Thursday, June 4, 2015

On Negligence




Clouds collided in the humid sky and gusts of warm rain smeared the air. The puddles had a greasy colloidal look, vermin-engendering, swarming with mosquito larvae. The trees shook down water like wet dogs and the air smelled of worms squirming up from the mud, pink broken bracelets lying on the sidewalks. In less than a week, school would be out for the summer and kids were zooming around town, accelerating too fast and braking too hard, everyone wired by the onset of vacation. Graduation parties huddled in garages while outdoor grills smoked and hissed in the rain and the pavement was covered with the rotors of seeds ejaculated by trees, spermatozoa-shaped pods accumulating under foot and slippery with decay. In the humidity, your skin itches and chafes and the world is a blur of drizzle and grey, indistinct horizons glimpsed between green indistinct hedges and shrubs and trees punctuated, now and then, by spire of decomposing lilac. It’s hard to stay alert, hard to focus your eyes, hard to avoid accidents.

I’m walking the dog, splashing through sidewalk-puddles and, ahead of me, I see an SUV backing out of a driveway, windshield wipers flapping and a sullen, petulant child glaring out at me from behind the wet glass, a pale face like a balloon in the front passenger seat. The woman driving the SUV sees me and our eyes meet for an instant – I’ve stopped to stand motionless on the sidewalk adjacent to her driveway. She is distracted by me and doesn’t see a kid in black car zipping by and so backs directly into his lane of travel. The kid is a mean-looking twenty-something and he deftly swerves to avoid the battering-ram back of the big SUV. After narrowly avoiding the crash, he slams on his brakes and comes to a stop about four car-lengths down the street, hitting his horn to signal to the woman. She pays no attention to him and, indeed, it is doubtful that she is aware of his car at all. Reversing her direction, she drives off blithely. The kid in the black car wants revenge and, so, makes a sharp left and, I think, plans to circle the block and catch up with her so that he can confront the careless driver who has almost bruised his car. But he doesn’t understand the geometry of the neighborhood into which he has turned – the streets are arranged in an asymmetrical grid and many of them dead-end on a hilltop that overlooks the road that the kid would have to reach to complete a round-the-block circuit. I can hear the kid’s rage as he guns his engine looking for an outlet to the neighborhood in which he is trapped. Meanwhile, the negligent mother in the SUV is putting block after block between herself and her pursuer. Finally, the kid’s car climbs the hill toward the intersection that the SUV passed through three or four minutes before. The avenger blows the stop sign, almost hitting another high school girl in her father’s Buick. The girl in the Buick leans on her horn and, then, makes a sharp turn to pursue the kid in the black car who is, in turn, pursuing the SUV that must be a mile or more away.

The next morning, it is still raining and the river is sloshing over into its perimeter of lagoon and swamp in the drowned forest east of town. We are driving to a restaurant for lunch. Somehow, the mosquitos are biting between the raindrops. The restaurant occupies an old mill next to the dam on the river and the green water is churning over the spillway. At this place, the river bends and so the road running parallel to the river also bends and the curve is blind. A patron of the restaurant who has, perhaps, enjoyed a few drinks with his lunch backs heedlessly onto the road and blocks the curve so that an approaching car has to skid sideways to avoid a crash. As we signal to turn into a parking space, a little kid breaks free from his mother’s hand and tries to throw himself under the wheels of our car. A fisherman falls out of a boat on the river and drowns. A few years earlier, some kids swam up to the dam to stand in the sluice of water rolling over its brink – one of them tripped and fell into the washing machine undertow next to the dam and was held under water for almost day before his body surfaced. On the way back from lunch, we pass the towers of the Northeast Power Plant, fluted with metal fins and painted a sunburst yellow. The river next to the power plant has been badly polluted by hydrocarbons leaking from the fuel retained on site to power the utility’s turbines. I point out the substation where a man was electrocuted three years ago when he tried to measure a live circuit-breaker with a steel ruler.

The next day, I am pushing a grocery cart in the Walmart parking lot, leaning forward in a gale of wet wind laced with drizzle. One of the cart corrals is busted; someone has backed into it and knocked down the pipe stanchions that hold the shopping carts. An old woman gets too close to the smashed tangle of pipe and metal fasteners, catches her ankle in the debris, and pitches forward, falling on her face. She screams. In the next lane in the parking lot, a kid wearing a baseball cap is leading his daughter to their car. The little girl is about 4 years old and she is eating something. The kid’s arm is sleeved in bright tattoos. A motorist leaving the parking lot looks to her right to see the old lady struggling in the wreckage of the cart corral and becomes distracted. She doesn’t see the little girl holding her father’s hand a couple car lengths ahead of her, drives forward obliviously, and grazes the child with her bumper – the kid squeals and spins but doesn’t fall. The woman who has nudged the child isn’t aware of the impact and speeds forward toward the parking lot’s outlet. The kid with the tattoo shrieks: "You didn’t see my fucking little daughter? You didn’t see MY FUCKING LITTLE DAUGHTER!" He deserts the child and runs after the car pumping his fists in the air. The child stands in the center of the lane, blocking a pickup truck full of Hispanic men who lean on their horn. The child’s father slips in a puddle and almost falls – his tennis shoes kick up a skid-spray of white water droplets.

People imagine the end of the world as mushroom clouds sprouting like toadstools from a wet, rotting lawn or earthquakes dashing down skyscrapers or an asteroid cratering several counties under a jaundice-colored toxic plume or Yellowstone erupting or Mount Rainier shaking down millions of tons of water from its glaciers, immense landslides, avalanches, tsunamis, onslaughts of ebola, millions of explosions, war and pestilence. But what if the apocalypse is more prosaic, merely a concatenation of carelessness? What if we aren’t destroyed by Promethean hubris, but by sheer stupidity?

The clerk is texting when he rings up the cottage cheese in your groceries twice. You can’t sort out the error because the manager is detained in lawn and garden where improperly stacked bags of fertilizer have collapsed on a hapless customer. The ambulance skids out of control on oil leaking from a wrecked tanker truck. The bridge is too low for the load. Sponge and surgical retractor are left in the incision. The ferry overturns in the river and the cruise ship runs aground and someone has cut the heroin with powdered bleach. The colonoscope ruptures the bowel and the IV misses the vein and infuses into tissue and everyone is driving drunk or distracted and, by oversight and omission, the freight is left untethered so that the electrical generator can spill out on the freeway and, like a cannonball, decimate a lane of traffic. The vital communication goes awry and the competence necessary to repair the intricate device is wanting. The deadline is missed and the statute of limitation ignored. A bolt is not properly tightened and never inspected. The frost on the sidewalk goes unnoticed until the hip is broken. The bridge collapses. The embankment is too low for the flood. Only after the explosion do the survivors recall the faint scent of rotten eggs permeating their neighborhood. The aluminum ladder pointed into the bright sun overhead collides with the high-voltage wire. The workers plunge from the scaffolding or the water-tower that they are painting or the overpass or the transmission tower that is about to fall in any event because its guy wires have corroded in the perpetual damp and dew.

What if our systems and artifices simply reached a point that we could no longer competently manage them? What if no one knew how to fix the machine when it broke? What if we were destroyed, not because we were so clever and proud and overweening, but, because, in fact we were merely stupid and careless. The pink in the sky above the burning suburb is a blush of shame suffusing the whole world.

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