1. The jogger
A little over a week ago, my younger brother, a marathoner who lives in Arizona with his wife and two kids, was taking a routine morning run with friends when a car slammed into him from behind at about 60 mph. Knocked clean out of his shoes, one leg broken near the knee, my brother shattered the windshield then sailed over the top of the car, head down, and landed in a ditch off the road’s shoulder. His friend was thrown forward and suffered scrapes and bruises. A third runner, untouched by the car, ran to where my brother had landed and watched him stand up, turn around, and lay back down in the opposite direction. “The patient’s head should always be higher than his heart,” he said. Then he passed out.
Later we’d learn that the driver, a 20-year-old kid, had been out drinking all night. When the cops arrived, they stopped my brother’s friends from retrieving his shoes: what was already a crime scene could very possibly become a homicide scene if my brother didn’t survive the ride to the hospital, and considering the shape he was in, they weren’t particularly hopeful.
When I asked him how he was this afternoon, waiting at home for the swelling to reduce in his knee before he can go back to the hospital for surgery next week, he gave a wry chuckle. “Considering that my funeral could have been this weekend,” he said, “I’ll take the pain.”
2. The deliveryman
One night last week, my daughters had just gone to bed when we heard a car slam on its brakes and blare its horn on the street seven floors below. Though the duration of the squealing brakes was a little longer than usual, noise from the street is nothing new: we live in a busier neighborhood than we used to, with thinner windows. We live down the road from a firehouse and near major intersections on a street that cuts east to west across SoHo. Sirens and horns are part of our daily soundtrack.
But this time one of my kids came out of her room. “I think someone just got hit,” she said. “I heard a thump and some people yelling.” Thinking she was probably mistaken, we went to our bedroom window, at the building’s front, where we could release the safety lock and open it wide enough to lean out for a better view. Sure enough, at the intersection of Broome and Mulberry, a car sat at a sideways angle, blocking traffic from both directions. The driver’s door was open and no one was in the car. It had struck a delivery bike, which was also still in the middle of the road, its front tire and handlebars twisted at an odd angle. A pizza bag had been thrown a few feet farther. The driver was apparently sitting on the curb, his back against a lamppost. We couldn’t see him very well; he was surrounded by a gaggle of Little Italy tourists, doggy bags in hand, asking him if he could see straight. When a firetruck pulled up a moment later, one of the tourists, dressed in a baggy pink sweatsuit, jumped in the road and flagged the truck down, as if the scene weren’t self-evident. The firemen didn’t move too quickly when they climbed off their truck; assuming this meant the biker was okay, we shut the window, reassured our daughter, and nudged her back toward bed.
3. The dry cleaners
On my way into our building after work last Monday, the security guard asked me if I’d heard about the school shootings in Virginia. Thinking that he meant University of Virginia, where one of my TAs has a boyfriend on faculty, I hurried from the elevator to the computer to find out more — thinking I’d email her to make sure her boyfriend was safe. Though the guard had been wrong about the particular school, the news over the next several days had me glued to the computer, reading multiple newspapers’ updates, even as I recoiled from the media feeding frenzy that served as the source for information on the killings. Though I’ve often identified with school shootings from the perspective of a teacher or the parent of a victim, this time I found myself repeatedly attempting to imagine the compounded horror and anguish that must have been experienced by the shooter’s parents. When they first heard of the massacre on the TV, did they worry first for their son’s safety, or did they feel a sinking feeling that he had, in fact, been the gunman?
Each of these events struck close to home for my family and contributed to a growing sense of unease that characterized a lot of our conversations this week. Though I’m not a marathoner, I run, too, often along busy streets, and I’m always sure to carry ID in case something happens to me while I’m out. We bike as a family through the same streets the deliveryman took. Like him, I sometimes ride at night without lights; occasionally I’ll forget to take a helmet. If I don’t see cars coming, I’ll run a red light. And worst of all, I think the university environment we live in made it all too easy to imagine the horrors of the Virginia Tech scenario. I’m sure I wasn’t the only college professor this week to think hard about the kids who don’t talk in class, the one or two who sit in a corner and stare into space or don’t show up for weeks at a time. Events like these make the world seem extremely fragile, utterly unpredictable, which of course it is. They force you to confront the uncomfortable fact that life can end in an instant, and that you don’t always see death coming.
