I think it and say it aloud often when threading my car through traffic in the suburbs of Chicago. Four lanes of I-294, or I-290, semitrailers and cars front end to tail end at most hours of the day. Rush hour there runs roughly from 6am to 9am, and begins again around 3:30pm and runs until about 7pm.
This sort of driving demands the ultimate amount of attention. Blink too long and you might find that the hood of your car has gone through the rear window of the car in front of you. Cut throat to the max, moving in tiny sprints, 30, 40 yards at a crack, then slowing to a crawl. This can repeat for as long as you're on the highway, miles and miles. I can take an hour and a half to traverse twenty miles. I believe I could run that if I were in better shape.
It's Monday. Nearly sixty degrees, and sunny. Been on the road two hours now, and I have some time before my meeting. I decide to stop by my hotel before heading there. Something goes wrong, as it often does, when I'm traveling in this congested, foreign area. At many points, I-290 splits into two lanes on the right, and an express lane on the left separated by concrete barrier that reaches a meter high.
They call it an express lane because you are insulated from the cars joining up with 290 from the off ramps. The idea is that you will avoid the ebb and flow of traffic that results from people taking the on-ramps. The flip side: you have a significantly smaller amount of opportunities to exit the highway.
Traffic is thick. It's 5:15, my meeting is at seven. I cannot see very far ahead of me; it seems that for every 2 cars out there, there's one semi-trailer, and they nearly block all of the navigational signs ahead, until you come up right on them when driving. I get stuck, and find myself in the express lane a mile shy of the exit I'm supposed to take. Concrete. Grey. Lots of it, flanking me on both sides now, though we're moving faster than the folks who ride the regular road.
I know I'm doomed. Soon as I saw concrete barriers to my left and right, I knew I'd miss my exit. However, the important question, the one I didn't know the answer to, was when would the next opportunity to exit the highway present itself? How many miles farther south would I end up driving before I was able to turn it all back around? I know I'm within ten miles of my hotel at this point, and I know that to find it, I must drive in a northward direction.
Seven more miles pass. Droplets of perspiration gather on my brow. I crack the window a few inches. It seems I may never get out. Finally, an exit. What exit, I cannot recall. To my dismay, it was one of those that had an off-ramp only; meaning that I could not backtrack using I-290. From here, to the hotel it would be guess work. At least here the traffic wasn't as bad, and the stoplights held some jurisdiction here, though in the form of green means go, red means stop, and yellow means lay that gas pedal to the floor.
I locate what I surmise to be a major street, and headed northwards. Five minutes later, I reach a crossroad I recognize. I'm in the middle of rush hour now; it's at its worst, but it seems I've found the main atery. This would be the street that runs past the hotel I'm staying in. Then, sure as shit, there's my hotel; I'd need to take a right at the intersection, then about half a block down I must turn across traffic, which would bring me into the lot. I have just enough time to check in and leave, with minutes to spare before the meeting, which is only six miles away.
Green. I make a right turn at the lights, pull quickly into the left lane and signal that I'd like to cross traffic. A car in the lane closest, moving against me, sees my signal and slows; after all, the light up ahead for them is still red, no need to hurry. A truck in the middle lane headed against me notices as well, and slows. I start to creep in, making eye contact with each of the drivers of the vehicles that have slowed.
One more lane to cross, and I'm there. I see nothing coming; the person in the truck occupying the middle lane gives me a little wave to proceed. I do just that, gunning the engine, and as soon as I cross the threshold of the right side of the truck, I see out from the corner of my eye a dark blur, a car trying to bypass the two halted vehicles. It is too late to stop. I tense up just before impact.
Crack! and then a jolt. I will not remember the next few seconds, and will never regain them.
I T-bone a small, dark blue vehicle. It happens so quickly I am only able to discern that there are two people in the vehicle, the second sitting in the passenger's seat. Air bag does not inflate, so I am able to pull off of the road, out of traffic. I pull into a parking space in the hotel lot and exit my vehicle. I hope the other car pulls in shortly.
Because of the way I'd positioned the vehicle into the lot, the right side of the van's bumper took the brunt of the impact. Some cosmetic damage to it as well as the grill, but nothing that would need an immediate repair. I hear slow churning wheels approaching on black pavement. I look up and see the vehicle I hit. From the angle I stand I cannot see the damage; only the passenger's side is visible. Through the windshield I see what I assume to be a Mexican woman sitting there, presumably a Mexican man driving. She has long, black hair pulled back in a braid, and wears a white sweater. I cannot see the man for the sun's glare.
