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1 Comment | Nov 16, 2014


confusing-parking“It’s not really a conjecture, is it?” Sophie said, leaning forward from the back seat. “Conjecture means you’re hypothesizing about something that you don’t have any real data to support. You’ve got an ocean of data. Hell, just look around.”

Something that, in fact, everyone in the car was in the midst of doing—looking around, that is.

“Well, I’m not sure it exactly rises to the level of a theorem,” Clay replied. “I’m no mathematician or anything, but it feels more like a conjecture to me.” He was in the front passenger seat of the Audi 5000, a car that belonged to Trent’s father, who had agreed, with his special grudging brand of acceptance, to allow the four grad students to take the car into the city for the reception taking place later that evening on the Columbia campus. Trent van Sykell was a second-year grad student, working on a Ph.D. in Columbia’s math department (group theory and topology), and during the drive in from Hoboken, near the midpoint of the George Washington Bridge’s upper deck, the topic of parking had come up—specifically, what were likely to be the odds of their finding any once they got into the city. In response, Trent had opined that the question was moot, insofar as any search for street parking on the island of Manhattan was, by definition, futile, and that if they were to have even the slightest chance of making the event on time, they had best concede said futility from the outset and embark immediately for the nearest parking garage, its enormous cost notwithstanding. In defense of this position, which the two women in the back seat had taken quick umbrage with, Trent had offered a half-serious conversation piece he had dubbed Van Sykell’s Exclusionary Conditionality Conjecture, an as yet obscure pseudo-scientific construct that addressed the challenge of trying to park in New York City.

“Van Sykell’s Exclusionary Conditionality Conjecture,” he had asserted, gazing from the driver’s seat southward, down the Hudson River, “is deceptively simple in its primary premise, yet the proof itself is actually quite nuanced. It asserts that at any given instant in time there can exist no parking space in Manhattan that is simultaneously both legal and available.”

“I’m going to guess,” replied Sophie, “that this proof of yours relies heavily on copious quantities of bullshit.”

“No bullshit at all, my dear,” Trent replied, letting the Audi drift to the right and into the exit lane for the Henry Hudson Parkway south. “I have actually given the matter a good deal of thought and research. For example, did you know,” he said, “that there are 81,875 metered parking spots in Manhattan, and that, even though that sounds like a lot, it comprises fewer than two percent of the total street parking spots on the island.”

“Your point being?” Sophie replied.

“My point being that with over four million free parking spots in the city, New York has unwittingly created a system that not only grossly underutilizes its real estate assets, but also guarantees that virtually no one will seek alternative means of parking. It’s basic human nature that underpins my conjecture. Why would any rational being willingly pay for parking when they believe there’s a limitless supply of the free kind?”

“So you’re not even going to try?” Sophie opined, ignoring Trent’s lengthy diatribe, something she did with great regularity, despite—or perhaps because of—the couple’s longstanding relationship. The two women were in the back seat, not because any of the four students genuinely preferred not sitting next to their respective partners, but rather because of the vanishingly small legroom of the Audi’s back seat, which precluded Clay sitting in the back and which had not been at all an option for Trent, what with it being his father’s car, the non-negotiable condition of the trip being that Trent—and only Trent—drive the vehicle, that he do so only while not under the influence of any impairment-inducing substances, and so on, and so forth.

As it happened, this was not the first discussion of the Van Sykell Conjecture to have taken place among the foursome, though it was the first time it had been debated in the midst of the actual activity to which the construct applied, i.e., endeavoring to find parking. On various previous occurrences, including drinks at McSorley’s only two nights earlier, the subject of parking had come up and Trent had proffered his conjecture to the general derision of his three friends, who were admittedly inebriated at the time and so less than able to give the concept the full intellectual hearing it may or may not have deserved. In the most recent instance, and not withstanding the general darkness of the bar and messiness of their table, Trent had gone so far as to produce from his pocket a document he asserted was a bona fide written proof of his conjecture, which he slapped with mock authority upon the beer-sodden tabletop (said beer immediately beginning to soak into the page). As his three companions gazed in disbelief at the tiny block print and arcane mathematical figures on the page, Trent, easily the most impaired of the group, had gone on to say that he had shown the conjecture proof to his thesis advisor over lunch only the previous day and had received nods of mock approval and faux admiration, said admirer being not only Trent’s advisor but also a recently nominated chair of Columbia’s math department, and so in a position of some authority vis a vis Trent’s analytical acumen.

