The other day I was sitting in a beach chair, reading restaurant reviews on Open Table and Urbanspoon. I was trying to find the perfect spot for the one “date-night-out” my wife and I were going to have during our week of vacation.
As I read, I found it hard to believe that the reviewers were talking about the same restaurant. Where some praised the food, service and ambiance, others relegated the place to a status just above filthy slum. I found this to be the case over and over again, no matter what restaurant I picked from the list.
Even if you factor out the good reviews written by the owner’s cousin, and the expected (for whatever reason) haters, there was still a wild swing in what people thought of a singular establishment. I wondered how this was possible, but then I remembered something.
In 2008 I received a letter from the New York State Department of Taxation And Finance, basically New York’s IRS. The letter said:
It has come to our attention that there was an error in your 2005 NYS tax filing and you owe The State Of New York, $385.
The letter went on to describe an error that didn’t make any sense to me, but I have been doing my own taxes since I got my first teenage job, so I figured I could sort this out.
I gave myself ninety minutes.
I pulled out the folder from 2005 and laid it all out on the kitchen table at 8:00pm one evening. I told myself if I couldn’t find the error or figure out what they’re talking about by 9:30 that I should just write a check and be done with it.
At 9:15 I had been through the whole folder several times and I hadn’t seen a thing even related to what they were talking about, so I grabbed my checkbook and a stamp and closed this inconvenient chapter of my financial relationship with the state of New York.
Or so I thought.
About two weeks later I received another envelope from the New York State Department of Taxation And Finance. I figured it was a confirmation of my payment or some similar thing. I opened the envelope to find another letter that read:
It has come to our attention that you overpaid in your 2005 NYS taxes. Please find the enclosed refund check for $385.
I was equally happy and angry. On the one hand I was pleased to have my $385 back, but at the same time I was not pleased with how the State Of New York was spending the thousands of dollars in taxes we pay every year. I know a little bit about business operations, and I can tell you that the cost of telling me I owe $385, collecting the $385 and then refunding the $385… is more than $385.
How can an entity like the State Of New York be so disorganized? Well, they aren’t always.
In the early summer of 1998, I got a call from my friend Jessica. Jessica and I had worked together at the job in Manhattan that I had quite a few months earlier to venture into the land of freelancing. Jess was calling because she had a friend who was having trouble with her Macintosh computer, and she knew I might be able to help. I agreed I could help and within the hour, I got a call from the friend, and we arranged a time for me to come into the city.
A few days later I crossed the George Washington Bridge around 7:00pm, and headed down the West Side Highway. I think the friend’s apartment was somewhere in the garment district. I drove around for a few minutes looking for legal parking and I found a spot, on an avenue, only three spaces in from the street of my destination.
The friend was nice, and very appreciative of my help. I don’t remember exactly what the issue was with her Mac, but I do remember being able to fix it. We worked together on the Mac for maybe an hour and a half and then she offered me a beer. We sat and chatted over a couple of “Stellas” for half an hour, and then I packed up my stuff and headed down the narrow stairs of her walk-up for the short walk back to my car, it was 9:30.
I rounded the corner from the street to the avenue and was instantly confused. My car was gone. My brand new, 1998, giant, red, Dodge Durango was not where I had left it. I quickly walked over to the parking sign to make sure that I had not made a mistake, but after reading it over and over, I knew there was no way I had been parked illegally.
Ugh, my brand new car had been stolen.
I stood there on the street for a moment not really knowing what to do when I saw a NYPD patrol car stopped at the intersection. I moved quickly in their direction and waved them down. I explained that my car had been stolen and they directed me to a precinct only a few blocks away.
I made the short walk to the precinct, pushed through the door and strode right up to the member of New York’s Finest who was manning the front desk proclaiming,
“I would like to report that my car has been stolen!”
The policeman looked up with only one eye and responded flatly, “yeah, we’ll see about that.”
I waited for thirty minutes on a bench, and then a young, and equally enthusiastic patrolman led me to a gray metal desk and offered me a seat. He took my information and typed it into a computer. After a few minutes of this, he looked up at me and said, “good news Stephen, we found your car.”
