Parking In New York Has A Grammar Of Its Own

Alternate-side parking, illogical signage, unspoken rules, clueless New Jersey visitors. Everything in New York has its own rules and language. Even parking your car.

Parking in the rain, just parking in the rain.
Parking in the rain, just parking in the rain.
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK â€" It's Thursday, and my car is parked on the side of the street that the New York Department of Sanitation needs to clean The street cleaner is a small, fast-moving truck with rotating wheel brushes that sweeps through my street between 11 a.m. and noon. It does this twice a week for each side of the street, requiring residents to move their cars so it can remove tree leaves, cigarette butts, paper coffee cups and plastic bags. The time it takes me to move the car twice a week is my only parking expense in Manhattan. That is, as long as I don't park in a restricted area, in which case I would risk getting a ticket or even being towed.

So today, just before I go down to move the car, bringing my coffee and my work with me, I check the web or simply call 311, where a recorded message tells callers whether alternate-side parking is effective on that particular day. It is, and the weather is murky and drizzly, with people keeping their heads down. That kind of weather always makes these car operations slightly more difficult.

So just in case, I engage my phone's SpotHero app, a new service imitating the Uber business model, but by helping residents find parking spots. It looks like the closest guaranteed parking lot is 12 blocks away and would cost about $30 for the next three hours. More time than I need. I can move my car from one side of the street and park in a double lane (while sitting in the car to keep from getting a ticket) until after the sanitation sweeper passes by, and then I can return to my original spot.

The fact that there are no online parking deals in my neighborhood indicates a lack of desperate demand for a free parking lot on my street. It also tells me that this residential area â€" right behind Broadway on the Upper West Side â€" must have a way of arranging things with unspoken rules. There is always a solution, if you are there on time.

So no matter how murky or unfriendly a day, for the next hour and a half I will be sitting in my car, doing my work, listening to the radio, observing and perhaps talking to my neighbors.

Car people vs. transport people

For a while many years ago, I gave up owning a car. It was about the same time cigarettes became unpleasant and anti-social, when the restrictions on smoking in public places came into force. Even occasional smokers were banned from public places, forced to inhale on the curb, outside restaurants, offices and homes. I welcomed the new rules, but there was also a negative side to it. It actually created a sense of deep regression, making me feel like I did back into high school, when smoking in the bathroom was part of the fake initiation into manhood. I didn't need that, just like I didn't need to drive a car in a traffic-swarmed city like Rome.

For years in Rome, in New York, wherever we went, my family and I rented a car when we really needed to, mostly on the weekends or for a month during the summer. But for about 15 years, until pretty recently, cars weren't a means of transportation within the city for me. In New York, we subscribed to Zipcar, a car-sharing service, before it became more expensive than cabs.

But then last summer our lifestyle started to change because of the work we were doing. Since we spend more time out of the city, we started to consider signing a lease on a car.

The four-wheeled subculture

I first thought that having a car in a huge city would only add to the stress. But in the end, I was persuaded by the possibility of spending more time outside of the city, without running down to Penn Station for a train or getting a bus from the Port Authority. So we signed the contract.

The car is here, and while I was terrified at first, moving it twice a week has somehow become a pleasant experience. It doesn't really feel like I'm among the 600,000 New Yorkers on their daily hunt for an empty parking lot. I feel completely at ease with what I'm doing.

Part of why I love this city is because it turns every little thing into a subculture. In 2007, Mary Norris, known as the Comma Queen because she is among The New Yorker"s best copy editors, started a blog post on alternate-side parking this way:

"Just started a blog on parking. Did it because I got frustrated trying to get published in print journalism. I would still like the blog to give me a body of work that would be publishable or lead to my dream job: newspaper columnist. It's a little like being a newspaper columnist, but the circulation is low. One conflict: I don't want to reveal my name, as it would give too big a clue as to my parking spaces. I am very discreet in the blog. Yet I want fame."