All four of the car’s occupants were, in fact, graduate students at area universities, all but Sophie in technical disciplines and thus equipped to opine in a more or less informed manner on the veracity of Trent’s analysis of the Manhattan parking situation. Sophie, on the other hand, was doing her Ph.D. in the NYU English Literature department and was writing her thesis on the familial influences underpinning Emily Bronte’s writing, specifically the potentially deleterious activities of Bronte’s mother whilst Emily was, as it were, in vitro. Despite the demonstrably non-quantitative nature of this work, and its complete lack of relevance to driving or parking, Sophie nonetheless was not shy about sharing, as well, her opinions concerning Trent’s conjecture, opinions that turned out to be nearly as illuminating as those of the others of the quartet, albeit of a good deal more philosophical ilk, to no one’s surprise.

“Forget the math,” Sophie opined from the back seat. “It doesn’t even make logical sense. If no legal parking space ever becomes available, then no car would ever be able to park. And yet here we are, surrounded by cars that are, in fact, parked. Ipso facto, your conjecture falls squarely on its ass.”

“Sophie … Sophie … Sophie,” Trent said, turning his head to face her as the car waited at the red light at 125th and Broadway. “Many phenomena in nature make no logical sense and yet can be proven mathematically to be true.”

“Like, for example, that Trent hasn’t the tenacity or the verve to engage in the challenge of actually driving around the upper west side searching for a street parking spot that’s less than a ten-block walk to campus,” Clay said as they climbed the hill toward 116th. “Take a right here. There’s usually something on Claremont.”

“Are you insane?” Jasmine asked. “There are like five total spaces on Claremont and those cars haven’t moved since Reagan was in office. Try Amsterdam.”

“Have you considered the possibility,” asked Sophie, “that if you can use math to prove something is true, when, in fact, it is demonstrably false, then maybe your math is bullshit?”

Ignoring Jasmine’s advice and Sophie’s presumably rhetorical question, Trent turned right at the 116th Street light, coasted one block down the hill, and made another right onto Claremont. The Audi crept down the short street at ten mph.

“I’m only going through with this futile exercise to demonstrate the validity of my conjecture for you skeptics and to gather some heuristic data to support my theoretical analysis. Trust me, there are not only no available spaces, it is not possible for there to be any such—”

“HA!” Sophie shouted, rolling down her window and excitedly thrusting out an arm at what, indeed, appeared to be a vacant space in front of one the Barnard dorms, directly opposite the Interchurch building. “There … your feeble math crumbles to dust before the power of reality.”

Trent, ignoring the car coming toward him from a block away, executed a hasty U-turn in the middle of Claremont, the Audi now facing south and aligned with the empty spot but a full car’s width from the curb, a maneuver designed to allow an assessment of the situation while precluding any other vehicle darting into the space. The approaching car’s horn blared as it sped by.

“She got you, man,” Clay said, smiling in Trent’s direction.

“You should pay me the seventy-five dollars you were so eager to give to the garage,” Sophie added.

“Plus fourteen percent city tax,” Jasmine added.

“Seriously?” Trent said. “Have you people never been in the city before. Why don’t we scrutinize the situation before rushing to judgment? Any of you care to have a go at interpreting the signage, or shall we call someone up from the UN to do it for us?”

He opened his door and stepped from the car, pointing at the panoply of multi-colored signs on no fewer than four poles that stood within ten feet of the empty spot. As he gestured with his finger, he counted silently to himself.

“By my count, there are no less than thirteen signs that have something or other to say concerning the suitability of this piece of real estate as a place to leave one’s car.”

“So,” Sophie said, leaning her head out the back seat window and gazing up and down the street. “You’re saying that all these other cars are illegally parked here?”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all,” Trent replied. “Only that there’s some reason—which it is our civic duty to discern—why we can’t park in this spot.”

“Okay,” Clay said, also stepping from the car. As he did so, another car pulled up behind the Audi and honked twice irritably before swinging around them and continuing on up Claremont. “Let’s humor Trent here for a moment. Start with the basics. Will the car even fit in the space?”

There were barely two feet of clearance at the front and rear of the Audi.

“I could totally get it in there,” Trent said. “That’s not even the issue.”

