Seconds after the accident, the teenager lay in the road near his damaged bike.
He’d been pedaling on a gravel shoulder, a guitar case strapped to his back, when he veered abruptly onto a two-lane street. The car struck him with a sickening thwunk, and he tumbled across the pavement, bike and body skidding, asphalt shaving his skin. When his momentum finally stopped, he looked at me, eyes wide. And he screamed.
“It’s okay!” I shouted, running from the sidewalk onto the street. “I’ll call 911 — it’s okay!”
I tapped my phone as the driver jerked onto the shoulder. He jogged to us — “You pulled onto the road!” — then gathered himself, directing traffic around the scene. A 911 operator took my call: Where are you? What’s the cross street? Is the victim conscious? Is he breathing okay?
He was conscious, though shaky, still sprawled in the road. He’d stopped screaming. As the minutes passed, he even joked about the rips in his new summer shorts. But he was still wincing and wheezing, the shock still draining his face. And then, as we waited for an ambulance, he did something that startled me.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and called his music teacher.
“Hi — I’m afraid I can’t make it to my lesson tonight,” he said, never mentioning the crash or the road rash that streaked his arms.
It was a strangely courteous gesture given the high-stress situation — like saying “thank you” and “please” while strapped in an electric chair.
So why make that call?
It was, I believe, a fundamental human response. The need to regain control when you’ve lost all control. And yet the entire incident exposed our lack of control, the random ways that lives intersect. Consider this: I’d never walked the route that placed me at the accident. My commuter train had halted one stop before my usual destination — an earlier Amtrak train had struck a pedestrian, causing gridlock — so I left the air-conditioned railcar for a hot walk home. Since I was wearing my workout clothes (the change in plans meant I couldn’t go to the gym), I strapped on my backpack and ran — all of which placed me in the exact spot to witness the crash and call 911.
Who knows? If I’m not there, maybe the driver flees the scene instead of helping. (After directing traffic, he left before the police arrived.) If the biker stops to scratch an itch, if he pedals faster or slower, maybe the accident never happens. Our futures can change in an instant. In June 2016, a woman died at Virginia Beach, Virginia, after being struck by a wind-blown umbrella. What are the odds?
Luck shapes our lives more than we care to admit. We take steps to protect ourselves: We wear seat belts, we wash our hands, we don’t vacation in war zones. But random events can pluck us from quiet safety, like wind whisking paper in a breeze. Wrong place, wrong time. Right place, right time. We are slaves to chance — and that can cause anxiety. In a survey on American fears released in October 2016 by Chapman University, two of the top four fears involved terrorism, that great invisible threat of modern life. Yet our odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States are 1 in 20 million.
We can use logic to diminish our fears, but we can’t entirely escape risk. As science writer Kayt Sukel notes in her book The Art of Risk, “There’s risk involved in what you decide to eat for breakfast and in accepting a marriage proposal.
There’s risk in going out in the world. And there’s risk in staying home. Risk is everywhere.” And sometimes we make risks, well, riskier, as the teenage biker made clear with one more surprising, supine comment.
“I wish I’d worn my helmet,” he said.
That’s right — he’d skipped an action he could control. And yet somehow, as his body tumbled across the blacktop, his head never hit the street.
After the ambulance arrived, the EMTs helped him sit up. They placed him on a stretcher. Earlier, after I had called 911, an off-duty EMT drove by. She pulled over, asked him questions, comforted him, took his pulse. Another chance encounter, and another lesson: At their core, most people are kind.
When I finished answering questions for the police, my legs were shaking. I was dripping sweat, a combination of stress, heat, and my post-train run. My wife picked me up and drove me to my usual station, where I’d biked that morning. Yes, I’m a biker too, and I was leery of riding home. I could still see the collision, could hear the teenager’s scream, could feel the fear that widened his eyes. If I felt jittery, I can only imagine his anxiety the next time he straddles a bike.
But I see only one response to fear and to our powerlessness in the universe. And so I unlocked my bike, strapped on my helmet, and pedaled home on the asphalt trail.
Ken Budd has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, McSweeney’s, and National Geographic and is the author of The Voluntourist. For more, visit thevoluntouristbook.com. Listen to an interview with author Ken Budd, where he recounts the events that led him to write this article.
This article is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.