Postcard from New York

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Indy Lifestyle Online
United mayhem: Everyone had known that, what with the change of leadership at the United Nations, the delicate problem of getting along with Europe might bob to the surface. But no one suspected it would heave up quite so soon or so splashily. The slugfests between police officers and foreign envoys (who appeared on the evening news swathed in bandages, crying police brutality) and the political bloodbath that sent heads rolling, created a tidal wave of anti-Europe sentiment which left croissants mouldering on shelves as Manhattanites gave local bistros and cafes a wide berth.

Yes, ever since Kofi Annan took over as United Nations Secretary General, he has been beset by the usual tedious international problems - a bomb or two in the Middle East, armed high jinks in Zaire - but there has been nothing to match the pitched international battle that has arisen in Manhattan, the UN's host city, over the highly inflammatory question of parking tickets, and whether foreign diplomats, commonly referred to locally as "rogue parkers", "whiners" or "arrogant snobs who spend their days looking for fire hydrants to park next to", should have to start paying theirs, rather than tearing them up.

Diplomats rushed to form a Committee to Consult with the Host Country, holding endless fiery meetings and demanding that a session of the General Assembly, perhaps even the World Court, be convened to debate the issue - a motion only the US representative voted against, on the grounds that it would "prompt ridicule". He was overruled, 13 to 1, with one abstention - Britain, which, unique among the 185 UN members, has a pay-all-tickets policy.

The crisis blew up on the eve of April Fool's Day, when a so-called French "diplomat", Hubert Legal, got wind of the news that, beginning 1 April, tickets would have to be paid, else diplomats might forfeit their extremely pretty special car licences. Diplomatic immunity was being trodden upon, Hubert railed, but what was really unthinkable was that Mayor Giuliani had suggested that parking-challenged diplos ought to take public transport.

Incensed, Hubert described New York's transport as "an outdated, dangerous and dirty set of services, worse than in many major capitals of the developing world". The subway system, he said, was "a blot". The buses were fine, "if you have three hours to waste". As far as the taxis, he inveighed, "Most of those are wrecks." Right on all counts, but hardly becoming in a non-native to notice. Hubert threatened that the UN would flee to Geneva or Vienna, rather than pay tickets in New York.

Bursting with civic pride, Mayor Giuliani replied that he "wouldn't mind" if they did, noting that he could think of better uses for the massive allotment of land by the river which, he boasted, was "the most valuable real estate in the world". His press secretary was more measured, saying that though New Yorkers were heartily fond of UN bureaucrats, "We don't want their parking tickets and we don't want them slapping around New York City police officers."

In the event, only one or two police summons officers had run-ins with iron-fisted delegates, but the number of tickets was undeniably rather larger, 134,281 tickets in 1996 alone (of which the Russians, with their fleet of vehicles, had amassed 31,388 - one ticket every 15 minutes - and the North Koreans, equally impressively, had scored 2,297 with only five cars. The French made a lacklustre showing with only 926 summonses for 30 cars.) For 1996 alone, the amount owed by diplos came to more than $5 million, no small sum, but a drop in the bucket compared with the $3 billion-plus they shell out in the city each year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it emerged that, at the same time that Giuliani had been shaking his fist at the UN in town, impressing voters during a mayoral election year, he had also been extending his palm in Washington, begging for $40 million in tax incentives to keep the UN happy. In the past couple of weeks, extensive subtle arbitration has kicked in, Mayor Giuliani has backed away from the threat of withdrawing licence privileges, and the mayor's office has made gestures intended to smooth over rumpled feelings. And, indeed, the tea party of reconciliation that the mayor's UN liaison, Livia Sylva, threw for the wife of the Secretary General might well have started the healing - if only the guests had not learned, upon finishing their finger sandwiches, that all of their cars had been ticketed. Sylva was dismissed last week and a new liaison was appointed, a man of such great tact and discretion that he wisely stepped down this week, explaining that, as much as he was "looking forward to working on the parking issue", he thought he'd be better off spending time with his family.

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