Notes on the American romance with the automobile: In the nation's largest city, it is more like a bad marriage.
Take Kevin Lessin, 27, actor and son of a Brooklyn mailman who never gave much thought to shattered glass on the sidewalk, a common sight on New York streets, or to the crudely lettered signs taped to car windows: "No Radio."
That was before the shiny, brown, $18,000 Porsche he bought with the savings from several years of on-again-off-again jobs (he got seven seconds in the movie "Prizzi's Honor") was broken into last April, broad daylight notwithstanding, and his $500 Blaupunkt radio hacked out with a crowbar.
Lessin went to the police. "I said, 'What now? Do you take fingerprints?' They laughed and said you've watched too much 'Kojak.' "
Lessin sued the discount store that sold him the "primary asset alarm system" that failed to protect the radio. Emerging from small claims court in downtown Manhattan, he found that a truck had plowed into his car.
Lessin's Allstate insurance man, Morris Lundy, was unimpressed. "I've personally spent $800 just to have my windshield replaced," said Lundy, whose 1983 Mazda has been looted seven times in his middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. "The first time they ripped up the dashboard but couldn't get the radio out," he said. "They came back in two weeks and got the radio. I put in another radio with an equalizer sound boosting system. They got that, too. I put in an alarm. The car was broken into again in midday on a busy street. The alarm went off. People saw them, but nothing happened."
This story, however, has something of a happy postscript. In a city where an average of 62 cars are plundered daily for radios and stereo equipment (BMW in local lingo stands for "Break My Window"), Lessin found a way to supplement his income and provide a public service. He has opened a business selling bright yellow laminated signs that fit in car windows and warn off would-be intruders. The $6 "No Radio" signs, which he sells from his home in Sheepshead Bay, have been featured in articles in the city's major newspapers, in New York magazine and on the National Public Radio program "All Things Considered." Newspapers from as far away as San Francisco and San Antonio have called on the phone to interview him.
Lessin says he hopes to make "half a million and move to Connecticut." He pauses. "Just kidding. I love New York."
Warren D. Leight, the humorist who is currently making a splash with his lyrics to the popular musical "Mayor," devoted a chapter of his "I Hate New York Guidebook" to the perils of automobile ownership in the Big Apple. "New York is the only city in the world where having a car subtracts from your mobility," he wrote.
"In the time it takes to find a parking place, you could locate the Ark of the Covenant. Once parked, you need only worry about your car getting ticketed, towed away, vandalized, burglarized or sodomized."
New York car thiefs and vandals don't discriminate as to neighborhood. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, a resident of the neighborhood now known as the "Yupper West Side," warned people not to park on Riverside Drive along the Hudson River, where three-bedroom apartments sell for close to $1 million.
"Only the border between Iran and Iraq is more hazardous," the author, Jay Leonhart, opined.
Anyone bold enough to own a car in New York must pay parking-lot fees averaging $200 per month or fathom the intricacies of the city's alternate-side-of-the-street parking system.
Shortly before 8 each morning, and at other hours, on nearly half of the city's 6,400 miles of streets, men and women, coats draped over pajamas, pour out of apartment buildings to move their cars. They double-park -- illegally -- on the opposite side of the street, leaving phone numbers scribbled in the windshield (sometimes), and then, about three hours later, move back.
The system began in 1951 to allow mechanized street brooms to sweep along the curbs. Because there are more cars than spaces, the result is a mad game of musical motorcars for empty spaces as rare as whooping cranes and a blind eye to double-parking by normally vigilant traffic police.
Like Kevin Lessin's stolen radio, the system has given rise to free enterprise. Moonlighting doormen, known as "car shepherds," charge as much as $60 a month to move a car back and forth while the owner is at work. Glen Bolofsky, an accountant who paid hundreds of dollars in parking tickets, invented the successful "New York City Alternate Side of the Street Parking Calendar" listing 30 holidays when regulations are suspended.
The suspensions began when Jewish leaders complained that religious custom forbade driving on certain days. Other religions waded in, and now, only a New Yorker would know why ASP is suspended on Greek Orthodox Good Friday but not on Christmas Eve.
Nonetheless, the ritual is so ingrained that a monologue extolling its virtues draws appreciative howls in Leight's "Mayor." As the actress puts it, "I Park. Therefore I Am."