From the Vermont High School Writing Contest
“Where the hell is it?” said my dad in a tone of exasperation mixed with just a hint of panic.
“Maybe we passed it. It’s got to be here somewhere,” I replied.
It was about 10pm on a frigid, March Monday night, and we were scanning every parked car along Riverside Drive, just a few blocks from the Fort Washington Avenue Armory, looking for the little green chariot that would help us make an escape from this nightmare of a day. Little did we know, the nightmare was only beginning. Traffic was thin at this hour and some of the streetlights lining Riverside Park were out, making our search more difficult. I had just finished getting my butt kicked in the 800m at Armory Middle School Championships, a last minute addition to my schedule for the day and an event I never wanted to race, and all I wanted to do was jump into the backseat of our Mini Cooper, cover myself in a blanket and forget today ever happened. The only problem with my cunning plan was that said Mini Cooper had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, and we were still a seven-hour drive from my warm bed in Vermont.
After taking a few laps along the perimeter of the park, my father had reached his conclusion: “It’s been stolen!” Ever since I can remember, Dad has had a sincere belief that there is not a person in this world who does not covet his Mini. The fact that there were no cars whatsoever parked within 300 yards of where we thought we left it did not seem to change his conclusion. I directed his attention to a sign: NO PARKING AFTER 4PM. VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED. “We got to the Armory at 3:30, Dad,” I said. The response: “Where did that sign come from? It wasn’t here this afternoon!”
There was some consolation to be taken in the fact that our car likely wasn’t in the hands of hardened criminals. Government officials or private business owners must be reasonable people. Right? All we needed to do was find out who was holding the car, pay a small fee and we’d be zipping up the Northway in no time. After about twenty minutes, a man walked by. He looked at home in this concrete jungle, so we asked him for some advice as to where we might begin our search. We just wanted some glimmer of hope that we might live to see the Green Mountains again. Apparently, that was too much to ask. He said our car was likely towed by a private service, and there was no way we’d ever see it again. He told us he had an older car that had been towed once and chose not to claim it rather than endure the red tape necessary to retrieve it. He wished us good luck, shook his head and chuckled to himself as he disappeared into the night.
A short while later, a couple of women walked by. Before we had even asked our question, one of the women piped up. “Ya gat towed, didn’t ya?” New Yorkers are incredibly perceptive. I mean, how could she be so sure that the panicked expressions on our faces were not the result of nocturnal ruminations on the rapid pace of climate change or the fact that a reality show host with dictatorial tendencies had a great chance of being re-elected President?
“Do you know where they take cars that are towed from here?” my dad asked. During the short silence that ensued, I prayed that they held cars hostage somewhere nearby.
“Oh, the NYPD Tow Pound. It’s somewhere on 12th Avenue. I forget exactly where, though. Funny, I got my car towed there a couple a years ago. Yeah, it’s on twelfth, though. Good luck.”
As they walked away, I wondered if everyone in New York City had had their car towed at one point. Meanwhile, my father had found the phone number and address of the impound lot and started dialing. Surprisingly, a live person answered.
“Hello,” my father said, trying his best to elicit some shred of basic human compassion from whomever was on the other end of the line. “I’m from out-of-state. I need to get home, and my car seems to have been towed. It’s a green Mini Cooper with Vermont plates, DLP 971…”
“You say Vermont, bud?” said a male voice in a tone of sadistic glee. “You gotta big problem. Either you’re driving a stolen vehicle, or you haven’t paid your registration in 10 years. You ain’t leavin’ with this car anytime soon.”
My father, realizing that human compassion was in short supply at the NYPD Tow Pound, snapped: “I’ll have you know you’re dealing with a law-abiding citizen who has never, until today, gotten so much as a parking ticket! If you’re basing your conclusion on my criminality on the date of the registration sticker on the front license plate, you should know Vermont stopped issuing stickers for front plates in 2010. If you look at the back plate, you’ll see everything is up to date.” After a moment of silence, the deflated voice of the Tow Pound Sadist responded: “Oh, well then you can come down and pick up your car.”
Things were looking up, I thought. The police may be a little gruff, but they are reasonable people who understand there is no need to torment otherwise law-abiding citizens who have made an honest mistake.
