The caution lights were blinking in the Interstate-90 tunnel under Beacon Hill this morning as Aral and I returned to the East Side from our morning drop off of Tess in downtown Seattle. Traffic had slowed to a walking pace almost as soon as we entered the tunnel and so we creeped along underground hoping that the cabin filters in our Prius possessed the capability to remove the bulk of the ash and diesel discharge from the air the dump truck to our right was belching into the confined space. The smell that was permeating the interior of our vehicle seemed to indicate otherwise.
I was driving in the lane adjacent to the far left lane. When the HOV tunnel is closed because traffic is moving in the opposite direction the far left lane merges with the one that I was in soon after it passes under the threshold of the tunnel on the west side. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes traffic from that lane will zipper-merge with the main body of traffic moving into the tunnel. This morning, despite the caution lights and the unusual backup in the tunnel, cars were merging one after the other. When it came my turn to let someone into traffic I politely paused all of three seconds while the police cruiser from Mercer Island slipped into the space I had created just ahead.
Like I said, everyone creeped along. My Prius was pretty happily stuck in EV mode, the enormous bulk of the double dump truck belching out thick black smoke next to me, and the police cruiser from Mercer Island just ahead. I don’t recall what was following me, mostly because I was entertaining Aral in the rear view mirror tilted down to see into the back seat, not looking over my shoulder. We were locked into that place like Tetris blocks, you know, the ones that wont dissolve because the damn game threw you a weird space that you can’t get at. If Mount Rainier had decided to blow its top in those fifteen minutes, archeologists of some future age would have found our well preserved bodies making ash caked faces in the rear view mirror.
And so it went for a while, me secretly worried about airborne carcinogens, doing everything in my power to keep my three year old from jumping through his own butt. Eventually, the smoke started to clear and we could make out the light at the end of the literal tunnel. It was the sun reflecting off Lake Washington ahead. I stopped trying to hold my breath and tapped the brakes when I realized that there was a pedestrian silhouetted in the gloom just ahead, off to my left.
It was a kid, late teens or early 20-something, wearing a backpack and some very dirty clothes. While there was no way of being certain, his appearance implied homelessness. A kind of bleak desperation, this kid could have been cast as an extra living in a refugee camp in a Mad Max movie. His backpack was more of a pile of junked things strapped to his back. The sole of his right shoe was separating from a grimy Chinese-factory stitched upper, flopping around like a blown out flip-flop. I could see toes.
The police cruiser ahead of me slowed down and cracked his window. Brief words were exchanged, the kid shook his head. The police cruiser sped off down the Interstate having cleared the obstruction that seemingly initiated the caution lights in the first place.
I was torn, have been all day actually, what should I do? What should I have done?
That tunnel is a long one, slightly more than half-a-mile. Driving into it, with a steel cage strapped to your ass and more air-bags poised to deploy than might be found in a Space Shuttle, is risky. Stepping into that tunnel is an act of self-destruction. Even if you are lucky enough to make it through, where might you be headed? The Lacey M. Murrow Memorial Floating Bridge on the tunnel’s eastern edge is two bridges south of the multi-use path that spans the water. The siding gets better, but the traffic usually becomes much faster.
I’ve been checking news feeds for the city all day long anticipating an obituary for some nameless homeless kid I couldn’t find a safe place to stop and help. This has been darkening an otherwise sunshiny day. I know I’m overthinking the whole thing when I start to speculate about what I might have done for the kid had I been able to pull over. I am simultaneously regretful and angry that the police officer in that cruiser did little more than roll down his window.
I’m having this brief dialogue in my head with the police officer in which I hear his side of the story. “Out of my jurisdiction,” he says. “Nothing illegal,” he replies. “Late for my shift,” gets repeated a lot. All the while I know I was not equipped or trained to help someone so obviously in need. What might have happened had I stopped and stuffed that kid in the back of my car next to my three year old?
Sometimes Tess talks to me about how bad things are in Honduras, where she recently spent a few months on contract. Our shared baseline of the FUBAR here, she tells me, is so much better than the FUBAR there. I have some idea of how bad things are in places like that, but still I cannot help thinking that they’re not better or worse in any particular place. Just fucked, with little to no relief in sight.