How to Join the Cult of Alternate-Side Parking

A series of essential advice

How to Join the Cult of Alternate-Side Parking

Lexi Kent-Monning
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Sit in your car for eighty minutes twice a week. The street-sweeping window is ninety minutes, but if you arrive and leave on time, you’re obeying New York City’s Department of Transportation too strictly. Appease the city just enough. During the posted interval, the cars parked on the street sweeping side are parked illegally, but never change sides. Don’t move for the street sweeper, either. To avoid a ticket, all you have to do is stay by your car. To join the cult, you must follow other rules too. And the social rules, the rules of the streets, are vast.

Be hyperaware but never look directly at anyone else engaged in the parking rigmarole. Not the boxing coach with a pit bull, the vintage-furniture dealer with a giant truck, the old ponytailed man wearing socks with sandals. If you have to talk to someone, never use the possessive when referring to their belongings. Never say “your dog” or “your truck”; rather, “that dog” and “that truck.”

You’ll be tempted to park by the twenty-four-hour bodega, which has security cameras and exterior lights that illuminate your car for all the hours you’re not sitting in it. What you’re forgetting about that presumed safety is the rats. They’ll climb into your engine to nest, and when you turn the car on, the scent of rat piss will cloud through the vents. Instead, park halfway down the block—close enough to the lights and cameras to be included in their halo, far enough away that the rats stick to the bodega’s garbage radius and leave your engine alone. 

Don’t work on your car during street-sweeping hours. Pop the hood, remove the nested leaves and rat shit, and spray the engine with rodent repellent only during off hours. Hotspot your cell phone to your laptop so you can work your job. Try to hide doing this, though, because it makes you look bougie. Typing is OK, but a Zoom call is out of the question.

Respect the hierarchy of the cult. In theory, everyone should be sitting in their cars for those eighty minutes. But in practice, there are the privileged few who no longer have to sit at all; they mill around a residential fence halfway down the block. Assume they were once like you, breathing recycled car air, and that there’s a chance to be like them. The goal now is to graduate from car-sitter to fence-stander. The fence-standers include the bodega guys and the boxer, whose car is matte black and foundation-rattling loud. They stand at the fence and talk for the entire eighty minutes, never actually looking at or addressing one another, but taking turns monologuing without responding. This is their version of a conversation.

Enter the cult assertively but nondescriptly. Act like you’ve always been there. Emanate annoyance. Drive a forgettable beige car with no bumper stickers. Approach the fence-standers and comment on the dog—again, not “your dog,” but “that dog.” “That dog is a good girl.” Don’t look directly at the dog, either. Always rely on peripherals.

Leave room for hatchbacks to open their trunks. But don’t make space for other cars to park. No, what we leave room for is people and their activities. The old man with the ponytail needs a three-and-a-half-foot clearance behind his Subaru. If you don’t give him this territory, he’ll call the city to give you a ticket even though you’re parked legally. He’ll lie and say you’ve been parked there for weeks when it’s been only forty-eight hours. You’ve never seen him actually load anything, but the point is that he might want to someday. 

Whenever possible, observe the ticket agent just as they are observing you. They also respect the hierarchy and don’t ticket the fence-talkers, who don’t have to sit in their cars like the rest of us, but do have to be near their cars. The cars. “The cars,” not “their cars.” 

At the end of a six-month probationary period, you’ll learn the pit bull’s name. Pet her sideways instead of while facing her. Pretend you forgot something in your car so you can rub the dog’s scent on it, hoping this might deter the rats. Most weeks, the street sweeper doesn’t even come. That’s irrelevant. Buy something at the bodega at the end of each shift. You’re getting closer to leaning on that fence.

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