Don’t run over anyone in 2018

by Gautam Raja

The sound a car makes when it crashes into a human being is a loud bang—making you think at first it’s a car-on-car collision—but with an edge of meaty wetness that makes you realise something is very very wrong.

There was a musician outside the Target that that evening, as I waited with our dogs for my wife to run in and buy something. A tall man went past me, looking down at the ground and muttering loudly to himself, stepping as if he was randomly selecting the point in front of him to put his foot down. He was covered in carabiners, loops, buckles, and straps, in filthy clothes and with greasy hair, suggesting he was one of the many schizophrenic homeless people of Los Angeles County.

I was watching the musician when I heard the tyres screech, and then that awful sound. My eyes darted to the road behind, where I could see the crosswalk between two bushes. A black car went by with what looked like a piece falling off it. It was a person, being flung into the air just like they are in the movies, to land with a thump nearly ten feet from the crosswalk.

The musician dropped his guitar and sprinted right up to the victim, kneeling and cradling the man’s bleeding head in his arms. At some point he ripped off his own shirt to help stanch the flow. Meanwhile, I dialled those fateful, storied three digits: 9-1-1. As I walked over, I recognised the pants and straps, as the homeless man’s legs started to flail, either in agony or a seizure.

Now while the poor upset young driver probably wasn’t at fault (it’s likely the homeless man simply stepped onto the road), a road culture heavily skewed to favour cars helped cause this crash. There is a high-speed state highway at a choke point that features a downtown shopping district, a Metro station and three-track level crossing, a bus stop, a pedestrian crosswalk outside a busy department store, the entrance to the store car park just beyond that, and no shoulder at all.

Sadly I don’t have the space now to segue into the story of why this man, and nearly 58,000 others like him, is homeless in the richest state of one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s only in the last few years in America that I’ve met so many people at the opposite end of the political and ideological spectrum from me. People who will assert that while the accident is sad, the man is only out there because he chose not to avail of the opportunity to live the American Dream that is supposedly given to everybody in this country. And that while cars can be unsafe, if they boost the economy, it’s fine to give over our cities, woods, fields, and dreams to tarmac, parking lots, and a life where you’re in constant physical danger as you walk and drive from work and play.

The more I encounter this selfish, utterly unimaginative way of looking at the world, the more it makes me sad rather than angry. In the end though, whether you look at that accident as no more than two objects attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, or whether you see the story of capitalism and America, I want you to carry the echo of that sound in your head (remember what I said: a loud bang with a wet, meaty edge), and drive your self-propelled metal missile with more care, compassion, and awareness in 2018.

First published in Gulf News, January 2, 2018