Owning a car made me feel more like a New Yorker, not less

May 8, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

This is an installment of Pandemic Purchases, a special series of personal essays about the items bought in the past year that brought the most value and joy to our lives and work while living in lockdown.

New York City is the type of place where you don’t need to own a car, at least in the 13 years I have lived here. Like the characters on Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, you make your way around town easily by other means. We have one of the most robust public transport systems in the world and a rapid transit system with the most stations. Pre-pandemic, our subway ran 24 hours, seven days a week, as it has for much of its history. There are buses, trains, and even an aerial tramway to get from point A to point B. Anytime you need it, you can hail a yellow cab, request an Uber or Lyft to arrive in a minute or less, or hop on a Citi Bike. Plus, we New Yorkers like to walk. Miles don’t faze us.

Needless to say, the majority of city dwellers skip car ownership.

In fact, New Yorkers almost take pride in not having a car. Why bother? In many cases, it’s faster to get around by subway or taxi. It’s also cheaper. Owning a car in New York City is an added expense in an already insanely pricey town. Parking garages range anywhere from $200 to $799-plus per month, and then you’ll be tipping the attendants. Street parking is free, but hard to come by. Even if you can find a slot in residential neighborhoods, street cleaning means you have to move it one (or sometimes five) times per week. If you drive to a destination in lower Manhattan, meters cost $3.50 per hour.

All that changed in 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The thought of getting on a packed subway train with any of the 8 million and counting people here was clearly something to avoid if possible. Before the pandemic, New Yorkers wore the sacrifice of being packed like a sardine in a rush-hour train as a badge of honor. I never thought I’d see the day that wasn’t a common occurrence.

Suddenly, a personal vehicle crossed my mind.

After three months of lockdown, it was feeling impossible to continue existing entirely in a few blocks radius of my building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I had survived the 78 days of the stay-at-home order in a two-bedroom apartment with an 8-month-old baby, a husband on constant work calls in the living room, and a busy assignment calendar covering breaking COVID news. I skipped our usual childcare to socially distance, and I didn’t want to rely on my in-laws, who live nearby. We’d never forgive ourselves if we brought COVID to them.

So by June when things began to open up in New York, I wanted to get out. The way to do that safely was to purchase a family vehicle. Children under 2 years old are advised by the CDC to not wear masks, so we are mindful of spaces where people congregate, like public transport. While I wear double masks on the subway, she would be completely unprotected if I took her too. As we could afford it, I wanted to create a safe environment for her transportation.

For us, that’s a black Mazda CX-5, a compact SUV.

The author, in the driver’s seat of her car.
Stephanie Cain

I love it. Like any new habit, I am fully immersed in car ownership. I learned how to clear snow from a blizzard off the windshield and where to find a car wash by the Holland Tunnel. I only buy gas in New Jersey, where it’s much cheaper, and they pump it for you. I know how to install a convertible car seat, which surprisingly is no easy task. I can’t imagine why I never drove myself to Brooklyn in the Before Times—it takes 20 minutes compared with more than one hour by subway.

We splurged on the Grand Touring model, meaning we have all sorts of bells and whistles, like a moonroof, Bose speakers, heated leather seats, and a sport mode that’s quite fun to pop on while accelerating on a freeway on-ramp. It’s a luxurious experience. When we expanded our bubble last summer to include a few select friends, I was overjoyed to pick them up and set off on an adventure. We all needed to see the world beyond our different neighborhoods, even if it was just to wander the Upper West Side in search of a takeout cocktail and “Cuomo chips.” (Someone always volunteered to be the DD.)

We’ve used the SUV for all sorts of tasks, from driving to see family in New Jersey when deemed safe to cruising 20 blocks to go visit the Museum of Modern Art. We have explored cute towns in the Catskills, the Berkshires, the Hamptons, and the Poconos for weekend getaways and day trips. We made a summer mission of trying all the breweries in Brooklyn and Queens. We helped a friend shoot a short film that’s now featured at festivals and took another friend out for her birthday to the Red Hook Winery. I have never appreciated my “backyard” as much as I do now.

I don’t even mind the street parking. Sure, I have spent two hours circling for an open spot, only to lose out to some guy backing up the street to snag it before me. I have come to relish the NYCASP Twitter feed, a city-run update on when, where, and how street cleaning is happening. It’s suspenseful to open the app and hope that the service is suspended so you just don’t have to deal. If you do need to manage your car during street cleaning, it’s one uniquely New York undertaking that still blows my mind.

ASP stands for “alternate side parking,” the system used by the city to ensure all streets get cleaned regularly. Anywhere you park, there is a 90-minute block on a specified day and time in which you’ll get a $65 ticket if you don’t “move” your car. Now, if you think New Yorkers will give up a prized street spot that easily, you are sorely mistaken.

New Yorkers have invented an elegant system of their own. Rain or shine, we go sit in our vehicles for those 90 minutes, key in the ignition and mirrors adjusted to see the street cleaning truck come up the block. We read books and magazines. We talk to our doormen. We make phone calls. We listen to our favorite music on the radio or simply sit in silence away from our toddler. We watch TikTok shuffle videos. We use hotspots to work from the front seat with a laptop. The options are endless.

When you do see the imposing truck barreling forward, New Yorkers hop into what can only be termed as organized chaos. Everyone temporarily “parks” in the middle of the road so that the cleaner can drive up the parking spot lane. Then, we slide back into our parking spot. Seamlessly. While we may fight for a spot on an average day, at street cleaning time it’s the complete opposite. We make sure we each take our claim back; no one is allowed to steal, and if you try, well, only then will the rude New Yorker come out.

At the end of the time block, it appears as if nothing happened except for less litter on the curb.

Oddly enough, the parking circus, the treks to faraway neighborhoods, the sheer ability to explore but come back over the bridge to see the city lights, it all makes me feel like more of a New Yorker. Most of all, I feel so thankful I could create a safe environment for my child. The fact that she has the opportunity to see places outside our apartment walls must be good for her growth and mental health. At the least, it’s been integral to mine, and that’s invaluable.

My favorite pandemic purchase was an SUV. And for what it’s worth, I wrote this essay while sitting in the front seat for alternate side parking.

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