Last week, on my way to get my boy from preschool, a minivan suddenly turned into my lane giving me only a moment to steer clear. Luckily, I was able to downgrade a full-on collision to a mere scraping of bumpers. The other van and I met in a nearby parking lot, and the passenger and I got out to make sure everyone involved was okay, which was the case, aside from my frantically beating heart. I took a few breaths, and felt the headache I had been fighting all day bear back down.
per the fender-bender custom, I walked around each car to see how much
damage had occurred; my front drivers side had some scrapes but no broken
lights. Theirs was in slightly worse shape, although it was difficult
to tell what the already battered van looked like before the accident.
The couple, who were African, spoke English as a second language.
With my insurance card and smart phone in hand, I asked to exchange
information. The woman, in her mid-20s with rough skin and modest
clothing, looked to the man for guidance. He placed his hands in his
pockets of his khaki pants, relaxing his stance, but his gaze--the
energy behind his eyes--changed as though the thoughts behind them
The man nodded to his wife and spoke. "Get the card." She hesitated. "Go," he said more firmly. "The card."
headed to the car, but sort of danced around it, approaching the
vehicle from different angles, before saying to me, "But you okay. It is
"Yes," I agreed. "But we need to exchange information. It is the smart thing for me to get your insurance information."
I turned back to him. "The baby was crying," he explained.
"Yeah. You turned over a double yellow line. You can't do that. That's illegal."
hands remained in his pockets so I nudged him for his license or some
type of identification. I looked toward the wife who stood looking at
her open door but had still not produced anything yet.
"Just tell me if you don't have insurance," I pressed, tired and
wanting to get to my son on time. I could see this wasn't going to go as
smoothly as my last traffic accident did, my only other traffic
accident, where a woman hit me in the school parking lot. We snapped
pics of our insurance cards, IDs, and vehicle damage and were on our way
within 5 minutes; the insurance companies mostly took it from there.
"My ID is coming in the mail. I do not have it yet, but it's coming," the man assured me.
"You don't have a driver's license?"
you don't have insurance," saying this mostly to complete the puzzle
for myself. I knew I couldn't walk away from this with nothing as it has
been hammered into my American brain my whole life: exchange
information. Exchange Information.
My great desire for "Information" was clearly beginning to boggle
them, but I insisted. "I need your information. It is the right things
for me to do. When there is an accident, it is essential that we
To them, I must have seemed like an uptight middle-class woman,
with my messy red hair and fancy pocket computer, making incessant
demands for this seemingly vital Information. They were concerned only
with what was in front of them: cars are okay, people are okay...what
else does this lady need??
Unrelenting, I turned to her, willing to take whatever I
could get. "I need to take a picture of your license plate and ID."
Again, she looks to her husband, who nods, but is having a harder time
hiding his irritation at my request.
She stalled one more
time before getting anything for me, and decides to offer every bit she
can that may possibly satiate my need for the Information.
"We have a baby."
"Yes," I say.
"My sister lives right over here," she explains.
"But you are okay, and we are okay," she finally offers.
"I know," I reply.
Finally, she opened the sliding door to her minivan and inside
were 5 or 6 children, between the ages of newborn and 12, sitting
inside. She gestured to the baby before reaching for her wallet. "See?"
oldest boy sat next to the infant seat, pacifying the child. Another
small boy, maybe 4, had been crying and a thick layer of snot was caked
all around his nose. The oldest daughter shifted her eyes away from me,
as I silently admired her brightly colored pink and green
"I see," I told to the mother. Then to the
children, "That must have been scary for you." Then, I walked behind
the van take a picture of the plate.
The woman one last time tried to talk me out of showing her ID,
but I was unwavering. Reluctantly, she handed it over, a type I did not
recognize right way, but in the blaring sun I did my best to get a shot
of it. My headache was persisting, and I was feeling even more sapped
after the initial adrenaline had worn off. The couple seemed
uncomfortable, and the man, who was clearly done with the scenario,
retreated to the drivers seat.
I handed the card back to the woman and offered to reciprocate. "Do you want my license?"
Confusion passed over her face. "You have it already. I already gave!" she says defensively.
MINE. Would you like mine?" She shrugged, and said "OK," like she is
just going along with this ritual that I have been forcing them to
participate in. I look at the man who is shaking his head, looking
somber and slightly ill.
