Schubin Chronicles

New York parks

Having to share the Central Park Drive with motor vehicles has led me to think about New Yorkers’ love-hate relationship with cars in Manhattan. On the one hand, we hate them. On the other hand, we’d love to see them gone.

Some New York events involve street or highway closures. They are among our best attended. New Yorkers love to take back the pavement from cars. During the annual Five-Borough Bike Tour, some riders dawdle on the roadways just to prevent them from being opened again to cars and trucks. We delight in the empty streets that follow a blizzard or ice storm. There will often be more pedestrians than cars on the white-covered blacktop in such a winter wonderland.

It’s not that we don’t love to drive. Those of us who have bothered to get licenses adore motoring — outside our island. We probably enjoy driving even more than non-New Yorkers do because we do it so infrequently. Christmas wouldn’t be very special if it came every day.

It’s not unheard of for me to rent a car, drive four or five hours to lunch, and then drive back. I did it a few months ago (the restaurant was Woodman’s in Essex, Massachusetts). I’m not alone. Once, when I was working in western Massachusetts, I was waxing rhapsodic about Woodman’s to a couple of fellow New Yorkers. We popped into a car on our day off to have lunch there. That time it was only a three-hour drive each way.

“Annie Hall” notwithstanding, we New York drivers probably also have less anxiety than other drivers do. That’s because, for the most part, we neither own cars nor park them.

Within a few blocks of my home, I have a choice of Hertz, Avis, National, Budget, and Rent-a-Wreck. For a red convertible for my wife’s birthday, I have had to head a few blocks farther uptown to a local rental company.

These days, most rental cars come with collision-damage insurance. So our mindset, as my brother-in-law is wont to point out, is that all rental cars come with four-wheel drive. Fun! I’ve never met a road I wasn’t willing to try.

The extraordinarily high fees charged for our car rentals (easily $100 a day) do not deter us because we use cars so infrequently. On Sunday, I rode with a Manhattanite who once owned a car. He estimated that the expenses of keeping it (exclusive of the purchase price or even repairs) were $1200 a month. So now he uses a car service. A driver picks him up and drops him off whenever he needs automotive transportation. He’s saving money.

A few New Yorkers own parking spaces, just as they might own their apartments. There’s a purchase price (which might buy a home elsewhere) and a monthly maintenance fee (which might cover home rental in those other parts).

I don’t own a parking space, so whether I park or not depends on my mood. If there’s something good on the radio, it’s a nice day, and I’m in no rush, I might search for a parking space. Once I found a good one alongside Central Park. When I returned to the car the next day, I found it stolen. I cheerfully reported the theft to the police and then headed to the car-rental agency to trade in the keys for another car. Car theft can be such a nuisance! It delayed me by half an hour.

If I’m in a hurry, I don’t bother parking. Once I was working on a job that required me to use a car. Rather than renting it for a week, I rented it five times. Each evening, I turned in the car at the rental agency. Each morning, I rented it again.

That was easier than finding either a parking space or an available parking lot. One of the problems with parking spaces is our infamous alternate-side-of-the-street parking rule. For a three hour period, cars must vacate one side of the street so a street sweeper can get through. The following day, it’s the other side. On our block, the cars turn into pumpkins at 8 am.

We have civic-minded criminals in New York. They wouldn’t dream of impeding the progress of the street sweeper. So, at 7:45 am, they all pull out of their parking spaces and illegally double park. The effect is that of the sidewalk suddenly receding by one lane. After the street sweeper passes, they return to their spaces, secure for another 45 hours.

New York parkers buy alternate-side-of-the-street calendars that list holidays on which the rules are suspended. Local radio reports usually end with “alternate-side rules in effect” or “suspended.”

The other alternative, a parking lot, is at best expensive. The Lincoln Center parking garage charges $26 for the duration of a performance. There’s no charge for the trunk inspection each car now receives on its way in. There’s also no charge for the delay the inspection imposes.

I said that our parking lots are at best expensive. That’s because, at worst, they’re all full. There’s a parking garage on my block (you can see its sign in “Rosemary’s Baby”), but I sometimes have to go elsewhere because it’s full.

Each New York garage is required to have a large sign listing its rates. Day rates are in black on white. Night rates are in white on black. A calculator helps. A computer spread sheet helps more. A team of parking-rate analysts might be best, assuming they agree.

Don’t forget the 18.25% parking tax (10.25%, since 1996, for the few Manhattan residents who own or lease cars and don’t use them for business purposes). Parking lots file tax form N-ATT quarterly so the state can drool over this steady revenue source.

Parking has been a lucrative business in New York for a long time. In the theater district, where access ramps take up room that might better be used to store cars, we have a garage with an elevator that moves horizontally as well as vertically to squeeze cars into every available space. The elevator shaft takes up less room than ramps.

Our attendants park cars bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door. Even our outdoor parking lots have two levels, thanks to individual, wheel-operated, one-car elevators.

Dropping off a car for parking (if there’s an available lot) is no problem. Getting it back can be a time-consuming procedure. Wise New Yorkers call ahead — WAY ahead.

People used to say a broadcasting license is a license to print money. In New York, it’s been parking lots. That’s why we were so shocked to see this front-page story by Charles Bagli in Monday’s New York Times:

“Although it is unlikely there is a celebrity telethon in the works to support them, parking garage operators in Manhattan say that in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack they, too, are suffering. Business is off by as much as 40 percent in Midtown since Sept. 11, and 80 percent in Lower Manhattan, according to a spokesman for the industry. The operators say their woes are related not so much to terrorists or the economy as they are to the measures imposed after the attack, namely the ban on cars with only one occupant.”