“Yeah,” Jasmine said, poking her head out of the Audi’s sunroof. “After going back and forth maybe fifty times and hitting both bumpers.” She leaned hard toward the curb to gain a better view behind the parked cars. “Any fire hydrants?”

“No hydrants,” Clay confirmed, stepping down from the curb. “No special parade or festival covers on the meters. Alternate-side doesn’t apply on Saturday.” He walked around the front of the car and placed a hand on Trent’s shoulder. “She might have you, buddy.”

Trent only smiled condescendingly, shook his head and clucked his tongue a couple of times.

“Honestly,” he said, “it’s like I’m dealing with a bunch of Midwest rubes or something. You’re all so focused on the minutia that you missed the obvious. What’s missing from this picture?”

Everyone stared in silence for a few seconds until Trent stepped into the center of the space and stood facing the car, his arms outstretched to each side.

“It’s not even a real space,” he said. “Cast your eyes. There’s no meter.”

“Of course it’s a space,” Sophie said. “You’re standing in the middle of it.”

“No, you’re not hearing what I’m saying,” Trent said. “All these cars are slid forward in such a way that every meter on this side of the street is used up. They’re out of alignment.”

Clay walked back onto the sidewalk and looked up and down the street at the row of cars. “Shit,” he said, “I hate to say it, but he might be right. There’s no meter to feed.”

At this point, Jasmine opened the back door and climbed out to join the two men on the sidewalk. “Not to rain on you boys’ self-congratulatory parade or anything, but you do know it’s Saturday, right? It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a meter. You don’t feed meters on Saturday.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Trent replied. “Well, okay, you’re right, but you’re right for the wrong reason.”

A yellow taxi pulled up behind the Audi, waiting as oncoming traffic passed in the other direction. The driver shouted something from the window that might have been Afghani. He gestured rudely and sped around.

“Even though there’s no metering on weekends, there still has to be a meter to not feed in your space, or else it’s not a space.” Trent folded his arms in satisfaction. “It’s like I’ve been saying since we left. If it was a real space, someone’d already be in it.”

“Oh wait, I get it,” Jasmine said. “It’s like the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.”

“Trent, you’re out of your mind,” Sophie said plaintively. She let her head and arms fall theatrically against the car’s door. Just park here and let’s go to the goddamned reception.”

“Sure,” Trent replied. “Then, after the reception, when we come back out and the car’s been towed, we can all take a pleasant $150 cab ride over to Staten Island, so that we can pay another $300 to some hairy guy to get our car back.”

“Plus the ticket,” Clay added, smiling broadly.

“Plus the ticket,” Trent said. “Thank you.” He walked back around the front of the car and retook his place behind the Audi’s steering wheel. Clay and Jasmine climbed back in as well.

“So we’re really not going to park here because of Trent’s bizarro nihilistic … or whatever … argument about the space not really existing because the meter that should be there isn’t? Seriously? No, we’re going to drive around Manhattan all night and never park,” Sophie said, slumping back dejectedly in her seat. “Honestly, this theorem bullshit of yours—”

“Conjecture,” Trent interrupted.

“What … EVER,” she continued, “was borderline interesting when it was all just hypothetical.”

“Whereas in real life …” Jasmine added.

“In real life it pretty much blows,” Sophie finished the thought.

“As is frequently the case when theory encounters reality,” Clay said. Trent put the car in gear and pulled away.

Sophie leaned forward again between the headrests of the front seats. “Tell you what, how about you boys just drop the two of us off at the gate and then you can pursue your little conjecture validation … thing … on your own time. We’ll save you a canapé. I mean, I get that you’re trying to actually prove something with all this, but actually I’d kind of like to make it to the reception before it’s over.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” Trent replied, smiling and raising his eyebrows in a mockingly scheming expression. “We’re all in this together, my love. Oh, and I would be remiss if I failed to point out that we’d already be inside sipping our pinot noirs if we had taken my original advice and gone straight to a garage.”

“All right. All right,” Sophie said slumping back into her seat. “For Christ’s sake just go. The thing started fifteen minutes ago and we’re sitting out here arguing like a bunch of lunatics.”

Do we have actual money to pay these extortionists?” Clay asked. Sophie and Jasmine simultaneously dove into purses. Between the two of them, they produced thirty-seven dollars. Clay had a twenty.

“Not to worry,” Trent said, turning left onto Broadway and heading north, back the way they had come. “There’s an ATM on 113th.”

