I have long been a proponent of owning old and classic cars, that life isn't so bad driving what the rest of the world might think of as a clunker or an old jalopy. I was wrong.
For reasons I cannot explain, I live in Manhattan and own two cars. There is no good way for me to explain how unnecessary it is to own even one car in Manhattan. You can get to everywhere within the city on the 24-hour subway, and there are taxis all over if you think you're too good or important to ride the train like everyone else.
But I missed driving and I always wanted an old car so I bought a '73 Baja Bug. I started exploring outside of the city, learning how much fun it is to dice with cabbies on Park Avenue and kept my car easily parked on an above-ground lot. It was so easy that I got interviewed talking about how very wonderful the experience was.
Recently, I shattered that beautiful one car/above ground parking tranquility.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
I guess it started when I became the steward of a 208,000 miles Lexus ES300 with a five-speed this summer. Once I got the car registered, it moved down to street parking. It has since cost me my sanity, several hundred bucks in tickets, and a few years off the health of my back.
The important thing to know about the Lexus is that it has had a very serious overheating problem. Up until the leaky water pump got replaced yesterday, the car had an extreme aversion to coolant, and quickly divorced itself of any liquid as soon as it could muster. Any drive longer than a few minutes saw steam billowing out from under the hood and the temperature needle bouncing well over the top of the red danger warning danger section of the gauge.
This meant that I couldn't leave the car idling, and it meant I could never comfortably drive the car more than a few blocks at a time.
This was when I learned the true meaning of alternate-side parking.
Alternate-side parking is how Manhattan pretends to keep its streets clean. Every monday and tuesday, parking is banned on one side of a street block for an hour and a half so that a street sweeper can come by. Every tuesday and friday, the other side of the block gets the same treatment.
This turns into an elaborate dance of moving your car so it's double-parked on your block and dashing back to the illegal side of the street once the streetsweeper passes. But sometimes the streetsweeper doesn't come by, so you just have to wait, illegally parked, until either the streetsweeper comes or a cop starts writing you a ticket.
Even this wasn't too terrible because the Lexus could, reluctantly, move around the neighborhood in small zips without getting too hot. Learning the steps to the alternate-side parking dance was a charming distraction from the usual 'is this radiator water dripping on my head or is this cat pee' routine of NYC living.
Whatever peace I had made with alternate-side parking broke when my '73 VW started misfiring and then gave up the ghost on the highway back to the city. My coworker Chris and I got the car towed back to my block where it sat, awaiting a new alternator.
Getting a new alternator for a 1973 VW Beetle seemed quite simple at first. The component is only held in by six bolts, and removing the thing looked like a 20 minute job and a replacement piece was just a call to Autozone away.
As it turned out, one of those six bolts is a 36mm monster tucked deep within the darkest reaches of an old VW. It took the better part of a week even getting a hold of a 36mm socket for a socket wrench and several more days to finally get it loose. Once I removed my old alternator, I found that the new one I had ordered from Autozone was in fact a generator and not an alternator, because of some sort of confusion when VW switched over from one system to another and then I had to find a new new alternator and don't think that was easy to explain over the phone and it was a whole day figuring that out and another day before I could pick up the new part and then it was two more days before I could get that goddamn 36mm nut correctly torqued on the back of the alternator and another half day before the entire assembly made it back into the car and everything was fixed and the car could drive away goddammit.
The problem with the whole process was that I was doing all of my car repair after work, when I was tired and when the sun was going down. Don't think I wasn't outside at 11 at night, lying in the gutter, removing my carburetor and gushing gas on myself from a popped-open fuel line, illuminated only by a streetlight while my neighbors walked by in amusement and disgust.
That was the good part.
All of these delays and days spent hitting dead ends (no, you're supposed to lift the entire fan cover to access that nut) and sourcing new parts (no, that nut was not supposed to be replaced by a screw) meant that I had to often move the Bug to comply with alternate-side parking.
Since the Bug was completely undrivable, this meant moving the car by hand. Pretty much everyone in my neighborhood knows me and my car by now, mostly because everyone in my neighborhood has helped me push my VW back and forth across the street some morning over the past few weeks.
And I wasn't just pushing the Baja back and forth; at the same time I was moving the Bug, I was juggling the Lexus as well. I'd have to push the Bug into place, then run back down the block and move the Lexus, then rush back to the VW to try and piece together another bit of the alternator repair. Like figuring out that the entire alternator assembly has to come out at once and that how-to YouTube ad lied to me.
Now that the Baja is finally running and the Lexus isn't overheating, life has gotten much simpler. I can once again affirm that yes, you can survive owning a couple of old cars in Manhattan. And if you can keep two cars running in Manhattan, you shouldn't have any trouble running them anywhere else in the country.
You'll just have to give up some of your sanity to make it happen.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove