Going Like Ten

The following tale involves no loss of life nor even serious injury. Knowing that should provide some relief as you learn I am about to tell you, from personal experience, what it is like to strike a pedestrian with a moving cargo van. Fortunately, the impression made on my mind was deeper than the one made on my front fender, which as you will learn, was really no dent at all.

It went something like this…

At impact minus six hours I was in the freight hanger of Eastern Airlines at New York’s LaGuardia. (Eastern was still around in 1984, on its death bed, but still around.) I was financing my college education by darting about convention cities, staging ooh-and-ahh multi-projector slide shows that were standard fare at larger business meetings of the day. I missed a good number of classes doing this, but the decent pay took care of decent tuition bills quite nicely. And let me admit it, back in those days I considered formal education just a punch on my ticket, nothing of particular value in its own right. Employment was the thing.

Each slide show required a dozen or more hefty cases of audiovisual gear which flew beneath me as, ahem, “excess baggage.” At fifty bucks a case, my excess baggage charge should have well-exceeded the cost of my ticket. But I was well-instructed by my employer that just a hundred bucks into the palm of a skycap could get any mountain of cases into the belly of an airplane.

Occasionally, no matter who I paid or paid off, I would arrive at my destination with no more than my excess bag of salted peanuts. Luggage does get lost, as I learned was the fate of mine on our flight from Miami. No biggie. It usually showed up on a later flight or at a freight hangar. That was the leading theory this time, so after picking up my rented cargo van I went to Eastern’s hanger.

Freight hangars aren’t set up for greeting customers. You won’t find attendants behind Formica counters and sometimes have to wander around a bit just to find anyone at all. I strolled around like I owned this place, confident I would find my projectors and dissolve units and screens and what not, drive it into Manhattan and have it set up in time for a 7:00 a.m. preview for the client footing the hefty bill for all this razzle-dazzle. I would even get five or six hours of sleep, five or six more than I sometimes got. I flagged down a freight-handler on a fork lift. “You got anything for a Michael Durbin?” “You got an airbill number?” “No” “Then I got nothing for a Michael Durbin.”

That’s when my optimism began its gradual descent into hopelessness. My stuff wasn’t there. Maybe it was on the next flight from Miami. I waited for it. Then the next one. Then the next one. In the mean times I made numerous non-productive phone calls, wandered the hangar, and nearly emptied the lone vending machine of its “Superior Coffee.” Superior? I pray it was only the abuse of an adjective for an advertising quickie, that no one on earth was plinking quarters for something inferior. Certainly it would kill upon ingestion.

Around midnight the evening’s last flight arrives from Miami without my stuff. I’m screwed. There will be no run-through with client in seven hours and possibly no show at all. And I’m the only one who knows. I’ve tried all night to reach Larry, the producer of the show, but he’s not yet arrived. Nothing to do now but drive my empty van to the Hilton on Sixth Avenue where I’ve got a room.

I make my way from La Guardia to the Triborough Bridge. Ever appreciative of silver linings, I notice how much faster traffic is moving than it would be had I departed during the evening rush as planned. From the bridge I head south on FDR Drive along the East River. I’m at 125th Street. Traffic is still flying, with wind blowing through my open window and through my hair. Not bad for a drive in the big city.

At 108th Street I spot a man crossing the road up ahead. Out of context that might not sound like much, even, dare I say, pedestrian? But this pedestrian was stepping into a thick stream of vehicles going like fifty and sixty. His staggering indicated intoxication, but he did appear to be waiting for breaks before darting into a lane, so he couldn’t be totally trashed. He was between lanes now, needing to cross only the leftmost lane, my lane, before making it to the median. It appeared he would wait for me to pass before crossing. My right foot is raised, midway between the gas pedal and the brake, waiting for instruction from the front office. After a quick look in the rearview I send it to the brake.

