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Notes from a Polite New Yorker: The Vantastic Blue Betty, Part I

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My luck with cars has been horrible.

Owning and operating a motor vehicle in New York City is the province of only the brave or the stupid. Few places in the U.S. are less hospitable to cars. The roads and highways of the five boroughs are a miserable swamp of congestion, construction and conflict. And parking is not much better. It is not surprising to spend more time looking for parking at your destination than driving to your destination.

My luck with cars has been horrible. My first car was a 1987 Plymouth Horizon that broke down constantly and became so overheated that it caught fire and was destroyed while I was living in Georgia. With the pittance of insurance money I got from that, I purchased a 1977 Plymouth Voyager van from a beer-swilling redneck who told me he obtained it from a crack user who owed him money. I paid $725 for it and it broke down for the first time a week later. It was light brown/puke/mustard colored with a broad off-white stripe. The lettering from a church that used to own it showed if you looked at the van at a certain angle. At one point, the drive shaft fell off of it on the highway. I didn’t even try to sell it when I moved back to New York—I gave it away to charity in hopes of getting a tax write off (that I didn’t get). I was glad to be done with the automobile.

However, I recently had the opportunity to obtain a van at no cost. One of my interests is music, and for the past five years I have performed in a punk rock band playing bass. Since all of the members of the band live in New York City, none of us has a car. This is usually all well and fine, but playing in a band usually means moving heavy musical equipment and playing shows out of town, and that means a vehicle is necessary. We have become tired of dealing with the nefarious antics of rental car companies.

Luckily, the band’s new drummer, Jon P., —aka The Beast— has a friend who works for a company that has purchased a new van and is willing to part with the old one for the price of driving it away. I made many arrangements online. I got the information on registering the van and bought insurance online. I even made sure to join the American Automobile Association.

Jon P. and I made plans to retrieve the vehicle. In order to move it, though, we first had to register it, and I thought that registering the vehicle was going to be the toughest part of the day.

Jon and I met at the N.Y. Department of Motor Vehicles office on Broadway near Herald Square. It is not a small office, but by 9 a.m. the line to get a ticket to wait in another line was already out the door of the office and winding in a corralled mass near the elevators. Despite this mess, the line moved quickly and I had all the necessary documents filled out and in good order. I handed my paperwork to the clerk after some quality waiting time and minutes later had two valid New York State license plates to put on my vehicle.

Jon and I made a bee line to Penn Station and bought tickets to the next train to the Hamptons—that’s where the van was parked in someone’s driveway. We sat on the train that became packed with vacationers and fancied ourselves a couple of sophisticated hundredaires on their way for some leisure time in the Hamptons. To be honest, by the looks of us, the staff of any respectable Hamptons country club would call the police if they saw us on their property.

We got to the Westport LIRR station and walked the mile or so to get to where the van was. During our walk, Jon told me about a place he visited called Graceland Too, an eccentric tribute to the King of rock & roll run by an extremely dedicated Elvis fan. I vowed to someday visit.

We arrived where the van was parked, which was at a private house, to find the van peacefully resting in the driveway. The van is blue with a gray midsection and is large enough to seat 15 people, though it has only front driver’s and passenger’s seat. Prior to our acquiring it, it served a small theater prop company called P.D.I. Inc, and the company’s name and address are still stiltedly emblazoned on the driver’s and passenger’s doors. Jon and I looked at her proudly. We were so pleased to be able to drive a van to call our own.

Behind the house we found two MILFs and their children enjoying a day by the backyard pool. Jon P. is friends with them through their husbands, whom he knows through playing in other bands. Jon chatted with the bikini-clad MILFs and had a beer, but I made sure to abstain from drinking as I would have to drive the van.

After affixing the license plates to the van, we started her up and managed to maneuver her out of the driveway and onto the road. We made our way toward the Long Island Expressway. The van seemed a bit sluggish and awkward, but this was my first time driving it.

A few minutes into our journey, shortly after hitting 60 miles per hour for the first time on our trip, the van stalled at a stop light. I tried to restart her, but to no avail. I kept reminding myself that we got this van for nothing. It was completely free and we should be thankful and not get too upset. With the van breaking down, it felt like old times, but not good old times.

I was more scared than angry. The band had a show to play that night in Brooklyn, and two of us could be stuck out here on Long Island for a long time. Would A.A.A. even tow it far enough for me to get it fixed near the city? We raised the hood after pushing it to the side of the road. I called the other guys in the band. “The good news is we got the van,” I said. “The bad news is we just broke down.”

To be continued…

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