Dept. of Word Lists

Les West Side Misérables

Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly. Here Bob finds himself navigating the seamy underbelly of Manhattan parking.

It was a warm, cozy Tuesday morning in our Manhattan apartment. Outside, on January 3, it was this winter's coldest day so far, in the mid-20s, with the wind chill factor 11 degrees. We would stay in today. My wife Carol and I had had our breakfast (she oatmeal, I Raisin Bran, if you must know), and done our initial reading of The New York Times. We'd read more later.

I work at home, and at 1:45 p.m., an unusually late start for our day, I said to Carol, "I'm going into the office to work."

To which she replied, "Bob, didn't the car have to be moved today?"

At those words, terror struck — a singular New York terror.

singular   SING yuh ler
one of a kind; unique; remarkable ("singularly" is the adverb)
Mencken's gifts were singularly varied. He was surely one of the great newspapermen of his generation, and of his books probably those dealing with the American language will be longest remembered. He took on the professional philologists and beat them at their own game. He knew more about medicine and the law than any other layman who has passed my way.
— Alfred A. Knopf, May 1959

On Friday evening, I had parked our car on the side of the street that had to be cleared for street cleaning every Tuesday and Friday between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. (The other side of the street is cleaned on Monday and Thursday.)  Most people parked in a restricted zone move their cars between 10:30 and 11 a.m., after which the penalties are not pleasant: a $45 ticket for a car left on the verboten side of the street, and, almost as surely, a police department tow to the auto pound. Want your car back? Add $185 for the towing fee.

verboten ver BOH tuhn
forbidden; prohibited
On July 20 thirty years ago my family — like millions of other South African families — was huddled around a crackling radio, listening to the moonwalk. Nobody in the entire country could watch it on TV. Television was verboten — a criminal technology under apartheid. Not until 1976 did South Africa's first TV sets flicker into life.
— Rob Nixon, July 1999

I grabbed my coat, but rushing was useless, for whatever damage was done would have been done hours ago; the on-their-toes traffic agents begin ticketing cars on that proscribed side of the street at 11:01.

My car was gone. And at 1:45 p.m. the side of the street from which it had been mercilessly, callously and cruelly towed was filled again with newly parked cars.

A day that opened warm and cheerful had turned bleak.

bleak bleek 
harsh; grim
The Greek historian Polybius, of the second century B.C., interpreted what we consider the Golden Age of Athens as the beginning of its decline. To Thucydides, the very security and satisfactory life that the Athenians enjoyed under Pericles blinded them to the bleak forces of human nature that were gradually to be their undoing in the Peloponnesian War.
— Robert D. Kaplan, December 1997

But what do the drivers who move their cars do during those 90 minutes in limbo? Lots of luck finding a parking spot on a legal side of the street elsewhere in the neighborhood; they're filled the night before and their drivers aren't going anywhere. What about at a meter on a business street? They're even rare at midnight where I live. Or they can do what most residents I know do: double park their car against a car legally parked on the opposite side of the street, leave it there and do whatever they want to do until 12:30, at which time they repark it on the once-again legal side of the street, often in the very spot they occupied before.

It's part of the Upper West Side culture. The owners of hemmed-in cars parked them knowing they'd be unable to move them for that hour and a half. Legal double parking in New York City? No — well, sort of. This species of double parking is magnanimously overlooked by traffic officers who know it's virtually impossible to find street parking during those 90 minutes, when half the parking spaces in one of the world's most densely populated urban areas are off limits. But leave your car past 12:30 and you'll be ticketed for double parking. In a wink.

magnanimous mag NA nuh muhs
noble and generous in spirit and conduct; above petty resentment or jealousy; forgiving ("magnanimously" is the adverb)
A better definition of education than Milton's has never been given: "I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war."
— George A. Gordon, January 1909

After the warm #1 subway ride to West 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, I waited 10 minutes in the frigid street for a crosstown bus that took me to its last stop, Twelfth Avenue, a pedestrian-empty street that parallels the Hudson River, whose icy wind made me contemplate all the more my need for a failure-free modus operandi to remind me to move my car twice a week. My handwritten reminder, "Move Car," which I'd forgotten to write the night before, had failed me again. (Again? Please don't ask me to go into it.) How about a note on my night table, on my computer screen, on my fridge. How about a neighbor knocking on my door at 10:45? The doorman buzzing me? An early-rising cousin in California calling me? How about all of these?

modus operandi MOH dus ah puh RAN dee
a way of doing something; mode of operation
From my late adolescence through my early twenties my weekend modus operandi was to come in at around five in the morning and sleep heavily till three or so inthe afternoon.
Joseph Epstein, February 2002

As I approached the pound — a cavernous garage the size of a football field and until the 1980s a United States Lines cargo pier — I stepped inside a gated entryway and drew from my pocket the camera I carry with me wherever I go in Manhattan. I had already decided I would write about this day for the Visual Thesaurus.

"No pictures," a guard in a booth called out.

