As most people can imagine, parking in New York City is the frustrating quest for temporary real estate. Unlike permanent real estate, there are no colorful lawn signs posted on the curb to alert you of a hot new space on the market. But just like a great housing find, a prime parking space won’t stay vacant for long. You just have to drive until you see one. It’s like trying to spot a rare bird with a monocle. Going to an expensive parking garage, if one happens to be nearby, is admitting defeat.
There you are, driving past the same homeless guy for what appears to be a good twenty-five minutes. As you round a tired street corner for the eighth time, you finally see it, a naked partition in a chain of steel and rubber. The wheel glides through your hands and you give the accelerator a firm pat, checking all your mirrors just to make sure no one else has seen the same prize. The closer you get the more excited you are about the thought of being set free from your upholstered prison. Now you’re a car length away and you’re amazed that such a cherry space, only steps from the entrance to the building you’re trying to get to, is just sitting there. You’re a seeker. You’ve got hawk eyes.
Pulling up to parallel park into that space which at first glance doesn’t seem big enough for a golf cart, your faced for the first time with that unwanted of all objects. You’re crushed. All hope, dashed on the dash. The weathered and lowly, yet at this point mocking, brown fire hydrant explains why that valuable piece of pavement wasn’t a parking space at all but an urban joke. If they removed all the hydrants in New York everyone who couldn’t would be able to park. Greenhouse gas emissions would drop. Meter maids would be out of work. Baby-making would skyrocket. But in that sunken moment, such thoughts are little consolation. Neither is the hydrant’s logical necessity for, you know, putting out fires. You step on the gas and continue the hunt, reluctantly.
My return to New York since relocating to Asheville a few months prior was tiring. Parking was one thing but I had fallen out of the rhythm of the city. I forgot about walking a dozen blocks or more to put my hands around a good cup of coffee. I forgot about all those stairs leading to the subway station. I forgot how long it takes to get places on the subway itself. If I wanted to travel the four flimsy miles from my brother’s apartment in Prospect Heights to the Lower East Side, I would need to factor in at least an hour to make sure I get there on time-ish. So I did. I was still about five minutes late to meet my two brothers for dinner.
We made plans to eat at Mission Chinese, one of those hip restaurants of the moment but of course, there was going to be a wait. Most NYC eateries below a certain price point are housed in spaces serving as walk-in closets or tool sheds in most parts of the country and a wait is almost always guaranteed. But my brothers and I, stubborn when it comes to getting what we want, especially with food, put our surname down and ventured into some surrounding bars. It was hard for me to believe how much the Lower East Side has changed. The neighborhood has a long history of working class grit, most of it before my time. Signs from its past have been replaced by signs for artisan restaurants, art galleries nobody ever seems to go to and pricey bars made to look like shitholes. The LES has become just another affluent extension of the new Platinum Manhattan.
Sitting on a bar stool in between my two brothers must have been a striking image. Having just come back from their respective jobs in finance and bond trading, my usual shabby self was flanked by two guys in high-quality, tucked-in button downs and well-fitted dress pants. Mike was even wearing French cufflinks. I was in my reliably beaten-to-hell jeans and rocking what I’m sure was a prime selection from my pitiful polo shirt rotation. I must have looked like a prisoner being escorted by the feds. Yet despite myself, I didn’t feel under-dressed, just proud. My two little brothers have done really well for themselves in a town that doesn’t make it easy to do so. My pride continued unabated as they picked up the check.
I was also feeling a bit wistful as we sat there nursing an expensive cocktail made by a dull bartender just killing time till his daytime soap opera callback. In my almost three years in New York, my two brothers and sister all lived within a Brooklyn mile of each other yet hung out as a group three or four times at the most. The same with good friends scattered throughout the boroughs. Long transit times coupled with everyone’s multiple layers of busy make it hard to physically spend time with people close to you in a city packed with countless layers of its own. New York’s unparalleled cultural distractions don’t help either.
A couple of cocktails later and we were ushered into the infrared closet we had been waiting to get into by a female hipster so gaunt I wanted to force-feed her some lo mein. Claiming any kind of real estate at Mission meant table sharing. There may have been just enough space between the chair I was sitting in and the party to the right of me to squeeze a manila folder through. It was just as well because the specialty of the house was family style dining of which I am more than a fan. I love eating with Mike and Dave because we usually order with the aplomb of newly released convicts. We committed to pork spare ribs, soft-shelled crab and some form of beef just to name three. Mission’s schtick is a creative reinterpretation of Sichuan Chinese food. They did a decent job on some dishes, less so on others but at least the bill wasn’t much of a creative reinterpretation of how much good Chinese food should cost.
When we finished it was around 10pm. It wasn’t late at all, just workday late. My brothers had an early rise and none of us felt like wasting the evening on desolate train platforms so we split a cab, reasonable from the LES. I used to push my way into a New York cab, blurt a quick greeting and give the driver my address and a well-rehearsed path to get there. With my brothers, I gave the automatic greeting, launched into my speech and then caught myself.
As the Manhattan Bridge slowly pulled us away from the lit fringes of its namesake, the plain fact that I was now just a visitor began to dawn much quicker. My old Brooklyn address was no longer mine. It was now someone else’s. And Mike’s was his. Once the tires hit Flatbush Avenue on the other side, it was stop and sort of go. For a moment, I imagined us going straight back to Mike’s place but then remembered that when you split a cab in New York, it’ll never be straight to anywhere. Everyone in the cab will have their own detailed narratives on how to get back to their home bases and you just have to wait your turn. The journey will take plenty of time while your ass occupies whatever vinyl real estate the taxi’s backseat can spare. Amidst the sharp car horns and the profanity haiku, the old adage about how you can never go home swerved past my fatigued brain. But that night it did feel like going home, even if temporary.
WHAT: a poorly lit shot of the Red Braised Eggplant, also appropriately braised in the red of the restaurant lights
WHEN: June 4, 2013
WHERE: Mission Chinese, Lower East Side, Manhattan, New York, United States