A New York City Mystery
“Has it really been here since before I was born?” asked Luna, our 5-month old West Highland White Terrier, when informed the purple 1978 Chevy Impala we always pass on our walks around the block had been parked in the same spot for a year. On this particular walk, a fresh orange parking ticket slipped under the car’s driver’s side windshield wiper flapped in an early December blue-skied icy New York breeze.
“Yes, Luna. Since at least January.”
“Wow! A whole year in the same spot? That’s a gas!”
“So the street underneath the chassis hasn’t been cleaned since 2017?” Luna got wide-eyed.
“Correct. The street cleaners go around it every Monday.”
“So I could poop under the car and no one would know?”
“Well,” I pondered, “sure –”
“– but let’s not add to the mess this street already is. I’d be happy to pick yours up even if it wasn’t the law.”
“Ok,” Luna dropped the subject of her number twos and returned her gaze to the purple Impala. “Any ideas what’s happening here?”
“People on the block have a few theories. Brian from 224 thinks it belongs the Mayor.”
“Well, this was the Mayor’s neighborhood until he was elected,” Luna mused. “Since now he’s driven to Park Slope every morning in a motorcade, maybe he left his car here until he’s out of office?”
“You think?” I countered. “Is he really the 8-cylinder purple car type?”
“True. He’d drive a light brown mustard car for sure,” Luna said. “Probably economy. Like a Chevette. Or some stick-figure-stickered bouncy-house like a Honda Odyssey.”
“That’s why nobody’s buying that it’s his,” I said. “Emilio upstairs thinks there’s a body in the trunk, but he cut his teeth in the Italian army in Sicily, so he’s got some bias. Mary from 253, however, has the most intriguing idea. She’s convinced it’s a ‘bait car.’”
“Bait? To catch fish?” Luna wondered.
“In a way,” I laughed. “A bait car is left by cops to goad thieves into stealing it or stripping its parts. These days, cameras are hidden inside, and GPS locators and RFID chips are embedded into all the car’s pieces to track suspects and movement of the parts.”
“So Lovely Rita Meter Maid knows, and writes tickets to make the car look legit?”
“She wouldn’t need to know,” I said. “She just needs to meet a quota of tickets written, not paid.”
“So who’s in on it?”
“Well, Lovely Rita’s bosses would be. As would all the cops on the beat, and all the sanitation inspectors, and the finance department collecting on the tickets, so on. That’s complicated to sustain, though, don’t you think? Remember Occam’s Razor?”
“Hmm.” Luna shook her head in contemplation. “The most innocent, simple, non-conspiratorial explanation of a mystery is most often the truth.”
“Now we’re in the zone,” I said. “In Occam’s case, we know the parking ticket for violating alternate side in New York City is only $45, so everything flows from there. Since this spot is cleaned every Monday, at most you’d get…?”
“4 tickets in a month?”
“Very good, Luna!” I praised her, and tossed a piece of beef lung from my pocket towards her, which she caught in her mouth. “So this car’s parking in NYC for $180 a month, where garages — many of which are outdoor just like this street — average $430 bucks a month.”
“Ha!” Luna piped up. “That’s like a brilliant scheme and a perfect scam all at once!”
“You have to admire the tenacity of it all,” I agreed. “From what we’ve seen, too, parking enforcement doesn’t always tail the street cleaners, so tickets have been issued on the car twice a month, for the most part. Almost never all four Mondays. Someone comes in the cover of darkness to check for tickets, and then pays them off. Some months, this guy’s only gotten 1 ticket. It’s only cost him a few hundred bucks to park here all year.”
“How do we know he’s paying the tickets?” Luna looked quizzical.
”That’s easy,” I said. “The car never gets a boot.”
“Of course!” Luna lit up. “Only unpaid tickets trigger a tire boot. And also you don’t get towed unless your car gets a boot. So, doesn’t matter how many tickets you get as long you zero your balance!”
“Very good, Luna,” I said, tossing her some more beef lung. “Yes, whoever takes the tickets also must be paying them and keeping all the heat off.”
“But what about the inspection sticker there?” She looked at the windshield behind the ticket, confused again. “It’s current and valid until June 2019, but the car never moved this year and never saw an inspection station.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“Hmm,” Luna pondered. “Either the guy’s got friends at the DMV, or at an inspection center, or at a certified garage. So maybe he’s a used car salesman? Or a bartender who gives free drinks to his mechanic? Or… maybe he’s a hacker who’s able to make perfect copies of registration and inspection stickers that show no flags when scanned by parking enforcers?”
“Who knows. Thousands of suspects.”
“We probably pass him every day!” Luna laughed.
“Odds are high, yes,” I said. “In any case, you can’t shuffle these stickers car-to-car. This is actually sophisticated stuff to pull off.”
“Will we ever know?” Luna wondered.
“Doubtful,” I resigned. “But no doubt, one day the car will just be gone without a trace.”