“Wow, that was fast,” I said, “did they pull over the guy who stole it or something?”
The patrolman chuckled heartily and continued, “Stephen, you car was towed for unpaid parking tickets, you can get it back tomorrow morning but you’re going to have to come up with $1,825… cash.”
I explained to the amused policeman that this was not at all possible since the car was only eight months old, and this was only the second time I had brought it into the city. He smiled again and said “are you the same Stephen Nazarian that drove a white, 1975, post office Jeep back in 1992?” He then turned the computer monitor so I could see what he was seeing and I was amazed.
Follow this progression with me:
- May 1992 – I acquire & register the 1975 Jeep in New York
- August 1992 – I move to New Jersey and obtain NJ license
- October 1992 – I donate Jeep to charity and Purchase 1993 Saturn in NJ, and register it in NJ
- November 1995 – I move back to NY, register the Saturn in NY, and get a NY license again
- October 1997 – I sell the Saturn to a friend and purchase the 1998 Durango with new and different NY plates
Okay, when I lived in the city and drove the Jeep, I may have received a few parking tickets, but at the time paying any of them would have been more than my Jeep was worth, so I opted to ignore them. Let them take the Jeep I figured. I guess over six years, interest and penalties add up… to $1,825.
It was at this moment in the gritty Fourteenth Precinct of the NYPD, that I began to regret my “just ignore the ticket” approach. On the computer screen, the policeman showed me how they traced the new plate on the Durango back to the post office Jeep and to me. They also had all the data from my 2.5 years in New Jersey. I was shocked at the accuracy and efficiency of the system.
He then told me how they had found my Durango and taken it. Once a ticket goes unpaid for a certain period of time, they publish lists of license plates and hand them out to “bounty hunters.” These individuals drive up and down the streets of NY looking for plates on the list. When they find one, they tow it and the get 50% of the money owed. At $1,825 my Durango was worth $912.50 for a single tow.
It was now past 11:00pm, so I got a hotel room for $180 and slept in my clothes.
The next morning I went to the ATM and tried to take out $1,825. Of course you can’t do that, so all I could get was $500. My bank was 50 miles upstate near my house, so there was little else I could do alone. I then went to the lobby of the building where I use to work with Jessica.
Earlier that year Jess had been in a pickle while trying to rent a new apartment and I had lent her $1,200 for a week so she could put down a deposit. I sat in the lobby sipping coffee, waiting for her to arrive at work. She didn’t know it yet, but she was about to return the favor.
Jess came in, I explained the situation and she happily walked with me to her bank and got the cash.
I followed the instructions given to me by the police, but it wasn’t simple. I had to take three different subways out to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn. Once off the subway I had to walk a mile to an address that was literally a window on the side of a building, much like an ice cream stand. I arrived at 11:05 only to read a sign that said:
Open from 9:00am-11:00am, and then again from 12:30pm-4:00pm.
A seven-hour day with a ninety-minute lunch… pretty good gig. So I sat in the sun, on the sidewalk in Brooklyn for an hour and a half with almost two grand in cash in the pocket of my slept-in clothes. Several others joined me as I waited.
At 12:30 I handed over the cash, but the not-at-all-pleasant woman did not give me my car, oh no. She handed me a receipt and a photocopy of a map to where my car was… in the Brooklyn Navy Yard!
Two more subways, a bus ride, and more than a two mile walk later I arrived at the grimy, fenced-in lot, where my car was by far the cleanest thing for blocks. I handed them the receipt, they let me leave with my car.
I drove home to greet my very hungry dogs – it was 4:00pm.
Just like the restaurant reviews, it is hard to believe that the New York State government is both as incompetent and efficient as my two experiences exhibited, but sure enough it is.
We all make decisions on the data we have before us, but what if extrapolating what we know to be true results in a completely inaccurate assessment of a person, an organization, a product or a place?
I guess what I’m saying is, things are never as simple as good or bad – life is complex so behave accordingly. Oh, and be sure to pay your parking tickets, those guys in New York are not screwing around.
Copyright © 2014 - Stephen S. Nazarian - All rights reserved. (I Find It Hard To Believe)