To Get Out of the Way
Julia Stoops / BlueMouseMonkey.com >>>
It’s been three cycles of the light at the intersection on N.E. Broadway. Police motorbikes, flashing lights, black boots and shiny helmet visors. Handsignals. A big black car pulls into the space they create, and its headlights face me across the intersection.
Great. The police are holding us up for a Famous Person.
Twenty years ago I commuted down the George Washington Parkway along the Virginia side of the Potomac, into Washington D.C. The drive took twenty minutes on Sundays but mostly it took an hour and a half. I’d sit in my lime green 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit in a miles-long line, a constipated snake trying to poop Northern Virginians into the Nation’s capital every morning. In an invisible cloud of exhaust, the snake stretched elegantly through the Parkway trees.
While I was at a standstill one morning, dull and sleepy and hating commuters, lights began to flash, tiny and silent in my rearview. We were a two-lane parking lot, yet the lights came closer. Ambulance. Emergency. Someone in trouble.
That leap of the heart that wants to do something, do anything, to affirm a connection with the anonymous travelers around me. The same ones I competed with every day to get five seconds ahead of into D.C. That leap of the heart to affirm a connection with the person in the ambulance, to affirm how much worse their plight was than mine, just chewing gas and going nowhere and once again late for class. My heart leapt to acknowledge the table-sweeping nature of crisis and injury and survival in the face of the banality of waiting in traffic. My heart leapt, my eyes got moist, and I wished I could sacrifice the five seconds gained when I cut in front of the car behind me. I’d sacrifice my day of classes, the critique that afternoon, the possibility of lunch with the guy I was becoming pretty sure wanted to have lunch with me. I’d sacrifice it all to get the person in the ambulance better, safer, faster. But all we have to offer in a crisis is to get out of the way.
Soon I could hear the sirens, wailing and pleading. Far behind me cars spread apart like a zipper, the two lanes splitting onto the Parkway shoulders, thousands of tires digging into the grass. The sirens grew louder, the flashing lights got bigger, and it wasn’t just one ambulance, there were several. Oh, it must have been a horrible accident. And they even had a motorcycle escort.
The motorcycles got close, but they moved in a puzzling stop-and-start way. The sirens grew to a cyclone, swamping the leap of my heart, splitting the snake in my rearview. The cars behind me pulled off the road at odd angles onto the grass. Confusion in the drivers’ faces. And then I saw it: in the little movie screen above my eyes, a motorcycle cop rammed his tire into the bumper of a car. The cop’s mouth was open, twisted, yelling. The car pulled onto the grass, but the cop’s face stayed brutal. Another cop rammed another car. I didn’t want to get rammed, I didn’t want to get yelled at. I pulled onto the grass. The sirens cracked the air and the cops passed me, slow enough to be jogging. Then a police car, red and blue lights flailing. Then, a long black shape. A limousine. Shiny windows. Fluttering flags on the hood. Another police car bringing up the rear.
A sirened motorcade passing you close enough to reach out and touch is like a freight train. In the maelstrom was a thought struggling to stand upright: It can’t be the president, he uses a helicopter for anything but trips around downtown. That was the last coherent thought I had.
Later I put together a theory that it was a member of the House of Saud. According to the news, a Saudi dignitary was in town, and a Saudi Prince lived in my McLean neighborhood, so I figured the visitor’s going to stay with his rellies. But why not take a helicopter like everyone else who can afford to avoid the horrors of D.C. commuting? Why take the Parkway with the rest of us, only to shove us aside under the pretext of urgency? I had a theory about that, too. This Saudi dignitary, who was likely also a prince, might have said, “What a pretty river I saw when I flew in. So verdant along the banks. So many trees. I’d like to take a drive along that river,” and his handlers would have raised their eyebrows and tried gently to persuade the prince that perhaps the weekend would be a better time for a river drive, and having failed to convince him, sighed when the door was closed, and murmured, “we’ll need to use sirens.”
Well fuck you.
The fury burst so big I didn't care what happened to me, and I leaned on the horn. My lime-green ’75 Volkswagen Rabbit blared at the dark cops and the black limo. I kept the pressure on the horn and wished I’d understood just a few seconds earlier, then I could have pretended my car had died. It often died in standing D.C. traffic, so I had plenty of practice. Or I could have feigned a fit. I could have pretended to be deaf, drugged out, insane, anything to hold up the screeching procession for even a minute. The blast from my horn went on and on, but the sirens made a joke of it. No one paid any attention. The cops rammed more cars. The limo slid by. The damage was done.
Twenty years later I’m in Portland, on the other side of the continent, and my little green VW Rabbit’s probably been long crushed into a cube. It’s not the Reagan administration any more, it’s Bush. The cops blocking Broadway aren’t so close to that nexus of power, but their colleagues have been killing locals lately. An unlucky and unpredictable Mexican man, an unlucky and seat-belted black man. In my presence and under my witness these cops have sprayed pepper into eyes, clamped their gloved hands over mouths, and arrested my friends for stepping off the curb at anti-war demonstrations. The cop in the intersection doesn’t look at us. He acts like we’re cattle, merely to be held back. He watches the big black car as it pulls into the space he has made.
The big black car is a hearse.
That leap of the heart that wants to do something, do anything, to affirm a connection with the anonymous travelers around me.
The hearse moves through the intersection and glides away. One by one the headlamped cars of the procession curl onto Broadway, a motley fleet dribbling like beans from a bag.
We wait, the other drivers and I. We’ll give up being on time to that meeting, give up getting the good parking spot, give up making it home to tape that show. We will honor this person and their loved ones. When the procession has passed, the police officer in the intersection turns to me. Through his visor his expression is respectful, even helpful. He gestures that I can now proceed. I cooperate, and I proceed. Slowly, respectfully I swing my car into the intersection, not too close to him. My indicator’s ticking: this is how much I want to cooperate, to make it easier. To undo the damage.