Perhaps some people who used to drive to Manhattan are now taking the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) subway trains. Others who used to take PATH to the World Trade Center station now might take a different line to the closest open station, Christopher Street.

For whatever reasons, so many people now leave the Christopher Street station each morning that it’s both literally and legally impossible to enter between 7 am and 9:45 am. That’s a nuisance for area residents who used to use PATH trains to get to midtown (or New Jersey). It’s a long walk to the nearest New York City subway station (but it passes a GREAT chocolate maker, Li-lac).

It will take a very long time for lower Manhattan to return to normal. For one thing, the fire at the World Trade Center site is still burning.

It’s not (yet) the longest-lasting fire of all time (and it’s unlikely to be; even pessimistic estimates are that it will be put out within a few months). The longest-lasting fire is in southeastern Australia. Scientists think it started when lightning hit a surface seam of coal more than 2,000 years ago. Now it burns underground.

Even in the United States, there’s been a fire burning since 1962 in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It, too, feeds on underground coal. All but 20 residents accepted offers to relocate.

The World Trade Center fire is not feeding on coal (at least not that we’ve heard yet), but each day we learn about new things it IS feeding on. Today the news was of tens of thousands of gallons of electrical transformer oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) leaking into the fire. Another story suggested that tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel stored in 7 World Trade Center to feed the power generators of New York City’s Emergency Management Center in that building could have contributed to its collapse.

Unintended consequences are not limited to New York. A few days ago, four houses in Bagh Nazangah in Afghanistan were destroyed. It wasn’t a bomb, rocket, missile, or mortar. It was packages of food we were air dropping. Another reportedly damaged a nearby shrine where the Persian poet Khjeh Abdullah Ansari is buried. According to a story in the New York Times, the boxes contained Pop-Tarts.

Optimists predict the fire at the World Trade Center site might be extinguished in just another week. They base this prediction on the fact that the fire has not been found to be burning below the third underground level, and workers should soon uncover that level.

Every now and then, the fire flares up. When it does, the level of pollutants in lower Manhattan air jumps with it.

Those who have been to the underground levels at the World Trade Center site report seeing what looks like stalagmites. In caves, those are formed by drips depositing minerals. These were apparently formed by drips depositing molten steel.

Each hose aimed at the fire is reportedly delivering 800 gallons of water a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, for 80 days thus far. That amount of water boggles my mind and so does the fact that it hasn’t yet extinguished the fire.

Other figures seem easier to grasp, but my calculations don’t match the official figures, and I don’t understand why they don’t. At the Justice Department press conference announcing the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg as special master of the government’s September 11 Victims Compensation Fund, it was reported that he would oversee the distribution of at least $11 billion and possibly much more. It was also said that the awards could get as high as $1 million per family.

As of yesterday afternoon, the still-dropping official New York City count of the dead and missing at the World Trade Center was down to 3,380. With the other victims at the Pentagon and in aircraft added, the overall toll is 3,613. If there were “only” $11 billion to distribute, that would come to more than $3 million per family.

I wish I knew what it was that I don’t understand. There seems to be so much. Here’s a line from a speech George W. Bush made today:

“I have also reserved the option of trial by military commission for foreign terrorists who wage war against our country.”

It’s not just him. John Ashcroft uses similar phraseology. So did a letter writer in yesterday’s New York Times. On National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” yesterday, a reporter said the issue was whether terrorists should be tried by civilian courts or military tribunals.

I don’t understand. Aren’t the people who will be brought to trial — wherever it’s conducted — ACCUSED terrorists? Isn’t the trial supposed to determine whether or not they are guilty? And, if they’re not guilty, then why should they lose rights because of an accusation?

It appears that it is not even a military commission that will decide who is a terrorist but George W. Bush himself. Here’s the relevant section of his executive order:

“The term ‘individual subject to this order’ shall mean any individual who is not a United States citizen with respect to whom I determine from time to time in writing that:” the various reasons for using a military commission instead of a court apply.

Mr. Bush makes the determination — no one else. In case there’s any doubt, here’s what the order says about any review of the verdict: “submission of the record of the trial, including any conviction or sentence, for review and final decision by me or by the Secretary of Defense if so designated by me for that purpose.”

So only Mr. Bush decides who gets sent to the tribunal, and only Mr. Bush (or his chosen designee) decides if the verdict is just.

Lest there be any doubt, here’s the order again: “the individual shall not be privileged to seek any remedy or maintain any proceeding, directly or indirectly, or to have any such remedy or proceeding sought on the individual’s behalf, in (i) any court of the United States, or any State thereof, (ii) any court of any foreign nation, or (iii) any international tribunal.”

If I’ve interpreted that correctly, not even the United States Supreme Court has any say in the matter. I never learned anything like this in civics classes. I wonder if the Immigration and Naturalization Service will have to rewrite its citizenship questions.

I encourage you to go to the White House web site and read the full order. If you do, you might find something else that’s scary. As one might expect even in an order written by Mr. Bush, himself, there are references to “the President.” But those words are not used in the sections I’ve excerpted: “I determine,” “final decision by me,” “designated by me.”

Does that mean that even after he leaves office Mr. Bush retains those powers of life and death?

TTFN, Mark