Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Cap'n's Bookshelf: Tepper Isn't Going Out

When I first started reading rave reviews for Tepper Isn't Going Out, Calvin Trillin's 2003 novella, I wasn't impressed. A story about parking regulations and the New Yorkers who live by them? How interesting could it be? In the end, I'm glad I decided to give it a chance, and I recommend it to anyone who's involved in the ongoing war for transportation resources here in New York.

The book's protagonist is Murray Tepper, a marketing executive in search of a list of people who will buy anything. Like many upper-middle-class New Yorkers from the Baby Boom generation, Tepper owns a car and has spent years doing the complex dance of parallel parking, alternate side cleaning rules and meter feeding necessary to store his car in Manhattan's publicly subsidized facilities. He finally masters the system just at the point where he can afford to rent a space in the garage attached to his building, and presumably pay full price for parking wherever he goes.

Tepper doesn't always use his garage space. He spends most of the book parking his Chevy Malibu in various free and metered spots around the city. Often, he just sits there and reads the newspaper, to the frustration of many other drivers, who see him in the car and assume he's "going out," hence the title of the book.

The frustration and puzzlement of the other drivers gets so intense that the paranoid mayor Frank Ducavelli, clearly a caricature of Rudy Giuliani, gets involved. He is convinced that Tepper is up to no good, and has the city attorney give Tepper a summons under an obscure law from 1911. But sympathetic stories about "SIMPLE GOOD SENSE FROM AN OLD-FASHIONED GUY" appear, and Tepper is deluged with letters of support. The judge dismisses the case, and Tepper gets a sudden change in fortune that allows him to retire.

At the end of the book, a character named Ray Fannon, a columnist for the Daily News, visits Tepper and lays out an alternate explanation for the events described in the book. I won't give away the ending, but his speculations were provocative.

For a while I thought that Fannon was right, because I noticed something in the book: nobody actually uses their cars for transportation. I mean, they go places; Tepper regularly drives down to Russ and Daughters' to buy a nice whitefish. But it's not clear that he's driving in order to get fish, as opposed to just driving in order to get to a good parking spot, and picking up a nice whitefish because the spot happens to be in front of Russ and Daughters'. It's not just Tepper; nobody in the entire book drives to get anywhere. What clinched it for me is that there were two times when Tepper actually did have to go somewhere. Once he caught a cab, and the other time he took the subway.

In Tepper Isn't Going Out, driving and car ownership are entirely symbolic activities. Owning a car is a marker of your status, and meter-feeding and the alternate-side dance are things you do to display that status. Tepper understood that, which is why he continued to park long after he began renting the space in his garage. Ducavelli went after Tepper because he saw that Tepper's parking interfered with the transportation functions of the city, and felt threatened. All the people who defended Tepper did so because they felt that status was more important than transportation, and respected his right to display his status at the expense of people who actually wanted to go somewhere.

My elegant theory was somewhat dashed by reading a Times profile of Trillin that came out as he was finishing the book. According to the Times, Trillin actually owns a car in Manhattan and drives it down to Russ and Daughters' on a regular basis. So maybe Fannon was wrong after all, and Tepper simply wanted to be left alone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really hope Calvin Trillin reads this post.