driving

on new fears

When I moved to New York City I thought of all the ways I could die on a given day. The train seemed like the most obvious; how easy to fall off the yellow strip and into the tracks at the wrong time?

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It was the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Normal: For death to be on the mind?

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I slept the first week in my apartment in Greenpoint without air conditioning. Before moving out of what became my bedroom, my roommate opened a window and the unit fell out and crashed down to the alley below.

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A 2011 story in the Village Voice attempts to estimate the number of people who die of fallen air conditioners in New York City. “Accidents involving air conditioners are rare in New York City,” said someone with the Department of Buildings. The story included anecdotes. One woman was struck by a fallen air conditioner and suffered a shattered leg. A toddler fell from a window and landed on an air conditioner, becoming critically injured. There are no known contemporary reports of an air conditioner-related death.

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But other things fall. An essay I think about often recounts the death of the author’s two-year-old daughter, who was killed by a piece of masonry that fell eight stories to where she sat on a bench with her grandmother. He writes: “No single agent set it on its path: It wasn’t knocked off scaffolding by the poorly placed heel of a construction worker, or fumbled from careless hands. Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe.”

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An ex-boyfriend has a story that sounds like something out of a Márquez novel: One day, walking through Midtown, he saw a piece of scaffolding fall on a pedestrian. Passing New Yorkers (who are kind, who would do this sort of thing) rushed over to lift the scaffolding, without realizing the edges of the metal were raw and sharp. He watched as everyone yelped and recoiled, pulling away bloody palms.

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I googled “people killed by scaffolding new york city” and found the predominant report comes from the midst of the pandemic. One person was killed and three were injured when a construction rig (not scaffolding) collapsed in Murray Hill. I vaguely remember this happening, but at the time, death was in the air. The website of a malpractice lawyer with good SEO estimates an astonishing figure: Between 4,000 and 5,000 people are injured by falling scaffolding annually, and another 50 are killed. The primary victims are construction workers.

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OK, if not my death, then someone else’s. A friend once texted he was running late because his L train had struck and killed someone. We wondered later at the bar, why?

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New thought to avoid on the train: That any bump or jolt could be a person. None of them ever were.

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I moved back to Texas and have a new and tremendous fear of driving. The stretch of highway that I live off of and which I am on frequently is one of the deadliest in the state and the country, with an average of more than one fatality per square mile over a three-year period. I cannot drive the 28 miles from my apartment to Austin, or vice versa, without passing at least one wreck. The traffic always slows for the familiar sight of tangled metal.

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Another deadly stretch is the interstate that connects my apartment to my mom’s house in Houston. The day I moved in, I was passing a semi truck when the driver began coming into my lane, which had no shoulder. I was midway through the truck and had to decide between flooring it or slamming on my brakes. It was like the scene in Star Wars, where they’re trapped in the trash compactor: A wall coming at me. I didn’t imagine the way it might feel to be a rolling car until after I braked and missed the truck by a matter of inches. The adrenaline wore off a few minutes later and left me shaking.

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“Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe.”

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A stretch of highway in Texas that isn’t deadly? I do not know of one.

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When I was 15 my boyfriend was one year older and drove a black Dodge truck that he used to race on a relatively wide and flat stretch of road in our suburb. I would sit in the passenger seat, smacking my gum and laughing, watching the grass blur into a smooth swath of green, feeling nothing but lucky to be momentarily interesting to this boy with chlorine pool-blue eyes. The road ended in a barricade that we never hit.

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A childhood memory: Stuck in traffic on a dark highway, the inside of our car lit up red with brake lights. My mom and dad talking in the front seat about how “someone must have died.” Later learning that they close the highway down when this happens.

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The second-worst fight I had with an ex-boyfriend involved the lack of public transit in Texas. We were in an Uber on that deadly stretch of I-35, the one I live off of now, and the opposite side of the highway was closed. The driver had been by before and confirmed there was at least one fatality. “Happens all the time,” he added. The boyfriend grew incensed; how had the state not done something to prevent all this death? I didn’t have a good answer. He thought he had all of them. I was annoyed by his arrogance, even if we ultimately agreed that people shouldn’t die just trying to get from one place to the other. We whisper yelled at each other before bed and went to sleep angry.

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I find myself white-knuckling my steering wheel every time I get on the highway. Hanging out by the river with a friend the other day, it was all I could talk about, the feeling of inevitability that the road will find a way to kill me, or someone I love, or someone I know. The man who tattooed me on Monday told me about two friends who died in car wrecks just this year. “Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures.”

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I cannot avoid the highway. It’s what connects me to the IKEA, where just yesterday I bought my first dinner table. It’s what connects me to Austin, where there are bands and bars that feel like the ones in New York City and friends who offer me their couches and spare beds. It’s what connects me to life beyond the little town where I live and will soon go to school. And so I keep getting on it, and holding my breath, and not releasing it until I’m parked back at home. “It’ll wear off,” people keep telling me. Will it?

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Aging means I am looking back in horror on the drives of my youth. I owe the ground one million kisses, in terms of times I made it home safely. I owe it one million more if I can keep making it home safely.

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Reverence? Fear? The same concept?

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I feel distinctly “not from here” when I describe this feeling of fear about driving. But I am from here. I swear!

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It is the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Normal: For death to be on the mind?