"O.K.," I said. No questions, no argument. I'll just take it from another spot. A cardinal rule of news photographers and reporters: If you are barred from one location, try another. Near the entrance to the violations office I took the camera out again, and seeing a guard in a booth there, too, snapped a fast photo.

cardinal KAHR duh nuhl
principal; chief
The cardinal fact about Emily Dickinson is that she was a product of her time and place. Her connection with Amherst was closer than that of any other American author with the spot where his life was passed. She was born of the stock that originally settled the Connecticut Valley. Her mind was shaped by church, school, and college, which in her time expressed with dynamic vigor the intellectual and spiritual energies of the Puritan tradition. It was in her father's house on Main Street that she was able to achieve the seclusion which her nature more and more insistently required as she turned to poetry as her only means of personal fulfillment. It was there that she died.
— George F. Whicher, February 1946

"No pictures." said the woman in the booth, unthreateningly. As I approached her window, she said, "You can't take pictures here. You have to erase it."

"Can I take one from the sidewalk?"


"Thanks," I said, and held the camera up to her. "I'll erase the one I took." My car was in bondage; I was very agreeable.

"What's it for?"

"An article about New York City."

"O.K. You can keep it."

It turned out to be a most drab and dreary image in a city of great pictures. Enjoy.

A clerk behind one of the windows in the tow redemption office took my driver's license, registration and insurance card, asked me the make and color of my car, said my name would be called when my paperwork was done, and invited me to take a seat among the half-dozen other towees.

I wanted to talk to the people sitting on either side of me, to learn why they were towed, but towees retrieving cars from a New York City car pound, my street-smart acumen tells me, are unlikely to be in a conversational mood, especially as they sit facing signs that say "Towing Fee $185." And that's not counting the cost of the parking ticket still on their windshield — up to $165 and payable online or by mail, depending on the type of parking violation. That is, unless they want to contest their citation and its attendant towing fee.

acumen A kyuh min
quickness to perceive and understand a situation
I have just returned from Hannibal, Missouri, and I should like to report that it is a success. It is a success beyond anything Mark Twain ever dreamed of for the Paige typesetting machine, and it is my guess that Twain had the business acumen to see that this would one day be so and invested heavily in Hannibal real estate — else how do you account for the Mark Twain Chinchilla Ranch and Mark Twain Frozen Custard? It seems obvious to me that the genius of Mark Twain has been enormously underestimated; a man who could foresee frozen custard was an American Nostradamus; can you buy Thoreau Balsam Pillows at Concord, or Emily Dickinson African Violets at Amherst?
— Charles Boewe, March 1953

A Double-Parking Digression

Recently, I attempted to do just that, going to traffic court — a nondescript office building in the Wall Street area — to contest not a towing but a citation for double parking on 114th Street during the restricted hours. Bringing with me photos of where I had double parked, I envisaged a complete vindication, Then I met the judge, a natty-suited man in a small office who swore me in, then went to work on me like a fusion of Porfiry Petrovich, the shrewd detective in "Crime and Punishment," and the relentless Inspector Javert of "Les Miserables."

envisage   en VI zij
to conceive an image or a picture of as a future possibility
No world government of the character envisaged by Professor Einstein could function unless it possessed the power to exercise complete control over the armaments of each constituent state, and unless every nation was willing to open up every inch of its territory and every one of its laboratories and factories to a continuing international inspection.
— Sumner Welles, January 1946

"Did you double park?"

"Yes, but we always double park on 115th and 114th during those hours. It's understood that — "

Is double parking illegal?"

"Yes, but — "

"Is double parking always illegal?"

"Yes, but — "

"You just told me double parking is always illegal."


"And you double parked."

"Yes. But I have photos here that — "

"Thank you," said Judge W_____, " as Dostoevsky or Hugo might have called him, having demolished my defense, pulverized it to smithereens, and browbeaten from me any expectation I had of an amicable hearing, or of fairness or justice, for crying out loud.

"The clerk will have the judgment," my interrogator said, pointing to the door.

browbeat BROW beet
to intimidate with harsh words or threats; bully
In the typical case, FBI agents do not initially take a man into custody for questioning, but interview him at his home or place of work. They ask him casually about the offense, not probing too deeply on the first try. The agents do not bully or browbeat the suspect into incriminating himself. They operate on precisely the opposite theory, that the suspect's normal reaction will be to try to exculpate himself. Rarely will the suspect refuse to talk at all, for he fears that this will be taken by the agents as an admission of guilt.
— Robert Cipes, September 1966

It took only a minute for the clerk's printer to issue my fate. "Motion to vacate judgment denied. Guilty. Respondent unpersuasively claims...."

Dispirited and disheartened — not to mention vexed, irked, and yes, miffed — at the way I'd been treated, I sat in a waiting room chair, hoping a man who had earlier directed me to Judge W's office, would appear. He had seemed a kindly fellow and even if it led to nothing, I wanted to tell my story to someone besides Judge W____. It wasn't so much his decision but the manner in which he had dealt with me. Judge W____, I hope you can sleep at night.

