October 19, 2019

I’m grateful for life’s little bumps

We all know it's bound to happen, sooner or later. Spend any time on the road in South Florida and no matter how “safe” and “defensive” a driver you are, you’re bound to get into an accident.

My turn came while turning from one three-lane highway into another in North Miami Beach (traffic congested, as usual, and an area I rarely visit). Without warning, and with little room to maneuver, I suddenly found the front end of my car sitting on railroad tracks. I looked behind me, saw a bit of space, and hastily proceeded to back up. There was a honk. I slammed on my brakes. You can imagine the rest. It was too late; my car's rear end had bumped into the front of the car behind.

I’ll never know if I'd backed up too far . . . or the car behind me had pulled up too soon . . . or the car behind them had edged forward—impeding any corrective maneuvers. Or had I become so rattled at finding myself a sitting duck on the tracks that I simply neglected to “exercise proper caution”? Fortunately, it was just a light bump and, given that I drive a van with a big spare tire in back (that’s served as a bumper-cushion during dual-pull-outs in parking lots in the past), I hoped for the best.

But this time, I was not so lucky. Traffic began to move, I made my turn over the tracks, then saw the car behind me honk and stop. An irate young woman got out and began taking cellphone pictures of my license plate. I got out as well, apologized, and looked to see if there was any damage. Clearly there was: her car's low-profile hood had a dent.

The light was about to change and we were still at this major, across-the-tracks-now intersection. I didn't want to be the cause of an even bigger pile up by staying “at the scene of the crime,” so suggested she follow me to the Walgreens parking lot I'd spotted across the street. We could safely stop there and exchange information.

And that's what we did, parking in a shady, sparsely populated area near the highway. I thought I could simply hand over my vitals, including insurance contact (she already had photos of my car's plates) and then, depending on the repair cost, either pay it myself, or let my insurance company handle the charge. But she'd already called her husband, who insisted she wait for his arrival. He said he'd contacted the police as well, and so there we were. No easy breezy resolution.

I did learn that the problem wasn't with me, per se, but more like bad timing. All of this might have been avoided had she been driving her own van (likely high enough not to have been dented by my back tire). Also, if there had been damage, she would have been fine with letting me pay an “uninflated” repair charge from the reliable auto repair shop she frequented. Unfortunately, that's exactly where her vehicle was at the moment. This damaged car was a rented “loaner” and so subject to repair by the rental company. Her husband presumed (correctly, as it turned out) that our light traffic incident required an official police report.

And so we waited. And waited. We waited for her husband to arrive from a business showcase in Fort Lauderdale . . . but we waited even longer for the cops. When the Aventura officer finally arrived, his first concern was with exactly where the accident had taken place. I provided an honest answer—several times in fact, wondering why he was so hung up on whether it occurred before or after I'd crossed the tracks. I thought this was rather obvious. I'd only backed up because I found myself on part of the tracks and about to cross them. If I'd made it over, there would have been no reason to reverse and hence no crash (erm, “little bump”).

But his concern with the details soon became clear when he informed us, rather sheepishly, that although we were now parked in “Aventura,” the accident had happened across the tracks, and so within Miami-Dade jurisdiction. In other words, “not his job” to write up the report. But not to worry, he'd placed a call to the correct authority and a Miami officer was on his way. He then urged us to collect our licenses, registration and insurance papers so we'd be all set for his imminent arrival. We stood waiting, documents in hand now, once more. As did the Aventura officer (have no idea why) in his police car alongside us. We all waited. And waited some more.

So what do two women do who are stuck waiting, together, with all this time on their hands? Despite the age difference (she was a svelte 34-year-old who looked 24 and I'm almost three decades older), what we do is chat. We were both inconvenienced, but not enemies. I acknowledged my error—being new to the area, and Miami driving in general. She accepted that “accidents happen,” and added that as she does an awful lot of driving, knew it would one day happen to her. Then she said something wonderful: “In a way, I'm actually grateful that if it was going to happen, it was just a little bump.” I'd been accident-free for some ten years, and totally agreed.

