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by David Marell
LAST SATURDAY, I took the West Side Highway down from the George Washington Bridge and turned into one of the two left-turn lanes onto 56th Street to go across town to 7th Avenue, where I planned to park my car in a lot until Monday morning. The street was packed, but the avenues were gridlocked, blocking 56th Street at 11th Avenue, then 10th Avenue, then 9th Avenue. It took me twenty-five minutes to maneuver my car across town, and I was close to 8th Avenue where I was amazed to see a legal parking place just up ahead on the left. This was a first for me: no meter, no alternate street parking, just one block from my destination. The spot was just before a driveway down into a parking garage with a sign that announced $45 for up to twenty-four hours. What unexpected good fortune.
The traffic was hardly moving. I could see that nobody in front of me was jockeying toward the precious space. I just needed a few cars to move ahead a few feet and a maneuverable path would open up to the spot. The spot would be mine. The light changed to green. I savored the moment as I waited. I pointed out this unexpected surprise to my wife, who had slept across the back seats for the entire trip. This was good parking karma, I figured.
The cars inched forward, and finally I was in maneuvering range of the spot. I pulled over to the left and was ready to back in to my coveted place when I saw a young lady in a long black raincoat, talking on her cell phone while she stood in the spot. She hardly noticed me as I moved my car a few feet into the parking place.
I stopped, got out of my car. She was a tall, slender, Asian woman. “Please step onto the sidewalk.” I told her.
“I am saving this spot for my boyfriend,” she told me.
“You are not a car. Please get onto the sidewalk,” I repeated
“My friend is coming all the way from Philadelphia. I haven’t seen him in a year.”
“You are not a car. Please get out of the street. I am going to park here.”
“I am calling 911,” she threatened.
“Fine,” I said. “Please do it from the sidewalk.”
I got back in my car and pulled in a few more feet -- still not in the spot quite legally, still leaving the woman a place to stand, but not enough room for the car with the boyfriend.
My wife Suzanne said, “I can’t believe you are doing this.”
I told her, “The street is backed up. It has taken us twenty-five minutes to drive five blocks across town. There is no way her boyfriend is getting this spot. I am not taking it from her. I am taking it from someone just behind me, the next person who sees the spot.”
“This is not like you,” Suzanne said.
“Listen, I don’t want to fight with you both about this. Just take your things and go to the hotel and register. I’ll meet you there.”
I helped gather a few things from the trunk, as if we are both leaving the car, and then I watched Suzanne walk across 56th Street and disappear into the mass of people and traffic.
I pressed the remote lock. The car beeped twice, and I took a few steps as if I were leaving. The young lady sent a few expletives my way and walked off. She was still on the phone.
I backed into the spot the few more feet that made me legal until Monday morning. I was not feeling so great about the ruse, but it was done. Let the weekend begin.
I WALKED to the hotel and caught up to Suzanne as she was entering the lobby. “That was fast,” she told me. “She just walked away,” I said.
I appraised Suzanne’s mood. She seemed OK, not very upset by my actions. Stil, I was not sure this was the best way to start our weekend.
We headed up to the room, on the twenty-sixth floor. It was immaculate. I pulled up the shade and checked out the view, a huge mirrored building opposite our window. With the office lights on, I could see inside. It was Saturday, and some people were at their desks. There were large monitors mounted above most of the desks. Some were showing the basketball playoffs. I could see Carnegie Hall across the street, but I could not see my car down the block, across 8th Avenue.
I picked up my cell phone and called Eleanor. Eleanor is my savvy friend and a native New Yorker who drives and parks her car all around the city. She will not be seen on the subway. Eleanor would be a good person to consult about my recent encounter, my aggressive action. Eleanor was home and ready to hear my story. I gave her a full accounting. She was interested and amused.
“What do you think?” I said.
“It’s done,” she said, “You won’t do it next time. Move on.”
“No, that is not the point. Was it wrong?”
At this point I heard her husband Mark asking why I was asking Eleanor the question, why wasn’t I asking him? Mark got on to say that his father was in the trucking business, and when one of his workers was saving a spot for a driver, nobody else got the space. They were very persuasive, he said, and to make the point perfectly clear his workers would often start by breaking a few fingers. Nobody ever took a parking place from one of his dad’s employees.
