Last week, I was awakened by my wife a little before midnight. She handed me her phone and said, “Your son wants to talk to you.”
Still too dazed to be concerned, I simply ask, “Bud?”
He quickly begins with the typical, late-night, “Relax. I’m fine and no one is hurt.”
I immediately sit up and ask, “What happened?”
“It’s icy up here and a slid into a parked car. I wanted to ask what you thought I should do.”
“Okay,” I reply, “I’m assuming you were driving your car when this happened. Is your car damaged?”
“Not in any way that I can tell.”
This is his not-so-subtle way of reminding me that the car I gave him when he moved north to start his first job had plenty of dings and scrapes from my hand. He seems to forget that I ended up with his wreck with 130,000 miles, very little that works inside, and a distinct smell of urine on the most humid South Florida days. “What about the other car?”
“A very small scrape on the bumper is all that I can see.”
I pause for a moment before the next question. “Any witnesses?”
“No. I’ve been waiting here for fifteen or twenty minutes. The snow is getting worse.”
“So, you’re saying that only a complete idiot would be out in this weather, let alone driving?” That should be worth a few Father-of-the-Year points. I also am aware that he got a complete new brake job a week before, and that I put new tires on the car before I traded mine for his. I also am aware that he learned to drive in South Florida where ice is one of the few road hazards that we do not have.
“Dad, what should I do?”
“Okay, you have three choices. One, you can wait for the owner to come out. Obviously this late in the snow on a Friday, this would be foolish. They may not be out until Monday. Two, you can leave a note, and Three, you can leave.”
My son remains strategically silent. “I’ve been through many of these both with and without disclosure and both being the victim and the perpetrator. If their damage is as minimal as you say, I recommend option Three. The fact that you waited this long and that you called to ask shows that you have a conscious. This stuff tends to even out over time.”
“So, Karma?” he asks.
“I suppose so. Drive slowly and text your mother when get home.”
I woke up the next morning and turned on my phone. I noticed that there weren’t any missed calls from my son. I thought about it for a while and wondered why he would call my wife and then have her give me the phone. My wife is an attorney and Director of Compliance. She’s the go-to person for legal issues, rule following, and general comportment. Also, why would she give me the phone at all? While I was talking to him, she was whispering that he should take pictures and document what he was doing. I told her that she was nuts and that creating an evidence trail would eliminate and possibility of plausible deniability on his part. Wait…plausible deniability…
Of course! How could I be so stupid! His talking to me was calculated from the beginning! He knew what I would say. He just wanted to transfer his bad karma to me. And on top of that, his mother knew it as well! Why else would she give me the phone? You know those cartoons where the main character has an ethical dilemma and an angel and a devil pop up on either shoulder? My wife, in this scenario was the angel, and she told him to call the devil! I’ve never felt so used.
I was about to go on the offensive with a series of accusations, but then began to wonder if this might somehow be related to my own car-karma, if you will. I thought back to an accounting of my history with fender benders to see if any patterns emerged.
Somewhere in the mid-seventies, I was driving my car, a hand-me-down from my grandmother, to school. My drivers-side window was fogged so I tried to wipe it off with my right hand. Reaching across my body in this manner apparently caused my left hand to simultaneously turn the steering wheel to the right. I went up on the curb and knocked down a tree, totaling the car. I was uninjured, but when my grandmother came around the corner on her way to work and saw my car with a tree creasing the roof, the look on her face was punishment enough.
Still in High School, I was heading home from a friend’s house traversing a rather bad part of town. There was a fancy Lincoln, with initials stenciled of the trunk double parked. When I tried to navigate around the vehicle, I tapped the corner, breaking a taillight on the Lincoln. I got out of the car and a crowd gathered. The driver of the Lincoln kept saying, “Why did you hit my car?”
An older gentleman reeking of Thunderbird pushed me toward my car and repeated, “Go on about your business, boy.”
