Accidents

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.

holding forth

    18 responses to “Accidents”

    1. MF says:

      I have thought a lot about this subject of chance. Being an identical twin, I often wonder what events, chance or not, influence who each of us is today. In many ways, we are extremely similar. But we have also become polar opposites: me an athiest, divorced working professional in New York City, her a religious housewife and mother of two living in a Salt Lake City suburb. It’s absolutely true what you say “Nothing has to happen the way it does.” However, I can actually attribute the different paths we have take to a few chance differences in our lives, certain influences and places we were at specific times.

    2. Tim Wager says:

      Bryan,

      I enjoyed this post a great deal. I’m terribly sorry to hear about your brother’s accident and am glad to know that he is awake, alert, and able to joke about it a little.

      I’m an inveterate worrier and superstitious at my very core (I attribute it to my Welsh heritage). I’m constantly thinking about what accidents could happen, in the naive belief that somehow by bringing them to mind I can magically forestall or prevent them.

      Thanks for reminding me that happy and beautiful accidents occur all the time, too, not just bad ones. I’ll try to envision more of those in order to bring them about.

    3. Marleyfan says:

      Doc, definitely one of your best posts yet, keep ‘em coming.

      I hope more teachers, as well as the rest of us, will-
      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.

      Maybe it’s the co-worker who doesn’t have many friends, the lonely neighbor, or the guy sitting alone at the bar.

      Although I agree entirely about the accidents of life, which have negative results, I also believe that there are positive events which are not accidents at all.

      A few years ago, I sent some of my staff to a training seminar. When they returned, they were excited to tell me the story the psychologist, “Dr. T”, had told. Dr. T had seen a teenage client “Tommy” years before who had a horrific background- abuse, anger issues, scholastic troubles, poverty, parental problems with employment and substance abuse, etc. After counseling the teen for a short while, they lost contact. A number of years later, Dr. T ran into Tommy, who was doing very well. Tommy now had a successful business, home, wife and family. Dr. T asked his former patient if he had any idea what the impetus of such a drastic change had been. Tommy said yes, it was very clear in his mind; the change had been because of a high school teacher. Tommy told how this teacher had treated him with respect, kindness, and love.

      I happened to know the teacher, so I went and asked if he could remember “Tommy”. To my amazement, the teacher didn’t remember Tommy, but said maybe if he saw a picture of him… Though Tommy was one of the many students that semester, the teacher took the time to care about him. We don’t have any idea how much power we have. To take the time to give of ourselves to those around us might just be the thing that changes someone’s life.

      And by the way, the reason my staff were so excited to tell me the story, was that the teacher is my father.

    4. hey all. thanks for comments. not a lot to add, except to ask m-fan: what precludes contingency from underlying the story about your dad? The student could just as easily have been assigned to a different class; he could just have easily not run into Dr. T all those years later and remained anonymously happy. The anecdote suggests happy accidents to me: hooray that he had your dad as a teacher, and it’s nice that he happened to run into someone who could convey the news back to your dad that he’d changed a life. To say I believe such interactions are accidental isn’t to suggest that actions like your dad’s don’t have real and lasting effects — it’s just to say that I don’t think fate or God or some other form of supernatural intervention had anything to do with it. It’s a happy accident on several levels.

    5. Jen says:

      I totally believe in “accident theory”. Meeting Tim was a happy accident, for example, and one that could have not happened except that we were both in the right place at the right time (or the right website at the right time). I try not to let the worry of the bad kind of accidents get to me, but sometimes it’s hard not to obsess over what might occur(or what might’ve occurred differently). I like to think that I have some control over what goes on in my life, which means doing my best not to fall asleep at the wheel, so to speak. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m very pro-nap).

