The Continental Pt. 2: Curbside Culture
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
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“Hey, what the hell are you doing? Are you taking a piss on my car?” I heard Niklas say when he opened the car door, just as we pulled into a tight parking spot on Christopher Street. Moments before, I had been roused from a light sleep after a long ride by horns honking, music blasting from bars, and booze-infused laughter—I knew we must be back in Manhattan.
I gathered my things from the front seat and rounded the hood to see a highly intoxicated man slumped over the car, legs splayed wide, thick hairy arms resting heavily on the vinyl top. His hips swayed in and out, as if either indeed taking a leak on the car or trying to make sweet, sloppy love to it.
“Hey, whaddaya think you’re doing?!” Niklas asked the drunkard. This time his voice was elevated.
“Don’t worry about it,” the drunkard slurred, head tucked down and mouth falling open into a heaving position.
“I am worried about it; get the hell away from my car.”
“You and your car can go fuck yourselves,” he shouted, loud enough for heads to turn.
“You go fuck yourself.” Niklas retorted, hand curling into a fist.
“Okay, okay, I’m going, you ugly fuck!” he said cruelly as he staggered away.
On our drive home from Kentucky, where we bought our immense automobile two days before, we had had only positive experiences: an elderly lady gave us a thumbs up at a gas station, a teenager asked enthusiastically about the year of our car at a diner, a trucker offered us tips on classic car insurance. In fact, the Continental had gotten far more attention than we had imagined. Niklas and I talked about this as we walked back to our apartment and laughed about our New York welcome.
But it took no time until we were fully initiated into the underworld of New York City car ownership. Just by driving this large automobile onto this small island we became part of a curbside culture and entered a world of practices and procedures previously unknown to us, which centered on one common goal: parking. Alternative side parking, we found, was an alternate universe.
At first we had trouble even deciphering the signs, which were small and often hidden behind a tree branch, each one listing certain days of the week with times, obscure arrows, and a picture of a tiny broom. The time slots, we learned, indicated when the sweepers come by—the vehicles must be moved during the alotted time. But no one moves their vehicles. They simply sit in the driver’s seat for an hour and a half, two times a week, watching stealthily for the street cleaner. The cops circle like hawks, but they won’t ticket you if you are sitting in your car. How could they when you could just goose it, leaving them standing sadly on the sidewalk? Once the sweeper is spotted, drivers pull to the other side, then fight to maneuver right back into the exact same spot, creating a domino effect of parallel parking while simultaneously dodging delivery trucks, through traffic, cyclists, and skateboarders. Complete chaos.
Niklas performed the ritual the first couple of times, but he was leaving on a business trip soon, so my anxiety mounted, knowing I would have to take over. Though I was comfortable driving The Cream Dream on the highway, I had yet to even start the engine on the streets of New York. So in order to ease my mind, I sat with him one spring morning to observe. As the sweeper approached, Niklas pulled forward and then gracefully swooped back into the same spot.
Later, on my own for the first time, I was prepared to do the same. With Niklas it had seemed calm and quiet on the street, but on my own, the morning was a hustle and bustle of activity. There was a semi-truck behind me, unloading cases of beer to the bar next door, which was blocking my view and making it impossible to see the sweeper’s blinking warning light, which was my signal to take action. An SUV backed into the space directly in front of me, wedging me in further. I was concerned, because a line of cars was backing up at the stop sign and blocking me in from the side. My field of vision was now limited to the inside of the car, so I was glad when a random man shouted into my open window that the street cleaner was coming.
I panicked and pulled out into the street trying to cross to the other side, but with all the congestion I moved too slowly and smaller cars weaseled in, leaving me crooked in the street with no real game plan. I began the first of what was meant to be a three-point turn to straighten out the front end, but I heard a blast from behind.
Are they talking to me? I wondered, and I craned my neck to see a police car, and a cop with a megaphone. When I looked in my rearview mirror, the policeman’s eyes locked on mine.
“MOVE IT, LADY!” rang out from the speaker. A long line had formed behind the street sweeper, which was behind the cop, who was behind me. I lurched forward now, putting on my left blinker to indicate I was, in fact, on my way somewhere.
I somehow maneuvered around the block and successfully slid into an open parking spot.
After repeating the scenario week after week, I no longer get heart palpitations upon moving the car. Niklas and I have it down. We’re confined to our cars twice a week with a row of others, always the same people, always the same line up. Everyone has a cup of coffee and a book in hand. Unlike our first confrontation with the angry alcoholic, people are friendly and warm. In fact, it’s like having an exclusive invitation to a secret street society—all you need is a set of keys to join this alternative movement. And now when the sweeper passes, we all move in a unified wave, rippling smoothly down the street.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Ducts, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.