The gentle humor of Calvin Trillin captures in a fictional tale the best and worst of New York City around the time of the millennium.
Anyone who has ever chosen simply to sit in a parked car and read will feel a connection to Trillin's central character, Murray Tepper. This seemingly ordinary man makes a habit of parking at sought-after spaces in the city, feeding the meter and sitting back to read his newspaper. It's a legal spot, the aging Tepper calmly tells those who covet it. And no, he's not going out. He still has time left on the meter.
Those sick of looking for a space snarl and shout, but Tepper doesn't budge. In his refusal to go out of a space, he's as determined as Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, who politely responds "I would prefer not to" to every request.
With Tepper, is this alienation or depression or an assertion of the rights of the individual? Nobody knows for sure. The tone of the story is not dark, but as whimsical as a piece by James Thurber. If Tepper is protesting the fast-changing world around him, he's found a splendid way to do it.
After a reporter discovers Tepper and writes about him as a unique and wise man, desperate New Yorkers line up outside his Chevy Malibu for advice. "There's always something," Tepper says on hearing each person's troubles, and then gives some vague advice. It works, fame follows and on its heels comes a book contract. One of the best portraits in the novel is that of Tepper's would-be agent who assures him a celebrity author need never worry about content.
Fans of Trillin's clever columns in The New Yorker will rightly anticipate a twist before Tepper's story is done. When the paranoid mayor attacks Tepper's right to park and read, politics enters the picture. What started as a simple hobby has become arguably a disruptive practice. Will Tepper keep it up, or has time finally run out on his meter? The surprise ending will leave you chuckling and wondering.
Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.