In 1945, when the war ended, my wife and I, who had been born and raised on city pavements, decided to try the country life. We settled on a farm in New York State's Dutchess County.
From the windows of our house you could see three mountain ranges. In the summer the strawberries that cost nothing to grow were as big as golf balls, and in the winter the skiing that cost nothing to get to started at our front door. Our infant sons thrived in the spectacular air. My work went beautifully. Our city-tense nerves relaxed until they resembled sagging clotheslines.
And after the first dazed year we got to hate every minute of it.
"I know what the trouble is," my wife said. "This place is too far from New York."
It wasn't too far from New York for our neighbors, some of whom had never even been to New York. Some of them had never worn shoes, either, but we won't go into that here. What my wife meant, of course, was that it was too far from New York for New Yorkers.
After trying for several days to make up a completely honest list of the things about New York that my wife and I missed because we were too far away from it and that could not in some way be reproduced in reasonably satisfactory substitute form up in Dutchess County, only two items survived: the theater, of which we were both fond, and Madison Square Garden, to which we used to go fairly regularly to see the fights and the unfixed basketball games.
"It's not much of a list," my wife said. "And it may not be enough to move back to New York for. But it's certainly enough to move closer to New York for."
So we left the three mountain ranges and the free skiing and we moved to a community that is one hour by car from the New York theater and Madison Square Garden. And in eight years we have been to the theater in New York exactly four times, and to Madison Square Garden twice.
It may be difficult to keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paree, and everything west of the Hudson may be camping out, but one thing with which you don't have to cope on the farm or when you're camping out is the parking problem.
My wife and I soon learned that, when we drove into New York to see a play or a fight, by the time we succeeded in parking the car we had missed either the first act or the first three rounds.
The car is still the lesser of two evils. But getting to a sporting event in a major arena by automobile has become a problem in logistics that makes the Lewis and Clark expedition seem like a trip to the corner drug store. However, just as slavery produced the Underground Railroad and Prohibition spawned the speakeasy, so the big city parking problem has developed a breed of minor but unique racketeers on the periphery of the sporting world.
A BOX AT THE CIRCUS
Several months ago my wife and I were offered, by a friend whose taste runs to events on which he can place bets, a box at Madison Square Garden for the circus. We declined with thanks. Our two small sons roared. Our friend stared at us as though we had suggested placing Mussolini's profile on the dollar bill.
"Don't you like the circus?" he asked.
"We like everything that happens in Madison Square Garden, even Liberace," my wife said. "It's just that we can't find a place to park."
Our friend's face cleared. He took a card from his pocket and handed it over.
"Try this place," he said.
I looked at the card. It advertised a parking lot in the 40s near the Garden.
"We've tried this place," I said. "It's always full up."
"I know," my friend said. "But just ask for LeRoy and tell him Dominick sent you."
"Who is Dominick?" I said.
"I don't know," my friend said. "That's what I was told to say the first time I went there."
On the appointed day, we set out for New York two and a half hours before the circus curtain, if the circus can be said to have a curtain, was scheduled to go up. Nevertheless, when we arrived at the parking lot, I could see there was not enough room left for a pogo stick. A short, thick, untrustworthy-looking man was standing at the gate, leaning on a sign that said "FULL" and staring at the passers-by as though he were trying to decide which one to have for his dinner that night. I pulled up to the curb.
"Pardon me," I said. "Could you tell me where I can find LeRoy?"
"Why do you want him?"
"Dominick sent me," I said.
The man pushed himself away from the sign and came across the sidewalk toward us.
"That'll be two bucks," he said. I gave him two dollars. He examined them as though he thought there was a distinct possibility that I had made them myself. "Drive around the corner," he said. "The lamppost in the middle of the block, on the left side. You'll see a fat guy in a cap. Tell him Dominick sent you."
'WE'RE GETTING CLOSER'
I drove around the corner. In the middle of the block, leaning against the lamppost on the left side of the street, was a fat man in a dirty corduroy cap. I pulled the car up to the curb beside him.
"Excuse me," I said. "Dominick sent me."
"Two bucks," the fat man said. I handed over my second two dollars. This man was either more trusting or gullible than his confederate. He thrust the money into his pocket without examination and jerked his thumb down the street. "Drive around the corner," he said. "There's a candy store near the Ninth Avenue corner. Guy in a leather jacket sitting outside on a bench. Tell him Dominick sent you."
"Well," my wife said as we turned into the next street, "we're getting closer."
I pulled up in front of a candy store near the Ninth Avenue corner. A man in a leather jacket got up from a bench and came toward us.
"Dominick sent me," I said.
"Two bucks," the man in the leather jacket said. I handed over two more dollars. "Okay," the man said. "Everybody out."
My wife and the children followed me out of the car. The man in the leather jacket slipped in behind the wheel.
"This circus thing, it's over around 5 o'clock, maybe a little later," he said as he put the car in gear. "You come back here 5:30 sharp, the car'll be waiting for you."
He tramped on the gas and disappeared around the corner into Ninth Avenue. We walked down the street to Madison Square Garden and the circus. The children had a wonderful time. I didn't see any of it.
For the first time in eight years I found myself thinking about those strawberries that were as big as golf balls and the skiing that started at our front door, and the days when all we had to worry about was the fact that we were too far away from New York to get to Madison Square Garden. Now we were there, and while the show was on all I could think about was my car, which had disappeared around the corner into Ninth Avenue with a total stranger at the wheel. I was certain I would never see it again.
I was wrong.
At 5:30, when we reached the candy store, there it was, waiting at the curb. So was the man in the leather jacket. As we climbed into the car, he handed me a small batch of printed cards.
"You got any friends, they like to come in to see a show or the fights, something like that, and they can't find a place to park, give them one of these," he said. "All they gotta do, just say 'Dominick sent me.' "
And bring six dollars.
ECKIE'S LAST KICK
Walter Eckersall played his last football game for the University of Chicago 48 years ago this week. The 150-pound quarterback drop-kicked five field goals for 20 of the 38 points Chicago scored in drubbing Nebraska. After the game, admirers triumphantly carried from the field the man Walter Camp called the all-time All-American quarterback.