“Would be amazing if everyone in the city all at once decided to ignore alternate-side and use the streets as their $45 a week personal garages.”
“That would be something,” I laughed. “I’m more surprised the City hasn’t skyrocketed the fine. The ticket is hardly an incentive anymore.”
“I know, right?” Luna said. “It also seems unfair that this guy thinks he owns this space. Isn’t public parking supposed to be a pure free market? First come, first served?”
“Well, nothing in New York City is truly public. Something owns access to everything because there’s never enough things to go around.”
“Is that why you have to apply to elementary school here?” Luna asked.
“Yes, that’s a wonderful New York City parental choke point,” I answered. “And as to the parking spots, this year the City transferred hundreds of public parking spaces to Zipcar for a one-time payment of $765 a spot, so that’s how much the City thinks these spots are ‘public.’”
“Do the Zips move for street cleaning?” Luna asked.
“If they’re rented during that time, sure,” I mused. “The signs say to call 311 if it’s too dirty, but who knows how many calls it takes to trigger the City to action. Whole neighborhood probably needs to report one dirty parking spot. Two things we do know. One, Zipcar does not employ a squad of alternate-side Zippers who double-park every car, every week, for an hour and a half to let the cleaners through. And, two, unlike this Impala, those Zipcars don’t get issued any tickets.”
“It’s like CitiBikes, too,” Luna added. “The bikes don’t have to do alternate-side, and those docking stations take up a lot of curb.” She paused for a second, then offered, “The City should just sell all the curbside parking spots and stop cleaning the streets.”
“Maybe,” I said, “But they’ll never stop cleaning the streets. Those tickets are easy low-hanging-fruit money.”
“I’ve only been alive for 5 months,” Luna surmised, “but it doesn’t seem like street sweepers actually sweep anything except rat crap dust into the air.”
“Seems that way, yes,” I nodded. “Proof of that is under this stationary Chevy. After one year of never being swept, the asphalt underneath the car isn’t all that much dirtier than the street around it. It’s a wonderful control experiment for the actual effectiveness of the City’s current street sweeping technology.”
“It’s a vicious, beautiful circle,” Luna laughed. “A base level of urban filth and grime gets a bit thicker and thicker decade on decade, while constant but useless alternate-side sweeping lets the City look like it’s being cleaned. And since every few days, everything kinda feels a little cleaner, the City’s whole sanitation scheme need not be improved or progressed. And people are fine with it!”
“Don’t get me started,” I said. “You can’t get New Yorkers to compost because it ‘smells bad.’ And our trash is still put out in plastic bags not cans –”
“Yeah!” Luna piped in. “And some of the same New Yorkers who yell at Trump on Twitter for pulling out of the Paris Climate accords also floss-and-toss on the sidewalk!”
“C’mon,” I shot her a quizzical glance and looked around. “That’s a stretch–”
She pointed with her nose to a used neon-green DenTek Complete Clean “Back Teeth” disposable flosser on the sidewalk between us, flecks of tartar and a lonely poppy seed enmeshed in its frayed “shred-proof” strand — one of a half-dozen tossed flossers we’d seen on this walk already.
“Didn’t 80% of Brooklyn vote for Hillary?” Luna probed.
“Sure. Even higher here in Park Slope.”
“Didn’t Hillary support the Paris Climate Accords?”
“Of course, didn’t you?” I saw, however, where she was going. “But now you’re going to say that there is an 8 in 10 chance the person that threw this disposable flosser on the sidewalk wanted the U.S. to participate in the Paris agreement.”
“Isn’t that how statistics work?”
“A and B don’t always equal C, kid,” I explained.
“Here it does,” she pawed at the used flosser, dislodging the poppy seed, which skipped into the gutter, ecstatic to ramble free.
“Don’t touch that,” I warned her off. “And don’t assume the transitive property holds any weight in a modern non linear society. People today create their morality on the fly to justify their ethics.”
“Now you’re out in space,” she said. “The heck does that mean?”
“It means,” I intoned, “some people who fight climate change laugh while they litter. Some people honk at stopped school buses. This timeline’s not rational. You have to create kindness in chaos now. And often in secret. Capiche?”
“Ok, ok,” she seemed to get it. “But you can’t deny this City is full of hypocrisy.”
“Of course not,” I agreed.
“I know I haven’t been on Earth very long,” Luna shook her head, “but it’s like New York City’s sole remaining function is to be the archaeological evidence of man’s existence in 10,000 years.”
“100%. Such a crock,” I laughed at this puppy’s wisdom beyond her weeks.
“Well, you’re right about that,” Luma summarized with a youthful wry smile, “New York was never a melting pot, but rather a crock pot. With no pressure release.”
“Yeah, the absurdity level is high here. The City functions despite itself at this point, coasting on its mythology. Bassackwards,” I breathed out. “That’s why I appreciate this stationary Chevy’s purple middle-finger-held-up-to-it-all to the utmost degree.”