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Sitting Ducks

by Julia Sneden

I had a small accident a couple of weeks ago, the third in almost 50 years of driving. It happened in my own driveway. I scraped the side of my car as I backed away from a tow truck that had been called to give me a jump-start. I was hurried and flustered and looking to the right to avoid my sons car, parked beside me, and simply didnt pay attention to what I was doing on the left. Damage to the truck was negligible; damage to my car was less than my deductible; damage to my self-esteem was massive. Although it was my third accident, it was the only one in which I was at fault. 
      The first accident happened about 20 years ago, when a large Mercedes slid sidewise on an icy road, brushed against my little Mazda and whipped me through a fence. The Mercedes drove on. I didnt. 
      That was probably my first experience in being a true victim. Until then I had accepted (sometimes grudgingly) a share of the blame for most of the unpleasant moments of my life. Blame is an unpleasant burden, but shouldering it acknowledges that one is, at least, an active participant in the situation, and not a passive victim. I find it much easier to deal with being held accountable than with feeling helpless in the hands of capricious Fate.
I have always thought of myself as a fairly savvy person, able to cope with almost anything. I have traveled across a couple of continents, have no fear of being alone in strange places, and am not easily intimidated by adverse circumstances. I dont find victim-hood to my liking. Scraping my car through my own carelessness wasnt fun, but it wasnt nearly as depressing as being the victim of a hit-and-run Mercedes.
     Which brings us to my second accident. A few weeks ago, I was rear-ended while sitting at a red light. There was a car stopped on my right and a car stopped on my left in the left turn lane. When the woman hit me, hard, I was knocked about 20 feet into the intersection, and narrowly missed the cars from the feeder road, two lanes of traffic streaming onto the parkway with a green light. I sat for a moment, stunned, and then I got out of my car and walked back to look at the damage. Man, I thought, I was a sitting duck at that stoplight.  The poor person who hit me is going have insurance rate hikes that go through the roof.
The other woman was standing in front of her car.
      Are you all right? I asked
       Oh, my poor car! she moaned. The front left fender was badly smashed in.
      Are you all right? I repeated.
      Yeah, she said. You?
      I realized that my left shoulder was very sore, from the plunge into the seatbelt shoulder restraint. I moved it gently. Just sore, I thought, and said so. I didnt want to claim instant injury and add to her distress.
      The police came after a short while, and when the officer had checked our positions, he asked us to move to a nearby gas station. When I started to drive, I found that I was dragging the tailpipe and muffler, and the car was steering strangely. At the gas station, I went quickly to call my husband, who would be worrying about me because by then I was very late getting home. The officer began taking the other drivers information while I called. When I came back and gave him my documents and report, he informed me that the other womans version of the story was different from mine. She claimed that the light had been green. Any sympathy I felt for her dissolved instantly.
      Then why were there cars stopped on both sides of us? I asked her. She grinned at me.
      So sue me, she laughed. 
      The officer intervened quickly. I explained to her that since she ran into you from behind, its essentially her fault because one is supposed to maintain sufficient stopping distance, no matter what the circumstances, he said. He turned to her. Even if the light had been green, that wouldnt give you the right to hit this woman.
     I was mildly grateful for his defense, but it didnt take the sting out of her painting me as a foolish old lady who sits at green lights and causes accidents. I found myself wondering whether she would have told so bold a lie if I had not had a few gray hairs. I felt that I had become a sitting duck in more ways than one. I am now of a certain age, and look it. And much as I hate it, people feel they can treat me differently because of it. Some of my friends believe they receive such treatment just because they are female, but frankly, until I hit my late 50s, I had very few problems commanding respect.
      There were several witnesses to the accident who were not needed because it was clearly the other womans fault, but I found myself longing to find every one of them and have them attest to the color of that light. Its a good thing I dont have high blood pressure, because my sense of outrage was at stroke level.
      The womans insurance company, however,  couldnt have been nicer. They agreed to rent me a car for however long it took to fix mine, and when I explained that it would have to be an automobile with a trunk large enough to carry my mothers wheelchair, they assured me that there would be no problem. I wrote down all the appropriate numbers and called a rental agency that would pick me up. I explained my special needs to the clerk at the rental desk, and he promised to send a car right over.
      Two hours later, a driver in a bright red Neon showed up in my driveway. I took the Neon to be the drivers transportation, but when we got to the agency, I was surprised to discover that it was my rental car. When I objected, and reminded the young clerk that I needed a car with a trunk large enough for my mothers wheelchair, he cheerfully informed me that he had called the insurance company, and they would cover a compact car only. He added that I could certainly pay the difference if I wanted to. I insisted on calling the insurance company, and asked to use his phone. 
      Oh, he said, Ill call them for you. He dialed some numbers, and after a short conversation, said cheerfully: Well, youre in luck; theyve decided to pay for the larger car. 
      They decided that about six hours ago, when I called them, I said quietly. He looked at me, smiled, and shrugged
     The problem is that I dont have a larger car on the lot, he said. (I restrained myself from saying: So thats what this is all about!). If youll wait half an hour, Ive got one coming in. I couldnt walk off in a huff inasmuch as Id arrived without a car, so I sat down to wait.  Half an hour dragged by. No larger car appeared.
      The young man then offered me a sport utility vehicle. We looked at it, but I felt constrained to point out that to get into it, one had to be able to climb, and there was no way that a 410, 93-year-old, wheelchair-bound woman was going to be able to handle it. 
For another hour, I sat in the office, waiting for a larger car to be returned. Finally, I made some cranky noises, and was loaned a small car to drive home, with the promise that a larger one would be exchanged for it as soon as possible.
      I was home for scarcely half an hour when, true to their word, the driver showed up with a Buick Century. He took the loaner back, and I got into the Buick to move it into the carport. Immediately, the low tire light came on. I called the rental agency.
      Oh, thats nothing, the clerk said. We had that tire checked and its just fine, but we cant turn the light off until the next servicing.
       When I actually drove the car the next morning, I discovered that it was not fine at all. There was a distinct wocka-wocka noise coming from the right front wheel. I checked the tire pressure at the gas station. The right rear wheel was several pounds low, but the right front wheel was right on the recommended pressure. I called the agency again. A new clerk answered.
       Oh, he said, Theres really nothing to worry about. Theres probably just something stuck to the wheel.
     No, I said, there is definitely something wrong. Even my deaf mother can hear it.
     Look, he said with exasperation, the last guy who rented it drove all the way to Florida and back, and HE never complained about it. 
      Are you telling me that this has happened while it sat overnight in my driveway? I asked him. He quickly backed down, even though he kept insisting that nothing could be wrong with it, and agreed to find me another car. It took three days. When I went to the lot to pick up the new car, the same clerk said, with a dismissive laugh:
      Thats nothing but an old bald spot on the tire. Havent you ever driven a car with a bald spot on a tire? Since he hadnt so much as looked at the tire or the car, I could only assume that hed known about the bald spot all along. And no, I told him politely, I certainly had never driven a car with a bald spot on the tire, especially not a front wheel drive vehicle, which would become quite unmanageable should that bald spot give way. And he had no business renting me one.
      I dont think of myself as someone who is quick to take offense, but there I was, feeling like a sitting duck again. These youngsters seemed to feel that an older woman wouldnt be able to resist their glib salesmanship, and when I stood up for myself, they made it clear that they felt I was being unreasonable and demanding.
      I dont suppose that there is much to learn from this tale of woe, except that sitting ducks are good targets only if they stay in place and behave as expected. I for one intend to keep squawking, flapping my wings, and paddling my little webbed feet like crazy.



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