Last night, I briefly became my brother.
Or rather, a lamer, non-medically trained version of my brother.
The day started out scarily, as a car accident happened right in front of me on the freeway on my way to work. I was driving in the second lane from the left, when, about 3 cars in front of me, I saw a white Mercedes careening sidways across all 4 lanes of traffic. Luckily, I had enough of a cushion in front and in back that I could brake safely, and luckily for me, the momentum of the accident took the Mercedes away from my lane and into the right guardrail, dragging 3 other cars with it. Cars in the right lanes started pulling over, probably because they got clipped or bumped, but on my side, everyone proceeded slowly on their way.
Then, on the way home from work, I got stuck in a giant commuter clusterfuck as a 6 car accident took up every lane of that same freeway except the HOV lane, and all the traffic had to squeeze through that one lane to continue on their way.
It was just one of those days in LA. Somedays, on the freeways, you can almost smell a recklessness in the air. Minivans, usually the most predictable of vehicles, suddenly zip past you doing 90 in the slow lane. 20 year-old Chevy Malibus weave in between the other cars at high speeds with mere inches to spare, severely testing the limits of American economy car engineering. On those days I turn down the radio, grip the wheel and stay alert. And it’s saved me from a freeway shoulder tow-truck party more than once.
Then later that same night, I went to a party at a girlfriend’s house, and as I was driving home at about 11pm, it began to rain. Not heavily, but it doesn’t take much rain to confound an LA driver. Generally, LA drivers are not accustomed to “weather,” and if you’re driving in LA when there is actual weather happening, best to stay on your toes, because people tend to freak the fuck out. My entrance ramp onto the 110S featured a stop sign, and as I accelerated from 0 to freeway speed, my car fishtailed just a little.
The road was slick. But it was also deserted. Without other vehicular lunkheads to over- or under-react to conditions, I figured I would get home without incident.
A couple of minutes later, I was merging onto the 5N via a long, two-lane ramp that curved to the left. I was aware that there was another car some distance in front of me, but I could no longer see the car because of the curve of the ramp.
Suddenly, there was that car in front of me, stopped dead in my lane, lying on its side with its hood facing the left lane, and its undercarriage facing the guardrail. It was about a thirty foot drop on the other side of that guardrail to the freeway below.
“Really?” I remember thinking, “Really?”
I managed to stop my car about 15 feet behind the wreck, and I threw on my hazards. I yanked my cell phone off the charger that I had fortuitously not forgotten that evening, and dialed 911 as I ran toward the car.
As I approached, I could see sneakers poking out the driver’s side window. A woman was trying to escape out the broken window by pushing her feet through the four-inch opening between the window frame and the pavement. “Why is she going that way?” I thought. Go out the top. Go out the passenger side door, which as far as I could see was undamaged.
As I got along side it, I could tell the car wasn’t running anymore, and I could see the woman through the unbroken glass of her sunroof. No blood. She seemed alert, if scared. “Are you injured?” I yelled at her through the glass. She thought for a moment and shook her head. I wasn’t sure she understood me. She kept trying to jam her feet out that small opening. It made no sense, but I figured she wasn’t thinking clearly.
Just then, a large pickup truck came barreling down the ramp. I waved my arms and the got the guy to pull over in front of the scene. He was a young hipster dude, and he looked very freaked out. “Watch for cars,” I said.
I reached up to the passenger side door on what was now the top of the vehicle and pulled the handle. Locked. “Can you unlock this door?” I yelled. She didn’t seem to get it. I repeated myself slowly. She shook her head. “Are you hurt?” I asked again. “I’m okay,” she said, and I thought, okay, she can speak, and she seems like she understands me. That’s a good sign.
In the next few minutes two more cars stopped and there were 4 more young men on the scene. None of us could figure out why she could not unlock her passenger door. A couple of guys started rocking the car back and forth, gently, figuring they would set it back down on its wheels. “No!” I said. “Do not mess with the car. Let the fire department free her.”
Unless the car catches on fire, I thought.
