Trails of dirt and trampled bushes, broken lengths of wrought iron gate and bits of silver car grill, a chunk of bumper and loads of glass litter the sidewalk, just around the corner from our house. Crime-scene tape has been strung up (already) across the gap in the fence. The army green mailbox lies, dejected, on its side. One of its little legs is crumpled inward. It looks wounded and patient. Like a friendly droid, helpless to right itself again. My son would like that last image, since it’s from Star Wars.
Its 5:45 when I walk by this carnage. A half hour earlier I was at this very same spot with all the kids. Amos and Etta kept close to me as we crossed the street, as they always do. Out of habit really, not out of a sense of hyper-awareness that multi-ton missiles in the form of cars, vans, and trucks driven by God-knows-who’s-having-God-knows-what-kind-of-day strangers are zipping all around us.
They trailed their backpacks and winter coats behind them as we walked--absurd to think we’d sent them to school with coats this morning, since it ended up being a hot, sunny, playground day. The temperature was in the mid-sixties and we saw bare knees and toes that didn’t belong to us for the first time since September.
Joe was off at the accountant’s office (well, really the accountant’s mom’s house)--combing through the year’s finances, deductions, receipts, claims. A mundane but necessary thing to do; a chore that no one in his family (including his adoring wife) would think to thank him for. So preoccupied were we with the day to day minutae of getting up and out and then home again every day.
I had carried Piper across the street, part of the deal we’d negotiated a block and a half earlier when she decided to play the password game at the public playground’s main gate--and keep us trapped until we could figure out which random word, or cousin’s name she was thinking of. A plot that was neatly foiled by the timely arrival of a larger than life lady and her gargantuan brood that served to intimidate Piper since she barely came up to their knees--but which still managed to require a promise to be carried all the way home. And half way across the street she squirmed her intention to be put down, and half-slid down my leg to the ground--then wobbled to the curb on unsteady, adjusting-to-gravity-again legs.
There is always this moment when I’m crossing this street that I realize I should be being much more dilligent. Years ago when we were all in the playground there was the loudest sickest crashing sound and we all raced to the bars at the edge of the yard and saw that a car had misjudged the turn and was up on the sidewalk, banged up. A car one second, a smoking heap of vile twisted metal another. It was a terrifying reminder that the sidewalks aren’t as safe as we assume they are, but it also served to bolster my own sense that you’re either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or you aren’t, and there’s not much you can do about it.
My second job out of college was at an afterschool program on the Upper East Side. I fetched kids from a variety of schools and shepherded them across big avenues and side streets. The director of the program--a grouch named Buelah whose son was on Jeopardy’s Tournament of Champions which, I think, led her to believe that all of her paranoid crazy maternal instincts had been justified--had mapped out all of our routes, taking into consideration and completely avoiding spots where impatient but legally turning cars threatened law-abiding pedestrians. It seemed like overkill to me then, the way we had to wait for specific signals in certain directions and ignore otherwise legit walk signs. But of course I didn’t have my own kids then, so my own deep feelings of mortality and helplessness had not yet been plumbed.
The intersection around the corner from my house would have stumped Buelah. I imagine she’d have us overshoot this corner altogether, and loop down around the end of the block and come back on another street entirely--doubling the length of the walk. There’s no good way to do it, being that we have to cross two one-way streets--each one full of turning cars obeying their own green lights and conflicting with our own obedient paths.
So, operating on the its-out-of-my-hands theory we just cross the street. And on this particular afternoon I was struck with a very vivid thought. One of those twenty-minutes-of-plot-and-imagery- in-a-split-second kinds of thoughts. The thought was that my children and I would all be annihilated by a speeding, turning SUV. And that this would be horrible news for Joe, who was doing the taxes in another part of town. And people were sad and it was tragic, and a year from now, Joe would have to be doing the taxes again. And it would be so weird and awful for him. I wonder how his loss would show up on the form. Is there a box to check? But he would have to do it. Because life (his life) would go on.
So that’s the little story that crossed my mind as we crossed, safely, to the other side, and then we got home, and I forgot all about us dying and Joe doing the taxes next year after we’d died, because we’d already moved on to more pressing matters like muddy shoes and homework.
And we didn’t hear any loud noises, even though the intersection’s pretty close. But about ten minutes later a babysitter dropped by to tell me about the big car crash there on the corner. Something about a limousine up on the sidewalk and of course I don’t know if it’s the old-fashioned definition of limousine which is a long fancy car, or the Brooklyn definition of limousine which is any sedan with a T and an L on its plates. But I went to check it out.
As I stood there among the dirt and debris, I came face to face with several things.
1. a humbling version of ‘wow we were just here,’
2. a chilling version of ‘wow we were just here,’
3. an eerily ho-hum version of ‘wow we were just here,’ and
4. the sickening reminder of the little wandering thought I’d had about Joe having to do the taxes this time next year. And how we’d all be dead. And how he’d still have paperwork to do. And how he might not be able to claim us anymore.
And that that entire image had been in my head in such detail, as I’d ushered my kids across the street just minutes before some kind of limo lost control.
7 years ago