Nevertheless, I was truly shaken when some time after our stopping at the Walgreens lot, she leaned into her car to offer snacks to her kids. I'd had no idea there were two cute, and extremely well-behaved, preschoolers sitting in car seats in back. I felt terrible that they were stuck waiting as well, and eternally grateful they hadn't been hurt. Nor had my disabled husband (who with his sternum-free chest might have been killed had an airbag deployed), who insisted on riding in front. She let her kids munch on as much junk food as they wanted (there are good times for this), even offering me some treats (no need, we'd just come from seeing a play complete with coffee-and-cake reception). I settled my husband in with some unread newspapers I keep in the back seat, just for this type of wait-time emergency.

With our charges seen to, we two women hung out together in the pleasant winter-in-Florida weather and shared the stories of our lives. Ironically, we'd both been driving from the same location: the Jewish Community Center of North Miami Beach. My husband and I had been there to review a play called My Name is Asher Lev based on the best-selling novel by Chaim Potok. She had just picked up her brood from their pre-school on the same campus. I mentioned how some 20 years earlier, I'd sent my daughter to a Jewish preschool and then Hebrew classes, but the language lessons hadn't stuck. This young mother said she and her husband (both South American immigrants) spoke Spanish at home to their children. Yet despite their best efforts, the kids were already losing their Spanish, and spoke it with an American accent. We compared notes about work, about raising children in South Florida, and I told her how lucky she was to have family in the area (her in-laws eventually arrived to retrieve the grandchildren).

Our wait for first one, and then the second, police officer took far longer than anticipated and after a couple of hours, she acknowledged that her many plans for the evening were now, effectively, canceled. As it was already past 5 and I'd been scheduled to read an essay (as part of a Virginia Woolf-inspired contest) at an art gallery in Fort Lauderdale at 6 p.m., I began to doubt I'd make it. (The gallery's program ran late and I did get there in time . . . just as I'd barely made it, earlier, to the JCC play after getting lost and misguided by both Google Maps and MapQuest.) So, despite all the foul ups and delays, in the end, I somehow miraculously managed to meet my day's obligations.

Later that night, as I lay awake ruminating on how to make sure to never repeat this type of driving mistake (I tend to obsess over what might have been), I also couldn't help but feel eternally grateful that what had happened was, as my new young friend said, “just a little bump” in life. The play we'd seen that afternoon revolved around turning points—religion vs. art, and what the Orthodox considered the work of the Almighty vs. the pull of the impure “other side.” I must confess there were parties, who shall remain nameless, who later informed me that the unspoken rule following an accident is to always “admit nothing,” particularly when speaking with the police. That the “correct” Southern-style action would have been to go so far as to suggest that since the damaged car was behind mine, its driver was naturally to blame for crashing into me . . . and not the other way around. It was logical. There were no witnesses. Who would say otherwise? But I knew better: It was my car that had backed up first, and so was likely more at fault.

The other driver had been understanding and sweet. I felt she'd handled herself exceptionally well—especially given the fact that she had two young children strapped in their car seats for quite some time. She introduced me to the little munchkins; I smiled and asked the typical questions regarding their names and age. Both mother and kids remained calm and well behaved throughout (more than proving the efficacy of being a good role model). I don't know if years back—if I'd been stuck waiting in a parking lot this long with my preschooler—I'd have had the wherewithal to respond to the situation with such grace and aplomb.

During our time waiting for the cops we had agreed: “accidents happen.” In Broward County, where I live, a “no fault” report would have been possible. But the way the Miami-Dade officer who finally arrived at the scene explained it (very apologetically, I must add)—he even suggested that given my safe driving record, I argue my case in court as the judge would most likely throw it out—he was required to issue a citation to someone. And that someone was me. If $179 is the only price I must pay for a brief lapse in spatial judgment, and a clear conscience, I do so gladly. In fact, I'm grateful for the little bumps in life that come to jolt us out of complacence. They serve to remind us how much can be lost in an instant. How we should always treasure the clear sailing of an ordinary day.

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

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