At some point during the ensuing deceleration my eyes told me something incredible: He was going for it. And just as the seat belt shoulder strap was claiming victory over my resisting torso, my eyes told me something even more incredible: He wasn’t going to make it.

I can’t say which is worse, the sound or the sight. Driving a vehicle, one isn’t accustomed to seeing a body just in front of your moving bumper, so when you do it seems larger than it really is. To me, in a van with only a foot or two between windshield and bumper, my vision tunneling, this looming body seemed only slightly smaller than a balloon float in a Macy’s parade. And there was only one thing to hear, another sensation never expected, the sickening thud of impact, followed by a soft but earnest “Uhh!” as inertia and gravity conspired to put that body to the pavement like a paper clip to a junkyard magnet.

I had scant control over my whereabouts the next few minutes. My muscles were at the mercy of rushing adrenalin, disorientation, and barely controlled panic. Seconds after impact I am bent over the man on the pavement. Through eyes bolted open I take in the scene like a vacuum: His eyes are closed, skin black, clothes rags, movement non-existient. By reflex I ask, “Are you okay?” “Uhhghh…” He’s alive! But not for long if my van gets rear-ended.

I run to the back of the van, arms flailing wildly, trying to both steer away cars and flag one down for help. Immediately a nice Volvo filled with nicely dressed people slows nearly to a stop, its window descending. “Get out of the fucking road!” is all they care to contribute, as if I were hosting a tailgate party and offering coldcut sandwiches to passersby. The nice Volvo filled with nicely dressed people revs back into traffic and disappears.

I spot a man and his dog off the shoulder and dart across traffic to get to him. “Is that guy dead?” he asks. “No,” I yell back. “Would you call 911?” “Tried already but the payphone over there’s all busted up.” I dash back to the front of the van. “I’m trying to get some help!” “Uhhgh…”. Back to the back to wave at cars and plea for help. It occurs to me I am at risk of getting run down myself. I consider pulling the man off the road when finally—after a near eternity of sixty or ninety seconds—the flashing lights of a police car bring illumination to my dismal scene.

The two male cops pretty much ignore me as they stroll, in no particular hurry, from the squad car to the man on the pavement. “Can you move your legs?” one asks. The supine man responds but I only catch a few words. “…hit me… … don’t want…” The cop interprets for me – “I think he wants to sue you!” and laughs with his partner. The levity jars me and I snap in defense, “I was only going like ten! I was trying to stop and barely hit the guy!” My whining only adds to their amusement.

A paramedic, a hefty woman lugging a plastic case in each arm, emerges from the ambulance now on the scene. One of the cops greets her with a playful “Hell-ooo Baaa-bra!” Barbara crouches down to examine the man on the pavement. “What’s up with this guy?” she asks. “This guy,” says the cop, gesturing to me “is going like five M-P-H when this guy,” gesturing to the man on the pavement “makes a run for it. Barely gets touched. Ask me he’s tired of sleeping on cardboard and wants a hospital bed for the night.”

Five miles-per-hour? Didn’t I just tell him ten? Another paramedic joins us. “What’s up, Barby?” “Got a wino shopping for a hospital bed. The van was stopped already. Guy jumps out and lays down like this. He’s okay.”

Stopped already? I am struck by the ease with which they progressively reshape the truth of what happened to something else, to suit some purpose unknown to this out-of-place college kid. My event of a lifetime (touch wood) is no doubt a nightly one for these folks. They have an agenda. Now it’s my agenda, too.

No one objects when the man insists on going to the hospital. “We gotta take him and you gotta come with us,” they tell me. Back in the van, I dutifully tail the police car as instructed, relieved that the situation is now under the control of others. Wending through the upper East Side I shed the robes of panic as I realize the man probably is not badly hurt. But then, what if my van had been full of gear? Jesus! I would have hit him with far more velocity and likely killed him. But then, I would have crossed his path hours before he got there, so no need to consider that scenario. The mental contortions continue until I arrive at Metropolitan Hospital.

