Monday, February 6, 2012

Traffic accidents and a lack of pocket-handkerchiefs

Ugliest Hobbit cover ever ...    
but sadly, this is the edition I was carrying.
Saturday night was interesting. I’d just gotten in from a run to the grocery store after a day of cleaning, laundry, and a couple of work appointments. (I don’t really get days off at the moment—just the occasional morning or afternoon.) I was having an iron-deficient day, as I sometimes do, so I had splurged on a little bit of steak and was looking forward to grilling it up and topping off the old hematocrit. I was just firing up the oven to cook some potatoes, and figuring out what to do about a bag of frozen veggies, when I heard a loud BLAM from outside.

I yelled, “What was that?” to my brother, who happened to be in the living room, but I pretty much knew. You need a certain kind of upbringing to recognize that noise, and I had such a one. I grew up about 20 yards from the most poorly designed intersection imaginable—poor visibility, confusing signals, and it’s right between a large public high school (lots of inexperienced drivers) and a large public university (lots of distracted drivers). There’s been an accident there every couple of months, give or take, since 1991, and that’s just since I’ve been paying attention. That BLAM was the sound of a bad one—two cars colliding hard enough to send bits flying all over the place. I ran out of the house, expecting to see a car spun into the wrong lane and facing the oncoming traffic.

It wasn’t quite that bad this time; by the time I secured the oven and ran out, the airbags had deflated, both vehicles had limped over to a nearby parking lot, and the occupants of a bashed-in minivan were huddled on a little patch of grass, shivering and crying and speaking very rapid Spanish. A woman was weeping hysterically, and at first I thought she had been hurt, but it turned out that nobody had anything worse than a sprain, a bruise, or a couple of cuts on the leg from a bike derailleur. (The minivan had contained a family and the bicycles they’d just been riding at a nearby park.)

My brother was right behind me, and with our years of practice at this kind of thing, we tried to sort everybody out. There was a small dog that was running around in a panic, perilously close to passing traffic. The driver of the minivan and the driver of the pickup truck he’d hit were arguing. The woman was sobbing, two teenage girls were standing together like gazelles and staring around at the dark parking lot as if they expected it to contain lions, and an eight-year-old boy was just about hyperventilating from terror. We got the girls to round up the dog, sat the woman and the boy down on the grass, and tried to talk everyone down as much as we could with their fractured English and our fractured Spanish. Then someone from our street called 911, and the panicking started all over again when the police showed up. The boy went from frightened to total freakout in about three seconds flat, convinced that his father was about to be arrested.

Into all of this chaos came J.R.R. Tolkien.

By the time the cops were filling in their paperwork, I’d gotten the girls to help me convince the woman, at least, that nobody was going to be arrested or deported. I’d gone through all of my usual coping mechanisms; I’d run back into the house to turn off the oven and fetch bottles of water and random food (in this case, a bag of apples and oranges), and the people and the dog were chowing down on water, apples, and bolillo rolls they’d had in the van, which helped a bit. The cops even managed to get the dog to sniff their hands and tolerate an ear-scratching, which helped a bit more. But the little boy, whose name turned out to be Emilio, was not so easily consoled. Even after I told him four or five times that nobody was getting arrested, he was convinced that his father was going to be taken away and/or that he would somehow not get to school on Monday morning, thus getting into an awful lot of trouble. Even hugs from almost everybody he knew, and at least one total stranger (me), didn’t help enough.

Then I remembered that I had a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in my shoulder bag. I had been teaching a literature class in a school library for several weeks, and my seat faced the T shelf, forcing me to look at about seven copies of the book for six hours a week, so I was now re-reading the story in self-defense. I got Emilio to sit down beside me and asked him if he’d ever heard of the Lord of the Rings movies. He shook his head. I asked if he’d like me to read him a story that my father once read to me, a very good story called The Hobbit. He asked what a hobbit was, and I promised to read him the part of the story that explained the word.

So it was that I ended up sitting on some rather abused grass beside a dimly lit parking lot, next to a terrified little boy, and opening a paperback to the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Some stories were just made to be read aloud, and The Hobbit is definitely one. Some of my earliest memories of books involve my father reading Tolkien aloud to me, one chapter at a time, chanting the poems and doing funny voices for all the characters. I was four years old when we made the transition from Farmer Giles of Ham to The Hobbit, but I tried to replicate my dad’s performance as best I could. Little Emilio looked up about every ten seconds to make sure his dad hadn’t disappeared, but in between glances he was staring at the page, his eyes following where I was reading, frowning at unfamiliar words like hobbit, pantries, and blundering. I read until my brother got Emilio’s father to agree to let me drive his shivering wife and children home in my tiny car, and all the way there Emilio chatted to me about his school and peppered me with questions about hobbits. I told him, as my father probably told me at some point, that he might be a hobbit himself, being about the right size, and that the thing to remember about hobbits was that while they didn’t like to have adventures, the ones that had them usually turned out to be the bravest adventurers of all. There was an awed silence from my backseat after I said that.

It’s been a while since I was a scared little kid, feeling alone on a cold, dark night, but I remember how much less terrifying it was if I had someone like Bilbo Baggins with me, even if he was complaining about not having a pocket-handkerchief. I wonder if that isn’t why we humans tell those stories—because they make the dark and the cold bearable.

… I hope Emilio remembers the word “hobbit” next time he’s in a library. That kid’s going to need to read that book.

1 comment:

  1. I have the third one down :)
    A good story is a powerful force :) Powerful enough to calm down a freaked-out kid (my son gets convinced of things under stress too - it is tough to get him onto healthier subjects)
    (roseaponi, whom openid hates)