getting around

Talking Alternate-Side Parking With the Queen of Securing a Spot

Photo: Marta Perez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

At 70, Mary Norris has retired twice: in 2017, from her decades-spanning career as a copy editor at The New Yorker, and, perhaps just as significantly, a few years earlier, from parking her car on the streets of New York City. Norris is most well known as an expert grammarian, but she’s also the queen of parking: From 2007 to 2015, she wrote a blog called the Alternate Side Parking Reader, a detailed account of the very specific dance around parking restrictions that comes with keeping a car here. In one entry, to give a sense of what parking can do to a person, Norris posted notes she had written down on a legal pad while starting the blog: “One conflict: I don’t want to reveal my name, as it would give too big a clue as to my parking spaces. I am very discreet in the blog. Yet I want fame.”

The Alternate Side Parking Reader is full of parking aphorisms (“Alternate-side parkers hate film shoots”) and self-made vernacular (the “Sanctuary” is Norris’s unnamed favorite parking block; the street-sweeping truck is simply called the “Broom”). But the blog was as much about being alive as it was about sitting in a car in Manhattan — where Norris wrote most of her posts — and waiting for sweepers to go by. “It was almost as if I’d been waiting all my life to find out what happens when your car has a boot on it,” Norris cheerfully writes when her car gets clamped. One entry, about helping her sister park while she visited for Christmas, notes, “It is so rare that we get to celebrate Alternate Side Parking as a family.”

With the city’s announcement Monday about the full return of alternate-side parking, I thought of Norris’s old blog. After all those years, Norris told me she’d finally managed to afford a spot in a garage. “I was glad to be rid of it, I’ll admit,” she said of moving her car. “It was freeing. I don’t wanna be doing this when I’m 80. I admire people who do, but it’s not how I was planning to spend my retirement.”

As someone who recently got into the alternate-side parking game, I relate to many of Norris’s old entries. While so-called “free” street parking (or cars themselves) probably shouldn’t even exist in the city, and the current system of switching sides encourages an enormous amount of pollution and wasted time, it’s undeniable that it’s also created a strange social ecosystem of car owners. So I called Norris to talk about what it’s like to be a New York City parker and how alternate-side parking shapes you as a person — for better or for worse.

Tell me about how you became a parker in New York and started the blog.
When I first moved to New York, it was 1977, and I had this old 1965 Plymouth Fury. I accumulated something like $200 in parking tickets within my first few days. I ended up junking the car; obviously I didn’t need it anyways, and I was just traumatized. I moved in the ’80s to Astoria, and there it was easier to have a car, so I bought one from a friend at work — a little Honda — and rented a real garage from somebody. Just before I moved back to Manhattan, around 1995 or so, the car got stolen for parts. Later somebody gave me an even older car, an ’84 Ford Escort, and that’s when I decided I just had to master parking on the streets.

First, I got a calendar to memorize all those holidays — the idea that you don’t have to move your car because it’s traditionally the birthday of the Virgin Mary, that’s kind of funny stuff. All of this became part of the material for the Alternate Side Parking Reader. I had an idea early on that I’d print it up and sell them car to car and give people something to do while they’re sitting there. I was not getting published very much during that time, so it was good practice for me.

What’s your current parking situation?
Well, I sold a book, and with the advance, I was able to pay off my mortgage and had the income then to pay for a garage. Also with the advance, I bought a car, a used Mini Cooper convertible. It was kind of a midlife crisis, I guess, but I purposely got a small car so it would be easy to park on the street. But then I was too vain about the car to park it on the street. In the summers, I do go out to the Rockaways, so I do have to park on the street there, and parking has gotten really hard out there. On a good beach day, nobody who lives there leaves their parking spot; we all just stay.

Alternate-side parking is soon to be back in full force. How do you feel?
I had kind of forgotten, but I do remember now that de Blasio lifted alternate-side parking, and when you reached out, I finally put it together that I’d noticed there’s a lot of garbage on the streets. Maybe it is time. It doesn’t feel good that it’s back, but certainly, as a car owner in New York, we’re not in general very popular, so it’s a little bit hard to defend.

Yes, definitely. I’ll have to move my car four times a week.
You can do better than that. You gotta work out the math.

What are some of your greatest parking victories?
Every day when you got a spot, it was a parking victory. I do remember being very stubborn once when I went around and saw a spot, went around the block to get it, and by then, some out-of-state-plate car had pulled up and was ready to back into it. I just ruthlessly parked parallel to that spot. I couldn’t get in until they moved, but I just felt I had been there first and I wasn’t going to give in. Luckily, there was no violence. They finally gave up. I do remember that was the day of Gerald Ford’s funeral. I know because I thought we should have been given that day off, that the side should be suspended for the funeral of Gerald Ford. He even had a car’s name in his name.

Your blog always referenced the “Sanctuary” as one of your favorite parking spots, where the restriction is only half an hour, but you wouldn’t reveal the actual location. Will you tell us now?
My favorite blocks I would never reveal. In my narcissism, I thought people were reading my blog and they could take my spots, so in the end, I was pretty cautious. I can tell you where the Sanctuary is now because you can’t park there anymore — it’s on a street outside the NYU dental school (I called it the dental pavilion) that’s really close to a veteran’s hospital on 23rd. One day, there were signs up that these spots were now reserved for veterans, so there was no more Sanctuary. I would even forgive people for being dentists if they let me park outside the dental school. Every once in a while, I look back there to see if it’s changed back.

Is this an appropriate way for us to spend our time as humans on this Earth?
No. That’s exactly why I started writing about it. I wanted to redeem that time somehow. I was always scribbling in a notebook in that half-hour.

Do you think parking should really be free?
No. There should always be some spots for people to park, and I never really looked into that — like who invented the parking meter; I wonder whose concept it was in the beginning to charge people to park. You gotta pay: You’re taking up the space in the city.

But car owners are practically anarchists at this point, and you just sort of have to go with it. And if you’re going to have to park your car on the street, then I just am for doing it in the most intelligent way possible.

What’s something you think alternate-side parking has taught you about yourself?
That I can make a virtue of a necessity. I’m basically an optimist. You also have to think positively to get a parking spot in New York. There’s no point in driving around in despair; you have to hope. Even when somebody is right in front of you also trolling for a spot and they get one, you think, Well, they got one, so there must still be one for me. It’s basically a hopeful enterprise.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Talking Alternate-Side Parking With the Queen of the Spot