Driving alone down a heavily-trafficked two-way street in Queens, approaching its busiest intersection in the fire-truck red Ford Focus my ex-wife picked out for us, I spy a tantalizingly rare parking spot on the boulevard. Across foreboding double yellow lines, the spot is mere steps from my final destination – the bank.
Growing up, I’d watch drivers in my father’s sights try to pull off a three-point turn on this very road, hearing him mumble in an old-school-as-fuck accent, “He’s got a lotta balls.” My father would point out that the traffic light ahead of us was green, and the well endowed man – who from our obscured vantage point could very well have been a woman – was holding everybody up, disregarding drawn-out horns and essentially giving the world the finger.
But today, the light is red, so a quick U-turn here would be a victimless break of road ethics. I decide to go the way of my just-flicked left blinker, and begin a race for the space.
This visit to the bank will help me inch a little closer to the top of the debt hole I’ve been swallowed up in after moving back to my hometown, a freshly divorced 28-year-old, ten months ago. My ex procured her “dream job” in Los Angeles a little more than two years ago, prompting our migration west. Too young and, really, not too in love, we’d briefly bonded together in our new city. But before long the fights began again, just as they’d unfolded back in New York: screaming, decorative knick-knacks shattering against the wall, and sobbing retreats into the bedroom or bathtub.
At some point during my eighteen-month stay in L.A., my New York teaching license had expired, and upon my return I was relegated to a substitute job. I was netting $519 a week with no health insurance, and I’d accrued thousands in debt upon my cross-country trek home. There wasn’t room to live with my parents and younger siblings for free, and because I had a foggy work future, I was reluctant to sell my still-financed car. Virtually all of my pay was going toward bills – credit cards, student loans, rent, cell phone, car payments and insurance, not to mention gas to get me to work. I wasn’t making enough to cover it all. I couldn’t afford groceries, eating humiliating dinners at my parents’ place most nights. If I absolutely needed to buy something, well, that’s why there are credit cards, which have recently been maxed-out.
Back in the Ford Focus, I happily observe that no cars are approaching in the parallel lane; however, that could change in an instant if anyone in the two intersecting lanes ahead of me makes a left or a right. I start my three-point turn. I have to move quickly.
The first sign that I’ve rammed the driver-side door of an empty parked car directly in front of me during the first stage of the three-point turn doesn’t come from the slight toss of my butt in the air as my car comes to a sudden halt. I’m in such disbelief I’ve goofed so badly that I don’t even feel it. Instead, now facing the sidewalk, I notice the startled head twist of a yelping woman and the look of shock on the face of a spikey-haired man who also throws up his hands in horror and yells, “Holy shit dude, you just plowed into this guy’s car!” (Apparently every car owner in New York is, by default, a man.)
Recovering from momentary paralysis, I finish off the U-turn, extra careful not to back my bumper into the car behind me, à la Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.” Then, I execute a flawless parallel park into my sought-after space, impressing no one.
Even before I became a licensed driver, I knew how to appropriately handle such a situation. Observing a minor collision when I was about ten, I asked my father what papers the guys – definitely men that time – were handing each other as we drove by.
“They’re exchangin’ their infamashun,” he said.
“Insurance cahds, so that the insurance companies pay fuh the damage. If you evuh hit someone’s cah and they’re not in it, you write down yuh infamashun on a piece a paper and leave it on the windshield.”
Enraged at myself for actually crashing headfirst into a parked car, I turn off the gas. I grab my bankbook and a pen, make sure the street is safe, and without peeking at the car I smacked into, walk to the front of my own to assess the damage.
Somehow, there isn’t any, and I take two steps on the sidewalk in the direction of the empty car I hit.
“Dude you have to leave your information,” says the spikey-haired man as he walks past me, continuing down the block.
With a chippy edge I say, “Yeah I know.”
I have every intention of doing just that: ripping off a page from my bankbook and scribbling down my “infamashun.”
But with each pace I think about my cellphone getting cut off, missing rent, my bare refrigerator, and past-due payments.
The woman who yelped is gone. The spikey-haired guy is out of sight. No one is paying any attention to me.
Before I know it, I’ve walked past the car I hit, not looking, and gone into the bank.
I deposit this week’s pay at the teller’s window and walk along the same cheerful, sunny sidewalk toward a future with no additional financial burden.
I will never know how badly I fucked up that guy’s car.
Sometimes, I watch news reports of robberies in impoverished neighborhoods and think about my actions that day – a singular moment when I was motivated by complete desperation. I’ve thankfully never felt such pangs since, and I shudder at the thought of their return. I’m financially stable now, and by most accounts a decent, responsible guy, but that moment sticks in my mind and makes me wonder: what other lengths could I travel, what harm could I inflict on another to ensure a bit of personal security, if only for a brief stretch?