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We went to the store looking to purchase an air mattress for a camping trip, and we left with a bike for my foster son.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise; I mean that’s pretty much Target’s slogan, isn’t it? Enter store with intentions of buying one or two things, leave having spent that month’s portion of your kid’s college fund?
It wasn’t an ordinary splurge at the store though, with a cart full of a million little things that make you feel great for a few seconds, and then you forget about them. This time it was different; it was for him, and he loved it.
The bike towered over us on the upper shelf at the store. While my wife went to look for an employee who could bring it down into his sticky little fingers, I watched him staring up at it and was reminded of the “Pie in the Sky“ image from Howard Berman—a retro black-and-white photo of a young boy and his dog staring up at a pie above the refrigerator in the kitchen.
So, I pulled out the overused piece of plastic from my wallet and rolled “Black Beauty” to the front of the store. He skipped, jumped, and squealed over my wife’s pleads to hold her hand, watch out for traffic, and look both ways.
Once we arrived at the car, I found myself slightly concerned as to how both the young boy and the sleek new bike would fit. We would only be able to put one side of the seats down so that he could sit on the opposite side.
“Are you sure it will fit?” she asked as things began to look hopeless. As card-carrying lesbians, we drive a Subaru, and so I reminded her that “I have fit more junk in this trunk than The Black Eyed Peas.” After 10 minutes of fighting with the seat and readjusting the bike’s handlebars and pedals, it fit.
We shared one of those heart-warming moments where our eyes met, and we both couldn’t keep from smiling at the love for him and his complete happiness. It came to an abrupt end when we argued about putting on his seat belt, and we had to threaten to bring the bike back to the store before we made it out of the parking lot.
It was just a few minutes later that we turned the corner on the freeway exit ramp that would change my life. Cars in front of us began to turn to the shoulder abruptly.
We didn’t see it happen, but a black SUV had driven over an embankment where our exit ramp converged with another. The car sat upside down on the blacktop with the wheels still spinning like a cockroach stuck on its back, scrambling to flip over. I could see the steam coming out of the crushed up front end, as my wife pulled our car over behind those in front of us and came to a complete stop.
My hand reached for the door handle as I turned to tell my son to stay inside the car with Samantha. I opened the door, got out, and found myself in a scene out of “Grey’s Anatomy.” When I walked toward the wreck, I heard the driver say, “I can’t breathe,” from inside the flipped vehicle.
I began calculating if I should run to the car or stay a safe distance away in case there was some sort of fire.
I looked around to see if there was anyone else who noticed her, and I saw that her companion from the car was laying on the ground screaming with his leg bent the wrong way. A police officer stood next to him as he rolled back and forth in agony. It didn’t occur to me at the moment how strange it was that there was already a cop there.
Since it seemed that people were tied up with the man lying on the freeway, I put my intentions back on the person in the car. I ran around to the passenger-side window and bent down to my hands and knees, so I could see through the broken passenger-side window to her. I saw the back of her head covered by a tight, beautiful bun wrapped up with a white scrunchy that contrasted against her dark hair. Her skinny wrists and hands told me she was young, even though I could not see her face.
I caught the eye of the police officer who had been attending to the man on the road and asked if he knew that someone was in the car. He came over to look. We smattered him with questions about trying to get her out. He said that we shouldn’t touch her because moving her could make it worse.
A woman, another bystander, said, “They were driving so fast,” as the officer tried to open the passenger-side rear door. The cop responded by saying, “Yeah, I know; they were evading police.”
Finally, his struggle to open the back door was rewarded when it flew open, and the force sent him backward and off-balance. That’s when I saw it: a car seat, still in the box, falling out of the back door he had just opened. The officer regained his balance and meandered back to the open door. It seemed like time slowed down at the moment while I put together all the information.
My brain, saturated with hours of drama-filled prime-time TV, effortlessly made up a storyline using the information I had and filled in the blanks. I instantly got the feeling that this young woman had gotten herself into trouble, and she and her companion decided to steal the car seat for a future baby. I suddenly felt sick, like I had never felt before, imagining that she made the decision to try to outrun the cop who chased her by driving over the embankment and causing this gruesome wreck.
Just when I was feeling helpless, angry, and ill, a male nurse came jogging over to the scene. He explained who he was and jumped right into the car with her. He lay on his belly and spoke to her inside the vehicle. She moaned, and he yelled out to the cop that he wanted to cut the seat belt, as he thought it was compromising her breathing. The cop initially said no, but then the men agreed it was the best option.
He stayed there with her, holding her neck in place, and occasionally updating the officer. Eventually, he reported that he no longer could feel her pulse. It weakened over several minutes until it was gone. I stood there feeling disdain toward her decision to drive over the embankment over a stolen car seat, because it didn’t have to be like this.
For several minutes, I waited beside the car near the outstretched ankles of the nurse who chose to stay with her holding her neck in place until more help came. When it became apparent to me that there was no longer any good I could bring to the situation, I slowly ambled back to my car and the concerned faces of my wife and foster son. We waited for about 45 minutes for fire trucks and ambulances to part the mile-long traffic jam and arrive on the scene.
Finally, the nurse abandoned his post and firemen cut open her door and removed her from the car. Shortly after, ambulances took them away. We stayed trapped in our lesbian mobile with an excited little boy waiting to test-drive his new bike.
This incident made me question why we live in a country where there is so much wealth that people can own multiple mansions with bowling alleys in them, private jets, and rare supercars while there are other people who don’t have enough money to buy a car seat, so they commit petty theft and die as a result. Later on the news, I would find out that she was 24 and the mother of two.
It made me grateful that although I hemmed and hawed about the price of that bike which fulfilled the dreams of my foster son, I had enough money to just buy it, happenstance, when we were out shopping for something else. I supposed that this realization might just be the materialization of my privilege.
As I sat there in the passenger seat of the Subaru, watching the police undergoing their investigation into the situation, I thanked God that I am not forced to make those types of decisions. Those thoughts don’t weigh on my chest.
The thoughts that resonate in my mind mostly center around what we will eat for dinner or why little boys have such bad aim when it comes to peeing in the toilet. But, there are heavy thoughts that circulate around my head too.
For example, how can I help my students, and my foster son, from meeting an end like I saw that day?
I wonder if I have done enough to influence those who have come through my classrooms over the years—that they find another way, a better way to live. I also shake my fist at our government that gives power and tax breaks to the abundantly rich while people who can’t afford a car seat get more and more taken away from them every day.
To the driver of that SUV, I apologize to you, on behalf of all of us who were so greedy that it forced you to have so little. I apologize for those who have failed you along the way and didn’t teach you the skills you needed to get by without stealing. I apologize for people who didn’t help you when they could have. I apologize for the bystanders, myself included, on the road that day who were not able to help you see your babies again.
To the rest of our country, I hope that I have painted a picture of the differences between middle-class America and the struggles that those from deprived communities face. I hope that you can see and respect the differences and take that knowledge into the world where it can make a small difference to affect change.
Whether it is getting out to vote, sharing your excess with someone in need, becoming a foster parent, or just supporting someone who needs your help, make an effort and be the change, so that someday, someone else makes a different choice and avoids the senseless loss of life that occurred that day.