What is your idea of a New York City worst case scenario? Being the cause of standstill traffic in the middle of a busy intersection stands near the top of my worst case list.
Having people make, “What the hell is wrong with you faces?” as they maneuver past your car while you figure out next steps from the driver’s seat has to be one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to anyone in New York.
In a city with great public transportation, there seem to be few reasons to drive. So, blocking lanes with a stalled vehicle? That can come across as selfish and doubles the embarrassment for caught-out drivers. I know. I was one of them recently.
I ran out of gas near the Lincoln Tunnel. On a Friday. In peak traffic.
Adding to the shame of the whole experience? It happened during National Bike Month! A quick hop on a CitiBike after an easy train or ferry ride into Manhattan from New Jersey and I would have avoided the whole thing!
I worked fast to slide my car, on fumes, into a parking garage on 10th Ave. so I was able to skip the horn blasts and hate that are usually part of the whole ” You’re blocking traffic!” experience but don’t think for a moment that meant I would get off easy. At some point I would have to deal with my car. I was only postponing the punishment. I was almost late for a meeting and had a full schedule for most of the next 40 hours that included participating in a sponsored 32-mile walk around Manhattan’s shoreline, so I decided I’d deal with the situation later.
On Sunday morning at 6 a.m. began deal with it time.
1st Challenge: Find a gas station near the car.
In New York gas stations are closing ( part of the effort to limit the number of cars on the road in NYC but also part of a national trend) but my GPS seemed unaware of this change. I walked along 10th and 11th Avenues in the morning chill from one closed location to the next wishing I was still in bed asleep, wishing even more that I’d skipped driving into Manhattan altogether and taken Amtrak.
I stopped two cabs to ask where I could find a gas station closest to the Lincoln Tunnel. They each directed me to the East Side. No way I was going east – too far to travel back carrying gasoline. To the rescue? A horse & carriage driver soaping up his ride in front of Westside Livery on West 38th Street.
I stopped to take a picture of his carriage, it looked beautiful in morning light. I asked him about gas stations and he knew one nearby. I thanked him and hurried toward it.
1st Lesson: Never let stress stop you from taking a moment to soak in a moment of New York beautiful.
2nd Challenge: Learn to pour gas in a car from a gas can.
It’s a pretty straightforward process but I didn’t get a chance to try. My fumbling was intercepted by a friend of the gas station’s owner. He offered to do it for me. I was grateful.
2nd Lesson: People in New York are helpful and friendly.
3rd Challenge: Walk 13 blocks and two avenues carrying two gallons of gasoline in one gas can. Weight: approx. 27 pounds.
Walking with a heavy container of flammable liquid first thing on a Sunday morning isn’t fun. You walk by people who carry lighter things.
They hold small bags – filled with warm bagels you imagine – or holding cups of coffee between their hands. They stroll alongside their small dogs. At most they carry a few ounces in the form of yoga mats or newspaper. But not you, driver. You walk with a heavier burden, one of environmental guilt, awareness of time wasted in traffic at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel watching your fuel gauge needle drop toward empty, of being in a ridiculous situation.
You realize this isn’t just a walk back to the car – it’s penance. You’re forced to think while you walk. You’re paying for your mistake one heavy step, one long block at a time.
You determine you’re done with driving in Manhattan. Unless…you’re moving boxes, traveling with a big group, transporting someone who is ill or maybe you have twins plus a dog…and what if you just bought two standing lamps plus a chandelier? The lists grow more complex, obscure. The fumes are getting to you.
3rd Lesson: A long, uncomfortable walk offers plenty of opportunity to think and make changes.
4th Challenge: Get gasoline safely into the car.
The relief of seeing the sign for the 10th Avenue parking lot where I’d left my car was short-lived. Seconds after reaching my car I discovered the gas can I was carrying was damaged – it was impossible to open.
The parking attendant and I worked for 20 minutes trying to get gasoline out of it anyway. Meanwhile the street was getting busy – there was a multi-borough bicycling event taking place that morning and people were pouring into the city, many of them trying to park. The parking attendant continued to work on the gas can even as customers lined up at the entrance to the lot so I started working, answering questions – “It’s $33 for the day.” I was wearing a navy windbreaker. I realized I looked like I was in uniform.
People came and went.
Eventually, the parking attendant found a way to get a trickle of gas to pour awkwardly from the container into my car but mostly down the side of it. That problem was solved easily enough: someone had abandoned a huge pair of men’s underwear near a garbage can at the lot. It looked like it had been run over a hundred times but it did the trick – it absorbed every drop.
When it was all over the parking attendant and I were practically hugging – mission accomplished!
I drove away grateful for a man who not only helped me out in a bad situation but then refused to quit even when the straightforward act of refueling turned into something much more dangerous. I tipped more than it would have cost to leave the car there for another full day. It felt good to give after I’d received so much kindness in one morning.
4th Lesson: See 2nd Lesson
5th Challenge: Recover.
I drove toward where I was staying on the Upper West Side and right away things started to go well.
I found perfect, free parking right on the street in front of my building. There was no line outside of my favorite bakery. The scent of warm banana chocolate bread, morning music and friendly smiles met me as I stepped inside. I got a text about a brunch. It was only 9 a.m. So much had already happened but a whole new day was starting. I was getting a second chance at Sunday.
5th Lesson: New York is great at kicking your ass for mistakes but even better at allowing “do-overs” when you’re sorry.
Need a gas station in NYC today? Look here for active locations then seriously consider alternatives for next time: Amtrak, taking a bus, enjoying a 9-minute ferry ride from Hoboken or parking in New Jersey – you’ll be happy you did.