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The amateur athlete’s speedball
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 18 — Running the gauntlet
When I was growing up, Ocean Beach wore a permanent shroud of blowing grey fog. I only remember going there at night to crouch around a fire of splintered pallets and pull off a bottle of Old Crow—never in the daytime. There’s way less fog these days, and the sun is no longer a stranger to the far west side of San Francisco. Only a few hard men went out to surf in the old days, but now it’s a playground, and when the wind blows, the surfers are replaced by those of us who use kites to pull ourselves into the waves.
The change in the weather has made it far more attractive, but OB still demands respect. Swells roll straight in from thousands of miles of open ocean onto sandbars that shift constantly with the strong currents pushing in and out of the bay, and a couple of hours in the water there felt like a battle—one that I chose, but that still always carried a threat.
One summer evening back in the heart of my kitesurfing years, I hauled myself out of the water there, drained, almost stumbling from the cold and exertion—and euphoric, suffused with the electric glimmer of having kept myself alive in the elements. As I stripped off my wetsuit, I could already feel the pull from the bar at the Chalet, right across the Great Highway. In those days I always wanted a beer after being in the ocean, not just to slake my thirst, but to bring myself back down to earth after the thrashing myself in the double-overhead surf and twenty-five mile-an-hour wind. I wanted soothing, and shelter, and something to swallow that wasn’t salt water—and I needed to keep the ball rolling, from one kind of stimulation to the next.
I ran into a few friends at the bar, and after an hour or so, three pints plus a shot of tequila had made for the perfect amateur athlete’s speedball. Adrenaline and alcohol, probably the oldest one-two there is, and I was awash in what felt like the thrill of victory; free to be right there on that Tuesday afternoon, wind-blown and salt-crusted, buzzing with aliveness and surrounded by my friends and fellow watermen.
Some had families; not me, but still, I knew when to call it. We were celebrating, not drowning ourselves, and I stopped short of a full heat-on, for sure. A couple of minutes later I was cruising up Fulton Street away from the beach, my toes still half numb from the ocean, enjoying the heat coming through from the driver’s seat onto my back, happy as I’d ever been.
Happy—but not content. I was carrying too much energy to just go home and sit there alone. I thought for a minute, fumbling with the tangle of cables in the center console and steering with my knee until I got the headset plugged into my phone, as it occurred to me to share some of my newfound lust for life with my old Thursday night drinking partner. I often wished that my phone would ring more often, and I thought, well, maybe he’s thinking the same thing. I think of this now as if you want something, give it away—and at the moment, I thought just call—and so I did.
As I listened to his phone ring, I had my eyes on the vehicles packed in one after another along the edge of Golden Gate park to my right: several cars, a converted short bus, two more cars, and pickup, another car, and then a white van.
My friend picked up. While I was used to oscillating between excitement and flat-out funk, as long as I’d known him, this guy was almost always in neutral at best, and—no surprise—his overall mood hadn’t improved with a decade as a defense lawyer. I was casually repeating the same suggestion on him that I’d made several times in the past—that shifting his skills into a private-eye operation might well make for a less dreary day-to-day, and he was nonplussed yet again, as I rolled up on the white van, 15 over the limit, hugging the left side of the lane.
Fulton is two lanes each direction through there, but it shouldn’t be. It’s narrow, with no separation between the traffic going either direction, and packed with parked cars on both sides. It was clear that plenty hadn’t moved for some time; people were living right there, half in traffic, half in the juniper woods growing the old dunes.
I don’t know whether I would have blown over, but there was no doubt that I’d had a few drinks, and I was salt-water drowsy on top of that. My reflexes certainly weren’t tip top.
I was running the gauntlet, and I almost made it. Almost.
Just as I was cruising by the white van, the door swung wide open, jutting out in front my car.
My lawyer friend heard the whole thing over the phone—the sound of metal on metal, exploding safety glass, and then me, yelling “Mother–fucker! Fuck! Fuck!” but he was imperturbable as always, super dry, and so all I got back was, “um, what happened?”
