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.

The Veteran

Bangkok is not the kind of place you want to spend any time trying to relax or heal. I found myself wandering down the more ancient, narrow streets where stray dogs roam the alleys and (I never understood this) caged birds hang from the streetlamps. Walking in the dark alone felt dangerous, only if you consider what you might step on. Coming out of surgery, it just didn’t seem like the best place for recovery.

I took the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The ride is how I imagine a Russian party on the Trans-Siberian Railway, replete with hard-faced alcoholics and stumbling men. In the chaos, think Darjeeling Limited. I was the only woman in the bar car, but for, the Swedish girl who timidly ran in and out wielding bottles of Chang to share with her boyfriend. The bathroom has a door that only answers to a determined hip-forced slam and a heavy-handed turn of the lock. The toilet itself is merely a hole in the floor: I watch the train sail over the tracks, my entire body bumping around the stall, while I try to avoid the piss puddles at maximum speed. Most riders are in sleepers: the seats pulling down into beds where everyone kind of climbs in at the same time. This takes some organization (putting hundreds of drunks—who are like children—to bed at once) so you can expect that the staff, are not always very kind.

I close the curtain and put my pillow over my purse and my laptop, recognizing that, once asleep, I am an unconscious and easy victim. The sleeper is too short, and I spend the night, my legs and body bent into an oddly angled “Z.” In the morning, my back cracks, as we halt to our destination. I step off the train, feeling like a character in a 1940’s film, the surroundings unknown, but familiar, like black and white. The crowds swarm. I feel that perhaps I should be waving a handkerchief or kissing a soldier. The needed crisp air fills my lungs as I pull my heavy bags from the platform and towards the street, where I hail a cab and collapse into the backseat.

Chiang Mai is cosmopolitan, like Bangkok, but within close reach from the moat and over the bridge from the heart of the city, there is a nature preserve, a small enclave resort. The hostel operates like a hotel and is laid out like an old Veteran’s hospital; a structure that seems intended bring some kind of peace after injury or during wartime. It has long hallways with evenly spaced rooms. There are large gardens labeled with the species of trees, plants and flowers. Long walks can be taken around the premises, through the sprawling gardens lead towards the largest swimming pool I have ever seen in Asia. The buildings, and rooms, are clean to the point of being sterile, except for the leftover deposits of nature—the debris of dead leaves and the varying native bug species that appear on tables or in the shower. There are lizards hunting the smallest bugs beneath the lights that drape from stucco walls.

After checking in and finding my room, I am looking for somewhere to eat. Maybe there is a nurse on staff, I think, then, pause to remember where I am. I pass a man sitting under the shade by the pool, his arm tied in a sling and his leg, wrapped in bandages and propped on a chair. He is bouncing a ping pong ball against the wall, having the look of being simultaneously amused and strained by misery. When I ask for directions to the restaurant, he startles and looks up. Despite the toll of his injuries, he looks youthful, with full, blonde surfer hair, uncommon for a man in his late thirties. His blue eyes are penetrating, carrying the burden of stories held in silence. In this hospital like setting, I was convinced, weighing the stoicism in his eyes and the conspicuousness of his debilitating injuries, that he was a veteran.

“You missed it girl, you passed it,” he says plainly. He strains and points in the direction opposite the wall. He is either Canadian or American, it is hard to tell.

I thank him and turn away, finding the arched wooden entry hidden by vines and find a seat at the restaurant. Immediately, I start digging in my bag to find a notebook, a novel, a pen, something to occupy my breakfast solitude. Within minutes, I see the Veteran hobbling through the restaurant, the heaviness of his left leg carrying his right, stepping unevenly, but carefully, to avoid knocking into the chairs and tables. I am the only one in the room and he sits down across from me. As if the conversation needed no introduction, the invitation to share a table unspoken, and without the socially conditioned goading of small talk, I bluntly ask him, “So what happened?”

“Hit by a truck,” he says casually as he sweeps the long hair from his face and behind his ear, with a swift motion that seemed hardened by habit.

