Manhattan Ate My Car

by Thomas Beller

05/02/2005

Washington St. at Spring St. ny 10013

Neighborhood: West Village

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This is the first chapter of "How To Be a Man: Scenes From A Protracted Boyhood." (W.W. Norton)

[35 years old]

A little while ago I went to get my car and found that it was not where I had left it. The car is, or was, a huge, mint green 1977 Thunderbird; almost half of the car's considerable length was taken up by the hood, which gave it the vague air of a yacht. People often responded to it with almost visceral expressions of pleasure, such as the old man who ambled up to it at a gas station and said, "Now that's some material! That's a car! You could build three cars these days with the material on that car!"

He said all this not so much to me as to the car itself, as though the sight of it had immediately brought him back to his former 1977 self, with whom he was now striking up a conversation.

The car's condition was, from my point of view, perfect, which is to say it was perfectly poised somewhere between being a rusted out piece of junk and one of those mint-condition vintage numbers which, I'm sure, look great cruising their native suburban roads, but always seem decadent and a bit silly on the streets of Manhattan. The car's early life had been spent in Los Angeles, and the paint job was seriously sun-faded, giving it a slightly stoned, acid-washed appearance, and creating a shade of green that is, to put it charitably, unique. Its great advantage was that it was a car I could feel very proud of but at the same time it was simply not a car that anyone would bother to steal. Or so I had thought.

I had left it on a dusty and out-of-the-way stretch of road across from the UPS depot near the Hudson River, where alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations do not apply. Now it was gone, but the car's enormity and peculiarity made it very hard to grasp its absence, while at the same time making its absence all the more glaring. A pedestrian happened to be walking down the street, and I could barely resist turning to him and saying, "Excuse me, but did you see a giant green car rolling down the street?" or something like that. I stared at the spot I had parked the car a week or so earlier. It was now occupied by another car. I looked away. I looked back. It was still not there. I was on my bike - yes, I biked to my car, such is car ownership in no-garaged Manhattan - and eventually though my mind could not fully grasp this new absence, I realized couldn't keep standing there. I went home.

My girlfriend, with whom I was to be taking a weekend trip, was napping. This was great relief. I wanted some private time to deal with this unexpected turn of events. I made various phone calls to various city agencies in the hopes that it had been towed. It had not.

Then I biked back the spot where I had last seen my car. How irrational we are in the face of bad news! The car was not there. I had elaborate weekend plans, was meant to be picking some other people up, and so I got on the cell phone and began working on contingency schemes, which resulted in my getting a friend's car which was located in a nearby garage. It was an Audi. Actually, it was a deceased friend's Audi. The last time I had been in it he had been driving. We had been on the way to his wedding.

I got the Audi, I drove here, I drove there, we went to the country, and the whole time, as I readjusted my posture to the Audi's bucket seat (as opposed to the living-room couch provided by the Thunderbird) and got the feel of the car, I vacillated between feeling grief-stricken at the loss of my car and feeling really grief-stricken at the far larger loss of my friend whose car I was now driving. Then I chastised myself for using the word tragedy. What do you call it when your car is stolen? A bummer?

I didn't call it anything. I got back to New York at the end of the weekend, returned the Audi, biked past the spot where I had last seen my car (still not there), and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. What I specifically didn't do was call the police. I told a few people who had driven in the car about it, and felt consoled by their genuine dismay that it was gone. But the days turned to weeks and still I didn't call the police. I should say here a little of the car's background in my life. I purchased it two years earlier. It was, more or less, my first car. The purpose of getting it was to take a massive cross-country driving trip. The logic of buying a 1977 Thunderbird for a massive cross-country driving trip is, obviously, questionable, as it's not exactly an economy car in terms of mileage and, furthermore, anything that old is prone to break down, but I bought the thing in the spirit of extravagance and illogic, on a lark, for fun and adventure, and as there was nothing particularly prudent or wise or rational in my decision to buy a car - one certainly doesn't need one in Manhattan - I merrily abandoned those principals when choosing which car to buy.

The car proceeded, within days of my setting off on the trip, to break down (in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere) and required massive engine work that in one stroke doubled the $1,000 price tag I had paid. After that it raced through 8,000 miles of American landscape in stellar form, including scaling the Rockies and an absurdly steep mountain road in Glacier National Park, though for the entire trip I was in a state of paranoia, desperately listening for that death rattle that would signify another breakdown.

At the end of this trip I became an urban car owner and commenced the bizarre Manhattan rituals of alternate-side-of-the-street parking, which so exhausted me after a while that I garaged the thing out of town for half a year and went back to having a rational urban existence of bicycles, taxis, and subways. Then, in rapid succession, I finished a novel, I brought the Thunderbird back into action, I had a triple play of bad news, I spent a month in the country walking around frozen lakes in a state of convalescent zombiedom, and then I was in New York, it was the new year (the New Millennium!), and the city was blanketed with snow.

