Friday, May 20, 2011

The Greatest, Saddest, Most Delightful, Awful Place In The World

How is it possible that one of my favorite places to go is also somewhere that I would walk over broken glass to avoid? What kind of place can be simultaneously horrifying and massively entertaining? What kind of place fills my heart with glee even as it reveals the ugliest parts of the human condition? Is there such a place?

Yes, there is. It's the place where white-hot rage and soul-crushing frustration are allowed to run free like naked children on a commune. The place where death threats are exchanged like pleasantries, and received indifferently. The place where cars are taken after they're towed for parking violations in Brooklyn. Schadenfreude has a name, my friends, and it is The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

If Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, then the Navy Yard is its doppelganger, its evil twin, Bizarro to its Superman. It's not hard to understand why. Everyone is there for the same reason: To get their car out of a police-guarded parking lot, where it was taken without their consent, to the tune of $350. If that's not enough to boil your water, the Navy Yard is in a uniquely public transit-unfriendly spot, a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway stop, so when you arrive, you arrive to a roomful of people, accustomed to driving everywhere, forced to take the train and then walk. And walk. And walk some more. So they're in a bad mood when they get there.

I have had my car towed three times, and the first time I had to go to the Navy Yard I was just like everyone else. I was a little angry that the car was towed. I was upset about having to pay $350 that I could ill afford. I was hot and sweaty from walking on an extra-sticky Brooklyn summer day. And I was disheartened to find a slow, slow-moving line of about 35 people in front of me when I got there. The second time it happened, I began to see the humor in the situation, and by the third time my car was towed, I won't say that I was actually excited, but I didn't hate the idea of going there, because I was beginning to see the entertainment value of the place. It's like a museum of hostility. The level of existential despair rivals makes T.S. Eliot seem like Dr. Seuss.

The fun begins with the line. This is a long line, and it's not moving fast. There's no way around it. But if you can put aside your own frustration and accept that this is going to take a long time, it can be fun to watch people enter the room, size up the line, and then try to figure out some way that they might be exempt from waiting in it. They ask the people ahead of them in line: "Is this line for getting your car back?" They are told that it is. "What if I'm paying cash?" No, this line is for everybody. They wait a few minutes. The line does not move. They go up to the front and shout through the glass, "Am I in the right line? I just need to get my car back." They are told again that they are in the right line. "What if I'm paying cash?" Then the complaining-out-loud-to-no-one-in-particular begins. The loud sighing. The cellphone call to someone else to complain. But there is no sympathy. Everyone is in the same boat. Your pleas for empathy are ignored. You are alone.

But all of that is merely the amuse bouche; the entree comes when people try to argue the merits of the ticket and the tow with the lady behind the glass -- and almost everyone tries to do this. (The three-inch bulletproof glass, which I usually feel is overkill in a fried chicken place or a liquor store, is totally appropriate here, given the level of vitriol.)

The lady behind the glass -- her job is to process payment. She is not a judge or a police officer. She is a clerical worker. A cashier. All she can do is take your money. She couldn't exempt your parking ticket even if she wanted to. (And rest assured, she doesn't want to.) Nonetheless, she has to sit and listen to EVERY SINGLE PERSON try and explain that it is TOTAL BULLSHIT that their car got towed, that they only left it in that bad spot for TWO MINUTES. And anyway it takes an attorney to read those signs!

The lady sits stonefaced through this part. She's heard it all before. I saw a guy say that he was going to stake out a sniper's nest on the roof of his building and take out anybody that tried to touch his car, and even that got zero -- zero -- reaction from the lady behind the glass. One got the sense that she had heard much worse. (Worse than threats of a murderous ambush!)

Then when the happy customer finally accepts his fate, that he is not getting his car back unless he pays the money and he's not going to be able to talk his way around it, he gets to the next problem: He has to present his registration and proof of insurance to the lady behind the glass along with his payment. In nearly all cases, these documents are in the towed car. So the person has to go out to the parking lot, hitch a ride in the shuttle van to their car, get all their stuff out of it, and return to the line. This enrages people because they've been waiting in line for over an hour, and they immediately assume they'll have to go to the back of the line again and start all over. When they're told they can just come back to the window when they get their papers, they breathe a sigh of relief, but the released tension just multiplies and takes residence in all the people farther back in the line, who don't want their line wait made longer by this person's return.

I cannot overstate the level of hostility that pervades this place. The ladies behind the counter are totally affectless, dead in the eyes, and betray no hint of emotion or sympathy, but being called every name in the book by almost everyone you see all day will do that to you. But if you can take a moment to breathe, to realize that this situation is no one's fault but your own, that there's nobody to be mad at but yourself, you can let go of the stress and the anger and just taste the rainbow of emotions coming out of everybody else there.

The nightmare scenario I've just described is how it goes when everything goes smoothly. But I saw a comedy of errors in there once that was massively entertaining. I had to suppress laughter a couple of times.

It seems this guy had put his car in the shop, and was driving a loaner. He parked the loaner in a bad spot and it got towed, so he was now being asked to supply proof of ownership of a car that was not his. Worse, he had driven it from New Jersey or somewhere distant, and had no car, so he could not get these documents in less than a day. This situation had developed before I got there, and over the course of my hourlong wait in line the dude had gone from agitated to totally unhinged. He had someone from the auto shop on his cell phone and he was begging -- literally begging -- the lady behind the glass to talk to the guy. She told him about 80 times -- in a totally even, emotionless voice, mind you --  that no phone conversation with anyone was going to change the fact that she needed the car's registration in her hand in order to release it.  

And here's where this thing reached a level of dramatic intensity usually reserved for melodrama, as this dude went through a wide range of emotions; first he started literally screaming at the woman, calling her a bitch, an evil person, and accused her of enjoying watching him suffer. (There he was wrong; she was clearly not enjoying any part of it. Those of us in line were a different story.) Then as it dawned on him that he was only making things worse, he suddenly turned on a dime and started apologizing, actually falling to his knees and begging for forgiveness, as though he was trying to save a 20-year marriage.

This was still going on when my turn came. I smiled brightly at the lady behind the counter and said hello. She was a little surprised at this, but didn't really break her poker face. Then she told me I owed $350, and I cheerfully gave her my debit card and said, "I parked it in the wrong place! It was all my fault. Thank you for taking such good care of it." She looked up at me and after a beat broke into a big smile. "You're welcome. You have a nice day."

I hope my car never gets towed again, but if it does, when I go back to the Navy Yard, I'm taking a video camera. Maybe I can make a reality show out of it!

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