Luck Isn’t on the Itinerary

YOU ITINERIZE.  You plan. You schedule.

You’ve got the MapQuest printouts and the GPS instructions.

You leave nothing to chance.

But the next thing you know, you are coming out of a New York City restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, feeling all late-dining European, and your teenage son, looking up the street, says, “Our car’s not there.” You think, That’s impossible. Where would it go?

The thought actually enters your head that if it isn’t there — which you know it is — then it simply vaporized, and the only way that could have happened is if extraterrestrials came down and beamed it up. But you instantly realize how crazy that sounds. Everybody knows that extraterrestrials don’t drive Subarus. There’s no snow on Mars.

You think back. Before parking, you checked the street sign and now recall its precise words:


You say, “Maybe we just can’t see the car from here. That truck?  Probably in the way.” Actually, that truck is parked pretty much where you remember your car being. But it must be parked one space in front of your car.

“We put money in the meter,” your wife says. Her words indicate her basic world view: If you play by the rules, your car will be there when you get back.

As you get closer, you feel a pit of dread knotting in your belly.

You come to the spot where you parked your car. There’s no denying it: It’s not there. The truck you had hoped was hiding your car is instead parked in its space. “But we put money in the meter,” your wife says.

LUCK IS a funny thing. You most often consider yourself lucky not when something good happens but when a calamity that could have been worse isn’t.

You double-check the sign. Could you have misunderstood?

Apparently, yes.

What you had initially thought was clear is now suddenly murky. Sure, the sign said you can park from eight a.m. to seven p.m. What it didn’t specify, though — and this is where you made your mistake — was the time zone.

You assumed the sign meant the time zone New York is in. But then, you remember what they say about assuming.

After searching in vain for someone you can ask about your disappeared car, you read the meter — you know, the meter that exists to take your money so that you can park legally — and it reads, “For information about towed vehicles, call …”

And there is no phone number.

Suddenly, you hear every hydraulic drill and honking horn within a five-block radius. You hear it because you know that when you call 311, you will barely hear what they say.  So, because your son has younger ears, you have him call.

He gets someone who, of course, puts him on a record-breaking hold. You remember that on your way to the restaurant, the one that just a few minutes earlier had you feeling so European, you noticed a building the size of a small country (though probably not a country in Europe) with a sign that said Tow Park.

“Taxi!” you hail. “Tow Park.”

The three of you pile into the cab, your son still on hold, his ear beginning to grow a fungus. You watch the meter tally rise while you don’t move in traffic. You wonder if you should tear up your itinerary.

After a few blocks, your son says something. Afterward, he clicks off his cell phone. “They don’t have a record of our license plate,” he says.

That, of course, means one of three things: One, the tow-truck driver has not registered the number yet. Two, the car has been stolen. Three, the extraterrestrials do, in fact, drive Subarus.

Eventually, the cab pulls up to the Tow Park, which is even bigger than you remember. You walk up its darkened steps, open the door, and … what’s this?

A line of people extends from the windows way up there to the door you just opened and then curls around through the room. The room itself is something out of an existential play. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit comes to mind — it’s a play about people being in hell. Except that this room is drearier than you imagine the stage set for hell is.

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The blue linoleum floor is dull with grime, and some of its squares are peeling. The fluorescent lights cast a harsh light. Elderly people and mothers with babies in their arms stand in line; there are no chairs for them. There are chairs only for those who have already waited in line to talk to the person behind the Information Window and are now waiting to be called to the Pay Your Fine Window.

You feel as though you are in a picture taken in the old Soviet Union.

While waiting in line, an odd thing happens: camaraderie.

You find yourself joking with the wise guy in front of you. Your son discusses the virtues of a bubble-gum-flavored soda pop with one of the wise guy’s friends. Your wife offers to hold a mom’s baby.

This wasn’t on the itinerary.

Finally, $185, a ticket, and two hours later, you’ve got your car.

And you’re happy. At least your car wasn’t stolen. Or worse, on Mars.

This, you think, driving away, is your lucky day.