21 Nov Car Crash

Yesterday, just after the rainy spell broke and the sky was clear and the weather like fall finally, I heard a loud thump-clunk! from the street—the unmistakable sound of one car slamming another at our dicey intersection, where too often cars are colliding. Usually it’s a fender-bender. This one sounded more serious. Stepping from my desk to the bay windows, I saw, three stories down, an SUV on its side, its engine still chugging, black exhaust billowing from its tailpipe. A minivan had run the red light and slammed the SUV broadside. Within thirty seconds—as fast as it would have taken me to run to the phone—a crowd formed, two or more onlookers already dialing for help. Then the young doctor who lives in Rick and Charles’s former house ran out in his scrubs and knelt at the window of the toppled SUV. The driver of the minivan sat immobile behind his wheel, in shock no doubt, his head swimming with disbelief, how on a beautiful morning everything could turn bad so quickly: he’d be sued surely, his insurance company would drop him, his traumatized spinal column would nag and needle him for years. . . why hadn’t he seen the red light, what daydream had blinded him? His car, remarkably, was smashed in on only one side. To look at it, you’d think it no more than a fender-bender. His momentum had run him into a parked car. So that’s two insurance claims. . . .

Since the SUV’s underside was facing our house, I couldn’t see the drama of the onlookers talking to the person or persons trapped inside. Would their car burst into flames? I was wondering, probably as the onlookers were. Sirens in the distance grew louder. The SUV’s engine had stopped finally. The minivan, I noticed, was a commercial vehicle, filled with cleaning and handyman supplies:: this was the driver’s modest business. Traffic continued passing through the intersection. I walked away from the window for a while to talk with Jill. It seems this is what we must do when we witness something awful: we must talk about it. Talking somehow boxes it up for us, makes it less disturbing—like boxing up a possum that got into your house. Once boxed up, the disturbing thing can be transported, then released.

When I returned to the window, wondering how long I was willing to watch the spectacle, the crowd was larger. There’s only so much help so many people can offer, at which point the tasteful thing to do is to carry on with your business. But at a scene like this I sometimes feel it would be unseemly—callus–to move along, as if to say that I didn’t give a damn. That’s one reason crowds linger: their witnessing is not only an act of voyeurism but also a vague expression of care. They want to see a satisfactory end to the drama. The cat rescued from the tree. The victims extricated from the torn vehicle.

To my surprise, I surmised that the trapped couple in the SUV had indeed gotten out, apparently through the sun roof. Now they were sitting on the concrete step of someone’s sidewalk as several people attended them. Then police, fire, and rescue were everywhere. Seven police cars, two ambulances, and one fire truck. Talk about a slow morning. We happen to live a half mile from the Northeast District police station, so, when things are slow, we may get a troop of police. The EMTs gurney’d the driver of the minivan to one ambulance. A big man, he didn’t look at anybody, just lay there and stared up at the cloudless sky, probably thinking Why? Why? Why?

His wife and grown daughter had arrived. Had he phoned them? Or was he from the neighborhood?

The SUV couple got neck braces, then were wheeled to their ambulance. Having closed the intersection, cops were redirecting traffic, which was stacking up on 28th Street. Then the ambulances roared away, leaving the wrecked vehicles and a crowd of people who continued to chatter and stare. The minivan driver’s daughter and wife were emptying the minivan, which was headed for the impound yard. They put Dad’s supplies in the trunk of their car. What a mess of trouble awaited this family, Dad out of work, the medical bills, the law suit. . . .

It took a while for the cop cars to clear out. A half hour later two remained and Saint Paul was still closed as the tow truck righted the toppled SUV, a sight that attracted a small group of onlookers who were left to wonder about the victims.

Two hours after the collision, the street was clear finally, and no one looking at the intersection would have guessed that there had just been a serious accident.

The latest innovation in traffic control, you may have heard, are “click-it tickets,” automated cameras at intersections that take photos of anyone running a red light. Baltimore is the worst city for red-light runners I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why this is but I am very cautious about intersections and never jump a green light because 25% of the time somebody runs the red.