Seething pity

Depending on how you look at it, human life is either the culmination of a miraculous cascade of coincidences going back billions of years or a routine biological process that couldn’t coax the eyes of God from the Daily Mail. But every so often, a person elbows his or her way into your life uninvited and leaves you with the impression that they were shot from their mother’s hospital gown as if from a cannon towards a pit filled with old Gatorade bottles and dismembered toilets. They manage to embody every single loathsome trait a human can possess, ranging from irritating to dire, without actually being evil.

I’d managed to drive around Atlanta for 40+ hours a week for more than a year before I got into an accident. I had dozens of near-misses but always avoided impact due to impressive reflexes and spatial reasoning skills that allowed me to maneuver my trusty two-ton projectile with the finesse of a seamstress. But I couldn’t beat the odds. I was sitting in traffic on the way to work one afternoon, driving down an avenue known for car break-ins and muggings, and saw from the corner of my eye a young man peering through the windows of a car parked on a side street. I craned my neck to get a better look, still rolling merrily along at a modest speed of between 8 and 12 miles per hour. And I bumped the car ahead of me.

The first thing that alerted me to the stupidity of the person I’d just hit was that she didn’t immediately pull off to the side so that others could pass. She just sat there, blocking traffic, while I began judging her based on her ostentatious license plate frame and absurdly dark tint (you develop these kind of prejudices when you drive for a living). I got out of the car to tell her to move out of the lane of traffic, and she obliged. She got out of the car and said, through her gold teeth, “Should I call the cops or will you?”

Having seen that there was absolutely no visible damage whatsoever on my car, and a few small paint stratches and a miniscule crack on her back bumper, I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that we could exchange insurance information and phone numbers and deal with it through our insurance companies. “No, mm-mm,” she said. “Imma call the cops.” I repeated that that was unnecessary as there was no dispute that I was at fault. “Why you don’t want me to call the cops?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “They’re obviously going to write me a ticket that I can’t afford. I’m more than willing to pay for the damage via insurance, but I really cannot afford a ticket on top of that. And we’re going to be waiting for at least half an hour for the cop to get here since it’s rush hour and we both have places to be.”

She put the phone up to her ear, which was drooping with the weight of her enormous hoop earrings, and called 9-1-1. On her third fumbling attempt to read the street sign to give to the dispatcher, my inner dialogue began spewing obscenities as I realized that she was completely illiterate. I read the sign for her, slowly enunciating each of the three syllables in the least condescending way that I could manage.

While we waited for the cop, I was approached by a couple of people asking why she was calling the cops.  One of them was kind enough to offer his legal advice.”I’d a-been gone twenty minutes ago if I was you girl! What a bitch!”

“I wish I could, but I don’t need a hit and run on my record. What a bitch indeed,” I said.

The cop was jolly, asked all the usual questions (nimbly and auctioneer-like), and handed me my ticket with the court date that was three days after I was due to fly away forever. When it was all dealt with, I again apologized to the woman, completely and sincerely, offering no excuses and again admitting humbly that it was all my fault. “Mmmmhmm. Sorry you gonna be late.” Another daisy chain of obscenities coiled up in my throat.

A week later, I got a call from the insurance agent who was sorting out the claim. She took my statement, and when she told me that the other party was claiming an injury, I completely boiled over. She was having back pain, apparently, a condition which I suggested was a result of her carrying around an ass that could only be described as planetary. The insurance agent assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that they see this kind of thing all the time, and that based on the pictures I sent of the almost entirely undamaged vehicles, nothing would become of it.

Fifty thousand dollars. That is how much she and her personal injury lawyer are demanding. Two thousand dollars to cover the chiropractor, the other $48,000 for “pain and suffering” following a “violent collision.” I will here reiterate that I was going no more than 12 miles per hour at the moment of impact, as evidenced by the (almost) complete lack of damage to either vehicle.  The personal injury lawyer, Sheryl L Burke, is featured on in a small essay detailing a client’s experience with her questionably legal ambulance-chasing legal practice.

It’s easy to caricaturize the plaintiff as a beast of a woman with a moral compass ever skewed towards her own selfishly litigous whims. It’s easy to lambast her as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with America – an illiterate porcine bully. A professional victim with a tendency toward conspicuous consumption. A complete liar who uses bottom-of-the-barrel lawyers to swindle people out of their hard-earned money. It’s easy because it’s a totally fair description – at any turn, the woman could have chosen the path of least resistance – forgiveness, compromise, empathy. But she chose instead to victimize me and inconvenience everyone involved involved in this pathetically minor case – the cop, the court system, the insurance company – for the sake of what she perceives as “free money.”

When I was little, my brother ate a cookie that had been given to me. Seething with anger, I appealed to my mother to make him give me back the cookie. “We can’t get it back Emily. It’s already in his tummy.” My face contorted further into a tantrum.

Cut open his tummy and give it back!”

My mother explained through her laughter that we could not perform major surgery on my sibling to remedy this adorable injustice.

I can’t in good conscience hold this woman responsible for being a terrible person. I have to assume that the she didn’t have the kind of parents who taught her the value of choosing her battles. I have to assume that she grew up in an environment of aggression. I have to assume that her mother didn’t instill in her a love for humility. Or books. Or vegetables.