An austere looking middle-aged woman in a gray business suit approached me and asked if she could help. I stood and told her who I was waiting for and why.

austere aw STEER
severe in manner or appearance ("austerely" is the adverb)
There is something austerely impersonal, as though emotionally tentative, in Auden's readings. One hears it in the way he adheres so strictly — at times almost woodenly — to the meter of the verses. Quite often he will come to a full stop even at the end of an enjambed line — one in which the punctuation and syntax do not call for so much as a pause.
— Wen Stephenson, April 2000

"Tell me," she said, in a kindly tone, her face softening." I'm the chief of the department."

She listened, then explained that while I might have disapproved of his manner, Judge W___ had correctly decided my claim. But she spoke to me civilly and understandingly, explaining that it was a traffic agent's prerogative to ticket double parkers anywhere in the city, regardless of time-honored alternate-side customs. I wasn't persuaded, but her amiable attempt to explain the city's side sent me home a bit more satisfied with my day in court.

prerogative   pruh RAH guh tiv
an exclusive right or privilege
The Second Amendment presumes (as did the framers) that private citizens will possess private arms; Madison referred offhandedly to "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess." But Madison also implied that the right to bear arms is based in the obligation of citizens to band together as a militia to defend the common good, as opposed to the prerogative of citizens to take up arms individually in pursuit of self-interest and happiness
— Wendy Kaminer, March 1996

Digression Done: Back to the Auto Pound

As I waited for my paperwork to be done, I listened to a discomfited tourist tell the clerk that he didn't know why his rental car had been towed. "I'm not from around here," he said. "I'm from Virginia."

discomfited   dis KUHM fi tid
to have one's plans thrown into upset; confused or frustrated
The hazards faced by those attempting to shoot close-up video footage of tornadoes cannot be overstated. Tornadoes can form suddenly and with little warning, and photographers who turn down the wrong road at the wrong time can find themselves discomfited by 200-mph winds containing jagged bits of automobiles, sheets of razor-sharp aluminum siding, and lancelike sections of splintered fence posts.
— Wayne Curtis, October 2001

"Greenman," a clerk called after 20 minutes. I paid by credit card, took the receipt and joined the Virginia man in another room to wait for the van that would carry us to our cars.

"I hate this city," he grumbled to me and to the clerks who checked our receipts. "I'm never coming back."

The van dropped me off at my car, I took the $45 ticket from my windshield, and at the exit to the pound stopped at a booth and handed the receipt for my car to the agent. He gave it back to me stamped "Redeemed." I felt so clean and pure.

As I drove out of this gargantuan repository of parking transgressions, an ironically beautiful view of the midtown Manhattan skyline greeted me — the perfect-picture ending for this New York parking epic.

repository ruh PAH zuh taw ree
something serving as a center of accumulation or storage
The National Archives in Washington now has about five billion documents in storage. Nationwide, federal repositories have another 19 million cubic feet of them, which in boxes set end to end would stretch from coast to coast.
— Cullen Murphy, May 1996

I reached across the seat for my camera and looked for a place to park to take the picture. Did I find one? Do you see a picture here?

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 18th 2012, 5:13 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Fun to read - but do you really need a car in NYC? - how about a Harley or a push bike? And more pictures would have made me smile even more.........
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I very much enjoyed this article - thankyou. Like a more upbeat Bukowski or a more verbose Carver.
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 10:45 AM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you for the article , i found so many words among which spelling is similar in French Language;
Cardinal, envisage, austère, prérogative.
I don't understand ; verbose, What it means?
Wednesday January 18th 2012, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Parking in NYC--a new circle of Hell, and Bob is its Dante!
Friday January 20th 2012, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
For a reliable reminder, why don't you set up a recurring event in your Gmail calendar with an email reminder (set it for enough time ahead so that you can comfortably get to your car in time to move it). Then, since you have you arriving emails sound a little chime when the arrive on your phone's Gmail app, you're golden.

(you DO have all this in place, right? i mean, what ARE you doing with that phone if not stuff like this? just making calls???)
Saturday January 21st 2012, 4:58 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Thank you. Your column is always so interesting!
Sunday January 22nd 2012, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Douglas H. (Fareham United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
After Sunday church in a small town in England I sat and read your story on my phone. Now there's a set of conjunctions that should surely bring a sense of wonder - religion, cities, mundane details, technology. But your sense of place brings a warmth to my feeling that our underlying connectedness is greater than we all imagine.
Sunday January 22nd 2012, 1:41 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Mr. GreenMan's writing as always attracts me. I agreed before, I am one of his best fan.
I enjoyed here the entire story of "Traffic Violation " and the aftermath scenario. I like his style of story telling which is unique and I always read his column for the bonus information presented along the original topic.
Breakfast with Raisin Bran has been eaten but I was interested to know the time when Mr. Bob finished getting his car back. I believe he was hungry at that time too. Finding a legal spot for parking with empty stomach is harder. Forget about taking a snap at that time. Late lunch or early dinner is necessary now.

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