Life is a strange ball of wax. One minute the guy was riding his motorcycle. The next, he was airborne, and then dead. And a few minutes after that, there was a party of sorts, not over his death, but clearly as a direct result of it.
The few news reports that aired the next day said that he "lost control" (whatever that means) and hit the concrete median barrier. His bike kept going for a few hundred yards on the westbound side of the PA Turnpike, fortunately wiping out without incident on the shoulder, but *he* flipped over the median barrier, in the air, and was hit by three different eastbound cars, all likely traveling at speeds around 70 miles per hour. It wasn't their fault. It was the equivalent of having a body materialize in thin air over your moving car, and then drop onto it. He was killed instantly.
Eastbound traffic ground to a halt. I'd been having a hell of a ride up until that point, like a hell of a *great* ride. Turn Against This Land, the awe-inspiring debut by the London band Dogs, was blaring out of the speakers and I was flying down the road. Rock and roll and high speed is a dangerous drug, and both were soothing my cerebral cortex, when, all of a sudden, *everybody* jammed on their brakes at once. Fuck.
We all stopped, somehow without an accident of our own, and, after a few minutes of creeping forward, and jockeying for a few extra yards of progress, it all ground to a halt. Engines were shut off, windows rolled down all the way. Emergency vehicles were already ahead of us tending to whatever was up there, and more came buzzing by on the right shoulder. Eventually a few brave souls wandered forward on foot to investigate, and a bunch of us ventured out of our cars to sit on the median barrier and see what we could see. What we could see from back there, about a quarter-mile away from the accident, wasn't much, but the reports from the foot patrol came back, and they were ugly. It was a motorcyclist. He was decapitated after his helmet flew off. He lost limbs, and there were "body parts everywhere." Word soon trickled back from the cops that we weren't going to move for a long while.
"Dude, you like Yo La Tengo? Have you ever heard Ween?" The guy in the car behind me had what looked to be a six-year-old son holding his hand as they got out of the car, and he decided, based on my bumper stickers, that *I* was the guy to talk tunes with. So we did. He was pretty knowledgable, and we yapped about bands I hadn't even thought about in years, like Faith No More. Lots of people were out and about. There were impromptu soccer games on the grass, footballs in the air. Ween Dude offered me the rest of his beer--yes, the beer that he was drinking while driving with his kid in the car. "Damn good beer, man. Try it." I passed up that magical opportunity and feared slightly for Junior's safety. And the early-20s woman two cars up struck up a conversation with two guys, one of whom was the one I saw her giving her phone number to a short time later. At one point, non-phone-number guy took off across the road to buy food at the Burger King at the rest stop across the highway. "Yo, you guys want anything from BK?" they had yelled to me and Ween Dude. We thanked 'em, but declined, and then marveled as non-phone-number guy waltzed through high-speed traffic in the westbound lanes to go get food, leaving his pal alone with his date-to-be. He returned, dodging more traffic and laughing maniacally, with two gigantic bags of burgers.
Slowly but surely, it had morphed into a party. An alcohol-free party (well, except for Ween Dude, and he only had one), but a party nonetheless. The couple in front of me were dancing to hiphop while the women in the car next to me were having a raucous time, laughing and giggling. Reports continued to trickle back. We were, apparently, waiting for the Medical Examiner, and a State Police colonel, and cleanup people. It was a mess and we were nowhere near moving. By now--this had all started about 6:45pm--the sun was close to down, and I decided that if I was ever going to venture up to take a look at what had happened, it was now. Ween Dude and I were running out of conversation, and so I headed for The Front. On the way, I saw more of the same scenes that I had left behind. Football and soccer being played, lots of folks who didn't know each other two hours earlier having great conversations. Lots of laughs, a few expressions of concern.
An elderly woman about ten cars from the front told me basically all the facts I had already heard from others. I thanked her and walked closer. But at about the second or third car from the scene, it became clear that I wasn't going to see much more. The cops and firefighters had stretched a huge tarp across the road to hide the unpleasant cleanup. As a woman from Brazil cheerfully told me the story of her and her young son's aborted journey to a church service in Newark, NJ that night ("We're giving up and heading back to Philly") and elicited details of my travels/life from me for the better part of a half hour, suddenly an ambulance pulled away, and cops with flashlights started walking towards us, telling us to get in our cars, that we'd be leaving soon. The Brazilian kid had to pee. So mom headed for the bushes with him. We all headed for our cars, and the party was over. It was 9:20pm.
Life's weird. I drove away thinking, strangely, how much fun that had been-- for most of us that is. There were the few crabby people who couldn't let loose and talk to their neighbor, and just sat in their cars bitching loudly. And there were the few freaks who got impatient and tried to find a way out by driving across an abandoned lot to our right and out an alleged service road in the woods. And then there was the unfortunate motorcyclist. He'd never believe what he wrought that night. But I like to think that he would have smiled at some of it because a whole lot of people who never knew each other before that night were talking and laughing for the better part of almost three hours, all because of him. Somehow a gruesome highway death had brought a whole bunch of strangers together in a good way.
Live free and ride hard, folks, but never forget that it could be your last day on this planet, so be nice to people while you're here.
As we drove past the scene in the left lane that they cleared for us, there was a stark reminder next to the concrete median barrier, just a few feet away, of just how abruptly the line between life and death can be crossed--a battered motorcycle helmet.