Late on a warm summer night in 1979, my housemate Lenny and I were shooting the breeze at the kitchen table when we heard a long squeal, followed by some loud bangs, interspersed with another squeal and, finally, a crashing sound that seemed to occur in slow motion. At least it went on long enough for Lenny and me to look each other quizzically in the eye.
At the time I was renting a room in a house on Broadway in Somerville, Massachusetts, sharing kitchen and dining areas with seven other twenty-something men and women. Some had jobs that kept them out most nights, including the night in question. Others were home but had gone to bed early. Lenny was a door-to-door fundraiser, and I counseled troubled people at a hotline-crisis center in Boston. Lenny and I kept odd hours and so were still up, not yet ready to turn in.
Our sixteen-room house stood on the crest of a hill in a mixed commercial-residential neighborhood. There were several large houses on our block but fewer than there once had been. Across the wide boulevard there were enormous apartment buildings. On our side, a couple of blocks down the hill, were a funeral home and a convenience store. The neighborhood had a history going back to before the American War for Independence. On a clear day, when we looked toward the east, we could see the Bunker Hill Monument in the distance. A sign directly in front of our house claimed that we were on the route of Paul Revere’s famous ride, although this was in dispute.
Fearing something terrible had happened, Lenny and I jumped to our feet. The kitchen was at the back of the house, so we had to run through the dining room and turn right into the front hallway before we had a straight shot to the front door. Though it was past eleven o’clock and dark when Lenny and I stepped onto our front porch, we saw plenty of signs of what had happened. Broadway was a wide boulevard with a paved median running down its middle. At intervals, tall street lamps lined the median and both sidewalks as well. Under the glare of the lamps we could see a gash across the median where something had plowed through the concrete and turned a swath of it to rubble. Leading up to this gash from the other side of the street were black tire marks that went up onto the median, paralleled the gash, then hopped onto our side of the street, and streaked the asphalt diagonally to our left. With our eyes, we followed the trail to a broken patch of sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s house. Their lawn had been plowed up, and a weathered four-door passenger car had come to a halt on its side with its roof toward us and its front end embedded in the pile of smashed masonry and broken lumber that had recently been our neighbor’s front steps and porch.
The house that was the site of the accident was a group home for teens and young adults with Down syndrome and other developmental challenges. They were ordinarily quiet neighbors, but some of them were volubly upset to find a car crashed into their home at an hour when most of them had probably been asleep. As some residents gathered in the front doorway, their adult supervisors tried to keep them from venturing onto the now unstable porch.
Lenny and I approached cautiously. I had never seen an accident scene like it and feared that someone was dead. There was just so much damage to the vehicle and the building. The driver’s side of the car lay against the ground, cutting off any chance of the driver’s door being used for escape or rescue. Dust rose like smoke. The car’s engine coughed and strained. I imagined that if someone did not turn off the engine the car might burst into flames.
Then, suddenly, the front passenger’s door, now eerily on top of the heap, swung up and open, like the hatch of a submarine that had mysteriously emerged from the lawn or a space-faring craft that had just landed after traveling light years from another planet. A sweaty, wiry little man, balding but with stringy black hair pulled himself out of the hatch and slid down the roof of the car, landing on his butt.
It began to dawn on me that, miraculously, this man’s gross negligence and the catastrophic damage he caused had not lead to anyone being killed. Unscathed, he panted from his exertions as he leaned back against the now-perpendicular surface of the car’s roof. Disheveled and dirt-streaked, he had a few scratches, at least one of which let out a tiny trickle of blood, but he seemed otherwise intact.
As Lenny and I approached, he looked at us with alarm-widened eyes. Waving his arms he slurred, “No cops! Nobody call the cops!”
“Oh, it’s too late for that,” Lenny said with genuine concern, although he seemed barely to suppress a chuckle. I could hear the Doppler sound of screaming sirens coming closer and closer.
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