I wrote this post a couple of days ago and accidentally hit the panic button. Sorry for the false alarm, but I didn’t want it to be published in the same day as my last post. Let me try this again…
Two days ago, I saw a woman get hit by a car, but I didn’t know that’s what I was seeing at the time. As I replay that moment again and again in my mind, I am shocked at how slowly I figured it out.
I don’t remember seeing the car hit her. I just remember this:
Someone yelled. It was a rough, urgent, explosive bark. And then I saw a large pile of garbage lying in the street. Did you get that? Garbage. I’m still appalled that I thought a living, breathing human being looked like a pile of garbage.
It was dusk, just after sunset. I was on my way to pick up a pizza, and stopped at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. Then, the explosive yell, and there they were, black and white garbage bags flopping slightly, as if being blown by a puff of breeze, so gently. Two pedestrians raced toward the pile as it began to rock. They tried to help the garbage bags pick themselves up. But the best the pile could do was to droop to one side. One foot flopped. A hand pressed down against the street.
And then I figured out that the pile was a woman. With long, dark hair. She had been face down on the pavement, her hair pouring onto the street. She wore black pants and shoes and a cream-colored jacket, and she had been carrying a couple of black shopping bags. But her body parts weren’t arranged like a human walking across the street. They were upended, folded in on each other, crumpled and flopping without purpose. And the combination of black and white reinforced the image of garbage bags, litter that is so common in the city.
I still tremble when I think of this, how quickly we can go from being human to being a pile of garbage. How our perceptions depend so much on context.
And since I’m a writer, I start thinking about how I can use this. The experience brings home how important it is to select the details of the stories we tell. Those details cement the belief that what’s being described has actually happened. Verisimilitude at its best. In this case, the accident did happen, and you believe me because of the details I’ve shared with you. I know that if I’m ever going to write a scene about someone who’s been hit by a car, I now have an inkling of how I will tell that part of the story.
But what disturbs me are two things: 1) that I can file this away so coldly to use in the future and 2) that I thought a human being was as pile of garbage. This is a horror from which I may never recover.
I am still shaking.