“I’ve been caught in it twice in a year,” said Ms. Allen. “They’ll stop you before getting onto the freeway and be like, ‘Hi, we’re doing a sobriety check, have you had anything to drink tonight?’
“Of course you say no,” she added sagely.
The Alternate Side of Paradise
For all the comforts that car life allegedly provides, few can deny that it also demands a heavy fee from its adherents. These fees range from the annoying to the enraging—from the cold, hard cash demanded by meter maids, busted windows, and your car’s shocks after you make a single sortie down the BQE; to the less tangible but no less Gordian hell of traffic snarls and parking.w
And yet, ask any sad sop waiting out the alternate-side morning ritual, and most of them will say they wouldn’t give up their cars for all the MetroCards in America: the convenience, the familiarity, the freedom—thank you, George W. Bush!—make the sacrifice worthwhile.
“Yeah, it’s a pain,” said a 29-year-old school teacher named Barbara as she sat in the driver’s seat of her keg-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo one morning, waiting out a 90-minute alternate-side-of-the-street-parking sentence on West 71st Street. To help pass the time, she had brought along a copy of Inside magazine, a cellphone, and a pack of Marlboro Lights—one of which was dangling between her fingers. “But it’s worth it, basically, to have it. Otherwise, you have to take a train or go to that God-forsaken Port Authority to get out of the city.”
Remarkably, Michelle Barlak, another young auto-fiend and owner of the aforementioned Digger, also finds it worth it, despite enduring some serious vehicular nuttiness during her brief time in the city.
Ms. Barlak, 23, purchased Digger last fall, just a year or so after she moved to New York from her home in the upper reaches of the state. The car, a 1993 Buick Century, was used, but it was, in Ms. Barlak’s own words, “in great condition.” Then came its urban baptism—the bangs, bashes, scrapes and dings that relieved it of one of its tail lights and turned it into the kind of creature that “definitely wouldn’t be entered into the car show,” she said.
Ms. Barlak herself was almost banged up and bashed because of her car. It happened late one autumn evening after she arrived home from a dog-training class—she has three dogs, all champions—only to find that there were no parking spaces in her Queens neighborhood. For two hours she drove around looking for a spot. She finally found one, but as she was parallel-parking—another dread reality of New York car life—a guy in a flashy sports car sped past and bumped her Buick. Ms. Barlak maintains it was his fault, but before she knew it, the man had gotten out of his car, begun screaming, and tried to punch her through her window. (Fortunately, he missed most of her face, but he did manage to mangle her glasses.)
Ms. Barlak is the first to admit this was an unpleasant incident, the kind of New York moment that most transplants fear. But, she said, the mere fact that a man tried to punch her and then muscle his way into her car never made her question her commitment to Digger—just as the fact that she spends 10 to 30 minutes parking the vehicle several times a week never made her want to ditch the machine in the middle of the street.
The Al Gore Effect
For all this, there is a limit to all the crazy auto-love—or at least a potential limit, known to some people as guilt and to others as Al Gore’s disappointed face jowling down at them from the screen of the local multiplex.
All over the city, from Park Slope to Washington Heights, car junkies acknowledged a small tingle of shame over their gas-gulping ways. Some of them announced that their next car would be a hybrid (because there would be a next car). Others insisted they were trying to limit their car time—like the earthy lass who declared that, despite driving her giant Jimmy GMC from Fort Greene to the Park Slope Food Coop that morning, she hated having a car, had been forced to get it by her husband, and was boycotting most long-distance driving.
And then there is Jessica Peterson, a perky-eyed Michigan native, who announced that she was getting rid of her car altogether.
Ms. Peterson, 30, came to New York some five years ago with her clunky Subaru station wagon in tow. At the time, the car was already 10 years old, and somewhat the worse for wear, but she lugged it to Queens because—well, she’s not all that sure why. “I guess because I came from sort of a suburban place, I kind of felt like I needed a car,” she said with a shrug that erupted into a laugh. “I didn’t really question it.”
But now, what with all the enviro-consciousness going around—to say nothing of the endless parking-space wars—she is starting to rethink things.
“I’m a science teacher, and there’s people in the office where I teach who, they don’t even have air-conditioners, and they’re teasing me about the car,” she said. “So it’s time to get rid of the car.”
Still, Ms. Peterson remains more of an oddity at this point than a sign of the times. Even in this age of organo-insanity—of new-mom hysterics, eco-opportunistic marketers and annoyingly self-righteous reporters—most people find it hard to say no to the sweet purr of the automobile.
“It just seems to me, if I stop driving my car, I don’t think that’s doing anything about the real issue,” said Hans, a 31-year-old Williamsburg media guy (and musician, of course) with a receding, Jack Nicholson hairline and Chattanooga drawl, as he eyed his silver Elantra. “I know I’m contributing to it, but the end of the day, I obviously don’t feel bad enough about it to not drive my car.”