I was slumped over the steering wheel, trying to catch my breath and calm my nerves, when he knocked on the driver’s side window. “Girl,” he said, “Are you okay? I saw what happened and I just had to come see if you were okay.”
It was 7AM. I’d just left that morning’s predawn workout in downtown Austin–we’d run around the floodlit Capitol building, grabbing partners for squats and military sit-ups, an hour of exercise and positive reinforcement completed before the sun appeared. It was still dark, which was why I could distinguish almost nothing about the vehicle that came barreling through the red light; it was merely two glaring headlights aggressively bearing down as I turned left toward home.
How are accidents both simultaneously experienced in slow motion and at blinding speed? My thoughts, each word seemingly bolded, squeezed out in a cartoon dialogue balloon: “He’s going to hit me.” The sound of metallic crunch and crumple, and then thumps as I rattled around, a human pinball, while the car spun within the intersection. When my little whirling dervish of Fiat settled seconds later, the oncoming traffic lined up to face me.
#ATXtraffic, sadly, often trends (and not in a good way). The morning rush hour was kicking into gear, and there I sat, in the middle of access to downtown’s major highway artery, pointed the wrong way in a damaged car. Adding to my spiking heart rate was a sense of panic: What to do? I scanned the road for the other car–there, just through the intersection, on the overpass bridge, idling. It slowly started forward; yes, I thought numbly, we need to get out of traffic, find a safe spot to exchange information, maybe call the police. Could I drive? I turned slowly, edging my crippled car into the closest parking lot at hand.
The other driver vanished.
It was while I sat there shaking, in shock, processing that I’d just become the victim of a hit-and-run, that the homeless man approached my car. I make this assumption because he was disheveled and wearing a large, dingy coat and hat on a warm morning. This particular parking lot seems to attract people with no place to go; it’s not far from the ARCH (or Austin Resource Center for the Homeless), a downtown shelter, and I35 access points are common solicitation spots. A sizable population of down-on-their-luck folks sleeps underneath the various highway bridges no matter the weather. I’d noticed them just the previous week, when temperatures plummeted.
As drivers on their way to work streamed by, he spoke soothingly, staying close while I called the police. He comforted me by confirming that yes, the other car had clearly run the light, and no, I didn’t imagine it–they’d simply driven off. He shared my shock: “I don’t know what kind of person just leaves after what happened to you.”
He was the only one who stopped.
I asked his name: Stephen. Stephen, it turns out, wasn’t a complete stranger. We weren’t far from my neighborhood, and I drive, walk, and run these streets regularly. Like any of the rest of us, homeless people have their routes and patterns, too, and I recognized his face; I’d seen him around.
But I had never stopped for Stephen.
I handed him all the cash I had in my wallet before grasping him in a big, thankful hug. Small change, to be sure, for all he’d given me. In a world that so often passes needy people like him by, that makes judgements and assigns character worth based on income and appearance, he was the better person on the road this morning.