This past week, a young person ran into the back of my car.
Oddly, I anticipated this…not that I am claiming I had a psychic moment; but in the line of traffic merging onto one badly designed thoroughfare (Route 1) and onto an even worse one (Route 218) I felt that the car in front of me hesitating at the stop sign led to some odd force of energy that extended to the jeep hovering close to my rear bumper…that some delayed force passed itself there, that was released with a…
Being from Ohio, I had an image of New Jersey implanted in my head…it had something to do with mobsters, and factories, and concrete…of rows of cash4gold stores; keys made, bills paid! stores; and gas stations. Living in New Jersey I find this image to be only partially true. When I was a cataloger, I remember cataloging a book of photos of Eastern Europe, focusing on photos of former Soviet-era buildings that had been abandoned; my commute to work reminds me of these photographs…stores for lease, rent, sale, or any terms agreeable; abandoned bars that have faded signs promoting long past happy hour sales. It is with irony that on my way I see a wooded lot for sale, the Realtor’s name being Stephen King…I drive by and suspect they are haunted.
It was in this geography of concrete and adult book stores that I got out of the car to survey the damage, and noticed a cavernous pit on the bumper…a young man emerged from the jeep, swearing, clutching his mobile tightly. I’m not sure when our society got to a point where clutching a mobile is like holding a rosary, but many of us do it; that his was so ready at hand made me wonder if an accident that seemed illogical (why did he drive forward when I was clearly in front of him stopped?) was really the fault of a quick text message.
The young man passed me his insurance card…and I noticed a female name imprinted…which meant he was insured by his mom, which explained how readily he both cried and muttered obscenities. A friend of mine once pointed out that whenever he traveled with someone, if he missed a train or got lost, he was miserable; but traveling alone a badly planned excursion was no cause for concern. This young man was not just concerned about some financial cost, but was equally concerned about the discourse he would hear on his failure as a driver.
“Do you want to just handle this outside of insurance, might be easier?” he asked, hopefully.
I learned to drive when I was 20, and I remember most equating driving with subsuming reality; the speed at which I drove did not have a physical connection to me…the sound of the engine being the only tangible indicator, to me, at my speed in a physical sense. Thus, it seemed to be a divorcement from a reality. My friend taught me to drive, as I had no family to teach me; it was winter in Ohio and we drove along frozen landscapes, through town centers with coat bundled shoppers darting across streets. It is an act that both demands attention and yet can be deceptively light cognitive work…
I’m 35 now, and in the time I have been driving, this was my first accident; however I was aware of the discussion that followed as an overtly political one. His desire not to use insurance was born out of a desire to avoid the system in which using insurance plunges one into; not necessarily for our mutual ease.
“I think we should phone the police.” I said. “They can sort this out.”
The young man looked crestfallen, and immediately made a phone call.
“My sister wants to talk with you.” He said.
I was surprised by this request, but thought maybe the sister wanted to see if the young man was okay.
It was not that, however; she too, was requesting I not involve the insurance company.
“I’m a cop, so, you can trust me…I will pay for the damage.”
The fact was, though, I did not trust her.
Nor did I trust the cop who came to look at the accident scene; he, too, suggested not using insurance.
On the east coast, police look weary; and indeed it must be days of filing reports…on such low level incidents as small dents in bumpers.
I expressed I would rather file a report, that there are official channels for handling this sort of thing.
He sighed, filled out the report, and expressed with extreme disinterest he was off to investigate a robbery at the local Walmart. I imagined him leaving our scene to determine who decided the latest military shooting video game was worth having, but not worth paying for.
Later that day, the young man’s mom phoned me; this time the request to not use insurance was more emphatic.
“It’s just a minor fender-bender; so I think you could meet me at the dealership, I’ll pay for it, and…”
“I’ve already contacted the insurance company…” I began.
This admission on my part resulted in a litany of curses; that I had made a huge mistake.
With that, she hung up.
In many ways the root of her argument was right; in the end, the insurance companies win…the cost of the repair will be doubly paid to the company in her increased rates; and in many ways the company finding fault with her may actually result in them collecting more money than not. My car will be restored to exactly the state it was in before; and the state could get its cut by requiring the young man to pay a fine.
This experience in not necessarily remarkable, but it leads me to the conclusion that many systems are in place to make us do what is defined as right. Insurance assumes people are unable to trust one another enough to do what is fair; the law presents a framework for how we treat each other by its definition of fairness. Bruno LaTour wrote about technologies that make us moral, pointing to his automobile, that refuses to turn on unless the seat belt is fastened..a kind of forced morality and responsibility. Yet, LaTour discovers that by clicking the seat belt and sitting on it (not wearing it) the car starts; he victoriously declares he can be immoral again! LaTour’s larger point is not that we should not wear seat belts, but that any system that is designed to make us moral, or ethical, or responsible, is bound to fail because humans devise ways to operate against that system, to undermine it. The tax system in another example; reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, and brilliant novel, The Pale King, reveals a complex system of rules and procedures to get tax money and how this convoluted system of human construction is at odds with a public eager to push against it. This novel reveals the tax system as we all guess it to be; a ridiculous game of creating procedures and regulations and human infrastructure that most try to circumvent.
We may decry these systems, but we can’t operate without them, in nearly every circumstance.
The circumstance in which this necessity does not seem to apply is authentic love. When thinking of this essay, I hesitated at the word love, a word that in the end means nothing. Not because it lacks intrinsic value, but because advertising systems have co-opted it so that love is applied with the same vigor to human connection as it is to human infatuation with one’s hair thickness and radiance. Love is not quite the word, but has to suffice, for any other word that could be used, or made up, if given enough use, would equally lose real meaning. Intrinsic love (there I used a phrase) seems to be able to operate outside of this need for systems; in can by itself encourage us to do something in the vein of being right without providing a consequence if not done so. We may disagree with a mother or sister a lot of the time, and find their language towards us hurtful at times, but will in an instant be there when they need. It is only when it fails us that system can be brought in…courts, lawyers, the bowels of the law from which one can go and never quite emerge.
It may seem cliche to end here, with some trite phrase like “all you need is love” that seems too effervescent, too ephemeral. Because love is not all you need…money, skill, resilience, many things related to the opposite of love, are required. But, humor me…maybe love has a function of counter balance; the right kind of love can help us in those spaces between those systems. In those systems we often have to be on guard, to think about motives, strategy; love can operate so that one is in tune with oneself.
So, in the end, maybe I am writing some rubbish like “all you need is love”…because there has to be something more than insurance regulation, taxation systems, and legal infrastructure that can be relied on. Or, maybe not…but it’s a myth I am ready to buy into.