After a friend recently had to retrieve her car from New York City’s infamous Pier 76 — the compound where towed vehicles are held until their owners come up with $300-plus in fines and fees — I was reminded of one of my favorite novels, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out,” by the great and prolific storyteller Calvin Trillin.
Anyone who has experienced the agony of trying to find a legal street parking spot in Manhattan is familiar not only with the congestion-induced scarcity but also the arcane, indecipherable language of the parking signs; the equally mysterious array of curb coloring; and the army of ruthlessly efficient parking enforcement officers who are deaf to explanation or entreaty.
But to quintessential New Yorker Murray Tepper, a broker of mailing lists, parking is not pain but pleasure. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of parking regulations and a comprehensive mental map of parking spots across the borough, especially treasuring those that are “good for tomorrow.” Before he could afford monthly garage parking, Murray was a master of alternate-side-of-the-street parking in his midtown neighborhood. But even after his wife coaxes him into the garage, Tepper continues to find legal street parking for the fun of it.
As he sits in his blue Chevy Malibu reading The New York Post, other would-be parkers see him and assume that, because he is in his car, he is about to pull out. But Murray waves them on with a well-practiced array of hand gestures, depending on the other driver’s level of aggression. Or, he simply tells them, “I’m not going out.”
Tepper is scrupulous about the legality of his parking. The meter always is fed, and he never overstays time restrictions, whether the one-hour limit at the famous Greenwich Village deli Russ and Daughters on his Sunday morning whitefish salad and bagel run, or the Tuesday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ban in the upper 70s or midtown on the East Side, where reserved street spots for United Nations diplomats add to the challenge.
After an intern at a downtown community weekly paper meets Tepper through an uncle, a counter man at Russ and Daughters, and writes a story about Tepper and his hobby, Murray gradually becomes a New York City folk hero — the everyman who diligently obeys the law while others prosper by skirting it. People appear at Tepper’s Malibu window and ask for advice, which he shrewdly dispenses mostly by urging his supplicants to simply accept what they already know to be true.
But the media attention and the gatherings at the legally parked Malibu draw the attention of law and order-obsessed Mayor Frank Ducavelli. He hopes that the tabloids, to save headline space, will refer to him as “Duke.” But instead they uniformly call him “Il Duce,” and he continually stumbles into the role by concluding that Tepper is a public nuisance needlessly occupying a parking space that could be used by someone else. In New York fashion, Tepper’s encounter with City Hall results in a protracted federal court case in which he is defended by the ACLU, as crowds outside the federal courthouse chant, “Tepper isn’t going out!”
First published in 2001, before 9/11, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out” is a charming, comical and wise look at Manhattan life that comes in at just 241 pages in paperback. It’s available in the Lackawanna County Library System catalog and through any number of online booksellers. And it proves that, unless you know a Murray Tepper, parking in a garage in Manhattan is the way to go if you want to avoid Pier 76. (Good news: New York now plans to make the pier part of the growing Hudson River park system.)
‘Tepper Isn’t Going Out’
- Author: Calvin Trillin
- Publisher: Random House
- Pages: 214
- Price: $17 (paperback)
Patrick McKenna has been associate editor of The Times-Tribune since July 1990. He is a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, a role in which he helps to formulate editorial policy. As editorial and op-ed editor, he is responsible for most of The Times-Tribune’s opinion content and the author of most of the newspaper’s editorials. A 1978 graduate of Penn State, Pat started at The Scranton Times in March 1978. He has won multiple statewide awards for editorial writing, and the national WIlliam Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence. Pat is a Scranton native and lives in Clarks Green.