They pull up next to me; I circle around the rear of the vehicle and come up on the driver's side door. There is a large impact dent, the peak of which seems to line up perfectly with the seam between the driver's side front and rear doors. Neither person inside the car appears to be hurt; neither appears to be angry. In fact, I swear I see a look of defeat drawn across both of their faces. The woman exits the car; the man wrestles with his door handle, but from the exterior I can see that no one will be exiting from that side of the car before some major body work.
I make a motion with my hand that there's no way he's getting out that door. He's not pleased, I can tell, but nowhere near enraged. He shuffles over the stick shift and exits through the passenger door with little effort as if he's done it a million times before. I see now that he has medium-length black hair, covered mostly by a blue baseball cap that could very well have the logo of his employer embroidered on it, and wears a stringy goatee. He approaches, but doesn't seem to pay much attention to the damage. I apologize several times. It was completely my fault, after all.
"I don't really want to call the cops," he says to me. I stand still, surveying the damage, thinking. Whether it was the company's car or my own, I knew I had to call the cops. This sort of damage was something I could not fix with pocket money. Thousands of dollars I do not have. I tell him that this isn't my car; it's a company vehicle. He seems dismayed. He circles the car and heads towards the front side of mine. He says something to the woman in Spanish. She says something back.
He looks like an honest, working man. In fact, he was in work duds of some sort, but I shielded my eyes from his left breast pocket where I may have seen his name, in red or white wormy lettering, or the name of his employer. I shield my eyes from seeing the make and model of the car. I shield my eyes from seeing any character on the license plate, all of this before I realize what I am doing. I look him in the eyes. The blue ring around his right cornea tells me he's blind, or at least partially blind, in that eye.
The woman walks onto the grass in front of the car and seats herself facing away from us, looks towards a thin, winding creek that is littered with refuse of all sorts: fast food containers, plastic bags, an old, rusty ladder, a cloth or shirt.
I am going to let them go.
I knew that much now. But how would I do it without risking, well, everything. It's not often that when you're the no-fault victim of an accident that you initiate the hit-and-run. I knew that soon as I hit their car, they were in my hands.
At best, this man has no license. At worst, one or both of them are in the country illegally. I settle on the latter, as the two of them remain together in fearful anticipation of what I might decide. The man, he had a choice to make: run immediately, and risk that the enraged driver of the other car calls the cops with make, model, license, and description of the driver from the other car. The other option to face the person who hit him and try to sort it out.
"I don't want you to get in trouble at all," I say to him, trying to convey to him that I understand the sort of trouble he would be in, and tears well in his eyes.
"I can pay for the car, I can fix my car," he says. "I just don't want the cops here."
I look around the area, up towards the hotel entrance, at all of the windows. I look towards the street. Ten minutes have passed since the accident. Although there had to be at the least a half dozen witnesses in their cars, no one stopped. Fortunately for the Mexican couple, no one had been watching from out the hotel windows either. For the time being it seemed that the only three people that mattered in the world were standing around the two beat up vehicles.
Finally I look at him.
"I have to call the cops," I say to him, and he begins to shake. He swallows hard, and before he can speak I say, "but I think the two of you should leave."
I assure him I won't give the cops anything to go on, but only enough so that they don't expect any collusion.
He sighs with relief. "Thank you."
"I'll give you two a fifteen minute head start, but when I call I have to tell them it was a dark colored, smaller car with two people in it. Everything else I missed because it happened so quickly, and you drove off."
He walks over to the woman and says something quietly to her. She seems to do no more than acknowledge that he's said something, and heads back towards the car.
"I wish I could give you money or something," I say to him, "but this isn't my car and I have nothing on me. Insurance will cover my damage."
"No, no," he says, "this is enough."
We don't shake hands.
He enters the car from the passenger's side. The woman looks at me with sad, accepting eyes. I want to give them a hug. This is life for her, for them, throttled by that constant fear, living as if they were criminals who have committed the most heinous of acts, and mere discovery of her existence would be enough to send her away for life.
I watch them back out, and pull away, but I relinquish my gaze soon as the rear bumper comes into view. What I will tell the cops is mostly what I know. A part of me wishes I would've gotten his name, or some sort of information, though I know he probably would not have trusted me with it. Sure, give this well-dressed white man your information so he knows exactly where to send the cops to when they arrive. I think this is why I never bothered to ask, though the desire to check up on him and the woman does not leave me for weeks.