Unusual weather often fades quickly from memory, but I will always remember the weather of January 2000. Snow was piled in drifts along the streets, sanitation trucks were outfitted with plows and groaned up and down the avenues, alternate-side-of-the-street parking was suspended, and I had an incredible time with the Thunderbird. I parked it anywhere and everywhere. I ferried people around in it; it moved with majestic confidence across the snowy roads. It was never a car one wanted to rush around in - quite the opposite, its feel was always languorous and yacht like - but now, in the snow, its ease and girth took on a new dimensions. As long as I was in that car, I was safe in my own head. Outside it was a different matter.»

That January of 2000 I was possessed with a an incredible sense of anger and prerogative. I can't explain how it worked, really, except to say it was a kind of adrenalin response to grief. There was a lot of drinking and smoking. I felt like all bets were off. The stock market was so far up it was like it was stoned. The century was supposed to end with a computer related collapse, but that didn’t happen. I had finished a book with no idea what to do next. And in the preceding month or so I had lost three people close to me, one of whom, the one who meant the most - had once turned to me and blurted out, “I have a thing about threes!”

Each left in their own way— there was a break-up with a woman, which was like the longest, slowest removal of a band-air ever, each torn follicle its own little death; there was a close friend’s ceremonious bonfire of his former self and his former friendships, around which he danced spastically in a feast of acrimony and sanctimony; and then there was a death-- the silent, possibly accidental, infinitely ironic but beyond irony death of an even closer friend. The night he died he had called me, inviting me to a rock and roll show, but I was busy. What I ended up being busy with was pushing the stalled car out of traffic on Sixth Avenue.

Into this emotionally whited-out void of January came all that snow, and the days of driving everywhere all time.

I report all this as a way of explaining the fact that weeks went by without my reporting the theft of my car to the police. The car had been the seat of my well being. That fate had swiped it from me could only be seen as a bad sign.

*

Finally, after several weeks, I went to the 6th Precinct on Charles Street and filled out all the forms. A somewhat harried but kind black lady took down all the information, scolded me nicely about my delay in reporting the matter and, when I muttered, "I can't believe anyone would want to steal that car," replied, with a brassy cheer I much appreciated, "Honey, if it has wheels on it, it's more than what they had."

And there should have ended the saga of my Thunderbird. The lady at the 6th Precinct told me that an "Alert" would be "put out" on my car. I imagined the alert extended into the distant future, a kind of radio signal extending parallel to many other signals which that were doomed never to find the thing to which they had been alerted.

I got around town on my bike, which is my normal mode of transport, and waxed philosophical about the whole episode. I tried to feel that the car's disappearance was really a liberation; the world didn't need another car, New York least of all. It was a possession. You could replace a possession. There were other things you could not replace.

Then late one night, having biked across the Brooklyn Bridge and wound my way arbitrarily through the twisted streets of downtown Manhattan, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a familiar-looking shape far down a dark street. The shape was a fender which had briefly caught the light. I stopped the bike and thought, "No! Do not become one of those people who go down every darkened street searching for the thing they have lost. Get on with it!"

I let the bike roll on but then circled back around. I was obviously destined to be one of those people who go down every darkened street searching for the thing they have lost. I approached the familiar-looking object and to my surprise and even consternation, it only became more familiar-looking.

There sat my car. A month had gone by since I'd last seen it. It was a bit dusty but otherwise unharmed. There were no parking tickets on it, but there was a weathered piece of paper stuck under the windshield wiper. It was a note on New York Police Department stationery explaining that the car had been relocated to make way for a parade. I looked up and realized I was on the other side of the massive UPS building. I stood there for a while, touching the hood of the car, running my hands over its dusty contours, in a state of disbelief, I was so happy, but I was annoyed too. This was not supposed to happen. When something is lost, it does not pop up again. I think on some deeper level I was thinking: Of all the things that have gone away, if I could have just one of them back, this would not be it!

*

There was one more peculiar episode with the police, in which I had to go report the car unstolen. The procedure for this is that you must show up with the title, identification, and the car, and a police officer has to examine you and the car and the paperwork all at once; there was the inevitable foul-up with the paperwork, and so I found myself standing in the drizzling rain while the officer stared at the car and at the paperwork in his hand and eventually declared, "This isn't your car," at which point I was led back into the station house and made to sit down next to a man handcuffed to the bench, now a suspect in the theft of my own car.

And now I am again the owner of a 1977 Thunderbird. But though I'm happy to have it, I can't help but think of the period of its absence as the break in a fever of some kind and its return as an allegory for something. Perhaps it's just an allegory for why one ought to not have a car in Manhattan.

The Thunderbird does have its pleasures, though. Just today I drove out to Newark airport and picked up my girlfriend, and we rumbled back into the city with a tremendous sunset at our backs. She slid over on the front seat and pressed against me. Back in Manhattan, I parked down by Center Street, in the shadow of the court house, with its many steps, and we walked past the jail and the bail bondsman and the shuttered shops of Sunday night Baxter street and had a great Vietnamese dinner on Mulberry Street. Then I drove her home, dropped her off with the bags, and went in search of a parking place. I headed straight for that bereft and dusty stretch of road across from the UPS depot where alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations do not apply. Happily, I found a spot.

**

The Amazon.com page for this book is here.

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