When I moved to New York City to live as an adult more than 20 years ago now, one of the things I most looked forward to was being able to live without a car. The 10 years of being a car owner had been miserable. My first car broke down a lot and was finally consumed by flames in an engine fire. I replaced it with a 15-seat passenger van I purchased from an inebriated redneck in the back woods of Northeast Georgia. The van also broke down a lot. The drive shaft fell off on Highway 285 in Atlanta and I give it to charity in hopes of getting a tax write-off rather than try to sell it.
But time and life circumstances change, and six years ago my then fiancé and I decided to get a vehicle together as we were building our new life. I was playing a lot of punk rock shows at the time and we needed something affordable but that would carry a lot of musical equipment as well as be suitable for camping and hunting. We couldn’t afford much, but we managed to find something that fit the bill and was reliable at an affordable price: a full-length pickup truck that we named Big Bertha.
The name was an homage to my then-finance-now-wife’s great grandmother Bertha. It was also an alliterative reference to Blue Betty, an ill-fated blue van that I came to possess for several months and was able to use for only one punk rock show. Driving a barely-functioning van from Suffolk County to Brooklyn while having to shift into neutral at every stop to keep it from stalling out is a harrowing experience that builds character. How that van made it as far as it did is a miracle. We were never able to get it working and eventually sold it for scrap metal and got $300 for it, which didn’t fully cover what I had spent to insure it.
Big Bertha performed flawlessly for every punk rock show, every camping trip. When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we drove Big Bertha to Maine. A missed highway exit took us through Lowell, Massachusetts, where we stopped by to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave (“You don’t look like typical Kerouacers,” the woman at the cemetery office told us, which we took as a compliment). When my wife was pregnant with twins, she found it convenient to use the truck. When our twins were born, Big Bertha enabled us to take our offspring home from the hospital safely.
Perhaps the greatest immediate benefit was ease of getting to shows with equipment when playing music. When my band Blackout Shoppers came home from playing Philadelphia and needed to blast some classic Whitesnake to the hipster-infested Lower East Side, Big Bertha had the power. When we did a short tour with Two Man Advantage, Big Bertha took us through the bitter cold. I somehow managed to park the nearly 20-foot truck in the East Village when we opened for Joe Coffee and 45 Adapters at Bowery Electric.
Driving and parking in New York City is not easy. It is especially difficult to do with a large vehicle. Where we live in Queens makes owning a car a bit easier, as street parking is possible and there are residential streets with more available parking than other places. Owning a vehicle as large as Big Bertha would be impossible in Manhattan and more popular parts of Brooklyn.
Our punk rock pickup truck persevered, until it didn’t. Its transmission, which was never 100%, began to decline rapidly over these last months. When I attempted to drive it to see SLAYER at Jones Beach, I had to quickly change plans and use the family minivan for the trip.
We had Big Bertha towed to our mechanic and the prognosis was not good. Bertha’s transmission was gone and it would be costly to replace. She had taken her last ride and it was on the back of a flatbed pickup truck.
Luckily, our friend Amy Jackson happened to be looking for a buyer for her Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we could not find a better person to help replace our truck. Amy is a photographer and adventurer. When a friend of hers was seriously ill a few years ago, she quickly organized and produced the Gentlemen of Punk Rock calendar to raise money. She accepted our offer and will be using the money to fund her trip to Antarctica. Amy Jr. will be part of our family and while she will never have the enormous presence of Big Bertha, she will be a lot easier to park.
Like many aspects of city living, owning a car is tougher here than elsewhere, but we find our ways to make it work. A decade ago I never thought I would own a vehicle again, and now I have two vehicles registered in my name. Wish us, Amy, and Amy Jr. good luck and smooth travels.
I was fortunate enough to be invited by some friends to join them at a restaurant on Long Island to watch some Ultimate Fighting Championship fights. There are better tributes one can pay to these great fighters than enjoying them beat each other bloody while stuffing yourself with chicken wings, but hey, we’ve got to start our own road to the octagon in our own way.
