In a New York Minute

Like most people, I am more or less a captive of my habits. For example, Monday mornings are reserved for riding, period. And it’s for health, not for fun, so this appointment is more or less sacrosanct. But Monday traffic is also usually the heaviest of the week, so unless you get moving really early, you end up having to be either patient or creative in order to get where you want to go.

But I had been unavoidably detained that particular morning, and was now faced with a stop-and-go situation. Not being the most patient sort, at times like these I will take whatever detours are necessary to maintain critical forward progress.

I had just taken such a detour, and was headed west on Saint Elmo, about to make a right onto James Casey, which would very shortly deliver me to the feeder road of eastbound Ben White. A quick U-turn and I would be westbound, with only eight minutes between me and my destination.

And then it happened. Right in front of me, an expensive late-model SUV, turning from James Casey onto St. Elmo, struck a pedestrian crossing the intersection. The pedestrian went flat against the hood and screamed with surprise. Reacting instantly, the driver jammed on her brakes. The pedestrian slid off the hood and landed on her feet, loudly yelling obscenities the whole time.

Seized with indignation at this display of apparent carelessness, I made the decision to get involved. It seemed a perfect symbol of the madness that has engulfed our city, and by god I was incensed. Innocent pedestrian, heedless, self-absorbed driver. Presto! Instant narrative.

I came alongside, announced to the pedestrian that I had seen everything if she needed a witness, to which she said “Thank you I may need one.” Through the tinted windows of the SUV  I could see the silhouette of the driver, clearly female, but beyond that I could tell nothing. I pulled over to make a phone call, and then got ready to play my part.

There was no gray area whatsoever; the driver was absolutely at fault. In her defense, though, it was somewhat understandable. I realized that she had probably been turning right, and so quite logically had monitored only the traffic coming from the left. She simply had not anticipated someone crossing on foot in front of her from the right, and had been taken by surprise.

It’s not what you would call fair, but the reality is that we drivers don’t generally notice pedestrians until they are RIGHT THERE! in front of us. As a pedestrian, if you are smart, you know this and pay attention.

I wanted to hate her, really I did. Her silhouette gave me just enough information to imagine some overpaid, haughty bottle-blonde striver in a power suit, from LA no doubt, irresponsibly texting when she should have been paying attention. I imagined her seething with misplaced indignation, aghast at now having to deal with some grubby little foot-bound prole who had been foolish enough to get in the way.

But what stepped from the SUV was nothing of the sort. Fiftyish, portly, Hispanic, somebody’s mom and probably grandmom, she appeared prosperous but a long way from pampered. Her English was good, her noticeable accent suggestive of Guadalajara or Mexico City. Central Casting had not provided the villain I had requested.

Still in shock, her expression hovering somewhere between horror and relief, her dignity bruised but intact, the middle-aged Everywoman struggled to maintain her composure as she engaged the pedestrian, a somewhat overweight young woman of twenty six or so, who was having none of it.

On the edge of hysteria, she screamed at the driver over and over. Lady you effing hit me with your effing car what the eff were you effing thinking you effing idiot. It all seemed rather overdone because the young lady looked perfectly OK to me. I walked over to confirm that she was alright. “Probably not,” she spat, her tone of voice  surly and accusatory. “I have back issues.” At this declaration, I could all but hear the “Ka-ching!” and see dollar signs in her eyes.

My empathy for the young pedestrian was fading by the second, hot on the heels of my indignation, which had already fled altogether. I mentally retracted the offer to be a witness, except possibly for the driver, who was looking to need all the help she could get.

Hysterics notwithstanding, everything seemed to be OK. It was a very slight impact, really just a bump. The driver had corrected instantly, and no real damage appeared to have been done, other than, possibly, a minor bruise or two. An ethically unchallenged person would have said “no harm no foul,” taken the driver’s info and kept going.

There were also important mitigating factors: It was before sunrise and still fairly dark, and there was a light fog, which reduced visibility even further. Moreover, the pedestrian had not done her part. Fixated on her smart phone when she should have been monitoring her surroundings, she had not noticed that the driver had not noticed.

I began to feel actively sorry for the driver, a hapless victim of circumstance, who was proving to be a model of decorum in the face of an obviously calculated overreaction. At the same time, the young pedestrian, who moments before had been the innocent bystander wronged, morphed before my eyes into an ugly, angry personality looking to cash in.

I wanted to say to her: Be thankful; it could have been much worse. After all, the driver had entered the intersection deliberately, not aggressively. Her quick reactions halted the vehicle in its tracks. She stopped and rendered aid. She assumed responsibility. In fact she did everything right. But none of this made any difference to the young pedestrian, who was firmly in the zone and would not be deterred.

She had no idea how very, very lucky she had actually been. I know that intersection well. At that time of day it is extremely busy, and the vast majority of drivers just punch it. Run that sim again and eight times out of ten the young lady would have gone flying on impact. Flung like a rag doll, she would have landed in a heap in the middle of the far lane, where she would have been run down in a second or less by the next eastbound car, whose driver, even if not distracted, would scarcely have had time to react. Before anyone even knew what was happening, one life could have ended abruptly and multiple others changed forever.

It was a harsh but timely reminder: No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are; at any time, in any place, absolutely everything can change in a New York minute.

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