Norris wrote this blog for seven years while also working at The New Yorker. She now earns enough money to rent a space in a garage, but she still doesn't have a regular column. She got a book contract, though, and Between You & Me is now a huge success. The book, of course, is not about parking.

Last year, Alexander Dworkowitz of The Awl wrote a piece on alternate-side parking in which he quoted Norris. In 1977, during her first week in New York City, Norris received $200 worth of traffic tickets. "She gave her car up for a decade afterward," Dworkowitz wrote. "Her current study of parking is partially an attempt to master an art that once eluded her." He noted that her blog covered such topics as "the optimal time of day to find a parking spot, getting her car towed by a Sex and the City film crew, and earning bathroom privileges at a local Greek restaurant after helping a waiter squeeze into a spot. "Some people think it's a dull subject," Norris said. "But I never tire of it. It's like grammar.""

No one place the same

Parking as grammar? Wonderful. Parking also speaks with changing accents, depending on the part of the city. Life in Greenwich Village and in the Upper West Side are altogether different. Same rules, but different practices. I can't imagine ever double parking on Fifth Avenue for half an hour without getting a ticket, for instance. But I'm allowed to do it in my quiet residential area, were superintendents knows every car on the street, where some locals do the job of moving the cars for the people who cannot do it themselves.

In the same way, parking in New York is also â€" in a completely literal sense â€" a problem of grammar. Or perhaps of semiotics. Some time ago, city authorities promised to improve parking signs. Nothing happened, and they all felt like ambiguous messages that made me walk into a trap that, between the tickets and the tow, cost me about $400. And that now forces me to look for parking only on my street. Why? Because I know how the signs work and what they actually mean.

And this is where the geniality of alternate-side parking regulation comes in. This is why the city, which never had enough space to build garages for everyone, created this democratic fraud for the locals, who actually don't want to spent gazillions of dollars to park their cars in garages. This is why I refuse to pay more for garage parking than to maintain the car.

Alternate-side parking is a brilliant idea that's over 50 years old. On one hand, it forces owners to move their cars at least twice a week, which not only allows cleaning but also prevents the city streets from becoming permanent parking lots. Secondly, moving cars around blocks creates enormous revenue. In his piece, Dworkowitz quotes Sam Schwartz, a New York transportation consultant:

“New York is like any organism. It has adapted itself,” he said. The rules ensure that no one leaves their car on the street for more than a few days. They thus introduce a liquidity to the exchange of parking spots, and have the unintended effect of benefiting commuters who can time their arrival to the hours when alternate side forces spaces to open up. “If we didn’t have alternate-side parking, our streets would become storage,” he said.

Then there is the matter of revenue: New York earns more than half a billion dollars a year from parking tickets, many of which are issued for alternate-side violations. City agencies feel pressure to make sure that revenue doesn’t decline, Schwartz said. “It’s a big business.”

To get a good place, you need to move your car before 11 a.m., when the cleaning supposedly begins. The local rules (or is it a tacit agreement with the police?) are that once in a double lane, you can actually leave the car parked there as long as you move it by 12:30 p.m., after the cleaning is done. In reality it works like this: If you really want your parking spot back on the now-clean side of the street, then you've got to be on the spot right after the sweeper passes. It may be 11:30 or 11:55 â€" you never know. But the general consensus is that, if the sweeper has not arrived by noon, you can still move back to your empty, uncleaned parking spot. This is what happened today. Was the sweeper on strike? Who cares? Focus on the parking spot and the potential tickets! Once you move back to your clean (or dirty) spot, stay in the car until the cleaning is officially over at 12:30 p.m.

I see giggles on the faces of my neighbors when a lonely car with New Jersey plates becomes a victim. And they get angry when contractors with trucks or vans create a mess and violate the street's rules without facing consequences. They couldn't care less about tickets because a private company pays them. Or perhaps the company knows someone in the NYC Department of Finance, who gets the drivers out of paying for their tickets. In a city like this, all New Yorkers seem to be connected by fewer than six degrees. And now that I've payed my stupid dues, I can be considered a New Yorker.

At least from a parking point of view.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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