Nosey Neighbor Getty Images News/Spencer Platt
By Virge Randall

A City Council member has proposed deputizing New Yorkers to rat out drivers of cars that idle more than three minutes for a cut of the fines, from $350 to $1,500.

Thus ends an old school New York character called, “the busybody.”

Back in the day, the worst a busybody could do was rat you out to your mom, who would pitch a fit, but love you nonetheless. From Jenny at the laundromat, to Mary in the dry cleaners, to Sadie at the corner newsstand, plus the dozens of “observers” leaning on pillows to take in the action on the street, they had their eyes on everything.

My mom could barely make it back from shopping without somebody eager to tell her about how I was playing handball right underneath the “No Ball Playing” sign on Third Street, or that my brother was hanging on the back of the Avenue B bus to get a free ride to 14th Street. And these people did it for free. If they got paid for it, my mom could have easily crowd surfed to the front door, over all the people waiting to rat us out…but these people also confronted any stranger who tried to talk to a kid on the street, and were handy with a tissue or an extra nickel.

Most New York busybodies were elderly ladies with drooping hose, comfortable shoes, and brassy voices honed by years of filterless cigarette smoking and yelling at everybody. Their days were spent straightening out garbage cans, coaching inexperienced parkers, and screaming at litterers. My block had a particularly talented busybody named Rosie, who was famous for policing the “curb your dog” rules, to the extent that she would pick up the offending waste and throw it at the dog’s owner; that’s what I call commitment.

These ladies, though, weren’t in it for the money, but for the quality of life — and they disliked snitches as much any anybody, because they knew everybody’s secrets… and everybody knew theirs.

Fast forward to today. Now someone in the City Council (who probably has a car and driver anyway) wants to reward citizens who report drivers of idling vehicles and submit a video of the act as proof. This will no doubt be the greatest addition to street theatre since the doublewide baby carriage wars of a few years ago, right after a mysterious epidemic of twin births in the metropolitan area.

These volunteer revenue collectors will incur all the risk of traffic agents (258 attacks on them in 2010) without perks like a pension plan…or, more important, health benefits — a crucial omission, since they’ll be required to identify themselves to the miscreant drivers. The kind of vehicles most likely to incur these fines — moving vans and delivery trucks — are operated by large, burly men who probably don’t remember much from their last anger management class.

If the City really wants to cut air pollution, let them start with their own fleets and inspect sanitation trucks and city buses, which belch enough black smoke to trigger a papal election. This plan will just turn neighbor against neighbor at a time when we need to stand together more than ever…unless, of course, we’re talking about a noise patrol to bust car horns, motorcyclists with crappy mufflers, and auto burglar alarms.

But don’t get me started about that.

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