(A strange word, that: un-toward what? It's not one I often get to use, but I kind of like it when I do: untoward...)
So we went over to our daughter Sarah's house in Highland Park yesterday afternoon, to hang pictures--a skill in which I can claim some modest expertise, having started out my career as a preparator forty years ago, when Ellie first opened her gallery. Since then, I have hung hundreds of them, large and small, in dozens of locations. All you need is a measure, a pencil to mark the precise location on the wall, a hammer, an assortment of nails and picture hooks, and a reasonably good eye. A level helps, too. And sometimes, of course, a ladder...
Well we got the pictures hung with the the help of Ed and under the watchful eye of Luka, who--after a hearty lunch--appeared to enjoy the experience. It was six o'clock before we were done, and I was tired and hungry when we set out for home, unaware that this untoward experience was awaiting us just around the corner. I was driving west at a perfectly normal speed on York Street, a busy thoroughfare in Highland Park, when Ellie yelled a warning just as a car darted out into my field of vision from a parking place at the curb--no more than a flash of sudden movement--and slammed into my car's right side. His intention, clearly, had been to make a u-turn, and might have succeeded had my Prius not been in his immediate path.
He stopped. I stopped, in the middle of the road, unsure what damage might have been done or whether anyone was hurt. Traffic began to pile up behind us. A young Hispanic guy, generously tattoo'ed, climbed out of a somewhat battered white Geo and looked at me sheepishly. The anger and fear that had been my immediate response subsided rapidly. I signaled to him to stay where he was and pulled in to the curb ahead of him.
I said, "We should call the police"--thinking that there would have to be an accident report for insurance purposes; but he begged me, "Please, no police, please. I pay, no worry." He seemed like a perfectly nice young man, open-faced, friendly; but he did not, frankly, look as though he could pay for a hamburger and fries at the neighboring McDonalds, let alone the damage to my car. Both doors on the passenger side were badly dented and scraped--though both, I ascertained thankfully, were still operable. The damage looked to me to be superficial, but it would certainly be expensive to repair. A couple of thousand dollars, at a guess.
The young man had no driver's license and, I presumed, no insurance on his car. He pleaded some more for understanding: he was already in trouble, he said. He was liable for five years in jail for an incident somehow involving a girlfriend and a baby. That didn't sound good. He offered to call his uncle, to vouch for him. He would pay for the damage, he insisted.
I wasn't honestly sure wat I should get from him, by way of insuring that he did not simply disappear on us. He had not left the scene, that much was to his credit. But I was obviously unsure that he was to be trusted. He called his uncle. I called my insurance company. I spent a good long while on the phone making a report; the agent told me that it was unnecessary to call the police--and that even if I called them, they would likely not show up. A good thing for my Hispanic friend. I was actually growing quite fond of him, and would not have wanted to bring further trouble into his already troubled life.
The uncle arrived. We exchanged further information--names, phone contacts, license plate numbers. The uncle offered to have the repairs done at his expense at one of his relatives' body shops. We politely declined. Our insurance company had already made a date for us at its own preferred repair place, to get an estimate. And we parted on good terms, with handshakes all around. I could not resist the opportunity to share my wisdom with our young friend: take this as a wake-up call, I told him. It's a lesson that you needed: pay attention--and not only when you're driving. It's time to learn to pay attention to your life. He nodded eagerly. Yes, he said, he understood.
It would be nice to think that this accident might prove a turnaround moment in this young man's life. We'll probably never know. Meantime, however, it was also a good moment to take note and learn something myself. It was not about paying attention. The accident was not caused by any inattention on my part; there was nothing I could have done to anticipate or prevent it. No, the teaching had to do with impermanence, with learning to expect the unexpected, taking nothing for granted. The world out there can intrude upon us suddenly without any warning, and bring havoc into our lives. And the other part was the reminder of mortality: that little Geo turning out in front of me might, God forbid, have been a truck running a red light at high speed and broadsiding my little Prius. A faction of time and space away, the outcome could have been very different.
We are both fine. No injuries sustained. The car will be fixed. There will be time consumed, a bit of bureaucratic hassle. But we are reminded of the unpredictability of life, and of our own fragility; and are perhaps a little wiser for the experience.