"Tepper Isn't Going Out" by Calvin Trillin

A mild-mannered New Yorker becomes a connoisseur of parking spots and winds up the center of a media circus and the target of a Giuliani-esque mayor.

Published January 24, 2002 10:07PM (EST)

"Tepper Isn't Going Out" is a typical New York story. Murray Tepper, an average small-business owner, gentle husband and loving father, spends his nights casing Manhattan neighborhoods for the perfect parking spot. It doesn't matter that he owns a space in a parking garage or that his wife and friends consider his behavior worrisome or that other angry drivers, truly desperate for a space near the theater, are reaming him out and honking wildly. Tepper dismisses them with a wave or a nod and returns to his newspaper -- simply because it's a damn good spot, and he found it, and, well, the sign says he can stay.

That's the premise of Calvin Trillin's warmhearted and completely hilarious new book. Tepper is a likable guy, if only because he's reassuringly uncomplicated. "There were nights when he could almost imagine himself with a large tattoo on his arm that said 'Born to Park,'" Trillin writes. Of all the big dreams in the big city, competitive parking has to be one of the sweetest.

Of course, all this would seem more ridiculous if it weren't for the fact that parking in New York is a bitch. So as silly as the plot may sound, and despite the fact that Trillin knows it's silly, the whole thing makes strange sense. In a place where the often loud and obnoxious needs of millions of people are stuffed onto a relatively small island, one man's attempt to beat the odds -- yes, even in parking -- can easily become admirable, if not heroic. It's not all that different from the way New Yorkers will talk, for hours, about how quickly and brilliantly they navigate the subway system from home to work to the gym to wine-tasting class or how they scored their rent-controlled apartment after eight miserable years of roommates and sublets. It's a jungle out there and what's the point of surviving if you can't brag about it later?

Even more so when you have a mayor like Rudolph Giuliani, or in this case, Frank Ducavelli. To Ducavelli, or "Il Duce," as some call him -- a man obsessed with whether people hail cabs from the sidewalk or the street and who wants to enforce a modest dress code in the city's parks -- Tepper, a man who sits in legal parking spots and reads the Post, is an anarchist, a Trotskyite, even. He's parking there for no reason! Even worse, other New Yorkers, always quick to catch on to a trend, want in on Tepper's sense of peace and mission. They begin to line up outside his car, angling for a moment with the weird parking guy, turning Ducavelli's sense of sidewalk order upside down.

"Tepper Isn't Going Out" is a timely reminder of Giuliani's draconian tendencies. Yet Trillin lovingly embraces everything about New York, including its irascible politicians. It's hard to get worked up over what a jerk Giuliani could be when Trillin's having so much fun satirizing him: "Anybody who would attack a campaign to establish order in taxi-hailing around here is a deeply flawed human being," Ducavelli rants. "An irredeemably flawed human being. Worthless. Despicable. We ought to put a homeless shelter in his neighborhood.'"

All this hoopla tumbles toward a court proceeding and a whole lot of publicity that only fazes Tepper when he ventures to the Lower East Side and all the parking spaces are filled by TV news trucks. But what's really memorable about "Tepper Isn't Going Out" is how one small citizen with specific parking aspirations can affect hundreds of parkers and nonparkers alike -- in other words, how life is full of so many small human connections, especially if you circle the block enough times.

Our next pick: Heaving bosoms and heavenly pictures in a novel based on a real-life Renaissance painter

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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