the more neglected parts of Queens. But it is free, so people will stew in hellish traffic to save themselves the $7.50 it now costs to take the Triborough Bridge. (Public policy experts note that the systems of tolls we have on bridges in New York is backward, that we should charge tolls for bridges over the East River that cause more traffic congestion and instead encourage people to use the larger, highway-connected bridges, which now charge tolls).
This past Saturday I was driving home after dropping off some good friends in midtown Manhattan. I made my way east from Times Square and seriously considered taking the Triborough home. No, I thought to myself, I must overcome my apprehension about taking the 59th Street Bridge and make a success of it this evening.
I found myself on First Avenue but did not make the first turnoff I saw for the bridge. I came upon another turn for the bridge and took it, following behind another pickup truck. I saw a sign saying that the outer roadway of the bridge was closed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. I thought nothing of it; I hadn’t planned on taking the outer roadway of the bridge, which I had never heard of anyway, and those signs usually referred to weekday construction.
The truck ahead of mine came to the entrance of the bridge, which was closed. It was blocked off with orange traffic barrels. The man got of his truck and just moved some of the barrels. He looked at me as he got back in his truck and his face wore the expression of someone who just did not give a fuck about closed roads. For all I knew he was an off-duty cop. I paused for a minute, not sure if I should follow this driver to a new illegally-opened section of the bridge. Fuck it, I thought. If the cops stop me then I’ll play dumb and just say I didn’t know the bridge was closed because the roadway wasn’t closed. That was technically true.
I could have been driving into a dangerous construction zone or have been tailgating some kind of undercover police operation or been intruding on some other kind of high crime or misdemeanor taking place over the East River. All of those unfortunate circumstances still sounded a lot more fun than contending with the convoluted traffic that would have been required to stay law abiding. I drove up the closed ramp of the bridge.
The outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge (a.k.a. the Queensboro Bridge a.k.a. the Ed Koch Bridge) is one narrow late separated from the lower roadway by bridgeworks and thick concrete walls. Every once in a while there is a break in the wall and someone driving a smaller vehicle than my pickup truck could probably get away with maneuvering in and out of the lane. I was stuck on the outer roadway until the bitter end.
I drove on the closed outer roadway as quickly as I could while trying to look normal and blend in with the traffic, though there was no other traffic in my lane at all, except the daring barrel-mover, whose tail lights I could dimly make out far ahead of me. I drove on expecting the law to come bearing down on me any minute or to dead end into an impassable construction site. None of those things happened. I drove over the bridge with a paranoid mania until the regular traffic patterns of the bridge shunted me into a lane that didn’t help me get home.
The worse thing about it for someone driving home from Manhattan over it is that it is very tough to find your way when you reach the other side of the bridge. Whether you take the upper or lower roadway and what lane you take on either roadway can quickly determine your options when you reach Queens. Driving eastbound, it transports you from an anger-fueled Byzantine knot of Manhattan streets to a clustered maze of impossible roadways of Queens.
I eventually disentangled myself from whatever unappealing part of Long Island City I was in and found my way to Northern Boulevard and a more pleasant drive home.
For most of my time in New York, I did without a car. After being poor and having cars break down on me at record pace, I was glad to be done with the world of automobiles. I was happy to leave the driving to New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, though the MTA is poorly run and will always find new ways to make you late for important events.
But time has changed the game plan and I am now one of the lucky people in the five boroughs with a vehicle. Being in one of the farther reaches of Queens, parking is not as worrisome as it would be in Manhattan or other more densely populated parts of the city.
I still work in Manhattan and take public transit to and from work every weekday and will use public transit a lot on the weekends if driving and parking will be bothersome. So I have the dual perspective on city life as viewed from both car driver and mass transit commuter. Mayor de Blasio’s plan to lower the standard speed limit in New York City to 25 miles per hour is ill-advised, unfair and counterproductive.
The administration got the idea from a committee that proposed other measures as well, such as more red light cameras that would automatically dole out tickets and more speed bumps. But if you are serious about cutting down on traffic fatalities, getting bad drivers off of the road should be top priority. More aggressive enforcement is part of the new “Vision Zero” plan, but too much is going to hedge on the speed limit reduction. And that is a punishment to the entire city.
Trying to slow down the whole city won’t work. Driving 25 miles per hour is unrealistically slow for most drivers. Soon after announcing his plans for a change, Mayor de Blasio’s motorcade was caught speeding and violating other traffic laws by CBS News.
Real, aggressive enforcement of traffic laws would put the de Blasio administration up against a variety of groups that he would normally not want to upset.
When I was living in Northern Manhattan, I once saw a livery cab drive on the wrong side of the street in front of police in order to make a light and merge into traffic. I have been in cabs with drivers who lacked English proficiency needed for a New York State driver’s license, let alone a livery license. Cracking down on unqualified and dangerous cab drivers would make our roads a lot safer, but the ideas proposed by the Mayor include needlessly punitive things such as putting devices on cabs that would stop the meter if they were speeding. Cab drivers are opposing those new proposals anyway. You might as well get on their bad side with the right proposals for the right reasons.
Really cracking down on people who consistently violate traffic laws would be an improvement, but there is some evidence to suggest this would have a disparate impact on racial minorities. It’s politically easier to punish everyone with a lower speed limit than to target the drivers that are causing havoc on the city streets.
Reducing cyclist deaths would mean really stopping and ticketing the legions of bad cyclists who ride the wrong way down one-way streets and ride on sidewalks. That would put the Mayor at odds with more of his natural political allies.
We see this kind of response on the part of city government all of the time, when making things worse for everyone can also generate results that political leaders can point to and claim credit for, public be damned.
And here’s something else advocates of the plan fail to consider: A 25-mile-per-hour speed limit would also allow the police to stop just about any driver any time for speeding. It would be a city-wide speed trap that would put us on the same page as Podunk counties in rural areas that collect a large chunk of their revenue from unknowing out-of-town motorists.
The only people who would normally drive 25 miles per hour are the obese or elderly driving motorized scooters. No fully functional driver would drive that slowly without there being traffic congestion or inclement weather. Hopefully this proposal will be kicked to the curb.