It’s been years since I conceptualized my life in providential terms. I don’t believe in miracles, grace, or predestination. I don’t believe in fate or bad luck or good luck. I believe instead that life is an accumulation of accidents, that nothing characterizes our existence better than the concept of contingency. Many things that happen could just as easily not have happened. As often as you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may have avoided the wrong place by sleeping in, or leaving late. My brother and his friends might have turned off their planned route a block earlier. The driver who hit him might have passed out in the parking lot of a bar. The deliveryman might have made it through the intersection just in time. Or he might have caught a virus and called in sick. A bureaucrat in Virginia might have filed a report on Cho Seung-Hu that would have prevented him from buying guns. What if his brain worked differently, if his medication had been more effective, if the dry cleaning chemicals he was exposed to as a child weren’t so toxic, if he hadn’t been picked on for poor English, or if he’d been able to respond to smiles the way most other people are hardwired to do? What if just one link in his personal chain of accidents had steered him in a different course? Nothing has to happen the way it does, but it’s also often — if not always — impossible to trace the chain reactions of accidents that might explain why things have happened in the particular way they did.
4. The philosopher
On Saturday afternoon I got a call from Tekserve saying that my daughter Molly’s laptop had been repaired and I could come pick it up. Since she’d been miserable as hell without it, I wasted no time grabbing my bike and heading out into a gorgeous spring afternoon. I pedaled across Broome to 6th Avenue, then headed north through SoHo and the Village. Taxis swung too close for comfort, tourists stepped perilously from the curb when they shouldn’t have, but these are the things that make biking in the city a pleasurable adventure. I reached 23rd Street and locked my bike, went into the store and took a number. When I hit the waiting area, I realized that the guy just ahead of me in line was Marshall Berman, in all his loveable corpulance, his fantastic wiry grey hair and beard, his earring that looked like a fishing lure, his red T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text: “Why yes, I am a Marxist,” or something close to that.
Berman is something of a hero for me: he’s our premier theorist of optimism amid the maelstrom of modernity, a firm believer in the possibilities and pleasures of urban community. I love showing my classes clips of him as a talking head in the Ric Burns New York documentary, in which Berman sings praises to the beauty of subway grafitti emerging from the burned over district of the Bronx in the 70s or extols the virtues of a carless existence in New York. I wanted to say so, but was too captivated by the situation at hand. He was in the store with his 12-year-old son, who had slammed his fist down on his laptop out of frustration because it was running so slow. The kid explained this, while Marshall was in the bathroom, to a family friend who’d accompanied them on this errand.
Later, the friend left, and father and son took up the topic of overpopulation and land use. “I don’t get it,” the kid said. He seemed genuinely thoughtful, a bit abashed for his violence toward the pokey laptop, and not at all aware that his pop was one of the smartest people on earth. “There’s a lot of open space on the planet that doesn’t get used at all,” the kid said. “Why don’t people just spread out?” Berman gave a thumbnail overview of the forces behind early urbanization and explained that it was a good thing some land was yet unused. “Imagine a society where global warming has made living in some cities impossible,” he said. “People may have to return to farming.” Besides, he explained, not all of the empty space was amenable to habitation or agriculture. Deserts, for instance would have to be irrigated, “and irrigation is expensive,” he said. “Fantastically expensive. Spec-TAC-ularly expensive.” The conversation turned to the history of L.A. right about the time my number was called. They were still waiting for a tech to deliver news on the poor kid’s laptop.
I could have waited 30 minutes to go get Molly’s computer. I could have picked it up on Monday, when I already planned to be in that neighborhood. But then I would have missed that moment — a Manhattan celebrity sighting that actually felt productive, not because I learned anything about land use, but because I was reminded that in the middle of the unexplainable, the chaotic, the unpredictable whirlwind of our lives, are relationships that warrant slowing down, thinking, conversing, teaching, learning, laughing, loving. Resisting despair. Wearing a funny T-shirt. Embracing happy accidents when they roll around. Taking sheer pleasure in watching a philosopher shuffle to the bathroom.