Was blessed to have this published in the November edition of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, edited by Jessica Brodie. Thank you for reading!
This is that story where you have to change the names to protect the guilty, but I won’t change the location. Baltimore is my hometown, and there’s no other. Plus, it’s a city with plenty of grit and history. The first bloodshed of the Civil War fell on the streets of Baltimore a week after the troubles at Fort Sumter. Soldiers from the Massachusetts 6thRegiment met an angry mob in Maryland, and insults and rocks turned into gunfire and death. Yet, with the help of the local police, the soldiers made their escape and continued their journey to the edge of Washington, preparing for one of the initial skirmishes that brought people with picnic baskets to the edge of the fighting, like spectators at the Coliseum, unfolding the waxed paper from their egg and butter sandwiches, awaiting the gladiators. Musket balls tore threw the air and then through flesh, and the spectators soon lost their appetites and scurried away, but the violence continued. I watched smoke rise from those same streets in 1968 after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King fell dead on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. But my story takes place a decade later, years after the start of the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, college years for me, and a few spent drinking pitchers of beer with other aspiring actors in the storefront theatres of Fells Point.
On one of those nights, driving up the wide thoroughfare away from the harbor, I hit two pedestrians crossing the street in front of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Being hit by a car is certainly a bad bit of luck, but being hit in front of one of the world’s best hospitals
increases your chances for excellent and immediate health care. Still, it didn’t look good.
I hit the man first. He was closest to me, inadvertently shielding his partner who walked next to him on the other side. Though I wasn’t traveling fast, the impact of the hit hurled him up in the air and back down against the hood of the old, tan station wagon I’d bought from my sister for three hundred and fifty bucks; but to be honest, I’d borrowed the money from an old boyfriend, and there was a tug of war brewing over ownership.
The male accident victim landed with a thud, grabbing his leg and screaming. He carried on so loudly that whatever was happening to the friend at his side was hard to decipher. She was alive, fully conscious and sitting up on the curb, wiping rivulets of sweat from her forehead. I was relieved to see both victims aware, but my relief was short-lived because the wails of the man, so agonizing and powerful, drew a larger and larger crowd of spectators. Soon I was aware of being a white girl surrounded by a crowd of black folk, and some of them seemed pretty angry at the sight of two of their own screaming at me from the curb. I panicked, got back in my car and drove away.
The screams of my victims faded the farther I drove, but it didn’t take long before my conscience began to bellow. That still, small voice of God in my soul began to shout out my sins. I’d been drinking. I’d been drinking and hit pedestrians. I’d been drinking, hit pedestrians and left the scene of the accident. I was guilty of a hit and run. Now it was a crime scene, not just an accident scene. I had a choice to make. I had to decide who I really was, what I was capable of, and what kind of person my nineteen-year-old self
wanted to be; and just at that moment, like an answer to prayer, a Baltimore City police cruiser merged from a side street right in front of me. I hit the horn and the lights, and both of us pulled over. I got out of my car, crying and confessing, walking along the edge of the road toward a young, white police officer, smiling and nonplussed by my cries of guilt.
“Can you drive?” he asked, and I nodded, surprised enough by his response that my tears stopped instantly. “Good”, he said. “Follow me.”
Moments later we were standing on the empty parking lot of the Food Mart surrounded by a small fleet of police cars and seven other police officers, all of them white. My tears may have ended, but my confession continued. “I’ve been drinking and driving, and I hit a couple with my car in front of the hospital.”
“Don’t you worry that pretty little head” one officer beamed down at me. He was the oldest and taller than the others. I sensed instantly that he was the man in charge.
“Those niggers jump out in front of your car to collect the insurance”. All the others nodded and grunted in agreement.
“Hey, Ricky, get her a Coke out of the machine over there. You want a Coca-Cola, Sweetie?” The big man smiled down at me, and I didn’t know what to do except smile back. Officer Ricky ran across the parking lot to the red light radiating against the night sky. Soon I held a cold can of Coke. Taking a few sips of the soda gave me a moment to think. What should I do now? I’d confessed my sins. I’d owned my mistake. I’d told them everything, but instead of handcuffs and a list of my Miranda rights, I was hearing
laughter, camaraderie. One of the officers patted me on the back, his hand lingering a moment on my shoulder. “How you doing, Hon’?”
They were talking among themselves now while the big man in charge called out on his radio. I knew instinctively that he was talking to the officers at the scene of the crime, the hit and run, my hit and run; but it wasn’t a hit and run anymore. It had turned into a small party on a parking lot.
“We better make sure she gets home safe” the policeman in charge informed the others. “Where do you live?” he smiled down at me, and I gave him my address, realizing at that moment that none of them had asked for my license. “Oh, you’re at college up in Towson” his smile grew. “Good school, my niece went there. Don’t you worry. We’ll get you home.” He took me by the arm and guided me across the asphalt parking lot to my car. He opened the door, and I got behind the wheel. He smiled again. “Now you just get home safe and forget all this mess” he reassured me.
“Ricky, you got the address? You lead and Bobby can follow her in his car. Get our girl home” he smiled again and patted the roof of my car with an air of certainty. I followed the police cruiser out of the parking lot and watched through my rear view mirror as “Bobby” pulled in behind me. Both officers turned on their lights, and the parade began. Twenty minutes later, Officer Ricky was walking me to my front door. It felt for a moment like the end of a date as I paused to thank him and say “goodnight”, but there was no awkward kiss, just an awkward moment before the young policeman smiled
again, and I put my key in the door. Then he was gone, and I was left alone with my conscience and my confusion. I called the hospital to check on the couple that must have come in from right out front, but no one seemed to know what or who I was talking about. Why hadn’t I asked for their names? I dropped to my knees and prayed for them, my nameless victims, and asked God about the nagging feeling stirring deep within me, the knowledge that privilege and not redemption had saved me from my sins, the realization that I’d been taught to be white, layered and lessoned in bias and bigotry and that even without conviction, my convictions would never be the same.