Warning: This one’s going to be long, and involves my making a choice that people might criticize me for making. I figure if I’m going to be judgmental about others’ choices (including sometimes my partner’s, as has probably been clear here) it would be hypocritical of me not to put myself up for the same treatment. Just keep in mind that what’s done is done. I’ll have another post soon about my emotional/psychological response to this situation and how it intersects with our adoption process.
Anyway, Lee and I have been mentors for the past year to two girls from a low-income neighborhood in River City, Bethany (age 13) and Jana (age 11). I talk to the girls at least weekly and generally take them out for some activity three weekends out of a month. Our program only does same-gender matches and gets far more women than men as volunteers, so the girls’ younger brothers still haven’t found a mentor after all their waiting. While we’ve tried to include them, 5 kids don’t fit in any one of our cars and it’s hard to find activities that entertain kids across the kindergarten – grade 8 spectrum. So as this school year started, our goal has been that I’ll keep seeing Bethany and Jana as much as we did last year plus focus specifically on helping Bethany prepare for the placement test for an academically competitive high school. Lee will come with us when the outing interests her, and she’ll also try to do something with the boys at least once a month. Their parents support this plan and appreciate the time we spend with the children. While they don’t have a lot of material advantages, this is a family that is close and committed and the parents want their children to get as much as they can out of life. I have great respect for the family and honestly enjoy my time with the kids.
This weekend, Lee and I took the girls downtown for a festival. Lee was ready to leave before the girls were, so she decided to walk home across the river and leave the girls with me while she went home to feed our pets and pick up a few groceries so we could make dinner together when I got home. I let the girls keep playing another hour or so, meaning we’d been out for 5 hours, and then eventually herded them back to the car so they’d be home by dinnertime. On the way back to their house, we were in a car accident.
They live a few blocks from a major street, in a quiet, dilapidated neighborhood so much safer than the place where they lived when we started mentoring. I was driving down their street, in fact explaining to the girls why they couldn’t take their seat belts off even though we were only a block from home, when I stopped at the stop sign before their block. As I headed into the intersection, a car came right into the side of mine, hitting directly on the wheel before the front passenger seat. Bethany and I, sitting in the front, were shaken but okay, though Bethany immediately began crying hysterically. Jana, in the back seat, was absolutely fine. I managed to pull over, get the girls out, hold Bethany while I got on my cell phone to call her mother and get her to walk down to pick the girls up.
What I didn’t do is call the police. For one thing, selfishly, I was at fault. Although I assumed this was a four-way stop, that was just assuming and it turns out the other driver had the right-of-way. It was her quick thinking to turn when she saw me go into the intersection that kept us from hitting harder. Even so, I felt horribly guilty and would have been willing to take what bystanders assured me (from experience with several other accidents at that very corner: note to city planners!) would be about a $300 ticket. But while the other driver’s car was barely scratched, her toddler had been riding unsecured in the back seat. For that and perhaps other reasons, she begged me not to get the police involved, didn’t even want to take the information I gave her about how to get in touch with me if she needed any repairs. She just wanted to get out of there and get her child home, upset about what happened but feeling blessed that neither he nor her car had been hurt.
Each of us was torn between comforting a crying child and trying to assess damage, allot blame. Our cars were both about 15 years old, hers in worse condition than mine had been before the impact buckled my tire. But we were all safe, which was all that mattered to either of us. Though she’d started out yelling at me for not letting her through before leaving the stop sign, she quieted as soon as Bethany got out of the car in need of comforting. Each of us was asking about each other’s health, the states of the frightened children. While I know every insurance company says never to admit blame, I readily did, and I think that calmed her too. I wasn’t going to lie, wasn’t going to be confrontational with someone who’d had the presence of mind to minimize what could have been a very serious accident. So we agreed that she forgave me but she wanted to go, and she left.
