"Welcome to New York" is the sometimes sympathetic but always amused refrain you'll get from New Yorkers when you tell them that you just moved to the city, oh, about 42 hours ago and your car has already been towed. I heard it about 20 times, including while in the back of an NYPD Chevy Impala.
Last week I finally moved to New York, a lifestyle change I'd always contemplated. As a Texan watching Woody Allen and Whit Stillman films it just sort of made sense. If you can make it here, I'd heard, you could make it anywhere.
I'd always taken that as an encouraging little homily when I'm now starting to realize it was clearly intended as a warning. IF you can make it here. Caveat Emptor. No guarantees. Watch your ass, buddy.
Because I'm a auto journalist I have a hatred of rental cars buried somewhere deep in my bowels alongside all the free shrimp and drinks. I could argue there's a level of "why waste a long trip on a four-year-old Elantra" professional pride at stake and, while that may be partially true, there's also an inherent aspect of thrift.
In my case, I managed to get a Honda Accord Hybrid out of the local fleet. This was a great choice because it's got a more than enough room for all the crap I'd need to live in an empty apartment for a few days, promised good mileage, and I was genuinely curious if Honda had finally built an Accord Hybrid people would want to buy (they have).
After an uneventful trip turning mileage in the mid-40s, I'd felt like I'd made a wise choice as I pulled into my new building in Brooklyn. The quiet ride kept my drugged out cat from freaking out and the 600+ mile range meant I could go to Target and still have energy enough in the tank to get me out of New Jersey without refueling.
There was even a spot right in front of the building. All I would have to do is move it to the opposite side of the street the next morning to avoid a small ticket for parking in a zone where the street sweepers were supposed to go, which I dutifully did.
But was the street I was parking on the right one? I couldn't be 100% sure and it was freezing out so I moved it to a big open spot that was definitely not going to be cleaned that day. Sure, there was a fire hydrant there, but I was more than a car's length away.
Convinced I'd done the right thing I hurried off to work, no doubt it my mind that I could easily hack it as a New Yorker. No parking spot? No problem.
It wasn't until I was walking home that I realized the car was gone. My first thought was "Oh no, it's stolen!" Then I looked at that fire hydrant and it snapped. "Maybe it's a car-and-a-half in NYC?"
A quick call to the local precinct cleared this right up as the officer on the other end confirmed that, yes, no one is going to steal a 2014 non-Escalade on that corner on that street in the middle of the day. There was no other way to confirm my car was towed, though, because the system used to track towed cars was down.
This meant I'd be making my way to the lovely Brooklyn Navy Yard in the crisp pre-holiday-party evening hoping they had it, but first I had to confront another problem: How do you get a car that isn't your car out of NYPD lockup?
That required making a shitty call to the local PR contact for Honda who, as I found out, was already out of the office and on his way to dinner. This meant that he'd have to be late to get food because:
1. I took a car from his company.
2. I parked it like an idiot.
3. I realized what it would take to get it back way too late. 4. He needed to send me a letter on letterhead saying they'd release the car to me.
If a mark of being a true New Yorker is how easily you can inconvenience people you barely know then I'm getting the hang of it.
When I finally arrived at the Navy Yard I didn't quite find the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare I'd expected (although I did go in the wrong gate, told my story, and got to listen to the security guards laugh and tell me I set "a new record" for getting towed, so I have that to be proud of).
Instead of people screaming about great injustices done to their cars, there were a few other people like me who were from some place that wasn't NYC trying to figure out if the city was now holding on to their car.
A soccer player from Louisiana and a graphic designer from Maryland I met in line both found it hilarious that I'd just moved to the city and gave me another "Welcome to New York" to stuff in my pocket, but it was said with kindness and both seemed resigned to what happened.
Another guy wanted to talk about buddhism and spiritualism and the gendered nature of color selection. Was this deep insight or had he just done way too many drugs? He was somewhere on that line.
The minimum to get your car out of the auto-slammer is $185, before your ticket, and if it isn't your car they demand it in cash. I don't quite get why paying cash to get a car not registered to you makes more sense than a credit card which, ideally, could be traced to you if you really weren't suppose to walk out with the car.
Alas, I haven't been a New Yorker long enough to understand.
Once you do manage to get through all the paper work (actually not so bad and the woman who helped me was efficient and polite) they give you a slip that gives you permission to get an NYPD "escort" to the lot, which is about 30 feet away from the front door.
Crawling into the back of the guy's NYPD Impala (parking enforcement is now under NYPD) I give him my permission slip, tell him where my car is, and explain how I got my car towed so quickly.
"Welcome to New York," he says, not bothering to turn down the A Tribe Called Quest pumping out of the car's tinny speakers.
Sure enough, the poor Honda was there, wanting to be returned to the outside world. All I had to do was get it past security but the security guard who does the final check out wasn't anxious to let me go.
Did I hit a snafu? Should I just floor it? What happened?
"What kind of car is this? it's really nice," he asked.
"A 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, the new one."
"Wow, 2014. My girlfriend has a 2010 Accord but she's thinking about trading it in."
Thus launched another pleasant conversation about the benefits of getting a hybrid over just getting another four-cylinder Accord. I said I liked the power of the V6 but his girlfriend apparently likes road trips and might just stick with the four-cylinder.
I eventually made it out of the parking jail and street parked it again, albeit somewhere I could see outside my window.
It wasn't until the next day when I saw at least half-a-dozen cars parked as close to fire hydrants as I was that it dawned on me why I probably got towed: out of state plates. If it had been registered in NYC I'd maybe just been ticketed, but the CA plates almost certainly doomed me.
That's a $300 lesson. Or, well, a $295 lesson. The bartender at my new favorite neighborhood bar greeted my story just like everyone else, but let me wash it down with a free beer.
"Welcome to New York."