Street Fight

A couple weeks ago, I rear-ended an Audi, a mini-van, and a Mexican guy in a Neon. Not in separate accidents: at the same time; a four-car-pile-up. It was near the same intersection where I saw the train suicide a couple months ago, about ten minutes after another car was smoked by a passenger train. No one was hurt, but still, we couldn’t help, but rubberneck the demolished car, now resembling a Micro Machine that melted in the dryer.

Accidents happen in slow motion. Life moves at a comfortable pace and halts instantaneously, in my case literally. Though we can slam on the brakes, hoping to prevent an “incident” before it happens, some things cannot be avoided.

In the calamitous moment, sensory perception is off: there was no way of knowing exactly what happened first. I felt my body blow through the seatbelt what seemed like seconds before the actual collision. At some point, my purse and laptop slammed into the dashboard, my chest hit the steering wheel, the back end of the car lurched. The music stopped; the sounds, muddled in my memory.

Smoke escaped from the engine and the air was thick with radiator fluid. In seconds, my car was surrounded. My first reaction was, “Is everyone okay? Am I okay?” I put the car in park and prepared myself.

I didn’t expect what happened next: I opened the door to what felt like a lynch mob.

Immediately, the Audi driver, a middle-aged woman wearing gold jewelry and Pilates pants was fuming like my engine. When I asked if she was okay, she was enraged, “Okay?!  Am I okay?” I was impressed with her on-the-spot rhetorical questioning. Then, she answered herself bluntly, rolling her eyes, “NO! I’m not okay.” I looked for blood, an indication of injury, or even an explanation about what was wrong. While she dramatically clutched her neck and paced the side of the road, it became clear that she was physically “okay.”  She was just extremely pissed off and looked like she wanted to hit me.

The woman in the mini-van pointed her finger in my face and told me not to leave the scene, as if I were some kind of criminal, trying to fly-by-night from a suburban hit-and-run. I wanted to tell her that while there were some criminal actions I would flee from; this was not one of them. Her little boy cried in the backseat, probably because his mother, an older woman with long frizzy greying hair and a wiccan-esque black skirt was terrifying: a hippie-suburbanite with a van full of organic fruit. Ironically, she had one of those “CoExist” bumper stickers.

Rich liberals are the worst.

I got back in my car and waited for the police to show up.

Most of the damage was to my vehicle, which is usually the case in rear-end accidents. The Audi had a few dents in the back and a bent hood. The mini-van had barely noticeable damage to the bumper. According to the mechanic, my car would have been totaled if the air bags blew.

For me, the accident was a blip, but I got the feeling that I just ruined the lives of everyone in the neighborhood. In the end, my insurance premiums will go up, I had to pay the deductible, and generally things since have been a little annoying. I scraped my knee and got a hole in my new jeggings. But was this so tragic? It seemed lucky, given any other number of possibilities—getting T-boned by a semi, choking to death on my morning bagel, careening off Hwy 1, or getting smoked by a passenger train.

I wanted to smile as I watched my car getting towed away. It still felt like we got off easy.

Smartly, the Mexican guy in the Neon agreed. He waved at me and peeled out before the police arrived. Even if he was an illegal immigrant and his car was a piece of shit, I definitely got the feeling that he also realized the insignificance of the event. As someone who has probably seen a lot worse, he looked grateful, and… he probably went to work.

The nicest folks on the scene were the cops who didn’t give me a citation and reminded me not to worry. That’s why they call it an accident, one of them told me and winked.  They were probably used to scenes like this: a soccer-mom squealing about her dented Audi and demanding an ambulance.

The guy who fixes my car (I use present tense because he has had to repair damage twice in the last month), says that I am more than a client now, I am a friend. This is a bit of a joke, still, I am not sure if I should be embarrassed. He cringes when he asks for my credit card, the second time in two months.

“You always seem hesitant to ask for my credit card,” I said.

“I just hate having to ask people for money after an accident,” he shrugged.

“That’s how it works right?” I answered, “I owe you. You fixed my car.” Despite the fact that the man just drained my checking account for the next two weeks, I still appreciated his candor and friendliness. More importantly, there is no “surprise” in monetary exchange or the fact that my being a shitty driver is going to cost some money.

I got the feeling that this man is used to dealing with a lot of people who are volatile from financial stress. A recent study came out that the majority of consumers feel that their finances are unmanageable. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some legitimacy to the economic issues at stake, but to say that 80% of Americans are uncomfortable with their financial status seems questionable and unwarranted, given the placement of our incomes in the world economy.

