Walking to work one morning, I had somehow the sense of an accident—someone shouting? hitting metal?—and I turned and saw a group of cars stopped at the light and, in between a taxi and another car, a young black bicycle messenger and his bike crumpled on the pavement. “Why the fuck did you have to do that!” the messenger yelled. A young white man with a briefcase was slipping out of the other side of the taxi and hurrying down the side street.
The messenger gave a pained yell and looked at his hands and the sky, begging Fate to tell him—“Why couldn’t this fucking jerk use the curb side like a normal human being!”
It was clear what had happened. The taxi had pulled up to the curb, but the white man, wanting to get across the street as quickly as possible, had opened the traffic-side door, without looking to see if anyone was coming. At this very moment the messenger had been shooting between the taxi and another car; he hit the opening door full force. His legs were bent in odd directions in the midst of the tubes of his broken bike.
“Are you all right?” I asked, approaching.
“Fuck no, I’m not all right!” the messenger yelled. “How can I possibly be all right?”
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“What the fuck do you think?”
I went across the street to use a pay phone.
As I was speaking to the 911 operator, the cab driver, a South Asian man, came over. “You saw the accident,” he said.
“Not really,” I said. “I didn’t really see it until after it was over.”
“You saw that it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “The passenger, he was the one.”
The driver wanted me to give him my name and phone number so that I could be a witness for him in any potential legal proceeding.
The sound of the accident, the crumpled body in the middle of traffic had given me a shot of adrenalin. I had been excited to come to the rescue. Now my New York wariness returned. I kept my name and number to myself.
By the time we got back to the other side of the street, the bicyclist had gotten up. He appeared bruised at most. Even his bicycle did not appear badly damaged, but he said to the driver, “At least give me something so I can get the damn bike fixed.”
“I’m sorry. It was not my fault,” the driver repeated.
I continued on toward my office, leaving the two men arguing there, the ambulance on its way. I was enraged by the reaction of the young white man—like as not late for an appointment, afraid of being sued, afraid of young black men—not even stopping to make sure that a man he had—accidentally, yet violently—knocked down was all right. But at the same time, I didn’t feel entirely happy with myself. To survive in the city you have to be savvy and alert enough not to be the dupe of other peoples’ games. At the least sign of suffering I had let down my guard.
For all I am sure that the bicyclist had indeed been hurt—and was going to feel very sore—still I had the sense that, at the moment of the accident, as his life was flashing before his eyes, so too were memories of other messengers who had gotten in serious accidents and who, even if crippled for life, had won sufficiently lucrative legal judgments to be able to retire.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Crack-Up”: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I was the one with the Ivy League degree, professional job and literary citation; it was the bicycle messenger who met the test.