Monday, May 9, 2011

It's NYC Stress on Wheels (Part I)

Too much adrenaline can be too much of a good thing. I re-discovered that fact while maneuvering my car into Manhattan for the first time recently. I've sampled city driving madness in Miami and Atlanta but nothing compares to the New York Metro area.

After my trial by Turnpike, crossing the Verrazano (my GPS assumed I'd enjoy taking the scenic route into Manhattan) and gritting my teeth through BQE mid-day gridlock, I was looking forward to emerging out of the Mid-Town Tunnel into comparatively calmer driving. It's too bad I had ended up in the Battery Tunnel.

On the other side of the longest continuous underground tunnel in the U.S. it felt like I had crossed into a crazy arcade game. The object of the game was to avoid hitting construction work, double-parked taxis, foot-deep potholes, kamikaze bike messengers and distracted, jay-walking pedestrians.

Oh, tension, cursing, tears! Then comedy - a double decker bus at Bleeker and 6th chased down a woman who scampered before it in tall white heels. She never thought to simply jump up on the sidewalk to get out of the vehicles way. The front, upper deck of the bus was filled with laughing visitors watching the spectacle below. Comedy break over and it was onto Times Square insanity - don't ask.

An hour later I reached the Upper West Side, nerves shot. "All I have to do now is find a parking spot. Just a few more minutes." Right. It took 45 minutes to snake seven blocks. No parking. Public lots full. Emergency vehicles at The American Museum of Natural History. I should mention that I wasn't looking for one parking space, I was looking for two - more of a landing strip - to accommodate my limited parallel parking skills. Finally, the miracle of a spot along West End Avenue.

Sure, the parking spot was 35 blocks from where I needed to be and sure it was tiny but I was desperate. A few embarassing attempts at parking later and a UPS man finally took pity. "Do you want me to help you..." I gratefully started to get out of my car. "Oh, no...I'm going to teach you right here, right now how to do this." It took forever but Mr. UPS taught me that there's no such thing as a too-small parking space if you're really determined. I thanked him profusely.

Still a bit jittery, I hailed a cab. Inside I told my driver I had just driven in NYC for the first time. "I don't know how you do it everyday!" I said, shaking my head, face in hands. He took to the conversation right away.

"I came here from Morocco and I needed to work. I was here only one day and my cousin offered me a job but I had to learn to drive. Not knowing this city, not speaking English and not even able to read the signs very well I told myself, 'You're going to learn." He borrowed a beat-up car, bought a map and asked passersby about the most crowded places in New York. He spent the next three days in near-miss situations in Times Square and Chinatown. Once he even had to be turned around by police as he found himself going onto the Manhattan Bridge in the wrong direction!

When he dropped me off he turned to give me his advice. "Look, you don't have to be afraid. What is driving...it's moving forward," he gestured. "A little bit, then a little bit more at a time. One moment, then another. Next time you bring some good music, you bring some nice coffee, you put it close and you say to yourself, "No one is going to bother me. This is MY car. This is MY road...and you'll be okay."

Great advice that I'll put into practice one day. In case you're wondering, that taxi driver has kept a clean record of safety for 9 years since those first few, reckless days. We parted, him swerving back into automotive mayhem and me diving right into a very eagerly anticipated Happy Hour...what a day!

Up Next: NYC Stress on Wheels Part II

Having experienced the stress of driving in NYC for the first time I thought I'd kick the stress level up another notch by diving back into NYC traffic...this time on a bicycle.