Does that mean everyone else in the world should also be unsatisfied and stressed, to the point of finding their livelihood unmanageable? Should we all be on the brink of mental collapse because of financial stress? Is it possible that for American consumers, no amount of “security” will ever be good enough?

It occurred to me that my accident was a marked “incident.” We were in the suburbs where people work hard to insulate themselves against situations just like this. The chaos and storm is too close, too threatening, and too real. I think the idea out here is that, if we just have enough money, we will never suffer from anything. Even the possibility of suffering, creates fear.

Marked symbols of security: healthcare and homeownership.  Not surprisingly, the biggest conflicts in today’s political theater. Setting aside the healthcare debate, consider student debts and housing. Separately, the issues make sense, but the new rhetoric about college graduates and homeownership is getting tedious. Mostly, I think, because this sense of entitlement that comes with education seems fairly new and unjustified.

The “outrage” that college graduates cannot buy homes is also a feeding frenzy for the media, to remind us of how terrible things have become.

But, why is it that we have a belief that everyone who went to college or who has a higher education deserves to own a home? I have  a lot of friends who own homes—many  have been working since they were 18-years-old and never went to college. They often work what are considered “blue collar” jobs, but they go to work and keep up with their mortgage payments. My 23-year-old cousin just bought a home only a year out of nursing school. There is a reason: she never left her parents’ house and has been saving since she started working when she was 15-years-old.

She probably isn’t reading Foucault on the weekends or day dreaming about some academic conference in Paris, but she owns a nice piece of property in Georgia and she works her ass off.

Choices.

The idea that people can take out $150,000 of student loan debt and that these folks deserve status and homeownership, simply by the act of going to school is not only ludicrous, but self-serving. You went to law school and have debt? The illusion that you would get rich fell through? Get over it and go to work like everyone else.

I am one of the law school student loan “debtors,” but I have always been comfortable with the fact that my “investment” was in education, not property. They are not the same thing, and I am really not sure when one equalled the other. If anything, I would say that they have opposite ends. But, then again, I may be a liberal daydreamer.

Still, education is a resource, not a product.

My student loans are debts that I agreed to pay, nothing that someone forced me into. I signed the papers and I’ve never been surprised when I see that yes, I still owe the federal government money. Let’s not forget that the federal government subsidized my tuition and rent for three years.

Again, not the tragedy of my life.

Another thing I am not going to cry about: I owe the IRS. As a contractor, it has been difficult to pay out of pocket the nearly 40 percent of back taxes. My entire life I have been scared of the “tax man,” but have you ever been on the phone with the IRS? They are actually pretty nice and forgiving. Some of them even have southern drawls. I called them last week and they agreed to give me two months off of paying my installment because of the accident.

It’s just money and I pay them. Begrudgingly, I fork over the fees and interest because my payments are late, but nothing surprising. It’s debt. And America knows all about it.

The failed American dream or the “tragedy” of renting, foreclosure and anything non-homeownership invokes a fear. Fear that the life you are living is just not good enough and will never be secure. Folks like Suze Orman substantiate that fear: “How much is in your savings? What is your net value? Have you started a college account for your newborn?” The media perpetuates the idea that no amount is good enough, that our paychecks are never enough to keep up with demand, a demand that is ultimately, self-induced.

Either the world is entirely bleak—or we have created a worldview, where nothing is good enough. If 80% of Americans feel they are in need of “financial overhaul,” it is because the chaos of the market creates its own demand. Work creates stress. We need money for financial advisors and attorneys. Our gym memberships are an investment in stress-management.

Everyone profits from the perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction.

Money buys security. Money buys protection. This is still an illusion. I wonder how our grandparents, who actually did have legitimate reasons to fear the economy, would answer the question, “What does it mean to be ‘secure’?” And if we ever reach that status, will it really save us from stress, disease, boredom? …all of the potential we see in our bank accounts

I am grateful, at the end of the day, when there are enough eggs to make an omelet, that someone gets paid to pick up my trash, that my water is running, that the mailman, though he has a violent way of stuffing mailboxes, always smiles when he sees me.

Things are not so bad.

What we don’t want to become, is that Audi-driving woman, who can’t fathom the idea of a collision, an “incident,” forgetting the very fact that she is flying around at 70 miles per hour in an object constructed of steel and leather, shipped over an ocean and ignited with a key. Taking for granted technological human advances, but also the very reality, that yes, shit happens, and that no savings account, or stock portfolio or 401k is going to insulate you from what you are living—life.

waywardbetty

Author, ex-pat, mother, traveler, artist

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