I am the Witness: Accidents in a Time of Trump
The story started like so many accident stories: A hurried late morning, the pile-up of minor delays, the fateful random decisions conspiring to put me second in line in the middle of three southbound lanes at the stoplight.
First in line was a BMW with bumper stickers: Trump/Pence and “This is Your Brain on Porn,” warning of a shriveled brain in an otherwise empty head. I took a picture. It was February 8th, 2017, 20 days after the inauguration. My reaction to such tableaus had swiped through all the filters. Bright Mockery. Muted Despair. Red Anger. Normal.
I might have wished ill will upon the driver of the BMW.
I did wish ill will upon the driver.
The light turned and I wasn’t ready because I had two hands on my phone, zooming in on the porn sticker for a second photo. Was it really a shriveled brain? Did people really think that watching porn would shrink your cerebral capabilities? Cars rolled and I tossed my phone onto the seat without getting the second photo. Then I looked up as a red truck plowed through the light and T-boned the Trump car so hard it hit another car and all three spun like disintegrating asteroids.
I stared at the empty intersection, not understanding what happened—my eyes and my brain couldn’t put it all together. Smashed vehicles hissed and sputtered in the lanes to the left, the truck way off to the far side and up on the walk. The whole world of traffic was stopped behind me. I put those facts together. Then I added one more: I had just taken the very last photo of that person’s car.
Now the first in line, I pulled the wrong way into a reserved parking spot at an insurance agency and grabbed my phone, which had fallen on the floor. It was still open to the camera function and I tapped it closed, embarrassed and guilty and sick to my stomach. I headed to the intersection to help.
The red truck was closest to me. The driver was a young man, and he held his shaking arms wide as he exclaimed, on the verge of tears, about the crumpled front, the smashed headlights, the gush of fluids leaking close to his shoes. I was right there to see him gasp in disbelief over his truck instead of the people he’d hit, who, I could now see, were both women.
The helper in me snapped. Instead of asking him if he was okay, I laid into him with a tirade, without really thinking it through. I’m a quiet person who is called “the voice of reason” as both joke and praise. That day, though, I found the voice of rage. I yelled at him that he’d run a red light and hit two women and he’d almost hit me, and this is what happens when you don’t pay attention to your personal space and the important personal spaces around you and ten feet ahead and ten cars ahead and hell, let’s keep going with this, you are what happens when people can’t think ten days ahead or ten months or ten years, you are disrespectful and distracted and dismantling civility, you are driving too fast, you are ruining the mornings of women, you are not fit for this century.
“I saw you run the red light, I am the witness,” I insisted, once, twice, three times, and maybe I’m still saying it. And he kept yelling, “This isn’t my fault. This isn’t my fault.” I disagreed in the new rhetorical style of 2017, the one where you have to hold firm about how facts are facts, not opinions, not optional. I pointed for his benefit: There’s where I had been watching, here’s who I had been behind, how all three lanes on my side had the green light, how he’d had a red light, how it was obvious if you thought about it. I worked a schematic in the air for him. He relented. “My truck was making a noise. I looked down for a second. It was only a second. I thought the light would still be green.” Of course you did.
Finally, he approached the women he’d hit. I don’t know what he said to them. EMTs checked one woman’s hip, one woman’s back. Both were crying. I didn’t know who the driver of the Trump car was. Strangers put arms around shoulders. The guy just stood there. He motioned away the EMTs because, masculinity. The cops arrived and I reconstructed the scene for them: the red truck ran the red light and hit the Trump car who hit the other car.
“The Trump car?” asked one.
“The car with the Trump bumper sticker,” I said. It was a red and white sticker, brighter than the brain-on-porn bumper sticker.
“You mean the BMW?”
“The huge red speeding truck hit the Trump car.” Voice of reason, voice of rage.
“So the Ford hit the BMW.”
Don’t you see the metaphor! I wanted to yell. The huge red speeding truck is Trump’s administration and they have no intention of helping out or respecting the forgotten lower class or the working whites or the religious right or the wealthy BMW owners or anyone except themselves (and the Russians) that’s why “they’ve” just T-boned one of “their” own and are denying responsibility and the Trumpers aren’t even smart enough to see what their president is doing to them. I didn’t say any of that.
And I did not tell them I had the last ever photo of that car. It seemed too hard to explain why I had been taking the photo in the first place: “Well, it’s the pairing of the two bumper stickers, the irony that people are still worried about porn altering your brain, literally shrinking it, and those same people have voted for a sociopath who is possibly being blackmailed by the Russians who probably have video of him acting out porn fantasies, and there is no doubt there is something amiss with his brain, what with the lies and late-night tweetstorms (is that what we’re calling them?), so what we have here, on the back of this BMW, is what’s wrong with America.”
I didn’t even tell any friends about the photo. I told them about the accident, about the guy, about my tirade, but not the photo, symbol of my own complicity.
I told no one and looked at it all the time.
Susan Sontag wrote about startling photos in Regarding the Pain of Others. She said, “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death, and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, ‘off guard.’ No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of a picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer.”
It took me a few days to realize why I was not discussing the photo yet also obsessing over it. It is unsettling because the satisfaction Sontag speaks of is there but not there. I thought I was the alert photographer documenting the unexpected event of waiting behind yet another dumb Trump voter whose bumper stickers displayed no understanding of consequences. I thought it was that simple, that I could then drive on with my day, toss that photo up on Facebook, have a good laugh.
Instead, that photo now represents a different unexpected event, the one I couldn’t see coming. The red truck, perpetually out of frame, reminds me that while I was initially trying to capture my awareness that this Trump supporter was “unaware” of my camera and “off guard” to my analysis, it turns out I was unaware and off-guard too. In the end, the photo says more about me (smug, angry, uninjured). The photo has a lecture: Mockery is the air bag, saving you from injury but not from harm. The photo speaks in portents: Watch the periphery, because the problem in front of you is nothing compared to what’s coming.
Every few days, I swipe through my photos and think about deleting the one of the minute before the accident. It’s not a good picture. It makes sense to no one but me. It is time to move on. But I can’t tap delete, because it’s also asking me a question, a good question: Didn’t you want this role as a spy in the house of love and of death?
Read Jen Hirt’s essay “Students of the Route,” a finalist in Terrain.org’s 4th Annual Nonfiction Contest.
Header photo of intersection at sunset by StockSnap, courtesy Pixabay.