Accidents on Downing

Last night, as I was just sitting down to address some long overdue mail, there was a screech, a crash, and then my neighbor yelling, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” When I looked down, there was hers, all smushed up into itself like a lunch sack, and Luke's parked truck just behind the one that had been wrecked. I shuffled down the stairs in my socks and found a big dent in Luke's wheel-well and some scratch marks. Not so bad compared to the gas tank lying on the ground and the tire torn off, twisted, and clamped under the fallen trunk of the other car. A girl in scrubs was yelling, “Of course you had to do this to my car, MY CAR!”  The young man in plaid shorts who had slid out from under the air bag was rubbing the bridge of his nose where his glasses had cracked.

“You scratched this one, too,” I tried gently pushing my index finger along the indented groove, but he said, “No I didn't. I only remember hitting this one.” I decided to wait for the police in the grass, which was soaking through my white socks.

When the police came, one of them was puffing his chest out and said, “So, you uh...live around here.” And I said, “Yeah, I live right up there.” And he said, “So I bet this was loud.”  I said, “Yeah. Pretty loud.” I could feel the sprinkler water creeping up between my toes. “I betchyou were like watching a movie or painting your fingernails or something.” I was going to tell him that I would never even consider painting my fingernails, but instead I said, “Yep, just about.”

Then I unlocked the truck and climbed in for some paperwork and he put his fist to his mouth and said, “Oh shit, is that yours? That one got banged, too.”  Then he stood there and I stood there and neither of us knew what to say or do.  This lasted for about 70 minutes, during which time, the perpetrator's father showed up and started saying very loudly, very close to everyone's faces, “You see anything? Anything at all? Any witnesses? Anyone?” He shielded his eyes with his hands even though it was 10pm, leaned back, and started shouting the same things up to the people sitting on the brick rim of their balcony. “No witnesses,” he concluded, and then a big tow truck crunched the cars up onto its ramp before any measurements were taken or tickets were issued.

When I tell my brother that the cops were playing police rather than being them, he says, “I think the old cowboys with few morals are unimpressed with the new crew who are more gentle, but morons.” Which got me to thinking about what cops should be: cowboys or moralists? Hardasses or gentlemen? Thinkers or cuff-linkers? If being judicious means exhibiting good sense, then can't we have the best of both worlds? I handed the cop my insurance and registration and he said, “You know, to be honest with you, I don't have any idea what to do with this.”

This is why they still haven't found the guy who drove his car on top of my roommate's, totalled it, tried to back up, couldn't, and ran south on Downing til he was out of sight.

When the cop came back with Luke's proof of insurance, he put it on the hood of the truck, turned around, and it blew away in the breeze.  “Was that the insurance?” I said.  “I don't think so," he said, as he spun with his hands on his hips. “Isn't insurance on a little card?” and he made a card-sized frame with his fingers. “That's health insurance,” I said. “Oops,” he said, and then we both went chasing after the paper.

When I was little, we weren't allowed to call police men “cops” because it was a white trash way of saying it.  One afternoon, I went down the hill to my neighbor Patrick's house to see if he could play, but his mom was the only one at home, smoking a cigarette and watching soap operas on their white leather couch. The smoke was curling up around her and a woman was looking longingly at a man on the screen. “Janine.” I said. “Is Patrick home?” “No,” she said. Then I said, “Janine"–I loved saying her name because it sounded like a ringing phone–"My mom says watching so-poppers and smoking cigarettes are white trash.” So Janine called my mom, and my mom called me in from burying myself under stuffed animals in my toy box, and we had a conference about what people are supposed to say inside their houses and what they're supposed to say outside their houses. I'm not sure I learned the lesson.

An accident is something that happens without deliberate cause. Thinking back, most things I did as a child were purely deliberate. I am going to climb to the top of the refrigerator. I am going to run away. I am going to tell you, Mom, exactly why I did those things: I like to climb, and I want to get out of here so I can come back. I'm staying under water so long because I want to feel you worrying about me. I'm going to hug you because I want to squeeze you I love you so much. As a kid, almost everything you do is powered by love: getting it, giving it, deciding what kind you want or can offer and when.

As we get older, do we lose our ability to make motivated (meaning: moved by a motive) decisions?  Do we speak the same language as each other when it comes to dealing with strangers, catastrophes, not knowing the answer to a question? And are our reactions to accidents a series of verbalized accidents?

Last night, after the young man who hit three parked cars had talked to his father, he decided that the accident was not his fault. The tow truck turned into two red eyes at the end of the street, and the cop winked at me before the blue beam swung across the building. What I learned is that you can do something deliberately, like a child, or you can do something maturely deliberate, which requires deliberation, and a lot of adults don't have enough time or awareness or intact love for each other to consider the difference.