I was in some minor shock—still rolling up the boulevard, and I hadn’t slowed down. My heart was hammering as I looked right and left, trying to assess the damage.
There was a pile of shattered auto glass in the passenger seat, and more in my lap. The right side mirror was dangling off its mount.
“This fucking van!” I said. “The guy threw his door open right in front of me! I swerved, but not fast enough. I got glass all over me. Motherfucker!”
“Was there a person? Did you hit someone?”
I hadn’t seen anyone, but I’d just figured it was a guy in the van.
“No. I didn’t even see an arm—just the door swinging out,” I said.
There was silence on the other end of the line as I brushed glass onto the floor. I was already in an awkward position at best, at least four blocks away from where I’d hit the van, and I still hadn’t stopped. I glanced in the rear-view; nobody was behind me. Maybe nobody had even seen what had happened.
I don’t know if I would’ve blown over, but I didn’t have time to stop to think, and I didn’t think about stopping. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to deal with the consequences; I grew up avoiding the police, and it was automatic. I wasn’t getting done for a DUI—not me. I kept going.
Only a few seconds had passed when my friend spoke up with the critical question.
“Did you stop?” he asked.
“No,” I said—and it was too late to turn around. I knew I had to run.
“I turned into the park on Eighth. I don’t think anyone saw me.”
Now the guy-who-wasn’t-a-PI spoke with more energy. “Drive home,” he said, the words coming clear and quick. “Use back streets. Put the car in the garage, and take it in tomorrow—not your regular body shop. Pay cash.”
“OK. Thanks man. Sorry. Later.”
We hung up, and I yanked the headset out of my ears. I was in a half panic, expecting that I might get pulled over any second, forced to clear action by the feeling that I had no alternative but to go through with the path I’d unconsciously chosen.
I’d knew the slow way home—wind through the park, over 17th and then down through the Mission. I didn’t know what the car looked like, but it was already getting dark, and I just tried to play it cool, even though I’m sure my pulse was in the 180’s as I worked my way across the city.
I didn’t know until I pulled into my garage that the impact with the door of the white van had pretty much peeled off the right side of my car. The passenger door was intact, but the two rear body panels on that side were entirely gone—sheared off and left in a pile of parts on the street.
I took my time getting rid of the broken glass with my neighbor’s Shop-Vac, wondering the whole time if somehow my vehicle could be traced. Of course the body panels could be identified, but for some reason I felt confident that something I had in common with whoever was living in his white van along the park there was that neither of us wanted the police up in our business.
Somehow I managed to get to sleep. First thing in the morning I dashed around the corner to a no-name body shop and asked them to patch things up, off the books. They took my cash, no questions asked, and two days later the car was good as new.
I got away with it. Another narrow escape, and I knew it damn well.
Of course I knew what would have been the right thing to do. Stop the car. Turn around. Go back and see what had actually happened. Call the police, wait for them to show up.
None of those things even came to mind as I drove away from the scene.
Somehow, I found myself as someone who’d done a hit and run—and suddenly I could see how a split-second move, an unconscious, selfish impulse could result in real disaster. I was still nowhere near making any major changes in my own life, but I could see that this crash was a message, much like the anxiety attack, or whatever it was, that I’d had in my kitchen a couple of years before.
I didn’t know exactly what the deeper message was—but one thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want either of those things to ever happen again, and one was easy enough to be sure of. I’d been drinking and driving since I had started driving, and I’d always gotten away with it, even though I knew that couldn’t last. It didn’t occur to me to stop drinking, but after my own little taste of true crime that afternoon, I did stop drinking and driving.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, one man's proof that despite what may seem like our inability to hear it, and all of our attempts to avoid it, we can all learn to listen to ourselves, and to act upon the inner voice of our self, our sanity and our soul.
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Here’s the table on contents for the memoir. You might also enjoy some of my other work, such as:
or any of the other essays that you can find here:
What does this bring up for you?
Ever felt like you got away with something? Like you deserved to get away with something?
What did you learn from that experience?
What’s your own relationship with adrenaline? with alcohol? How are they inter-related?
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