That left me with a weeping 13-year-old and a car I wouldn’t be able to drive out of there. Bethany and Jana’s parents were very understanding, didn’t seem to blame me at all for endangering their children. Since I’d left Lee at home, she was on the scene with her car and a phone book to look for tow trucks within 10 minutes. Unfortunately, everywhere we called had no trucks available and was going to charge us huge amounts of money since getting this car the 10 miles home would require crossing state lines. As she took care of this for me while I stood, shaken and not particularly able to respond, people from the neighborhood began to come over to talk to me.
There during the accident and through my whole wait was Pops, who’s lived in the area and raised his kids there for 30+ years. In between giving me his opinion on what had broken on my car (all accurate, as were all similar comments from other passers-by) he gave us a little history of what the street had been like, how it had gone through better and worse times in his years there. He told me more about the woman who’d hit my car, herself a lifelong resident. And after we found out his friends’ towing service was closed in the evenings, he sent a message to his son who contacted a friend who contacted a friend who showed up on his motorcycle to make sure the car could get drive onto a lift to be carried on a tow truck. His truck arrived a few minutes later, driven by a guy who was new on the job. The towing company owner, whom I’d never met before and who didn’t even know Pops, told the driver to take me across the river and just charge $50 for the whole trip, about what other companies would have charged to
As I was getting into the cab and leaving, with Lee driving her own car to pick me up again at the garage where we’d leave my car, several of the neighborhood guys reminded me what the parts should cost to get my car fixed so that I wouldn’t get ripped off and I assured them that my mechanic is a friend of my family and would do a good, fair job. Lee said, as she always does, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” I generally disagree with that because while she’s someone who knows a lot of people, I’m someone who’s more comfortable knowing things. There’s really no way, though, to avoid admitting that she’s right in this and many other cases, though she doesn’t have to be so smug about it when she is.
This is going to sound like stereotyping, but if the same accident had happened in front of a group of witnesses in a ritzier part of River City, I don’t think I would have gotten the same sort of support. I’m a white woman driving two white girls and that would have helped, but I really think part of this was that I was in a community where everyone has to help out a bit or no one can get by. The assumption is that when there’s trouble you kick in and when you’re having trouble others will do the same. While people were helpful initially, it wasn’t until after Bethany’s mom came to get her and they understood that I was a mentor to girls on the street that they really started giving suggestions.
While I’d been mentoring to help Bethany and Jana get enrichment their school and family can’t give them, I hadn’t thought about how I’ve given back to the community in some sense as well. I mean, I know they bring home stories and leftovers to their brothers, but I hadn’t thought of myself as belonging to their community at all until then. But it’s true; I do more than duck in and out to pick them up. I talk to teachers, advocate for the children, see what parks are good places for supervised play. I’ve taken their brothers with me when we’ve gone to a splash park and Lee’s taken them to play basketball. We’re getting to know their cousins and uncles and grandmothers. I guess it trickles down.
In our home community, we have plenty of friends and far more acquaintances. Whenever we’re out walking, people who know us honk as they drive by, though Lee suspects it’s because she’s the sole black lesbian and thus easy to identify. We’ve had neighbors come over when they were locked out of their houses. We have children on blocks in several directions who know our dog Pocky by name and come out to pet her when we’re out with her or ask about her when we’re alone. And when we have children, maybe those children will originally be from lower/middle-middle-class communities like ours, but the truth is that children from neighborhoods like the one where Bethany and Jana live are overrepresented in out-of-home care. I hadn’t thought about it as explicitly before the events of this weekend, but I want them to live in a community of some sort that will accept and support them in a way that McMansion neighborhoods wouldn’t. I want them to get to be part of a network of kindness and mutual reliance, though not in the web of poverty. We’ve decided that we’ll aim to be in our house another year, but we’re already house-hunting in the next town over, more diverse in racial and class respects than ours and with more educational opportunities.
I’m waiting to hear today whether my car will need one very expensive part after the alignment is tested. If not, repairs will stay well below my deductible anyway. Lee drove me to work until today, when I was able to borrow the car my out-of-town brother isn’t driving. My network is there, I know, but not explicitly so. I do believe it would catch me if I needed it to.