THE DOWNSIDE OF MY NYC YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

People talk a lot about the great benefits and conveniences of living in a big city. At least New Yorkers tout the glories of New York City all the time. I lived there for 40 years. When I was a young adult and young Mom, I came face to face with the decidedly inconvenient and often scary aspects of New York life.

As a young married, we spent most weekends (except in the winter) at our house in CT. This was very common. Most people we knew left the city almost every weekend. So we needed to have a car in the city. That caused serious problems. Garages were (and still are) very expensive. So for many years, we had to park our car on the street. This is not easy, to put it mildly.

There is a ritualistic parking dance that city car owners go through every week called “Alternate Side Of The Street Parking”. It’s complicated. But it boils down to this. If you are lucky enough to get a side street parking space near your apartment, to preserve it, you have to do the following: Move the car to the other side of the street at a very specific time on a specific day. Then you have to sit in the car for an hour until it becomes legal to park there again. You have to do this once or twice a week. And don’t get me started on what happens if you actually used your car during the week. That made things even more complicated.

I followed this time-honored tradition for years. All of them miserable. In rain, snow, sleet or hail, in sickness and in health. If I had a sick kid at home, they had to come with me. When I was nursing, I often had to take the baby and nurse in the car. In plain view of anyone passing by.

It was a nightmare. I had to plan my entire schedule around the parking rules in my neighborhood. And they could vary just a few blocks away from home where I often had to park. As soon as my husband started earning a little more money, I insisted that the first thing we did was get a garage. So I never had to deal with Alternate Side Of The Street Parking after I had a second child. Thank God.

However, the second child created her own logistical nightmare for me. Her Pre-K school was only about three miles from our apartment. But in NYC, that can be a pilgrimage. It was all the way across town and very inconvenient to get to. The school didn’t allow kids that young to take a school bus by themselves. So I had to take her to school and pick her up for an entire school year.

This involved walking six blocks with a four-year old, in all kinds of weather, to get the cross town bus. After we got off the cross town bus, we had to walk another block and take a downtown bus that took us to the school. The whole procedure took 45 minutes. Then I had to take the 45 minute trip home and repeat the process four hours later! I don’t know which one of us hated this torture more.

Eventually we threw in the towel and started taking taxis – when we could find them (you usually couldn’t in the rain or snow, when you needed them the most). This had it’s own problem – a whopping price tag of $30 a day or $150 a week in 1989 dollars. The choice was sanity and bankruptcy or solvency and having my daughter become a nursery school dropout.

Another negative aspect of NYC life in the 1980’s, was crime. My mother lived in the city for almost 80 years and never once encountered any sort of street crime. We were not so lucky. When we parked cars on the street, they were broken into regularly and the radios were stolen, along with anything else the burglars could find. This happened even in an upscale, Upper East Side residential neighborhood.

Signs people put in their car windows to discourage burglars

My husband and I were also mugged at gunpoint late on night, around the corner from our building. We gave the guy all our cash and he ran off. But he turned around and yelled out, “Sorry to do this to you, folks!” So at least we had a polite and apologetic mugger. Still scary.

The scariest incident happened to our au pair, Heike, when she was out with our two-year old and seven-year old children. Heike was a wonderful German girl who lived with us for two years. She was drop dead gorgeous. And big. Not heavy. In fact she had a beauty queen’s body. But she was 5’10’’ tall and not slight. She was also very tough. No one messed with Heike (except for her alcoholic boyfriend, but that’s another story.)

Heike with David and Sarah

One day, Heike came home with the children through the back or service door. She reached the door and a man jumped out at them and tried to grab my two-year old from Heike’s arms. Heike kicked him in the nuts and started to scream. The man ran off immediately. I was so shaken! I was also so grateful to Heike for so aggressively and bravely protecting my kids. That’s what you pay a babysitter to do.

In the late 1980’s. homeless people on the streets were a big problem. We kept seeing them when we walked around our neighborhood. My almost ten-year old son was beginning to ask questions and get disturbed by the sight of people sleeping in doorways or in cardboard boxes. I asked my husband how I should handle the situation with my son. He said to tell him to keep walking and ignore them.

That’s when I knew for sure that city life was not for me any more. Or for my family. There was no way I would live somewhere where I had to inure my children to human suffering. I would never tell my son to just walk away and not care about people living in such dire circumstances. A few years later we moved out of the city into the woods of CT. And I have never looked back. For me, big city life turned out to be less than the glamorous, convenient utopia that I had been brought up to believe it would be.

15 thoughts on “THE DOWNSIDE OF MY NYC YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I worked as a musician for about 10 years during the 60s and lived in Brooklyn Heights. I played with a variety of bands and combos in a crapload of clubs and dance joints. If you know anything about the life of a musician in NYC you know that the clubs closed at 2:30 – 3:00 AM, which means I got home at 3:30 to 4:00AM, parked wherever I could find a spot, tried to get some sleep only to have to get up at 7:00AM to move my car to a legal spot, or sit in the car half asleep in hopes that I would be alert enough to see a spot open up. There were times when I wished I could go to a job on a motorcycle or scooter.., but carrying a full-sized bass fiddle was hard enough in a car. Some of my fellow bassists had these special end pegs with a wheel on the bottom and they’d jump on a bus or hop down into the subway and got around from gig to gig like that. The only relief from this was in the summer when I’d work up in the Catskill resorts, where having a car was mandatory. All in all, living in NYC could be a pain, but other than that, I loved it!