While I mused on the rationality and decency of government employees, my father had somehow gotten an Uber. Soon enough, a black Chevy SUV pulled up. An irritatingly cheerful driver told us to get in.
“Pier 76 on Twelfth Avenue,” my father said.
“Ah, Tow Pound?” the chipper driver responded.
A dejected, monosyllabic “Yep”, successfully conveyed to him that we just wanted to get to our destination in silence.
For those of you who have had the great fortune of never having visited the Pier 76 impound lot, try to keep it that way. At first glance, it looks fairly harmless: a large, nondescript warehouse out of an episode of Law & Order where evildoers might hide contraband, suitcases of cash, or the occasional corpse. One can be forgiven for not being able to imagine from its banal exterior the mental anguish that is suffered daily within its walls. Nevertheless, as my father and I exited the SUV and passed under the NYPD flag at the entry gate, we took comfort in the fact that this was a place governed by the rule of law. There was no way we wouldn’t be homeward bound in the next fifteen minutes, or so I thought. We were directed to the anteroom of the impound lot where my hopes of a quick escape immediately gave way to despair. The depressing room had the feel of a temporary office on a construction site with flickering fluorescent lights, dirty linoleum floors and a roped queue that snaked up and down the entire length of the structure. On one side of the room, three middle-aged NYPD office workers seeming perfectly content to spend the rest of their natural lives in the Tow Pound sat behind plexiglass screens making small talk while gazing blankly at their computer screens, oblivious to the broken mass of humanity on the other side that studied their every move for some indication as to when their time in parking purgatory might end. The answer, we were about to find out, was not anytime soon. You see, one ingeniously sadistic aspect of being “processed” at the pound is that, when you finally get to the front of the queue, most, if not all, of the information you need to get your car released—insurance card, policy number, vehicle registration certificate, license—is usually in the glove box of the impounded vehicle. As a result, you are sent with an escort to retrieve those items and then put back at the end of the line. By 3:30am, we made it to the front of the queue for what we hoped would be the final time.
“Got towed did you?” It was a required question that everyone had to answer and answer politely, if you were smart. Thankfully, though, some people have the courage to speak their minds even when faced with the prospect of additional torture. One such brave soul responded to the standard inquiry with a “No shit. Why else would I be in this fucking hellhole in the middle of a Monday night?” I wanted to ask him for his autograph, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one.
Despite the noble, if ill-advised, example of this intrepid stranger, my father decided that discretion was the better part of valor and sheepishly answered every question and signed every document necessary to advance to the processing department’s final frontier, the retrieval room. There, groups of about 10 penitent parking offenders awaited entrance to the inner sanctum of the Pier 76 impound lot, where they yearned to be reunited with their four-wheeled companions. We were escorted past hundreds of cars which all seemed to bear the same stunned and hopeless expressions as their human counterparts in “processing”. Some had been there for weeks, racking up thousands of dollars in fees while waiting for their owners to receive a warm NYPD “welcome home” upon their return from a relaxing Caribbean cruise or European vacation. Others, which would never be claimed, were set to go to auction and would eventually be hawked by sleazy used car dealers or stripped for parts and melted down. As I contemplated the grim fates of these innocent machines, I caught sight of a little green car with green license plates. There she was! Our Mini!
We jumped in and my father very slowly drove to the exit, careful not to run afoul of any additional traffic regulations, at least not tonight. As we drove down the West Side Highway and entered the Holland Tunnel our spirits were unusually high for people who had just borne witness to how ugly the rule of law can sometimes be. Then, my father’s phone beeped with a text notification. We pulled over at a gas station just outside the tunnel in Jersey City, and he checked the message. It was a link to an app called Pay or Dispute from NYPD Traffic and Parking. The mere notion that anyone who has endured a night at the Tow Pound would ever dispute his fine and risk having to spend even another second of his permanently scarred existence dealing with the Parking Authority is preposterous. I am quite certain that the whole experience is carefully designed by evil geniuses to ensure that offenders would gladly empty their bank accounts or sacrifice their first-born sons rather than even consider the “dispute” option.
“Read me my credit card number,” my dad barked as he frantically typed it into the app and hit the “pay” button. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here!”
“How many miles to the Vermont border?” I asked as I pulled a blanket over my head to shield my eyes from the rising sun and get some long-overdue sleep.
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