“You know in Canada, we drive on the right and here they drive on the left. Even though I have been living here for about five years, man, it was just, like one instant and the second I stepped out I realized I fucked up, but it was too late, I looked up and, bam! A fuckin truck. It blew me out of my flip flops. I woke up in the ER tied down to a bed. Four days in the ICU, surgery, broken shoulder, and this fuckin shit.” He gestures to his leg with an open palm, then, pulls up his swim trunks and unwraps the bandage to reveal a thick wound that covered most his inner thigh. It was a rainbow of dead to dying flesh—greens, reds, pinks, yellows framed by blackened sinking edges.

“Dude. I think it is infected,” I said. “You really should get that cleaned out.”

“Nah, it just looks bad. It’s been like this for a while.”

“What happened to the driver?”

“He just took off. That’s what they do here. It’s not like he’s going to wait around. And the locals won’t report him. Paying off something like that, he would lose his house. I don’t care, man, fuck it, it’s Thailand. The whole thing only costs about 2500 dollars, and that’s without insurance.”

I only had my stiches removed the day before and I am swollen from carrying all my bags, a feat that I was directly told to avoid: “Don’t lift heavy objects.” Since we are sharing battle wounds, I ask him to examine my incisions. With the precision of a doctor, he looks closely and says, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” I can tell from the look on his face that my own healing process may have been stifled.

Our similarities were circumstantial, but we clung to them: we both speak English as a first language, we both like afternoon drinking, and far more bonding, we were in recovery (though my condition, he constantly reminded me, was voluntary). Fair enough. In any case, the entire encounter starts to feel like a scene from an Ernest Hemingway novel.

It takes only a couple days of what we called convalescence (poolside, beer delivery and various concoctions of prescription medications) to learn that this is not the type to settle down, even though he is turning 40 this year.

He even talks like a war vet. Over the course of weeks, his stories unravel. Among them are the following:

1) He singlehandedly took on eight Canadians who he believed were giving his country a bad rap. They were wanted for a series of random and vicious assaults throughout Thailand. Despite his efforts, he again, woke up in the hospital after being hit over the head with a broken bottle.

2) There is a warrant for his arrest in the United States having something to do with a misdemeanor drug charge and an escalated felony charge for fleeing. He won’t be able to reenter the U.S., even though he tells me, “Fuck it, I’m not even scared of jail, man. I like it. Sit around, watch T.V., talk to awesome dudes. I’ll go back if I have to.”

3) In Korea, he and a buddy decided they should steal the ATM out of a convenient store. When the cashier is in the back, they roll in with a dolly, unplug the ATM and roll it out to a truck.

WB: How much did you get?
V: Not sure, maybe a couple thousand bucks.
WB: Did you ever get caught?
V: Nah, but it was all over the news.
WB: Where is ATM now?
V: Don’t know, probably still in our backyard where we dumped it.

4) The Veteran was an actor in L.A. and a runner up to play Edward Norton’s character in American History X. As part of what he calls “getting pumped” for his screen test (including shaving his head), he walks into a bar, goes up to the first black guy he sees, gets up in his face and calls him a nigger. He gets punched out, and, from the floor, the black man picks him up and says, “You okay man?” The Veteran apologizes and says, “I’m not racist. Sorry about that.” He then explains, “I was just getting into character.” Graciously, the black guy says, “It’s cool dude,” and buys him a drink.

5) After some urging from his family and friends, he agreed to, not only attend, but host an AA meeting. He made a confessional, heartfelt speech, bonded with fellow addicts, and sent around the basket for donations. When the money came back, he sealed it in an envelope and put it in his pocket: “I just kept thinking, I should do this AA shit more often! I partied all night for free!”

One night, we go to a club where, upon entry, everyone knows him. The bartender tells me that the last time the Veteran was here they had to kick him out because he tried to climb from the roof and scale the walls of the next building.

I sense that with the truck collision, came the smack of mortality. This is the kind of person who has probably never thought about his own death or the consequences of his actions. Now, he is bound up wandering the halls with his leg leaking pus, borderline gangrene, his good arm rendered useless, not to mention the internal, more hidden ailments. In between stories of his reckless past, his rhetoric starts to shift. He starts making serious life plans—maybe he could open bar in Italy or build a home back in Canada. At some point he considers the possibility of children: “I could have a baby. I love babies, man, it’s like having little drunk people running around.”

One night, he asks me to marry him, offering the ring of a peanut shell. I know he is kidding, but there is something that makes me think he wouldn’t be, if it meant finality to his injury and recovery, momentum or change and some stability in his otherwise raucous life.