"You don't want it then?" I checked, the mediator of this whole information triangle. He said no. "We don't need."
pulled back my card and dropped my hands by my sides, in retreat. Her
next words took on a different quality, a more reflective tone. No
longer trying to appease my requests or follow my lead, she had honesty
in her voice.
"It's not like this in Africa," she stated simply. "You okay. We okay. It's not like this."
I understood what she was saying. In their eyes, I was making it
complicated, much more complicated than it needs to be. They were
thinking of the people involved and I am thinking about the vehicles and potential repairs. I only have a moment to gather my response. I am an
America-born citizen who was raised on rules and regulation and the
complexities of US legal system. Even in this brief encounter, I realize
that its a very different world that she comes from. Besides our
bumpers, our cultures had collided and the contrast was palpable.
the influence of that revelation, all I could offer was this
generalization, "In America, its all about the insurance companies.
Insurance rules everything." Then I walked away.
After they drove off, I examined the photo I'd captured in the
shady relief of my car and I realized what she'd offered me. A US
Immigration workers visa...that had expired in 2005. In order to appease
my need for Information over a tiny fender bender, they offered me what
is probably their biggest secret and greatest burden.
immigration is not something that penetrates my world in such a
distinct manner. I was raised in a town that was 97% white, and even in
Portland I feel mostly shielded from racial and socioeconomic issues,
that I know are present but they don't affect me in an obvious way. I am
a very white woman, in a mostly white state, in a fairly white
neighborhood, and our family does moderately well. I am, at least, aware
of my bubble. This unexpected encounter gave me a glimpse into a life
that, while only blocks from my home, is worlds away from my own.
Afterwards, I grappled with whether I'd done the right thing, and
what to do next. Here is where my perpetual dual-sidedness comes in to
play. On the fence where I dwell, it is difficult for me to be
passionate about any one cause because I can always muster some empathy
for either side of an issue.
I want all drivers to follow the rules of safety, because I want
my family to be safe, and I want to believe that every one of those
drivers has read the book and passed the test by demonstrating their
safety knowledge and, in turn, earned the proper license. Yes, there are
a number of bad drivers out there who have followed that protocol and
still barrel over double yellow lines. Or get distracted by crying
babies. We are always at risk on the road, no matter how many people
follow the rules, as we are ultimately steering about giant hunks of
steel at high speeds.
As Americans, we demand the least
amount of risk, and do everything to maximize the highest safety
standards. Compare our car seat standards against those photos you see
of families piled on a motorcycle in Mongolia. Here, our need for (and
perception of) safety is a cultural thing.
As far as immigration goes, I have not lived a life that has
helped sculpt solid opinions regarding the issue, like maybe a person
who has lived in Texas, Southern California, or New York City. There
are multiple angles to attack such a complex issue. Looking from a
government standpoint, this family is illegal. From a citizen and
taxpayers standpoint, they could be considered irksome. From a mothers
standpoint...it's understandable. I have no desire to blow the whistle
on this family, even if I thought I had what I needed to track them
down; the thought of possibly breaking up any family is disturbing. Even
if they are living sketchy lives, or the dad is a reckless driver or an
abusive jerk, or even the mother for that matter. I don't know a damn
real thing; my glimpse didn't get deep enough to see, and its not my job
I hope his ID is in the mail. I hope when they got home,
the husband and wife hugged each other, and he thanked her for doing her
best to protect their secret. I hope they had a conversation about how
things could be different, how can they take the right steps to
legitimize themselves and stop living under this fear of being exposed
as living illegally (maybe I'm being naive and that is impossible.) I
hope that the fact they let this stubborn American stranger walk away
with a photo of the wife's expired visa doesn't weigh heavily on him,
and that he doesn't take out his stress on her or the children. And
finally, I hope I did the right thing by letting it go.
I was processing this experience, I kept thinking about the possible
reactions of very random people in my life. What would so-and-so have
done? The young activist couple I know, a friend's military boyfriend,
Blake's dad "The Judge", my own mother, sister, and best friend. Another
reminder how our roles and experiences shape us, and I guess that is
why I am so often on the fence. Out of 6 billion people, I just don't
see how my perspective is so well-informed, so significant, because it's
not. I'm just one hopeful voice in this big, wide world.