At dinner the other night, the talk turned to New York–the rise of the tech sector and the renaissance of the city itself.To lifelong residents like me, the city’s transformation over the past several decades has been nothing short of remarkable. Hopefully, the city’s current budget woes won’t lead to a reversal of this trend.
Waxing on the renaissance topic, one successful NYC entrepreneur at the dinner startled everyone by announcing that things had come so far that “There’s no crime in New York.”
“It’s true,” the entrepreneur continued. He said he didn’t know anyone who had been mugged or robbed in New York in recent memory, and most people he knew didn’t even bother to lock their doors anymore.
The entrepreneur lives in a townhouse on the Upper West Side–hardly representative of the city at large–and his view was not shared by those of us who live in Brooklyn (which is still not considered “New York” by Manhattan residents). One Brooklyn resident pointed out that little Brooklyn kids were getting mugged these days by bigger Brooklyn kids, because the bigger Brooklyn kids want the little Brooklyn kids’ iPhones (itself a sign of the times). But compared to the New York I grew up in–the city of the 1970s, when the hapless Abe Beame was in Gracie mansion, the city was broke, and getting robbed and mugged was just a fact of life–there certainly is a lot less crime in New York.
When I left dinner, I walked to the corner of Columbus Avenue and 68th, to where my car was parked.
And, with a sinking feeling, I observed that my car wasn’t parked there anymore.
I stood for a moment at the place where my car had been and wondered whether I was observing proof that there was still crime in New York.
This seemed unlikely. I’ve parked my car several times over the years and returned to find it gone. And, generally, I’ve then found it in a tow pound somewhere, where I’ve had to buy it back with a huge wad of cash shoved through a space in the bullet-proof glass to pay off outstanding parking tickets. So maybe that was what had happened again this time, too.
Except that this car–a secondhand Toyota pick-up truck–didn’t have any outstanding parking tickets, because it had almost never been to New York. The truck lives and is registered in Connecticut, where we got it last summer, after an ancient Volvo died, so we could take garbage to the dump.
And the truck had been parked legally.
For all of three hours.
So maybe there was crime in New York.
I walked around the Upper West Side for a while to make sure I wasn’t suffering from brain rot and just forgotten where I’d parked (possible). Then I called 3-1-1, Mayor Bloomberg’s fancy new self-serve city information system. 311 worked like a charm, and would have been able to help me — if I had had the truck’s licence plate number. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the number–not on me, anyway. my wife had registered the truck the prior summer and stuffed the paperwork somewhere, and my wife was out of town.
I figured the police wouldn’t have been able to help me without the plate number, either. So I just took the subway home–another thing I’d never have done in the New York I grew up in–wondering what on earth had possessed me to drive into Manhattan in the first place.
Over the next 36 hours, I learned just how far New York has come in the past 40 years, especially in using technology to further the cause of justice.
I couldn’t figure out where my wife had stashed the truck’s paperwork, so the morning after it disappeared, I wasted three hours on the phone with…
- the New York Police Department (“Call the tow pound”),
- the tow pound (“There’s no record of a blue truck being towed–call me back in an hour”),
- the Department of Motor Vehicles (endless voice-prompt hell),
- the dealer that had sold us the truck (“Try again in an hour, when sales gets in”),
- the insurance company (“We have the VIN number, but we don’t know your plate number”),
- the tow pound (“There’s no record of a blue truck being towed–call me back in an hour”),
- the dealer (“Sorry, we gave you a temporary plate last summer — we have no idea what your plate number is,”)
- the tow pound (“You again? There’s no record of a blue truck being towed. Call me back in an hour. And, honey, you obviously forgot where you parked it. Why don’t you go there and walk around.”)
I went back uptown and walked around the Upper West Side again to make extra sure that I hadn’t forgotten where I’d parked, and then, finding nothing, went to the 82nd street police precinct to see if they could help.
I explained the situation to the large desk sergeant behind the bulletproof glass. The desk sergeant grabbed a stack of pink papers and started flipping through them. Then she informed me that there is definitely still crime in New York:
Some New York scofflaws are so slow to pay the City the money they owe after illegally parking their cars that the City authorizes independent “marshals” to cruise the streets in tow trucks to incent their owners to pay.
