Although it is not full day, the day has begun. The sun is up, life stirs. The Watchers line the way. None of us can remember a time when they were not here, and they will be here long after we have gone. Men and women, young and old, they share a task, and their task is to watch. It is an obligation the Watchers must not fail, for the Law has decreed it.
What is this? King Solomon’s Mines? The Jungle Book? The Fellowship of the Ring? No — it is New York car owners coping with alternate-side parking.
My block is an ordinary Manhattan block. It is in the grid, on that portion of the East Side where blocks are half as long as those to the west. It has 40 parking spaces, give or take a fire hydrant. The cars that fill them track the fashions of the end of Detroit: rounded, slightly bulging as if overinflated. They are a blur to me, but for a few regulars: a long white antique with tail fins; a yellow European half car, its antimatter. What is impossible to miss is the ritual of alternate-side parking.
The law sets aside times every week when cars must leave one curb of every street in the city so that it can be swept. These times are posted on metal signs decorated with push brooms (though the sweeping is actually done by trucks). The south side of my block must be vacant from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays, the north side at the same time Tuesdays and Fridays. Hence the morning line-up.
That is the basic situation. Is it sensible? Other American cities lack such regulations, and yet their streets are not blocked with slumdog piles of garbage. Last summer alternate-side parking was suspended in part of Brooklyn, and a study found “minimal impact.” Even cities in Sweden have relaxed their alternate-parking rules.
This being New York, no situation is ever basic. The rules are waived for 34 holidays, some of them civic — July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving — others holy, depending on which religion you profess. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception follows hard on the heels of Idul-Adha. Diwali gets a shout-out after Simchat Torah. What with four days for Passover and two each for Shavuot and Sukkot, Judaism wields the most power over parking. Mearsheimer and Walt would say that is because Jews wield so much power; a sociologist of religion would point out the Lord gave them a load of holidays.
The rules are also waived for nature. When she drops eight inches of snow on the city, cars are stuck in the drifts like ice cubes in a tray. Even the city fathers do not expect motorists to chip them out and slide them to some other vacancy. Mightier than the weather is politics. This winter there have been thirteen declared snow days, as opposed to three the winter before. Global cooling? It was snowy this winter, especially early on. But later on, specifically next November, our mayor will stand for reelection. Every politician in the city remembers the fate of John Lindsay, hammered for failing to plow the streets of Queens after the snowfalls of February 1969. Lindsay actually won his race that fall, but it was a near-run thing: He lost the Republican primary and had to run and win as a Liberal, without $70 million to spend. Adventures in democracy are for the civics texts, so keep those snow days coming.
How do drivers keep track of their obligations and the exceptions? One forgetful but ingenious city dweller shared a solution on a site called lifehacker.com. “While dozing off the other night I suddenly feared that I had parked my car in a 6AM street sweeping zone.” He got up, clicked on Google Maps, and placed its observing avatar on the block where he had parked. He found a sign, zoomed in, and saw that the resolution was good enough to read that “street sweepers would not be by until 8AM.”
So he avoided his duties as a Watcher. Look at what the faithful on my block do instead. Here is a man reading Newsweek (one of the last on earth, to judge from the circulation figures). Here is a woman doing her crossword. The classes read the Times, the masses read the tabs. Obama or Jen, pick your star. Here is an icon of urban abjection: A man has pushed his driver’s seat back as far as it will go, and on this worst of all surfaces, stiff as a hospital gurney and sprung like the door of a garbage chute, he sleeps. You could have lengthened your breakfast, your shower, your real sleep, or your morning kiss, but here you are, in your forward position, so that you may not fall behind. Soldiers, convicts, and field hands expect such conditions, not ordinary freemen. Good morning, sweet prince of the city, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
When the clock ticks, and the cars must move, what ensues? An orderly changing of the guard? Dodge ’em? My schedule is not the Watchers’, so I have never seen them do-si-do. I’ve never seen American Idol either. All I know is that later in the days the cars have all been rearranged. More interesting than the completion of the process is the anticipation and the tractability it betokens. The city lays a hundred burdens on us every day, via laws, regulations, frustrations, and funk. Crackdowns and cleanups lighten the load, and the lure of excitement keeps us coming back for more. We pride ourselves on being resilient and tough, able to trim when it’s possible and to endure when it’s not. But aren’t these qualities just another name for docile and dumb? Do adults in Council Bluffs have to spend dawn in their car seats to avoid a ticket? Are the only alternatives patience and moving?