I follow the cops through the ER. Nothing here I didn’t expect to see, except blood on the floor not in pools but piles, like dollops of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry flung from a spoon. We go past gurneys of people in various states of injury. The face of the first is puffy and scratched, glistening with some ointment or another, too freshly battered for bruising to have set in. For the cops it is the source of more playful banter. “Hope that guy lost his fight.” “Why’s that?” “’cause if he won I’d hate to see the face of the other guy!” It’s not even funny but they get a good laugh out of it. I make a point of not looking into any more of these faces. Not out of squeamishness but respect for their dignity, of which they currently have so little, lined up in this corridor, their traumatized bodies reduced to material for comedian cops.

The ER attendants are having a small argument as we reach our man from FDR Drive. Seems neither wants to search his tattered bag for identification. “I found lice spray in there – now you take a turn…” The cops take over the search. They find some clothes, a half-bottle of Thunderbird spiked wine, and a soup kitchen meal ticket with a name: Philip Jackson. The ER attendants are telling Mr. Jackson he’s okay, that he doesn’t seem to be injured. He demands a room. They offer a gurney “but only till morning.” He smiles in satisfaction as they wheel him to a space along the corridor wall.

The cops send me to a vacant room off the ER. It’s small and windowless, barely illuminated by a dying fluorescent tube, blinking for attention it apparently never gets. I provide information for the police report which they write out in longhand. I use the phone to reach producer Larry, who has now checked in and promptly freaks out when he hears I hit a pedestrian. I tell him the whole story but he’s still freaked out when I lie and tell him I have to hang up. Adrenalin can no longer fend off fatigue and I’m now very tired. I stick around to give the hospital information for their report, but they’re kind of busy so I have to wait awhile for that.

It’s past four in the morning when I approach the empty registration desk at the Hilton. I’ve no energy left. I’m very sleepy, and depressed that I’ll hardly get an hour of rest before crisis uno again demands my attention. “We’re sorry, Mr. Durbin but we gave your room away. We didn’t think you were coming.” Exhaustion has slowed my response time considerably so I just keep looking in the guy’s face as if he is still mid-sentence. The pause makes him uncomfortable, compelling him to say something. “I can give you a suite in the Towers but you’ll have to move to a regular room for your second night.”

The first thing I notice is the jade. The front room of my suite is decorated with jade statues and something tells me these aren’t fake. The whole friggin place has a combination of comfort and very high class that must go for fifteen hundred a night. It has a bar from which I extract an ice-cold bottle of German beer, a bathroom larger than the living room of my Rogers Park apartment back in Chicago, a bedroom with deep-pile carpet that smells brand new. With each of my senses now delighted, I leave a wake-up call for six a.m. and drop into bed, too tired to care that it’s now almost five.

To everyone else in that hotel the next little happenstance must wreak havoc, but for me it’s an unequivocally excellent splash of serendipity. The hotel phones go on the fritz. Blissfully enslumbered, I miss the wakeup call that never comes. It’s after eight when I am roused by knocking on the door of my suite’s anteroom some twenty or thirty feet from my bed. It’s producer Larry, who has already told the client what happened the night before, omitting just that tiny part involving vehicular supination of a homeless man crossing the highway. He’s also tracked down our gear which never left Miami last night but is now on its way. We spend the rest of the day fetching it and setting it up in the ballroom, and the evening’s show goes on without a hint of a hitch.

So what was my lesson from this out-of-classroom learning experience? Nothing profound, I must admit, although it is one experience I shall never forget. I do think I am entitled to some credit, which I will take, thank you very much, for stopping to help the guy. Some other jerk might have fled the scene and let the jerks in the Volvo turn Mr. Jackson into Manhattan road kill. So maybe he’s lucky it was I who nearly bumped him off, who in the end actually helped upgrade his sleeping arrangements from an oily piece of cardboard to a hospital gurney with clean white sheets. Nah. The luckier one was me. I got a suite.