Friday, October 12, 2007

A Life Lesson

Nine years ago, as I was waiting at a traffic light in morning rush hour traffic, my car was rear-ended. The force was so great that it knocked my car into the one in front of me, locking our bumpers. It also caused a severe jolt to my neck that left me dazed for several seconds.

As I sat there, dazed, I saw a woman get out of the car in front of me. At the same time, the woman who had hit me got out of her car and in a thick Mexican accent asked the other woman, “Is he okay?”

“I don't know,” said the woman, bending down to look through my window.

I opened the door.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. I got out of the car.

At that moment, the woman who had hit me jumped in her car and sped away. It happened so fast we could not get her license plate.

“Can you believe that?” said the woman.

I looked at our bumpers. Yes, they were locked. “Maybe we should try to get our cars apart so we can move them out of the way,” I said, concerned about the honking traffic behind us.

“No,” said the woman, “not if you’re injured.”

We went around to the back of my car and surveyed the damage there. It was bad.

“Wow,” said the woman. “She sure hit you hard.” Then she said, “You stay here. I’ll go find a phone.”

She left. I stood there, leaning on my car, unsteady on my legs.

Because our cars were blocking the lane, the other lane was now carrying the burden of both lanes. As the cars passed me, a great many drivers honked at me and angrily motioned for me to move the cars, which of course I could not do in my injured state. Even had I not been injured, I could not have done it by myself. I know this because later it took two cops to get the cars apart.

As the people passed, motioning angrily, sometimes their lips moved in the familiar way that indicated a word was being said that started with the letter “f.” One man gave me the finger.

It was horrible. Here I was, in my hour of difficulty, unable to do what these people wanted of me, not responsible for the wreck in the first place, more the victim of the situation than they, and yet I was being held accountable by everyone for slowing down the already-slow rush-hour traffic. The faces that streamed past, snarling and vicious, began to blend into one face. It was as if, for the first time in my life, I was seeing the real face of humanity in all its foulness, savagery, and stupidity.

It was too ugly to look at, too hard to believe that all this hatred was directed at me. Therefore, I retreated from the snarling faces. I got back into my car and kept my head down. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position.

The woman returned. I rolled down my window. “They’re on the way,” she said. “They’re sending an ambulance.”

This woman was a great comfort to me. After having been injured in a hit-and-run by one person, and honked at, cursed, and viciously reviled by everyone else for inconveniencing them with my injury, here at least was one person who knew what had happened, who did not blame me, and who was in fact concerned for my well being. We were in this together, and it forged a bond between us. I knew I could count on her, and it was this knowledge that restored my faith in humanity.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a few weeks later my insurance company sent me a copy of a letter it had sent her. It seems that, despite the police report and her own eyewitness account of what had happened, she had attempted to blame me for the accident in order to collect from my insurance company. The letter was advising her to contact her own insurance company, as it was a hit-and-run accident that had been caused by a third party.

I thought about this woman during the months of physical therapy it took to repair my injury. I thought, too, about the other woman who—for lack of a drivers license, or insurance, or a green card, or all three—had injured me and left me for dead, for all she knew. I thought, too, about the vicious snarling faces, the curses, and the obscene gesture, and thought, "Thank God for the brotherhood of man. Where would we be without it?"