Struck: A Neighborhood Accident Reveals the Flip-Side of Rubber-Necking
I walked out of my apartment the other day to find about seventy people gathered on my corner and spilling into the street. They surrounded a black gypsy cab that had run onto the sidewalk and hit up against a stone building, which up until a few months ago had housed a Starbucks. According to several breathless eye-witness accounts, the black cab had swerved off the road to avoid a yellow cab that had run a red light, and a woman who had been walking on the sidewalk had been struck by the black car and was lying somewhere between the car and the building.
Within minutes three police cars arrived, then two large fire trucks, and an ambulance, and dozens of uniformed help swarmed the scene. I didn’t get close enough to see the woman trapped beneath the car – I didn’t want to crowd her, and I also wasn’t sure I was ready to see how gory or bleak the situation might be. There was no screaming and no blood oozing down the sidewalk, which I took as a good sign, and the faces of bystanders gazing down at her seemed more troubled and concerned than horrified or frightened. The drivers and passengers of the cabs seemed unharmed, they hovered anxiously around their vehicles, phones to ears, hands on hips, talking to police men when they were forced to, otherwise waving people away.
After about thirty minutes, the paramedics hoisted a small middle-aged woman strapped to a stretcher over the hood of the car. The crowd stilled, hushed and cleared a path to the open ambulance doors. She wore a light blue fleece and black running pants. I watched her hand clutch the guard rails as the EMTS carried her through the crowd and towards the idling ambulance. I saw her reach up and touch her forehead.
When the woman was loaded inside, people turned to each other and began comparing stories of what they had seen and heard, and discussing other accidents and near-misses they’d seen or been part of. The bizarre thing was, once the ambulance doors were closed, the gathering had the feel of a block party. It was seven o’clock on a beautiful May evening and all the neighborhood regulars were there – the doormen who stand out in the street and smile and nod when I pass by, the Thai ladies from the dry cleaners who like to ask me about my love life, the Chinese food delivery men who are always chaining and unchaining their bikes outside, the orthodox Jews who run the copy center and UPS store, it felt like an episode of sesame street.
Except that one woman in the crowd kept repeating, “It could have been any of us, any of us could have been walking there.” And a red-headed teenaged girl excitedly retold the story to anyone who paused while passing by. I began to rant about how horrendously recklessly the cabs in this city drive, how every time I take one we seem to narrowly avoid hitting numerous pedestrians, bike riders, city buses and other cars. A small group of us speculated about the insurance policies taxi companies must hold in order for their drivers to seem so legally and financially comfortable with the prospect of hitting someone or something. A friend in the crowd who had recently returned from India said he saw these types of accidents, and much worse, almost everyday. But when accidents happened there was often no help on its way.
The ambulance didn’t take off for ten minutes, and when it did it drove away slowly, which we reasoned was reassuring – if she was in critical condition wouldn’t they have flashed their lights, sounded the siren, and torn off? That this crowd of people had gathered and stayed could be an example of rubber necking, where people just can’t resist a good crash, but I was hoping it was more than that, that others in the crowd like me wanted to stick around to make sure this woman got to the ambulance ok, and to be there in case there was anything useful I could do. I didn’t live in New York during the 2003 blackout, or on 9/11, but I imagine this was a small example of the feeling of community and helpfulness that people talked about for months after. Though I was getting later by the moment for the friend I was supposed to meet, I couldn’t seem to leave the scene without knowing for sure that the ambulance would soon drive the woman to the hospital, or while the people of my neighborhood, the daily minor characters of my life, were stopped here in their evening routines, together.
Since I was a child I have struggled with occasional bouts of anxiety, which lately have taken the form of an irrational fear of fainting when no one is around to help me. When I feel an anxious dizziness start to gather in my head, I have taken great comfort in telling myself that someone will always be close by in this city – there is almost nowhere I can go where I would be alone whether a dizzy spell comes on the street, in Central Park, or at the store. I don’t know how the woman felt, surrounded by close to a hundred people while under extreme physical and emotional duress, but there seemed to be something terribly safe and comforting about all these people witnessing and waiting with her and wanting to help. The clogged arteries of the city can be infuriating when riding a bike, or running, or trying to move quickly through any long line, but in situations like these, when we’re flat on our backs and in need of help, it can be a comfort to know that there will always be others nearby, hopefully good and honest others, to dial 9-1-1, to stay until the ambulance arrives, to bring a cup of water, to check a pulse.
No one is alone here, whether they like it or not.
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