I didn’t see the car that night until a second before impact. I remember having enough time to be confused by the sight of a car moving so close in front of another moving car going in the perpendicular direction. I said the name of my friend in the driver’s seat: “Terry?” Suddenly, I heard a tinny clunking noise — nothing like in the movies — and was jerked suddenly to one side by the car seat. The move was so sudden that it knocked the wind out of me. And I found myself gasping for air, unable to breathe.
Panic grabbed my body. I heard Terry get out of the car and say to someone I couldn’t see, “I’m all right, but my friend is hurt.” That statement might have wounded my pride. Me? Hurt? I didn’t like the sound of that.
Then, this voice in the back of my mind said to me, “Don’t panic. Just stay calm. Take things slowly, and you’ll be able to breathe.” I did everything I could to still my body and stop gasping. You know what? That cranial voice was right! To my own amazement, I started to breathe again — like nothing had happened.
Having run around the front of the car, Terry opened the door on my side and, with his string-bean shadow gangling above me, asked if I was all right. I jumped to life — as right as rain. “Yes, I’m okay!” I tried to sound upbeat and unshaken, as though I hadn’t just been in a car collision.
How did I get into this situation? It was early 1981, and I turned 21 in the state of California. That meant that I could now imbibe alcohol legally in Los Angeles. This wasn’t a big deal for me. I didn’t drink very often, and my home state’s legal drinking age at the time was 18, so I had plenty of opportunities to get sloshed in the town where I grew up. But I drank very little and never over-indulged.
Still, this age was something of a milestone in my newly adopted state, and Terry offered to take me out on the town that night to celebrate. We drove over to the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A. and walked among the restaurants and bars around the lobby. The hotel was an impressive building, but after walking around for a while, the idea of having my first California-legal drink stopped appealing to me. I told Terry that we should drive back.
It was during this stone-sober return trip that I had the experience which — for a few seconds at least — took my breath away. I’m sure the irony of not drinking and getting into a car wreck crossed my mind sometime during that night.
The other driver turned out to be a young Frenchwoman who was — say it with me — driving without a license. From the otherwise empty streets, an eyewitness emerged from the darkness and said that the other car had run a red light. After hearing this, our traveler from the Continent, eyes welling, lit a cigarette with a shaking hand. It was about that time that I noticed an unsettling sensation sneaking up on me: little by little, my left side started aching as though it was being gnawed on by tatter-toothed gremlins.
Terry called a friend of his who drove us to the hospital. Well, a kind of hospital, anyway. The friend drove us to Kaiser-Permanente private hospital, which counted Terry as a member, but since I wasn’t, no one would examine me. I entered the building’s lobby, clutching my increasingly agonized side. (The gremlins had given way to ravenous trolls.) But the attending nurse waved me away. Members only. I could feel the bewildered look on my face. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “why did Terry bring me here?”
I didn’t stick around for an answer — Terry’s friend took me somewhere else. I don’t remember very much about rest of the night. I can only say that I eventually made it to a hospital with a more welcoming staff, where I was diagnosed with bruised ribs. Given that I had been in a car wreck earlier that night, I was relieved that things weren’t worse, but I can’t recall ever hurting so much in my life.
I finally made it back to my student-housing apartment, which I shared with three other undergraduates, at about 3 a.m. I was dead-dog tired, but I knew that I’d never get to sleep with my bandaged ribs still sadistically reminding me of the car crash earlier that night. Since trying to sleep would have been a fool’s errand, I decided not even to make the attempt, but to listen to some music instead.
One of my roommates had recently purchased a new record album. It was by Dire Straits, a group I had heard of but didn’t know much about. The title of the LP was Making Movies, an agreeable moniker, I thought. So, I put the vinyl disc on the turntable, turned out all the lights, plugged in the headphones, and lay back on the carpeted floor.
There, in the pitch darkness, with only my aching ribs for company, this is the music that filled my ears. I’ve been listening to it ever since.