It was snowing. Lightly. The roads were not yet covered. Entirely. There was a slight sheen on the asphalt, blanketing the black ice like a grandmother’s knitted afghan. (Big ups, Grandma Ruth, wherever you are.)
I was driving East towards the mountains. My skis were in the back, my mind on the foot of fresh powder waiting to be shredded. I didn’t have my cellphone, which was rare. It was waiting for me on the seat of a little Mazda in the Taos Ski Valley parking lot.
My intended companions were two enormous Germans, so big they were nicknamed Triple G. The Gentle German Giants. One was 6’5″, the other 6’8″ and bald. As a 5’7″ Jewish guy, we were guaranteed to make a ridiculous triumvirate, dashing down the slopes.
There was no one on the Rim Road, so named because it sits above a sheer cliff that drops precipitously down to the Valdez valley, several hundred feet below. This being New Mexico, where things don’t always work right, the road actually narrows to one lane in two places. Sketchy.
I motored along in my Volkswagen Passat station-wagon. I bought it used, from a dead lady, as we planned to have our first child. It’s all about the airbags. The car started to break down the week after the check cleared. Thousands, I poured into the piece of shit. The week before, I cursed the vehicle out loud, screaming, begging the gods to take it from me.
Be careful what you wish for.
I saw the Waste Management garbage truck before he saw me. Enormous. He was chugging out of a dirt road, now slick, perpendicular to the Rim Road before me. With all of his mass, I knew he couldn’t stop in time.
He slammed on the brakes, and skidded into my lane, not 30 yards ahead. I was now, unfortunately, completely cut off. Time slowed down. For real. I had two choices. Take the hit, or jerk the wheel left, whereupon I might plunge down the cliff to my death. Awesome.
Without thinking, I took the hit, and smashed nose first into monstrous steel beast. The crunch was sickening, the smoke almost instantaneous. Thank goodness, I’d bought new tires five days earlier. The airbag deployed, as promised.
Garbage truck, snowy mountain road, edge of a cliff. A recipe for disaster. Somehow, I walked away unhurt. The other driver refused to look me in the eye, or admit his faults. Asshole. He waited, silently, for his corporate honcho to arrive and speak on his behalf. Fortunately, his silence prevented him from lying to the State Policeman, who wrote up the report as I described it.
Thankfully, I’d borrowed my wife’s cell phone, and was able to call for a ride back home. I shook for hours.
Do we all have a story like this? I sure hope not. Though it happened three years ago this week, and I’m very happy with the Hyundai I bought as a replacement, my head still quivers at my good luck. Others, of course, fare not-so-well in similar encounters.
This week, I looked at Nicolai Howalt’s “Car Crash Studies,” put out by Etudes Books in Paris. It didn’t take long for my mind to flash back to that dismal, gray day. I can see it all in my mind so clearly. But the book, you say?
The images are cold, formal examinations of bent steel, crunched glass, and dirty interior carpets. It begins with abstract imagery, pictures one might honestly describe as beautiful. If you like that sort of thing.
After a run of abstractions, the photographer pulls back, and we see the aforementioned airbags. Then, the inside of destroyed cars. Little details emerge. A stuffed animal hanging from a rear view mirror. A pink key chain dangling from the ignition block. A pack of cigarettes never to be smoked. They could be installations, or de facto sculptures inside the wreckage.
Near the end, we see the blood. Only one photo, thankfully. On the steering wheel. Any more would have been heavy-handed. (Looking again, I noticed that this image was also on the cover. I would have chosen differently.)
People can’t help but look at car crashes. Rubber-necking is a morbid and pathetic part of the human condition, but there it is. More traffic is caused by twisted curiosity than I care to ponder. Just think of all that latent economic activity.
Always, though, it comes back to tragedy. These pictures imply it, as did Andy Warhol’s excellent painting series on the same subject. Misery and death are hard to stomach, in literal fashion. A photo of a dead person is just that. A photo. Not much metaphor possible. Here, though, our imagination is stimulated. Our memories flood. And that’s good enough for me.
Bottom Line: Formal, abstract visions of car-crash destruction
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