Thankfully, a police car drove up. Surprisingly, the officer told me to get in the car and go home. I told my mother what had happened and she called a police friend to see what she could find out. Once he heard about the initials on the car, he said, “JG? Yeah, that’s James Griffith. He’s the biggest pimp and pusher in Lakewood. Your kid was lucky that one of us showed up.”
Once, I was driving with my future wife in Newark, on our way to pick up our friend Dwight, who lived in one of the many housing projects. We are cruising down Central Avenue when a car cuts into my lane. I swerve slightly to avoid a collision, but gently sideswipe a parked car. Theresa is in a panic, since the contact was on her side. “Do you know that you just hit that car!” she shouts.
“Of course I know. What kind of idiot doesn’t know when he hits another car?”
“But you didn’t stop. As a matter of fact, I don’t think you even took your foot off of the gas pedal.”
“Ask Dwight about it.” When we arrived to pick up Dwight, I tell him the story. He just nods.
Theresa asks him, “You don’t think he should have stopped?”
Dwight replies, “Did you notice when Bobby told the story, he didn’t say, ‘I was driving in a bad section of Newark’? He just said, ‘I was driving in Newark.’ Trust me, he did the right thing.”
I’ve even had fender benders where I stopped and still got over. I was driving behind a friend to go play tennis or something. He stopped short, and in order to avoid hitting him, I swerved and put a significant dent in the rear quarter panel of an older car. We get out and I immediately say, “Well, I guess that’s why we have insurance,” and I tell my friend to call the police for an accident report. The other driver hears the word “police” and immediately starts to tap dance.
“Oh, I can probably pull this dent out myself, but it will probably cost me a few hundred bucks.”
I figure that the guy is uninsured, but my friend hasn’t caught on yet. I open my wallet and say, “I have six bucks.”
My idiot companion opens his wallet and says, “I have six dollars as well.” I am about to push him into oncoming traffic when he adds, “Wait, I have my ATM card.” Fortunately, the victim doesn’t hear this and takes the twelve dollars in cash. My friend thinks I ripped the guy off. I think my friend is a moron.
We received a return on our karmic investment years later. Can you guess what turned the Gods against us? Yup, it’s when we finally could afford to buy nicer cars. Our first couple of new cars became such magnets for dings, scratches, and dents that we began to wonder what vile people were must have been in previous lives. Were we despots, loan sharks, or even worse, baseball writers? We endured dozens of dings, but never received a note from any of the fender offenders.
This downward spiral continued as my children began to drive. My middle daughter came home with the side of my van scraped up. She went to the beach with a bunch of friends and while navigating the parking garage, swerved to avoid a car speeding in the other direction. “It was either the wall or the other car,” she told me. To this day, she actually believes that she was doing me a favor.
When my oldest daughter had her learner’s permit, I was taking her for a practice drive around town. Someone in front of her stopped short to make a turn and she hit the brakes. She was rear-ended by the guy behind her. I turned around and saw that his air bags had deployed. I jumped out of the passenger door and told my daughter to slide into the passenger seat. She was in shock, but followed orders. I ran around the front of the car and went to check on the other driver. He was fine, but also assumed that I had been driving.
My daughter had done nothing wrong, but why let her have an accident on her record before she even gets her license? Also, who needs some insurance company taking advantage of her age to deflect their client’s culpability? I looked at it as a simple act of risk management. Here’s what I did not consider. My nine-year-old son was in the back seat. He was a witness to my corruption and this wasn’t the first time. Once, I avoided a ticket when the cop gave me a warning and told me he didn’t want to write me up in front of my kids. I immediately took them for ice cream. I rewarded them for witnessing my screwed up behavior. I made them accomplices and co-conspirators.
I always wanted to be the type of parent who would do anything for his kids. I have to wonder if taking the rap for them or even going as far as to absolve their sins might be going too far. I once hoped that my tombstone would read HE HAD PRINCIPLES. Now, I think maybe it should just say FIXER.
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