Ken Leighton 4:17 p.m., July 23
- Community Blog
- Point Loma and Beyond
To think, I almost killed someone over an apostrophe. And nobody would have felt the slightest bit of sympathy for me in the media: “Careless Jerk Flattens Homeless Man While Texting”. Or, maybe they would empathize with me. After all, I was driving to work in a rush—as many of us do—illegally using my cell phone—as many still do—and a bum jaywalked into my lane. I mean, would most San Diegans even bat an eye at the news of the death of a homeless man? I sincerely hope so, but who knows. Come to think of it, who knows if it would even be considered newsworthy?
It was on an uncharacteristically wet October morning that I exited the 8 and entered the slow moving mouth of Rosecrans Street. I was on my way to work and now in danger of being a dreaded few minutes late. Any further tardiness was “unacceptable” according to the mass email our director had just sent out. For some reason, teachers and principals apparently develop a great affection for using words like “unacceptable” and “inappropriate” once they’ve got a few years of experience in education under their belts. It’s tradition, I guess. At any rate, I decided that I had to text message another teacher to get the exact location of the morning meeting as to not waste any more time than I already was, idling behind a wall of SUVs. It seemed harmless enough—to text a co-worker while inching along Rosecrans. So I started pecking away, looking up occasionally, assuring myself of my own safety and multi-tasking capability. The message to be sent was short and simple-- “Is the mtg in Sarahs room?” I held the phone low enough to elude the authorities; high enough to convince myself that my peripheral vision would be sufficient to drive in this kind of traffic. The message was almost ready. “Almost” because I am an English teacher, and I was texting (yes, text is now officially a verb) a fellow English teacher. So I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave out the apostrophe between the ‘h’ and ‘s’ in “Sarahs”—that would clearly be unacceptable!
Red light. Again, gridlock had prevented me from moving past this light, and my tires rolled to a stop at the thick white line at the head of the intersection. My attention diverted away from my text to a homeless man standing on the narrow island at the crossing of Sports Arena and Rosecrans. His skin was weathered and sun-beaten; his hair flaring out under his dirty baseball cap. I expected his broken stare to wander toward me first— the first in line. When we made eye contact I smiled that awkward half smile that says, ‘I feel sorry for your situation, man, but I’m not giving you any money today,’ as I sat in the enclosed luxury of my private space. He must have seen it in my eyes because he and his desperate gaze moved on to the next car.
Back to my text message.
Green light. The traffic had miraculously cleared between me and the next light. I accelerated into the intersection and glanced back down at my phone to add that all-important apostrophe. There it is-- done. Send. As I returned my eyes to the road ahead, a raggedy blur of browns and faded fluorescence flashed just a three feet in front of my hood. Another homeless guy! I braked and swerved. Luckily I didn’t hit any cars. Even better, I didn’t run over any humans. The man I nearly murdered at 7:25 that Monday morning glared back at me and shouted something I couldn’t quite hear because I had my windows rolled up, though I imagine the expletives were both fitting and well-deserved.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look in his fiery, outraged eyes. Equally indelible was the feeling of shame and guilt that rushed over me at the thought of hurting or maybe killing someone because I was using my phone while behind the wheel. Shaken up, I continued driving down Rosecrans, paying more attention to every homeless person, each one camped on their own precarious, concrete islands or corners. The only thing that separated me and them, I thought, was a combination of a few bad decisions and horrible luck. But who really knows the depths of their stories? All I know is this: 1) My awareness of homelessness and it’s epidemic growth will be forever heightened with this strange reminder of the value of all human lives—having almost taken one considered less important by the mainstream. 2) There is no need, however busy one may be, to engage in the very unnecessary act of text messaging while driving. The result could be the damage or death of another person which—even as an English teacher—is infinitely more “unacceptable” than a missing apostrophe… or being late to a meeting for that matter.