“I think there’s a garage on 121st,” Jasmine said.

As the Audi waited at the light at the corner of Broadway and 121st, Clay turned to face the women in the back seat.

“Now would, no doubt, be a terrible time to mention that Trent’s conjecture also includes a corollary.”

“That its author is a pessimistic douche?” Sophie said with a grin.

“No,” Clay replied. “I think that would qualify in logic as a given. The corollary is that at the precise moment when the conjecture itself has been proven to be valid, thus leaving the parking garage as the only possible alternative, all garages will be full.”

At which moment Trent pulled the Audi up to the entrance of the 121st Street garage, only to find a large “GARAGE FULL” sign blocking the entrance. Clay raised his eyebrows and both hands in his best ‘told-you-so’ gesture before turning back to face Trent.

“Quod erat demonstrandum,” Trent said.

“What now, Euclid?” Sophie asked.

“Aren’t there any other garages?” Jasmine asked. “This is Manhattan, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yeah, on like 96th Street,” Clay replied. “You want to walk twenty blocks each way?”

“God, this city sucks,” Jasmine said, slumping back in her seat, arms crossed in disgust.

“Yes, it does do that,” Clay agreed.

“Sucks even more having Trent be right about something,” Sophie offered.

“You guys ever hear the story about the rich guy who went to the bank to borrow a million dollars?” Clay asked.

“So, instead of going to the reception, we’re going to sit out here and listen to Clay’s jokes now?” Jasmine said.

“It’s not a joke,” he replied. “It’s an anecdote that illuminates the pathos of our situation.”

“Well, God knows we could certainly use that,” Sophie said.

“So it’s late on a Friday and this rich guy goes to the banker and asks for a million-dollar loan, and the banker asks what he’s going to put up for collateral. The rich guy says he’ll put up his Rolls Royce. Well, the banker is cool with that and he fills out the forms and hands them to the rich guy to sign. Last thing the rich guy asks is whether there are any penalties for repaying the loan in advance. No, the banker says, none at all. The rich guy takes his million-dollar check, hands the car keys to the banker, shakes his hand, and leaves.”

At this point in Clay’s story, Trent had proceeded to the end of 121st and turned left down the hill on Amsterdam. They crept along in the right lane doing twenty as cars came up from behind, beeping, cursing, and darting around. It was not clear whether anyone was listening to Clay.

“So, Monday morning comes and the rich guy returns to the banker’s desk. He holds out the uncashed million-dollar check, and the banker, after a moment of confused consideration, accepts the returned check, reaches into his desk drawer and produces the rich guy’s car keys. The men shake hands again and the rich guy leaves.”

Clay stopped talking and turned to look inquisitively into the back seat.

“What?” Sophie said. “What the fuck did that have to do with anything?”

“Don’t you see,” Clay implored. “The rich guy just wanted a place to park his Rolls for free for the weekend!”

“Oh, give us a break,” Jasmine said. “That’s such an urban legend. It’s like that guy over on the east side who supposedly drove around for years with a fire hydrant and a parking meter in his trunk. Whenever he needed parking, he went to this one specific spot, took the meter out of his trunk and stood it on the sidewalk next to his car. Then when he went home at the end of the day he’d put the meter back in his trunk and put the hydrant next to the spot.”

“I heard that guy was totally real,” Trent said. “It was in the Village Voice. He went to Riker’s for that.”

“Jesus, he didn’t go to Riker’s,” Jasmine said. “Because a) even if it really happened, they don’t put you in jail for parking violations, and b) it was made-up bullshit to begin with.”

By this point, Trent had turned around and was heading back south on Amsterdam, just approaching the east main gate of the campus, across the street from the law school. The clock on the dash read quarter past eight and it was dark enough for most cars to have their headlights on. As they waited at the light, a large group of well-dressed people crossed in front of them. Several of them still wore stick-on nametags. Sophie rolled down her window and stuck her head out.

“Are you guys coming from the reception?” she shouted at no one in particular.

“Yeah,” one of the women said. “It was totally dead. We’re going for pizza.” She turned and continued making her way across Amsterdam.

Silence pervaded the inside of the Audi for a long ten seconds.

“McSorley’s?” Trent said.


1 Comment

Dan Macdonald 10:33 pm - 16th November:

Well played my friend. It’s a very enjoyable read worthy of the New Yorker. I appriciat linear,conversational short stories like this. -Dan

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