I went to where my beat-up pickup truck was parked on Willets Point Boulevard near Parsons Boulevard. I was shocked to see a sticker on the passenger’s side window.
THIS VEHICLE IS PARKED ILLEGALLY AND IS HEREBY SUBJECT TO TOWING AND IMPOUNDMENT.
YOUR LICENSE NUMBER WAS RECORDED
New York City street parking regulations can be a Byzantine labyrinth of conflicting signs and notices, particularly in some of the more popular parts of Manhattan. Owning a car in New York City is a rare privilege and I am lucky I’m able to keep a car in the five boroughs, but it comes with a mountain of problems one must negotiate. Many of my fellow New Yorkers are horrible drivers. Parking in some parts of the city impossible and just about every non-millionaire who owns a car in New York has had their car damaged in some way without any justice or compensation.
In the more residential areas of Eastern Queens, the rules are normally much simpler. There are spots that are legal except for a window of time on a given weekday morning, when in theory a street sweeper will come and clean that section of street and curb. The Sanitation Department used to affix one of their infamous neon orange stickers on your car if you violate alternate side of the street parking.
In my neighborhood of Flushing bordering Whitestone, there are also some bus stops that may be legal on the weekends but then become illegal once weekday bus service resumes.
I was parked in a choice spot that was not in an alternate side spot. I’ve parked there repeatedly for years without incident. If any part of where I was parked was illegal, I would have received a parking ticket by now. This sticker was not a Sanitation Department sticker, not an NYPD sticker, nor any other kind of official sticker. Some asshole put it on themselves because they didn’t like that my truck was parked there.
I didn’t have time to peel it off, so I drove out to Long Island with the neon orange sticker screaming my alleged moral decrepitude to all the other drives of Long Island. I was the Uncle Buck of Flushing. I parked my truck in the parking lot of the bar/restaurant where I met my friends and hoped not too many people would notice the blazing orange sticker—the scarlet letter of parking scofflaws—besmirching the good name of all there at Hooter’s of Farmingdale to watch people pummel each other on pay-per-view.
That night, after watching Conor McGregor triumph without apology in his main event fight, I drove back home and found another parking spot on that same stretch of street. I didn’t want to tempt fate but no way will I let vandals determine where I park, and it’s convenient. Since it was near where the vandalism took place, it was convenient from the standpoint of reporting this matter to the law.
The next day I called my local police precinct and reported the crime. The officer on duty took my phone number and said officers would call when they were on the scene. A few hours later I got a call from the police and went to meet them where my truck was parked.
Three of New York’s finest were there to meet me. I showed them the sticker on the passenger window and noted that the truck had been parked completely legally on a public street only a few feet away from where it was not situated.
The police said they couldn’t report the vandalism as vandalism since there was no damage to my vehicle. I told them that this was indeed a crime, though not a serious one. That someone cannot just put stickers on someone’s property without their permission.
“It’s probably one of these property owners around here that don’t like you parking here,” said one of the cops.
I certainly didn’t expect them to assign their top detectives to this case or launch a task force to find the sticker vandal, but I at least expected them to report the crime, minor though it was.
Likely it was one of the homeowners that lives on that stretch of road. My neighborhood has quite a few very entitled homeowners who think they can claim portions of the public streets as their own parking domains. Some place traffic cones in front of their homes to claim parking spaces.
Being a homeowner doesn’t entitle you to claim public land. If you want to live on a street you own, become a millionaire and live on one of the private streets in Forest Hills.
After the police left, I got two cups of boiling-hot water, some paper towels and a scraper. I held the paper towels over the sticker while slowly pouring each cup over them, letting the hot wet towels sit for several minutes over the sticker and partially melt the clue holding the sticker onto the window. After it was softened up, I scraped the sticker off without any trouble.
Whatever jackass put this sticker on my truck surely thought I’d panic and try to scratch the sticker off my window like some kind of berserker. No such luck. I won’t let my First World Problems get the better of me, I’ll let the snotty haters in my neighborhood bask in the glow of pride that I have in my beat-up pickup truck.