I call my mother, my boss, and the gentleman who maintenances the company vehicles. My boss doesn't ask me if I'm all right. He calls back a few minutes later apologizing profusely for not having done so. Apparently his wife gave him some shit about it. I smoke a cigarette. I gingerly walk inside to the hotel and stop at the front desk. There is one customer in front of me getting assistance.
My turn. I ask for a phone book. She asks what number I need. The police, I say. She looks up, a beat passes, and she turns to the front of the phone book, running her finger up and down the page. I grab the hotel manager's business card from a holder on the front desk and a pen. She gives me two numbers, I write them both down. My phone is nearly dead, so I walk back to the car, grab the charger, and return to the lobby. I find an outlet, plug in, and dial the first number.
Fire department, a voice on the other end says. Damnit.
I meant to call the police, I say. Can you transfer me over?
No, we're two separate entities.
All right, thank you.
I turn the business card over where I found space to write the second number, and dialed again.
I get a voice message that indicates I've reached the Fire Department directory. If I know my party's extension...and I hang up.
I approach the desk, this time moving to the side of a customer who's already there. The woman who gave me the first two numbers looks up.
Those numbers you gave me were for the fire department.
Oh no, she says, I'm sorry, and she pulls out the thick phone book once again. Ah yes, she says, here you go.
This time I study the number myself to ensure I've got the right place. Police department this time.
I've been in an accident, and I need...
Hold one moment, sir.
I hear the line buzz and then a half-ring.
9-1-1 dispatch, what is your emergency?
I stammer. A half hour had passed, and I was pretty calm, but the surprise of being transfered to the emergency dispatch rattled me enough to where it probably seemed to the dispatcher I was actually in great distress from being involved in a hit and run. Stay where I am, I'm told, and an officer will arrive shortly. I was able to give the dispatcher the bits and pieces of information I knew: T-bone. Small car. Dark in color. Two occupants.
No make? No model? No license?
Ten minutes later, the police officer arrives. I head to the van. She pulls up in her cruiser. I describe the accident, pointing towards the spot on the street where it happened, and give her all of the information that I knew.
She says there must've been something going on for the driver not to have stopped, especially since it was my fault. She needs my license and the car's insurance information. I don't know what the insurance info even looks like. Of course, it must be in the glove box. I dig feverishly, sorting through various manuals and pamphlets, unable at first to locate the document I need. The document she needs to proceed with a report. To her, it looks like I'm rattled from the accident, or nervous as fuck.
I cannot locate the documents. She stands there all the while. I phone my employer again. They tell me what to look for. As I'm skimming through the papers once again, the officer points at something. Here we go. Insurance info. Ten minutes pass as she writes the report inside her cruiser. I stand outside, leaning against the hood, smoking a cigarette. I finish, she's still in the cruiser. I enter the van and begin to clean up all of the gear that had been thrown about the car at impact.
She finally returns. Says she would cite me if there were another driver here, but since there isn't, she can't. Also, she'd rather not make me come to court since I don't live in Illinois. What a nice lady.
I walk back into the hotel. The clerks must be wondering what the hell's going on. I learn this hotel is not the one where I've reserved a room. That hotel is another four miles down the road. I know I had to be insulated, and indoors quickly; despite my dread and anxiousness, I got back into the van and left the scene. Checked in to the right hotel, keyed into the room and cried.
Cried and cried.
Though the three of us drove away from that scene physically unscathed, I knew that in my action I may have cost that man and woman their lives. They would always be prey so long as they stayed in America; but I had transformed them not only into prey, but into the hunted. I have close friends that would, on account of my actions, label me insane. What followed would be a rant on illegals in this country, but that is neither here nor there.
The one mistake I may have made is that I never asked if I'd be notified if/when they found the other driver. That lack of questioning could've been construed as my one, tiny admission of guilt. Either she did not pick up on that, or didn't let on that did. I will find out soon enough.
Upon relaying the story to a friend, she commented that even though I may have broken many national laws, and had acted against American policy, my actions followed humanitarian laws, and that is what's most important. I suppose it depends on who you ask. My family was once a family of immigrants, and if you're in America and reading this, chances are yours were too.
Shaken for days, I resolve myself to the only thing that I can, to the ultimate hope of the hopeless, hoping that it's all in someone's hands.