Best of Breslin: Why I Never Learned to Drive
The legendary reporter explains what most real New Yorkers understand—not having a car.
I am one of a half dozen or so in New York who is over the age of fourteen and does not drive a car. There is nothing particularly unusual about this in my case; it is just another part of a life of noisy desperation.
When I first went to work for a living, it was for the publisher Newhouse, who felt that the best reporters were those suffering from malnutrition. Nobody I knew was raising any down payments for cars on a Newhouse salary.
By the time I went somewhere else, and earned more money, I had living patterns that appeared to be in opposition to saving for a car. The main one being spending time in barrooms. I loved them, and left them only when I had to. As the barrooms cost me more money than I earned, I never was able to figure out how to buy a car. Oh, I wanted a car. If I had a car, I could get from one bar to another much faster than I could by subway or bus. And I sure liked going into a lot of different bars. If I was in one place and my tab caused the owner to glare, I swallowed up and headed for a place where credit was easier. Furthermore, I don’t think I ever was in a bar I didn’t love, and some days I wanted to be in all of them at the same time.
A friend once advised me that if I would stay out of bars for about four months in a row, I would have enough money saved to place on a car.
“I could die too,” I said.
Time went by and I was married and I bought a car, but my wife, the former Rosemary Dattolico, took it over. One day I said to her, “I think I’ll learn how to drive.” She said, “It’s way better for you to take the subway, read the paper and talk to people. I’m only thinking of your career.”
Once, I thought about two cars in the family, but decided that wouldn’t be right, with all the thirsty people in the world.
So I wound up depending almost entirely on the Union Turnpike stop of the IND line, on Queens Boulevard three blocks from my house. Yesterday, this was no good to me because of the transit strike. On a bright morning, then, I got out onto a traffic island on Queens Boulevard, waited for a red light, walked up to a car, and said to the man in it, “I’ll ride to the city with you.”
“Not with me you won’t,” he said.
At another red light, a car with two men in it pulled up. The driver looked at me, then turned to the guy in the seat with him, a man whose face was as pleasant as a wire fence. They muttered to each other. Then the driver looked out at me and said, “Want a lift? We need a third.” Many people say the rule allowing cars with three or more people into midtown Manhattan is something that should remain after the strike.
I looked at the driver and the sour-faced man “with him. “Did you two have a tie vote on me?” I asked. They didn’t answer. “I’ll ride with you if you give me ten dollars,” I said. They pulled away.
Rather than wait anymore for a ride, I went down the hill to where a cluster of TWU pickets stood at the entrance to the subway trainyards. The pickets had just received paychecks and a couple of them showed me the stubs. The pickets worked in the yards as car inspectors, which, they said, meant they had to inspect the cars and make repairs on them. Sal Congemi’s stub showed a gross of $344.80 for a forty-hour week and a take-home of $213.33. He said he was married and had two kids. Another, Carmine Cavallaro, showed a take-home of $240.47 for a forty-hour week. Out of a number of checks I found one that had twelve hours of overtime, bringing the gross to $455.14. As the guy was single, and was repaying a pension loan at $20.03 and had a deduction of $37.53 for savings bonds, his net was $221.19.
These figures are well above amounts earned by most subway riders, the factory women and shipping clerks and dishwashers who come from Hunts Point and Bushwick and Coney Island. To the subway rider, a pension is unheard of. Many of the transit workers are not even required to pay anything into their pension fund. A transit worker’s four-week vacation sounds to a rider like some great notion out of a poem, a song of hope. The only four weeks a subway rider gets off is because of a layoff.
At the same time, the strikers yesterday said that on their take-home pay they simply cannot raise a family and pay bills. It is something that is heard everywhere in the country. People taking home $250 a week or less aren’t making it. The most effective political commercial perhaps I’ve ever seen was on television Sunday night. A guy in a cap stood by his yellow pickup truck and announced what bills he couldn’t pay and that his wife couldn’t keep up with food prices. He said the family couldn’t have a vacation this year. Then he got in the truck and growled, “This year I’m voting Republican.”
The management in the transit strike is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which already has lost $250 million. It now says it can’t afford to pay the workers any more than an offered 6 percent. But if it can’t afford this, then somebody can argue that it can’t afford the lost $250 million, either. In a time of budget problems people on the top naturally and easily try to even things up by standing on the backs of people working for a living. The governor gets a new helicopter and a car cleaner cannot get a raise that will give him half the rate of inflation. The mayor screams about productivity and his own productivity shows that in the last week he hasn’t been able to do his job and settle the strike.
Along with their checks yesterday, the strikers received a letter from the Transportation Authority reminding them that they are in violation of the state civil service law, the Taylor Law, and that “an amount equal to twice the daily rate of pay will be deducted from your wages for each day or part thereof that you have been engaged in the strike.” This is a problem of law and cannot be waived aside in the final hours of negotiations to end the strike. Under the law, as of yesterday morning the strikers owed at least ten days’ pay and they were in a union that has no money to pay for them. The case is in the hands of Justice John A. Monteleone in Brooklyn. He is a man whose general philosophy now is “It’s a terrible thing to make an error.”
You can expect Monteleone to proceed with such caution that both sides, strikers and Transportation Authority, will be begging for a settlement. Justice Monteleone will be contemplating the matters on his desk and then allow that both sides will hear from him when he finally decides on a course for which there can be no criticism. Yesterday, the strikers waved their Taylor Law letters and said angrily that they would be out for a long time. Longer than anybody thinks, when you add Monteleone’s position into this strike.
I left the group of pickets and walked back up the hill to Queens Boulevard. Alongside the empty subway entrance was the Allen and Loftus Bar. I went inside. The place was as dark as a movie house and had a great view of the bright street outside. One man at the bar had handicapped the daily double. Another commented on the surprisingly large house on Sunday night. The bartender, Jack Stevens, announced that everybody’s friend Pete Reardon was ill.
Soon it was between the bar and trying to get to Manhattan somehow without a car. Therefore, I stayed where I belonged.