They say you never forget your first time, and I’ll certainly never forget mine.
Not anytime soon, at least. After all, it happened just three weeks ago.
I speak, of course, of my first car crash. And, with it, my first police report, my first insurance claim, my first insurance premium hike and, finally, my first brand new car.
It began on a Monday morning. Of course it was a Monday morning. My hometown Red Sox had won the World Series the night before, so the steady rain that was falling could’ve been taken as tears of joy from the heavens above. For me in my Mazda at 8:30 a.m., however, it was just rain. And the wet roads and low visibility probably didn’t help as I approached the intersection of Eliot and Prospect Streets, coming to a stop at the blinking red light. At least I think I stopped. Maybe I just slowed. To be honest, I don’t remember. But I definitely looked both ways. By “definitely” I mean “probably.” And by “probably” I mean “might have.”
In any event, I proceeded into the intersection—as one does—and only when I was halfway through it did I notice the white van coming straight at me from my right. The van wasn’t slowing down. Why should it? The vehicles on that street had a blinking yellow light and, thus, the right of way. Presumably, upon seeing me blundering into his space, the driver slammed on the brakes as best he could. I couldn’t say for sure. In that moment, all that really concerned me was getting to the other side of the intersection. To that end, I pressed harder on the gas, hoping against hope it would be enough to avoid a collision.
The van slammed into my rear passenger side. This, in turn, pushed my car into a BMW that was minding its own business in the next lane. The force of this one-two punch caused my vehicle’s side airbags to deploy, my glasses to fly off and bend wildly out of shape, and my ice coffee to splatter in every direction. I attempted to steer as far to the side of the road as possible, but the pedals no longer worked.
I climbed out the passenger side door—partly to avoid incoming traffic, and partly because my own door wouldn’t open. The driver of the van was apparently fine—as I approached him on the corner, all he said was, “You ran a red light, man.” In fact, I believe he said it twice. As someone who avoids verbal confrontation at all costs—and who assumes, as a general rule, that everything is my fault—I said nothing in response. (The man in the BMW was fine, too.)
As a small battalion of police vehicles arrived and an officer examined our licenses for his report, I began to rummage through my car’s front seat for essentials—backup pair of glasses, phone, umbrella—in much the same way Lorraine Bracco rummaged through her dresser drawers for bags of coke in the final moments of GoodFellas. I may not have been headed to jail like her, but the sudden, awful rush of adrenaline was hardly any less acute.
It was only then that I noticed all the broken glass in the backseat—sad remnants of what used to be the rear window panes. With that came the emergence of two rather disconcerting thoughts. First, that had there been passengers back there instead of an ice scraper and a roll of paper towels, the seat would likely be splattered with an uncomfortably large amount of blood. And second, that had I slammed on the brakes instead of the gas upon seeing the white van, the point of impact would’ve likely been the front seat instead of the back, and the splattered blood would’ve belonged to me.
Or perhaps not. Maybe the airbags would’ve done their duty and blunted most of the carnage inside the vehicle. Happily, I will never know for sure.
What I do know is that I totaled my car—and moderately dinged two others—because of a stupid, careless decision I had every reason not to make. I know that roughly 37,000 people die from car crashes in the U.S. every year, and that it will only take one more such decision for that tally to include me. I am reminded—rather chillingly—of the moment in Citizen Kane when Kane manages to destroy his career and marriage in one fell swoop and is told by his chief adversary, “You’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”
For me, hopefully one lesson will be enough. Considering the damage to my vehicle—I believe the clinical term is “dead as a doornail”—it’s certainly something close to a miracle that I managed to walk away with nothing more than a slightly stiff lower back (since healed) and a general but fleeting sense of having failed as a human being. Wouldn’t it be nice if this incident constitutes the worst thing that will ever happen to me—or anyone—behind the wheel of a car? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if cars could drive themselves? Someone really oughta work on that.
In the meantime, I now have a brand-new Subaru to get me where I need to go. Unlike the Mazda, it includes all-wheel drive and an array of safety features specifically designed to protect me from myself—as they surely will a dozen times per day. I triumphantly drove it off the lot mere hours after attending the Red Sox victory parade in downtown Boston. Partly for that reason, I decided to name it Mookie. I think it has a nice ring to it.