“Come on man, I’ll get money. I got money. I inherited a crypt back in Italy.” I like that he calls me “man.” Also, who owns a crypt? I ask him to explain. He comes from a deeply rooted, old school Italian family, many of whom still live near Sicily and he actually inherited a crypt, near his father’s hometown. He is supposed to be buried there. How symbolic, I think, that he wants to sell it: he still thinks he is immortal.

Every day I find out about another injury:

“Oh, you didn’t know my liver was lacerated?”

“Didn’t I tell you about the broken ribs?”

One day, while poolside, I notice that his nipple looks misplaced. I make a face and point this out. Irritated, he sharply answers, “Yeah, man because it got fuckin ripped off. This whole side of my chest. I got hit by a fuckin truck. That’s what happens when you get hit by a fuckin truck.”

When he drinks too much, he forgets he is injured and starts dancing, pumping his arm like he is at a Rage Against the Machine concert. He is moody and sometimes I worry he suffers from some confluence of a TBI, PTSD and alcoholism. Every day we have to go back to the emergency room to reset the bandages. Recovery is not on course.

What seems like two years is really less than a few weeks. We are both becoming restless and increasingly irritated with each other, like an old couple trapped in a nursing home, or, in sticking with a metaphor, like veterans stuck in a hospital, though I have now taken on the role of counselor and nurse. One afternoon, to combat our agitation, we decide to take a tour through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle (the Mekong River in Northern Thailand that meets the border of Laos and Burma).

On the slow boat, he stands in front of 45 tourists and sings a song we made up about riding in a tuk-tuk. It is terrible and goes something like, “I took a tuk-tuk, I took a tuk- tuk, from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. I took a tuk-tuk! He took a tuk-tuk! She took a tuk- tuk! We took a tuk-tuk!” There were other, longer, verses I have now forgotten, but, anyway, everyone cheers and asks for another round.

In addition to a protracted adolescence punctuated by criminal acts, the Veteran has also spent years volunteering at a Burmese refugee camp. He teaches English to children in Thailand. He makes jokes with the Laos border patrol officers. At his core, it is evident, that he loves people and, though he sticks out, the locals seem to embrace his audacity. There is nothing hidden or contrived about this man. Once when talking about education, he says to me fiercely, “Ph.D’s, M.Ds., J.D.s, MBAs, DDS, ABC, whatever, who needs letters. I have a Ph.D. in MAN.” In his world, the one I have been absorbed into, I smile, because, he is right.

While the tourists are making Visa runs to Burma and buying cheap clothes in the market, we wander down to a bar that looks over the river on the border. We are literally sitting under the border patrol where children are playing in the river they cannot cross.

He orders us two beers and steadily pours into each tilted cup he balances with his sling arm (he has mastered this technique over the course of his recovery). After taking a robust swig, he wanders over to the refrigerator, signals to the waitress that he is helping himself and grabs a Coke. There is a small boy waiting at the riverside looking up and smiling. He shows the little boy the Coke can and pretends to throw it so the boy can prepare. After the kid assumes a diving position, the Veteran tosses the can overhand, it arches and lands with a splash. The water is not so deep, so when the boy comes up, he sees the can floating above the surface. He grabs it and waves thumbs up.

Within seconds, there are two more boys down by the river, stripping down to their underwear, ready to dive in. The Veteran walks over to the fridge and grabs a sling full of Coke, Sprite, Orange Crush and starts tossing them into the water. It is a feeding frenzy, and one after the other, the cans are flying while the group of boys are diving in. He is running back to the fridge as fast as he can throw them and the kids are stacking up the cans like treasure on the riverbank, yelling up to us, “One mo, one mo.” The Veteran is laughing and giving commands in their native language I do not understand, but, like everyone else in the restaurant, we are watching this game, as if it were simply a backyard pool party. Even their parents lined up on the bridge to watch. By the end, there are nearly twenty kids diving and he has spent about thirty U.S. dollars on Coke.

It was good we got out of our little hospital. I was leaving in only two days and it brought a kind of peace, if only that I knew he was going to be okay.  He is immortal, after all.  Although, I learned that his leg was, in fact, infected, and he will have to return to Canada for some good old western medicine.

It’s not everyday you meet a man who survives getting hit by a truck, but more interesting,  is watching him come back to life.