I walked down Houston Street Wednesday night mildly curious about the accident at West Broadway.
There were plenty of cops and yellow tape, and traffic was shut down in both directions.
Houston Street was eerily empty, except for a lone motorcycle rider who roared by me with his head cranked down over the handlebars. He stopped when a man stepped out from a group of cops and waved for him to hit the brakes.
I assumed this was a fender bender that would be quickly cleared up and cars would soon be streaking up and down the street at their usual manic pace.
And then I got closer a little and I saw a sheet-covered body in the middle of the street.
“Damn,” I muttered, “that was a fatal."
It’s funny, but I’m certain those were the same words my editor at the Pocono Record said one cold winter night 25 years ago when I covered my first fatal accident.
We were listening to the scanner when we heard the county corner being called out to an accident, which meant somebody wouldn’t be going home. I forget where exactly that wreck had occurred, but it was a long way from Houston Street.
Now I was just a spectator.
As I got closer to the corner I saw pieces of a shattered motorcycle strewn about the intersection. The bike was so thoroughly demolished it looked as if the victim had ridden over an IED.
I heard someone shouting “chill, chill!” and there was the lone rider, now on foot, struggling to get to the body in the street while another man held him back.
I joined the crowd of gawkers, and noted how I seemed to be the only one not taking pictures. I recalled how furious victims’ friends or family members became whenever they saw a photographer at crash site, even though we never published images of the dead. Today we’re all paparazzi.
The Medical Examiner’s van pulled up and a bunch of cops held up sheets to shield the corpse. The guy from the ME’s office picked up a boot from the street and put it in the back of the van.
It felt odd being on the opposite side of the yellow tape. Even after all these years, I wanted to be part of the inner circle, getting the facts and photos, bullshitting with the cops and firefighters. Now I was just another chump on the sidelines.
Some Other Time
The strange thing is that I wasn’t supposed to even be here. Normally I go straight home on weekdays to write or look for agents or screw around on the Internet.
And I was all set to do it again on Wednesday, telling myself that I was too tired to attend a potentially interesting exhibition in SoHo. Next time, I told myself.
But the elevator doors in my building are made of a highly reflective metal and when they closed I took a nice long look at myself during the six-story descent to the lobby.
Liar, my reflection sneered, you keep saying you’re going to change, you’re doing to do something different, but every night you do the same goddamn thing.
I almost did it again on this night, but the express bus took a little too long to arrive, and that nagging voice in my head wouldn’t shut up.
So I started walking until I stumbled upon the accident scene.
The police began cleaning up the debris and cops fanned out to shoo everybody away, perhaps preparing to move the victim.
“You better start walking, folks,” one cop said to a group of us on the corner.
I did as I was told, went to the exhibition, and after a short time, I decided to go home. I left early, but at least I had tried to break out of the comfort zone. Unlike the man who had died on Houston Street, I had another day to try again. We just never know which day will be our last.
News reports say the 32-year-old victim ran a red light on Houston and crashed into the side of a minivan that was heading north on West Broadway.
I thought about the terrible price this man had paid for one careless moment, one bad decision.
And yet there I was, the very next night, running across Park Row against the light to catch the express bus and charging right into the path of oncoming taxi.
The cab driver hit the horn and I jumped back, mumbling “fuck you” under my breath, even though I was completely in the wrong.
I had made one bad decision and I nearly paid a terrible price for a bus that hadn’t even arrived yet.
I told myself to slow down, let the bus go and catch the next one. It’s better than being a sheet-covered body in the middle of the street.