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    1. Great story about lugging a bass fiddle around New York City! Your hours as a musician sound brutal, especially when you had to deal with Alternate Side Of The Street Parking!

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  2. That’s just crazy. I knew that New Yorkers did not usually have the luxury of a driveway and a garage but I had no idea that you were actually expected to move your car at certain times of day. It’s just insane to expect people to do that.
    I quite agree with you about not wanting to teach your children to ignore the plight of the homeless. I do get the reasoning behind your husband’s advice but what sort of message is that to give the children?

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    1. The reason you have to move cars around the city is that the city has to clean the streets regularly and the large machines have to be able to maneuver down the side streets. So days are set for the cleaning and cars have to move from the “to Be Cleaned” side of the streets. There’s a good rationale but the rules make for a crazy life for car owners.

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  3. It was a dilemma indeed and you found a solution that added not detracted from life. I, for one, am happy for you. All round I’m assuming it worked for the best as I imagine getting to and from school was a problem solved and didn’t eat into your day so horrifically. I love seeing pictures of New York, but in truth, I doubt I would have been “hardy” enough to survive it. Just wow!

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    1. I don’t think I’m hardy enough now to survive living in the city. I’d use a garage for my car, but I’d still have to walk around in all kinds of weather. I’ve become so spoiled in the country that I don’t think I could handle that anymore! Imagine actually having to spend time outside when it’s raining or snowing or too cold or too hot!

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      1. Yes and from what I hear NY is both! very cold and very hot. I lived in smaller towns most of my life, then Vancouver for a year, then back to the sticks for 30 and now a larger town but nothing compared to NY lol and I was glad for it, raising my kids where they could play safely outside without worries was huge. When they put Police Tape around the area my kindergarden girl had to walk to school, that was it, I told my then husband get us out of here or I’ll control them to death. So the next day he got moved to Port Hardy, 8k at that time. 4k when I left. but it was a godsend to my peace of mind.

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        1. Ironically, we had worse crime in the ‘safe’ rural town I moved to in CT than I ever experienced in New York. A man murdered his wife on their front lawn in my town, a house was blown up by a disgruntled tenant and there was a huge drug bust invloving the parents of one of my daughter’s classmates at elementray school. There was also the incident about the baby. A fellow parent had an affair with a black man while her husband was in jail. She got pregnant. When the husband came home, she had the baby and he insisted tht she ‘get rid of it’. So my daughter came home from kindergarten or first grade talking about show and tell at school. The woman’s daughter had told the class that she had a new baby brother and that her parents were ‘selling him’. That caused a furor – many kids wanted their siblings to be sold off as well. The story turned out to be true – the parents were basically selling off their infant to the highest bidder. You can’t make this shit up.

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          1. There’s a lot of “hidden” crime in rural areas, especially domestic violence. Probably there’s a lot more of that in every neighborhood than gets reported. There’s also a lot of drugs, not specifically in our town but certainly in the area. Drugs are everywhere and anyone who thinks they live in a “safe” neighborhood doesn’t get it.

            One of the regions biggest murder-abductions of a child was in a small town up the road from here. Garry covered the story and they never found the killers, though Garry has his own suspicions.

            Roxbury was pretty quiet. The biggest local story was of elderly people getting ripped off by illegal mortgage and repair companies. Roxbury may be “inner city,” but that property is very valuable and expensive. There are a lot of older people who have houses with quite a bit of land and they get ripped off frequently. They usually don’t even know how computers are used and they make great victims.

            From a “standard crime” perspective, there wasn’t much. No one stole cars or did burglaries. There were too many cops in the area. Also too many judges, too many sheriffs, and a fair number of guards from the local prison. Criminals REALLY don’t want to piss any of them off. And while the locals might not snitch to the official police, they have no trouble talking to their neighbors who incidentally ARE the police. It was a great place to live, actually.

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  4. When we lived on Beacon Hill, we had alternate side of the street parking. Someone did a calculation once that there are about 5,000 more cars that need to be parked than there are parking spaces in the area. It was a nightmare. Our cars were broken into regularly and Garry’s was stolen. He got it back (Lojack) but it was never the same. We got out of there as fast as we could find a condo to buy. I always laugh because we moved from Beacon Hill, probably Boston’s fanciest neighborhood, to Roxbury, theoretically the poorest and definitely the blackest.

    But no one stole our cars. No one broke into either of them. There was a zero crime rate and the neighbors were friendly. NO homeless people, either. People have some strange ideas about what is “safe” place to live and what isn’t. It isn’t about color. It’s about what is worth stealing. Thieves love expensive neighborhoods . They call the poor ones “home.” They do not steal stuff in their own neighborhoods because EVERY mother in the neighborhood knows their name.

    Maybe they don’t fear the police, but boy they sure do fear their mothers!

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    1. That makes perfect sense. You don’t mess with your own neighbors and family. So of course some less affluent neighborhoods will end up being safer in the long run!

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