Everyone who told you that you never use math when you grow up was lying. I used math just the other day to figure out some awesome shit: if it makes sense for me to rent a shipping container as a garage for my crappy ass old car.
Every since I saw Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land I knew that math was secretly full of really cool stuff, only that all the way through school everything that math did was extremely lame. I do not care about counting apples and oranges, I do not care about trains arriving at different times. I do, however, care about finding affordable parking for my perpetually-broken 1973 Volkswagen.
(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.)
Owning an old car in New York City, as I do, is wonderful. That is, if you have a place to park it. I used to keep my car up at the corner of 125th and Lex on top of the PathMark. If anything ever went wrong with my car, I could just leave it parked up there, for months if I was feeling particularly bitter, and deal with it when I had the time. I didn’t need to deal with the car. It could live in its parking spot and I could take the subway any place I needed to go. These places often included Autozone.
A couple months back I moved, and my perfect PathMark parking spot had to go. It was an hour commute away from my new apartment, and I resorted to leaving my Baja Bug parked on the street.
I should have known this was a horrible idea.
I’d streetparked the Baja before, and it was fine, right up until it wasn’t. My car broke, I had to wrench on it lying in the gutter, getting shards of broken glass in my hair, wondering why replacing my alternator looked so much easier in the YouTube tutorial.
Now, I had tried to get a parking space for my car right when I moved, but after a couple weeks of phone calls and drives, the only parking lots I could find were either reserved for patients at the nearby hospital, run by crazy people, or they simply refused to take my rusty, creaky, stick-shift hooptie.
This week, that all changed.
In a few days, I will be taking off for another two-week work trip, and I’m tired of leaving my car to pick up parking tickets, even with my car hanging out in the fancy once-a-week alternate side neighborhood a short fifteen minute walk from my front door.
Fed up, I called every possible parking lot, garage, apartment building, and storage company in this half of the borough until I managed to find a lot two subway stops away from me.
When I heard the lot would take my car, I was ecstatic. It was near, it was reasonably priced, and it was available. And then I got another phone call.
It was a rental company I had called earlier that day in desperation, getting back to me about renting a shipping container.
I had first heard about renting a shipping container from my former coworker and parking lot mechanic Ben Preston, who is living the dream with four cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s products all based around one 10’x20’ shipping container he rents near his apartment. The container not only functions as storage, but as a garage. I’ve written about his setup before:
While I was on the phone with the shipping container rental guy, I quickly realized that this service was not for me. The company could deliver a container, but I didn’t have anywhere to put it. The city of New York would not exactly appreciate if I left a 20-foot steel box in front of the B12 bus stop on Parkside Avenue.
However, I decided to ask the rental guy what kind of costs I would theoretically be looking at if I took him up on the offer. It was simple, he explained. The shipping container would cost $100 per month, with a $300 delivery fee at the beginning and a $300 pick up fee at the end of the rental.
I told him I would think on it, and quickly rushed to find a supermarket receipt upon which I could do some algebra.
Now, $100 per month sounds like a lot for a big steel box that does nothing but sit there. But $100 per month for an enclosed private space to keep your car is absolute madness for anyone in New York City. A place on 11th street in Manhattan with a private garage went for seven figures a couple years back. My parking spot in Harlem cost me $190/mo and I defy you to find a cheaper spot in all of Manhattan. The spot I found in the lot near me in Brooklyn is even $175.
It wasn’t long before I had scribbled out:
175x = 100x + yx + 600
On the left of the equation is the parking spot I have secured, on the right is the theoretical cost of my theoretical shipping container. In this little equation, x is the number of months, 600 is the combined drop off and pick up fees, and y is the even more theoretical cost of renting space upon which I could actually leave my rented shipping container.
After a few quick calculations (x=36, x=24, x=12 for three, two, and one year scenarios, respectively), I figured that my math was wrong. When I plugged in three years, y=58. For two years, y=50. And for one year, y=25. That didn’t make sense to me. As time wore on, the rental fee I would be paying for space for my shipping container should be going down, not up.
I did what I have always done in times of mathematical need: I texted my brother, who is much smarter than I am.
“You set up the problem correctly,” he texted me, “you just weren’t using the answer.”
I had figured that I had been calculating y for what I would be paying in a monthly rate. In fact, I had been calculating y as my break-even point.
“If the monthly fee is less than y, you want the container. If it’s more, you want the space. So if you’re amortizing the $600 over three years instead of two, you can pay more for the land.”
Like I said, my brother is much smarter than I am. Another example of this: he doesn’t own a junky old car that’s breaking down all the time.
So I figured out once again that if I was planning on renting a shipping container as a garage for my car for just one year, I would be able to offer any landlord in charge of some vacant lot near me as much as $300 to keep my container. If I could stick around for two years, I could bargain up to $1,200. For three years of shipping container parking, I would be able to offer the owner of a vacant lot up to $2,100 and I still would be paying only as much as the normal, uncovered parking spot in a lot I’ve already secured.
Years after high school, years after the SATs, years after that one time I tried taking statistics as an elective in college, I was finally discovering some math that was fun. I was all ready to start driving around my neighborhood, making wild offers on vacant lots left and right. I would be bargaining, I would be telling stories about my Baja Bug, I would be chatting and getting myself planted in the neighborhood. It was going to be great.
And then my brother started saying something about the difference between up front costs versus monthly fees, and how a twelve hundred dollars I spend now is more than $100 per month, but not much more, and that he could explain more later because that’s a little complicated for text messages. And then I realized he was getting into economics, and everybody knows economics is the opposite of fun.
So instead of trying to make shipping container deals with people running vacant lots in parts of Brooklyn where people still get shot, I’m just going to stick with my ordinary parking space.
But I now at least know that math can be fun, so long as common sense and economics don’t get involved.
Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.