RIP Big Bertha, New York City’s punk rock pickup truck
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.
First World Problem of the Week: New York street parking wars
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.
New York City Never Quits
New York City is the city that never sleeps and never shuts down. It take events of epic proportions to knock us off of our game, and even then nothing is ever completely deserted. This is, after all, where the world takes its pulse and sets the pace for Western Civilization, and we take that task seriously.
New York is digging itself out from a winter storm that hit us on Jan. 23. It was as if we got all our winter weather in the span of about 24 hours. When winter started this past December, we had spring-like weather. Seventy degrees on Christmas? That’s bullshit. Old Man Winter got his revenge in a big way and buried much of the East Coast in a blanket of snow. For New York City, it was the second-largest snowstorm on record in the city’s history with more than two feet of snowfall recorded in Central Park.
Preparations started in earnest with people watching the weather reports and making jokes about stocking up on bread and milk as they made sure to stock up on bread and milk. Anyone who had plans for the weekend canceled them if they could, but it was heartening to see from social media that some things didn’t stop.
It was also heartening to see worthy displays of “New York Values” in dealing with the severe weather. The term “New York Values” has recently become an issue the 2016 presidential campaign, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz using the phrase as a smear against Donald Trump. I’m as cynical and jaded as any other long-time New York resident, but there was enough cooperation and good will on display during the storm to shame any friendly Texan. In the parking lot of our apartment building, one of our neighbors helped shovel out part of our truck. We returned the favor by helping shovel out the car parked on the other side of us, with a shovel lent to us by another neighbor.
My social media feed was littered with stories of neighbors helping neighbors with shovel and snow blower alike. A photo of a team of good Samaritans pushing a stranded ambulance out of a snowbank in Manhattan was enough to warm the heart even as your fingers and toes became numb.
City living makes people into blazing assholes, but it also makes people into cooperative souls out of point-blank necessity. When you are surrounded my millions of people, living life isn’t possible without some measure of cooperation. It may take a while to understand the ebb and flow of city life and plug yourself into it in a way that both preserves your sanity and allows you the boldness and hustle to get things done. New York rewards a certain level of aggression, but even the strongest of the strong cannot get by without a certain degree of give and take, there’s just too massive a crush of humanity to fight everyone to the death over every trivial slight.
Now as we look to get our work week underway, we all expect some of this city camaraderie to sublime like idle snow as we navigate an already overtaxed and incompetently run transit system in an attempt to get to work on time. Wish us luck.
Parking in New York: A New Path to Anger and Disgust
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.