And that was probably what had happened, the sergeant informed me. Because according to one of those pink sheets, my truck was in a lot in Bushwick, Brooklyn, after having been grabbed by a City marshal for non-payment of parking tickets.
I asked the desk sergeant how the marshals had towed the truck for unpaid parking tickets when the truck had never even been in New York.
The marshals had their ways, the desk sergeant said.
Well, I was certainly curious to learn more about those ways. In the old days, I knew from experience, the marshals’ agents cruised up and down streets in tow trucks running licence plates through computers until they found one that was loaded up with tickets. But the truck’s plates were clean.It was another day before I learned about the marshal’s ways, because it took another day to extract the truck from the pound in Bushwick. One thing that has NOT changed in 40 years in New York is that once City marshals get their hands on your car they have you completely by the balls.
There was, for example, the procurement of the $687 in cash I was going to have to hand over to get the truck back (covering the tow, tickets, penalties, and fees), which had to be withdrawn from the ATM in separate installments on separate days ($500 daily limit).
There was the first unsuccessful trip to Bushwick with the insurance card, driver’s licence, cash, and prayer that the registration was in the truck’s glove compartment (the title was, but the registration wasn’t).
There was the return home to the land of Internet access to find quasi-proof on the Connecticut DMV site that the truck’s registration was active (I had the plate number by this time).
There was the excursion out to find a fax machine to fax this quasi-proof to the marshal’s office, because the marshals’ office didn’t have Internet access.
There were several cell-phone negotiations with the immovable Lois in the marshal’s office–after which somehow, with the permission of her bosses, Lois eventually became persuaded to accept the quasi-proof of registration instead of the registration itself.
And then, finally, there was the trip back to Bushwick for the truck.
And while I waited for it to roll out of the tow-pound lot, I chatted with the man behind the counter about the marshals’ “ways.”Thanks to some new technology, the man said, the marshals are now able to nail ticket-delinquents by their names, not just by finding cars that have accumulated unpaid parking tickets.
Every evening, the man explained, the marshals’ agents hit the streets in their tow trucks, with one truck assigned to scan one side of the street, and another truck assigned to scan the other. The agents plug the plate numbers into a computer, and–thanks to a recent database integration–the computer scans not just the car bearing that particular plate but all other cars owned by the owner of that car. The agents scan thousands of plates a night and usually end up towing about 30 cars.
I asked about the cross-state issue: How did the marshals nail an owner who had cars registered in two different states? Weren’t the databases separate?
The databases used to be separate, the man explained. But now, thanks to an intra-state agreement, New York has acquired the data held in the Connecticut, New Jersey, and several other key states’ databases, which is updated each week. That data allows the marshals to bust delinquents who own cars registered out of state.
And that’s when I finally understood why our truck had come up positive: Because of unpaid parking tickets on our other car–a Volvo station wagon my wife had registered in New York. (My wife, I learned later, had actually already paid the tickets two weeks earlier, but the payments hadn’t hit the marshal’s database).
Interestingly, the marshal’s man also explained that New York has recently found a way to start collecting money from the automatic red-light ticket cams that are set up all over the city to snap pictures of cars that float into the intersections too late. It used to be that, if you were from out of state, New York had no way to incent you to pay these tickets. But then the city decided to automatically convert all of these picture-cam violations to parking tickets, so the tickets started showing up in the marshals’ databases. And now, said the man, the marshals are having a field day towing the cars of folks who got snapped running red lights several years ago and don’t realise that these violations had been converted to unpaid parking tickets–thus making their cars eligible to be towed.
The future is about data, technologists tell us. And that’s certainly the case in New York.
And now here’s hoping that, someday, the technology gets so good that slow-paid tickets can just be posted to your EZ-Pass account (the plastic RFID thingie that automatically charges you for tolls as you go through, instead of your having to have exact change each time), which would save you the joy of going to Bushwick.
Of course, that sort of technology would put the towing operations out of business. So don’t keep your fingers crossed.
You have been warned!
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