That Time I Probably Didn’t Save a Man’s Life in a Car Crash


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There are moments, minutes, hours, that clearly and irrevocably change your life forever. That moment your wife announces she's pregnant, the call from your wife that your father-in-law died of a heart attack last night. This is not about those moments.

There are moments, minutes, hours, that arrive and vanish without a trace. Not a single one of the hundreds of cars you passed on your commute this morning will stick around your brain long enough to become a memory. This is not about those moments.

And then there are moments, minutes, hours, that simply hover. You think you'll never forget them, but how many other moments just like this one have you forgotten? Right now it feels your life after what you've just experienced, but really? We can be such terrible predictors of our own lives. I thought high school graduation - an undeniably "important" moment - would stay implanted in my mind until the day I died, and yet now the entire day has now melted into a blurry haze. The time I was 11-years-old and crashed my bike into our neighbor's rose bushes? I still remember every scratch, the smell of the iodine as my mom put on the Band-Aids.

This is about one of those hovering moments.

This Saturday I was driving down Ventura Blvd., my wife in the passenger seat, my sister-in-law in the back seat, my daughter happily singing along to "Frozen" next to her. It was a prototypical Southern California day, beautiful to the point you barely even notice, and I was probably busy thinking about Riff Raff's new album; like miner's lung, thinking about Riff Raff on your days off is an occupational hazard.

It was the noise that made me look up, one of those loud, shattering crunches that instantly turn off every other sound in your brain. I saw the light post wobble, then wobble again, then fall. Another shattering crunch.

I immediately pulled onto the side of the road, told everyone else to stay in the car, and took off sprinting. From fifty feet away it was clear the light post, one of those big concrete-encased ones with the street sign and lights, had crushed the small white car. The roof had caved in with almost no resistance, like dropping a rock on a napkin, and was now nearly resting on the dashboard. From ten feet away I could see a body half-slumped out of the car; big guy, blood spattered on his white t-shirt, grey Dickie shorts. I arrived at the car the same time as another guy - one of those guys who spin signs on the corner advertising gold for sale or a new condiminium. There was a brief, yelled discussion - "Should we touch him? Aren't you supposed to not touch them? There's smoke coming out of the hood, let's get him out. Watch his neck WATCH HIS NECK!" - and then we both grabbed his arms and dragged him into the parking lot.

As I had been sprinting towards the demolished car a small part of my brain had begun to prepare to see dead bodies, had already begun to pray there weren't any children in there, but the guy, while unconscious, looked shockingly ok, almost peaceful. It wasn't immediately obvious where the blood on his t-shirt was from. A small crowd gathered, the crowd grew. Someone checked to see if anyone else was in the car. No one. Someone emerged from the crowd with a towel, we put it under his head. He was breathing. I had my hand on his chest, telling him to just relax, stay still, an ambulance was on the way, just relax homie, don't move, you're alright, you're going to be alright. Someone else took his pulse and declared it was strong - I had no idea who they were and if they even knew how to take a pulse, but who was I? His pulse was strong. Good news.

Then, suddenly, his eyes rolled open. His left hand started twitching like a Parkinson's patient as he reached for his head, and with surprising force he started repeating "Call my mom, you gotta call my mom." That's when I realized my wife was behind me, had been standing behind me who knows how long. She already had her phone out and was asking him, "What's your mom's number? Do you know her phone number." He immediately responded with a phone number, my wife dialed, but before anyone on the other end could even pick up, he had passed back out. His hand stopped twitching. His pulse was still strong.

I could hear my wife began to talk to his mother, his name was George. No, wait, it wasn't the mother, it was his girlfriend. Murmurs of my wife saying "I don't know what happened, but were here with him, the fire department is coming..." and then, finally, the sound of sirens. Two firetrucks, an ambulance, the firefighters walk towards us with confidence, it really does feel like everything's going to be alright. I tell them he was in the car when I got there, we pulled him out to this spot, I guess he was the driver and somehow managed to almost get out the passenger side before he lost consciousness. The EMT nods, then bends down and starts putting a neck brace on him.

The firefighters tell everyone to back up, to clear the area, and I do. Now I'm just one more member of the milling crowd. The feeling isn't relief, not really. Or maybe I am relieved, my brain knows it should be relieved, but my adrenaline's so high I don't feel it. I see a fireman, tell him I was one of the first people there, does he need anything from me? No, I didn't see the accident, just came running when I heard it. In that case I'm free to go. I find my wife in the crowd, she's telling the girlfriend they're taking him to UCLA hospital, just go there, no, she doesn't know what happened, she wasn't in the car, she's just a bystander who happened to dial first when he said a phone number. She hangs up.

And that's it. That's all. Ten minutes ago I had my hand over a stranger's heartbeat, George's heartbeat, and now....back to the car. Onto the BBQ at Alicia's house that were were headed to before the accident, I guess, because what else is there to do? We tell my daughter a man had an accident, but now he's getting help and he'll be OK. Her auntie has been coloring with her in the back seat. She seems unphased. To a four-year-old having an accident, getting hurt, and then having an authority figure swoop in and make you feel better is common, unremarkable, happens every day.

I'm not quite sure why I'm writing this, and I know there will be more than a few people hitting me with "just stick to music" tweets and comments. Frankly, I don't care about you. I need to put this down for me, and I'm not even sure exactly why. Maybe it's because by making what happened that day a story, a plot, a sequence of events with causes and effects, it won't feel so random. It won't feel like the world is the kind of place so prone to random violence because, see, it wasn't random. This happened and then this happened and this is what it means and now it's not a thing that happened, it's just a story to tell.

Will that accident be one of those moments that, in retrospect, really ends up mattering? In a surge of consciousness, George not only wanted us to call his Mom, but remembered a phone number. It seems like there's some life lesson waiting for me hanging there, just waiting to be plucked and digested, but maybe not. Maybe that's just more of the human instinct to craft narrative, to assign deeper meaning to life when faced with the truly random nature of life, and death. Maybe in five years I'll barely remember that day and it will end up seeming narcissistic and overly dramatic that I wrote something like this.

Maybe. I don't know. All I do know is there was a crumpled car and blood and another human being I was almost shockingly close for a moment and will now never see again, may not even remember. And that's it. That's all.

[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth, the proprietor of RefinedHype, and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]

Written by on 06/9/14

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