    6. Marleyfan says:

      Dr.W,
      Accidents are random events which occur because of chance. I agree that they are not fate, God, or karma. While it may be an accident that Tommy had that teacher, it was no accident that the teacher treated him with kindness and concern. I guess I was responding more to your statement about our need to look at the outcasts, than the original topic of accidents. Since I heard former high school classmates of Cho explain how he was mistreated, I’ve been thinking about how much more inclusive I want to be. In no way am I condoning Cho’s actions, yet I find it insightful that the perpetrators of school shootings are rejected, tormented, and have been threatened. Research shows that one of the significant predictors of successfully getting through adolescence is having at least one positive adult role model.

    7. I wasn’t suggesting the treatment was accidental, just that the opportunity for the interaction resulted from a long chain of accidents. Think of it this way: how easy would it have been for your dad never to live where he did or choose the profession he did? If even one minor change had happened–even decades in the past, choices made by or accidents that happened to other people–he would not have been in the classroom that kid found himself in. that’s why i’d classify their encounter as a happy accident.

    8. Marleyfan says:

      No, I knew you didn’t suggest the treatment was accidental; I was only accentuating the details. Amazing story about you brother, glad he’s ok.

    9. Missy says:

      I was one of those kids who got hurt a lot. Never broken bones, just stitches and time in the emergency room. As a young adult I got into a lot of car accidents–nothing serious, but enough to cost a lot of money and some inconvenience. And I used to spend a lot of time playing the “what if” game, and kind of enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the chewiness of possibilities. I’d get all tied up in regret and anguish (should have walked my bike across the street, should have waited three beats before moving into the intersection) but also freaked out over all the things that “could” have happened to me, all the worse accidents I avoided because of the millions of variables, all the things that could be affecting me right. this. minute. and that I wasn’t even properly grateful for. Consequently, I’m very, very superstitious and often pause to consider all the terrible things that could happen to me as I leave the house, return home, get out of the bathtub, eat beef jerky by myself (choking hazard!), as though playing out the scenarios can keep me safe from harm.

      I LOVE the Marshall Breman story. Best thing I’ve heard all day.

    10. LP says:

      “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.”

      Bryan, this reminded me of the Magoo Theory of Super-Lucky Living: “What if she’d reached for that French fry just five seconds later? What if she’d left her house ten minutes earlier than she had? What if she’d never stopped at McDonald’s at the first place?” For all the accidents that happen, there are so many that don’t happen, for which we’ll never realize we should be grateful.

      As for me, right at the moment I’m looking in wonderment at the confluence of events / accidents / coincidences that have suddenly taken me to a new city, new job and different life. If any one of many things had happened differently, I might not be here now. It’s a strange thought, and not all that comforting as I try to adjust here.

    11. Ruben Mancillas says:

      Bryan, my best wishes go out for a full and speedy recovery to your brother. What’s the prognosis? Is the majority of damage to the leg/knee? That is scary stuff for your families, my thoughts are with you guys.

    12. Joele says:

      Hi Bryan,

      So relieved to hear about your brother. Thursday while reading the paper I came across his story. They mentioned his name and I was pretty sure it was him, but hoping that it wasn’t. I’m glad you posted in here about it and I hope he has a speedy recovery. Pass my well wishes onto him! Thanks.

    13. lisa t. says:

      It happened one day that Bryan Waterman came over with Jeremy Zitter for tacos at my house. Brothers who are not brothers but feel like brothers. This was a happy accident.

      Los Angelesis a desert that uses a specTACular amount of water to pretend it’s not a desert. This is neither happy nor an accident.

    14. Rachel says:

      Bryan,

      I am so, so sorry to hear what happened to your brother, and I am thinking of him as he embarks on a long recovery. His good physical health will no doubt help along the way. It’s another (much happier) accident that he didn’t experience brain injury as a result of the collision. That’s not much of a silver lining, to be sure, but I’m grateful nevertheless.

    15. brooke says:

      Awesome post. I hope your brother is up and running marathons in no time. I was going to philosphize on this post, but I think you’ve done enough. Here’s to good accidents happening.

    16. thanks for the well-wishes. he learned this week that he may not have to have surgery on the knee. it looks like things are in place to heal on their own. good news.

    17. marleyfan says:

      Very cool. Hard to believe he was running so soon!