I could picture Mark enjoying telling the story with a satisfying smile. “That’s not the point,” I said. “Trucks are trucks. You slipped off the topic.”
I passed the phone to Suzanne. She and Eleanor talked about their respective weekend plans. We were going to see two shows, Do I Hear A Waltz?, a Sondheim revival, just down the block at City Center, and The Color of Purple on 45th Street. Eleanor was going to New Jersey with Mark to visit her 92-year-old mother-in-law. The mood seemed pretty good. Bringing the question out in the open seemed to have brought some levity to my crime.
I CALLED ADAM next to tell him the story. He laughed, he got it. “The space would be filled thirty seconds after you drove by it,” he said. “Come on, if you wanted to be Mr. Nice Guy, you would be leaving the space for the very next driver that comes along. This is New York City we are talking about.”
Adam’s answer empowered me to suggest to him another possible scenario: Instead of sending my wife ahead so as not to have to battle two on fronts at once, another woman might have been more supportive of me -- she might have joined the enactment, the play, told me to stay put, that she would speak to the young lady. She might have gotten out of the car and told the woman on the phone that she asked her husband to stay in the car because he is easily upset, unpredictable and sometimes gets hostile; that standing in the street holding a parking space is wrong, it’s out of line, and it would be best if the young woman just walked away before he came out here, it’s not worth confronting him. She could have had me play the crazy one, while she’d be the rational knowing mother. It would have been a Bonnie and Clyde at their best. It would have brought us closer. We could have laughed at the game afterwards and spent some of the money saved from parking to enjoy some fancy drink at the Russian Tea Room.
Maybe I should call Eleanor back, I thought, and ask her what she thinks about this idea. Even though Adam got a good laugh out of it and even joked about his demure wife playing the role, I stopped short of making the call and thought better of even mentioning it to my wife.
Instead I called my friend Carl. Carl is a Buddhist, a meditator, an introspective, retired person living on a small income. “I would pass the spot by,” he said. “It is not about the right or wrong, but about the karma. I would not feel good about taking the spot. Would not feel good about the confrontation. I know it would bother me all day.
Carl, of course, was right. It was bothering me, and I had compounded the crime by trying to mitigate it by making fun of my action. I was enjoying the interactions, the confessionary aspect, the humor, the arrogance.
A FRIEND CALLED me a few days later wanting to meet. Lucas is one of the most generous people with his time and money, still he can be testy especially about manners and common decency. I could not get off the phone without getting him involved in my quandary. He did not hesitate: “That is your spot. No question, no discussion. You are in New York City, not Podunk.”
After a short conversation with another acquaintance, I popped the question. I got a quick and concise response, “Fair is fair,” she said. “You cannot hold a parking space in New York. It is not even legal.”
Another friend I called copped out by saying I should send my query into the Ethicist at the New York Times.
I also got an unsolicited email with the subject, “Advice you can use.” It seemed to address my topic as if I had sent a query to an advice column:
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
People are often unreasonable and self centered. Forgive them anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
Don’t let them pull you into their storm pull them into your peace.
It was a case for opting for the higher self.
I asked two more friends, a vice president of education at a public service organization who stopped me in mid- sentence saying, “Fair is fair, you can’t save a parking space. End of discussion” — and a women who listened to the story and said, “I hope I would have done just what you did.” I found this interesting: She was being supportive, as if I were her mentor, but still, she had her doubts, I could feel them. She would have been left upset with guilt or remorse, no matter what she did.
TO THE ETHICIST, New Times Magazine Section
Dear Kwame Anthony Appiah,
Is it OK to save a parking spot in NYC by standing in it? Isn’t a parking space only for vehicles? I recently asked a person standing in a spot to move (with a bit of polite coercion), and when she finally did, I claimed the space with my car. The traffic was backed up, and had I moved on someone else would surely have taken the spot, while I would have been spending $45 on a garage. But what I thought, at first, was good luck and good karma turned into an ethical dilemma. Was I wrong to move her? What was the right thing to do?
Sincerely . . .
Do I want to send this in anonymously? I asked myself. And doesn’t that question by itself answer my query?
What if it was a man standing in the space -- say, someone aged 40, 230 pounds, six foot five?
Just do better next time. Come on.