“We need to check and see if there is a fuel leak,” I said. I was kicking myself for not thinking of that right off the bat. Several of us moved to the underside of the car, but it was raining – no way to tell if it was leaking gasoline. Then one of the dudes pulled my sleeve and said “This is the gas tank here.” He was running his hands along the sides of what indeed looked like the tank. He peered around the sides of it. “It’s intact,” he said. Whew. “Still,” I said, “we should keep working on getting that passenger door open in case we do have to pull her out fast.”
A couple of the guys were talking to the woman and telling her she was going to go to the hospital, and she should call someone. She was curled up in a ball against the back of her seat, and although she managed to locate her cell phone and make the call, she couldn’t or wouldn’t stand and try to unlock that door for us.
I noticed that the guy on the ramp watching for cars was not doing a super job of getting them to slow down, and I started directing them too, jumping up and down and waving my arms, and then motioning them by once they had gotten into the open lane and slowed sufficiently so that they could safely pass. I thought about how to free the woman. I thought about breaking her passenger window, but that would rain glass down on her, and suddenly, oh look, there’s the Highway Patrol.
Two very young and intense highway patrolmen blocked the open lane of the ramp with their car and got the lowdown from me as they approached the scene. The first words out of my mouth were “a woman is trapped,” and that really kicked them into high gear. After a few minutes, one motorist tried to sneak by the scene in his car after being told by the officers to stop and they really let him have it. They made him roll down his window so they could yell at him up close and personal-like.
Then, I saw two large LAFD trucks lumbering onto the ramp. I realized that since the CHP car and the back-up of traffic on the ramp was preventing the fire department truck from reaching the scene, I moved my car further down the ramp past all the vehicles so that they could get by. Then I walked back to the scene. No cars were being allowed through anymore. Slowly, as the fire department worked on freeing her, my fellow Samaritans drifted away. I was standing by myself again, watching the trapped woman continue to talk on her cellphone. No longer being a part of the scene, the rescue, and watching her through that bubble of sunroof glass as others bustled around her, it struck me that she looked sort of comical. A little LA native in her track suit and sneakers, talking excitedly on her cell, staring out at us like a fish in some kind of broke-down
“Officer,” I said, “you don’t need me here, do you?”
He turned and looked at me. It took him a second to recognize that I was the same woman who met them when they first arrived on scene.
“Oh, no,” he said, and then he turned back to his work.
“Okay,” I said.
He turned back toward me again, smiling a kind of nice but official-looking smile.
“Thanks for stopping,” he said. He meant it.
I smiled back and nodded. “My brother was an EMT,” I said, more because my brother, and what he would do in that situation, had been in the forefront of my mind that whole time, rather than because I thought it was something the patrolman needed to know.
It was going to take awhile for the whole rescue thing to play out. Meanwhile, I was wet. I hadn’t realized that my uncovered head had been getting steadily soaked the whole time. As I walked back to my car and started the engine, I laughed at the thought of all those motorists I had directed past the scene in my knee-high leather high-heeled boots and my knee-length leather trench coat.
They probably thought “what the fuck?” or maybe “only in LA”.
But would it affect them, I thought? Would they drive slower or more cautiously after that? And what about that motorist who tried to sneak by the road block? Had he learned his lesson, or would he go home and complain to his wife about some jerkoff cop?
And what about the woman in the car? What did she think about what had happened to her? Did she see it merely as the consequences of the confluence of wet road, cheap tires, and shitty compact car, or did she look at it as the hand of fate? Did she cross herself on the way to the hospital, or thank her lucky fucking stars she didn’t go over the guardrail? Did she know how close she came to buying it in those milliseconds of action? Jeez, you change one variable of that equation, that confluence, just a little bit -- you decrease the traction, increase the surface moisture, add another two months of wear on the treads, and instead of a befuddled victim you got a dead victim. I wonder if she’s thought about that yet. I wonder if she ever will.
Me, I was happy that the city had picked someone else to fuck with last night. I was happy that I wasn’t repaid for my sense of responsibility by having some dipshit plow into the back of my car while I was off playing Good Samaritan. They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and I guess I’m here to say that at least until this very moment, I’ve managed to beat those odds.