The Vigilante Fighting Engine Exhaust

For the past decade, an uptown mortgage broker named George Pakenham has been predicting that the scourge of engine exhaust caused by needless automobile idling will soon become as socially unacceptable as secondhand smoke. After years of rapping on the windows of passenger cars and delivery vans, reminding drivers that the law prohibits idling for longer than three minutes within the city limits, and only occasionally being rebuffed with remarks like “Go move to China” and “You are not human,” he felt like he had reason to be optimistic. He has produced a children’s book devoted to the subject, “Big Nose, Big City,” and also a documentary, “Idle Threat,” which has screened in Nevada City, California, and at Westfield High School, in New Jersey, where he was, as he recalls, “treated regally,” as a member of the class of ’68. He has FaceTimed with officials at the American Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria—a city that is known, apparently, for its terrible air quality. In May, he visited P.S. 31, in Greenpoint, where students showed off anti-idling posters they’d made (the legal limit in a school zone is sixty seconds) and took turns wearing a gas mask that he’d brought. But the broader wave of concern about the wasted oil and smog produced by idling engines, Pakenham confessed recently, is “way behind schedule.” This week, he is travelling to Granada, to give a presentation on what he hopes will prove to be the key: monetizing citizen activism.

Pakenham has netted in excess of five thousand dollars in the past year and a half by submitting Citizen’s Air Complaint forms to the Department of Environmental Protection and collecting portions of the resultant fines levied on scofflaw truck and bus owners. He attaches time-stamped digital photos, usually taken four minutes apart, to his complaints. Lately, he has been providing videos, too. “The I.T. guy at the D.E.P. has created a Dropbox for me,” he said. The fines start at three hundred and fifty dollars, and, according to a recent City Council bill, Pakenham (or any other tattletale) is entitled to twenty-five per cent, or $87.50. Last year, Pakenham sent out an e-mail with a video of himself opening mail from the City of New York and finding checks for as much as five hundred dollars. “And they spelled my name right!” he says. “Whoo-doggies. I’m in the money.” The D.E.P. says that only nine citizens have thus far participated in the program. “The goal here is to have twenty-five people each submitting fifteen complaints a week,” Pakenham said.

Not all violators—alleged violators, rather—accept their summonses without a fight, which is what brought Pakenham, the other day, to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH, on John Street, where he had a handful of old cases awaiting adjudication. He has gray hair, soft features, and an unassuming manner. “Just on my way here, I came across this character,” he said, showing a video he’d taken with his phone of a concrete truck near the corner of William and Fulton Streets. He planned to submit that file with his next batch. On his laptop, he opened a spreadsheet with his court record, which showed considerably more wins than losses. “I’ve got all the evidence,” he said. “All they can do is whine, basically.” Some of his opponents brought lawyers, however, including one who demanded that Pakenham explain why he’d been photographing buses on Thirtieth Street and Broadway when he lives forty blocks uptown. (He belongs to a church at Twenty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.)

After a couple of hours, Pakenham was summoned to a hearing room, where he was sworn in by a Judge Judy look-alike and asked to testify against the owner of a construction van who seemed dumbfounded by his bad luck at being photographed, on the afternoon of April 7, 2017, by a stranger at the corner of Broadway and Sixty-eighth Street. The driver argued that he’d been stuck in slow-moving traffic, not idling. Pakenham hadn’t shot any video in this instance, and so he couldn’t prove the van was stationary, but he directed the judge’s attention to his photo of the front tire. “You can see the edge of the curb right there,” he said. She pursed her lips and nodded, circumspect. The hearing was over in about the length of time it takes to break the idling law. Pakenham exited the room proclaiming the case a “slam dunk,” only to learn, two weeks later, that the judge had taken pity on the driver. ♦