The Critical Moment

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12/31/2010

Neighborhood: West Village

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It was one of those perfect early spring evenings. The kind when the breeze just brushes your face so softly, when boyfriends drape their arms around their girlfriends’ shoulders as they stroll along, and the young moms and dads let the little ones run a bit ahead, giggling, happy to be liberated from coats and boots and mittens. One of those perfect spring evenings.

I was walking home down Seventh Avenue, past the Duane Reade and the apartment buildings and the little bars and delis, unhurried, dreamy, done for the day.

To my right, a cab sped up to beat the changing traffic light. A loud, dull thump sounded, and in my lousy peripheral vision, something cart-wheeled through the air. People screamed. Almost instantly, men and women grabbed for their cell phones, and were punching three digits onto the keypads.

I headed for the little crowd gathering at the intersection. Outside the trendy Cafeteria, a young woman with sharply beautiful features and hair pulled back in a long ponytail kept repeating herself, the way people so often do in moments of trauma. “The cabbie hit him. He hit him. He just-- hit him.”

I kept asking questions as I made my way to the scene. Turns out that a guy somewhere in his forties, in a fatigue jacket, jeans and sneakers, a Walkman on his head, stepped into the intersection a second too soon, as the cabbie sped through it a second too late.

I think about this a lot. The Critical Moment. That split second when carelessness collides with circumstance, resulting in a tragedy painfully out of proportion to the offense.

We’ve all heard the stories. An apartment-dweller falls asleep with the space heater a little too close to the bedspread; it catches fire, leaving a dozen people hurt and homeless. A late-for-work commuter opens the car door without looking, and a hell-bent bicycle messenger smashes into it.

Then there was the sunny September Sunday morning, thirty-five years ago, when a driver on a Chicago highway overpass changed lanes without looking-- and drove my brother and his fiancée off the road to their deaths.

Back on Seventh Avenue, by the time I reached the intersection, the paramedics (St. Vincent’s, still functioning at the time, was just five blocks away)had clamped one of those thick protective collars onto the victim’s neck, and were lifting him into the ambulance on a stretcher. “At least he’s not dead,” a short, squarely-built woman with curly salt-and-pepper hair said behind me. Cops scribbled down witness information. A squad car had already whisked the cab driver away.

I stared at the puddle of blood in the street. Where was Walkman Guy headed on this beautiful evening? Was someone waiting for him, starting to worry? Did he have a sister and a fiancée?

I don’t remember walking the rest of the way home. As I reached for the phone to call the hospital, I realized I didn’t even know the victim’s name.

The next morning, I checked 1010 WINS and the newspapers. Nothing. Do they even bother unless it’s a fatal hit-and-run?

A work assignment, e-mails, chores and bills demanded my attention. Apparently I dealt with them. I do remember staring at a favorite quote on my bulletin board, “No man is an island, entire of itself…” , as thoughts about Walkman Guy, the cabbie, the beautiful pony-tailed woman, the salt-and-pepper haired lady, the bystanders with the cell phones, my brother and his fiancée haunted me.»

The Critical Moment
Photo by Jeff Weese

It’s so easy to mess things up in this life. So easy to hurt people. So easy to be wrong. Make your mistake in Manhattan, where people live crammed so closely together, and you can detonate a shock wave of horror and pain.

Pony-tail Girl looked as if she’d been raised to not suffer a moment of unpleasantness in her life. Salt-and-Pepper Lady looked as if she’d suffered entirely too many. The guys in the sport coats with the cell phones stared stunned, as if they’d seen this moment in a thousand mediocre movies, but never completely understood the pain it would inflict when played out by live humans ten feet in front of them. My brother, with his sweet deep voice and big quizzical smile, never really leaves my consciousness, but the sickening thump and the body hurtling through the air catapulted me directly back to the worst night of my life.

Back at home, I realized I never actually saw the cabbie. I assumed the law would decide his fate.

None of us can afford to tiptoe through life with such meticulous caution that we never make a mistake. Especially not on the speedway known as life in Manhattan. Rev it up, or you blow the deadline, fall short of the quota, lose the fare, get left behind.

Most of the time, most of us get away with it. Driven and impatient, we rush from one destination to the next, too often assuming it’s the other guy’s responsibility to get out of the way. We inflict God only knows how many lesser hurts, apologize to the people we ram into on the sidewalk, resume rushing forward. Fortunately, most of us will never kill anybody with our determination to get ahead.

But in my life I’ve been staggered by the carnage one split second of thoughtlessness can leave behind. By the realization that somewhere, beneath the rushing and the scheming and the mania for accomplishment, lie wounds so deep they never completely heal. Memories of days and nights you thought the sorrow would kill you. Nightmares to which you kid yourself you’ve been reconciled. And I’ve been staggered by how easily total strangers can inflict these wounds-- and rip them open them again.

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…” Just hope that someone will kick the space heater an inch or two towards safety, that some Good Samaritan will honk a warning, that the hippie and his girlfriend in the next lane will speed up and drive away safely. That the critical moment will pass unremarkably, and a second of thoughtlessness won’t shatter a perfect spring evening, a Sunday morning in September, or someone else’s life.

 

A native of Chicago, Illinois, Christine Nieland graduated from Northwestern University. She has worked as a filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and story editor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. She currently works as a writer, researcher and story analyst for RHI Entertainment, and in her spare time, she’s a figure skater.
 

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