Love New York City? Want to improve your vocabulary? Your neighbors driving you crazy? What do you think about the homeless? Do you have parking? Anna Quindlen’s story about lives intersecting in Alternate Side has so much to talk about.
It’s hard to appreciate the value of a parking space unless you do not have one. In Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t going Out, the main character jockeys moving his car to alternate sides of the street to accommodate New York City’s idiosyncratic parking rules. Parking space is sacred, maybe more important than the car. I could relate – I’ve been there. In Quindlen’s story, Charlie and Nora have finally scored a parking spot in the private empty lot at the end of their dead end street in New York City. At first, the description of the cul-de-sac occupants seems innocuous – just another neighborhood – until one of the residents whacks the indispensable handyman with a golf club for blocking his car.
Suddenly, the atmosphere shifts to the underlying currents plaguing this quiet area – not only the mysterious bags of dog poop on Nora’s front stoop or the rats running out from under the cars but also Charlie’s unsuccessful quest for recognition in his career and Nora’s dissatisfaction with her marriage. With her usual flair for relatable characters, Quindlen reviews the parallel tracks of the haves and the have-nots, comparing lives : a group of homeowners with rising equity in old Victorian homes to the Jamaican nannies/housekeepers and handymen from the Dominican Republic who serve them; the superficial wealthy founder of a jewelry museum to the fake homeless guy outside the building; Nora’s private yearning for the lost love of her gay college boyfriend to the husband she settled for. Quindlen uses a phrase to mock them all – “First world problems” – how is it they want something else, when what they have seems so much more.
Quindlen’s stories are quiet yet forceful, and she is on my list of favorite writers; she can’t write fast enough for me. One of my favorites – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – her “roadmap for growing older while still enjoying life” has one of her relatable lines I still live through. In Alternate Side, she offers an opportunity to examine what is important in life, and how long it takes sometimes to realize it – if ever. Or – an alternate view might be, she offers a tale of a middle-aged couple in New York City who finally got a parking space.
An Added Note: My best friend and I were reading this book simultaneously, her on the East Coast, me in the middle of the ocean, and we both loved the words – our favorite is “bespoke,” but a few others crept in too – eschew, ersatz – you might find more. And I had to highlight some favorite phrases:
“If all the women who fantasized about their husbands’ passings made them happen, there would be no men in the world.”
“There remained the hand-tinted wedding portrait hanging at the end of the upstairs hall, in which both of their parents looked stiff, a little uncomfortable, almost as though they had not yet been introduced.”
“…since she was eleven, the beginning of a time when, Nora knew now from experience, girls are mean as sleet and should be cryogenically frozen and reconstituted later…”
Related: Miller’s Valley