Proverbs says that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall, but I’m confident that neither the prophets of the Old Testament nor Jesus himself ever learned this lesson firsthand by launching a Chevy Trailblazer through the front glass of a gas station convenience store. The truth is that I was a cocky son of a bitch on the morning my ego burst forever along with all the two-liters I caused to spew soda around the store like erupting syrup-filled hoses.
My trip to humiliation row started before 7 AM on a sun-soaked August morning. Just two days removed from my Wall Street internship in Manhattan and two weeks from starting my senior year at Princeton, I buzzed around Fremont to three separate stations hunting for that day’s Wall Street Journal. I didn’t even want to read that cursed paper, I only wanted to tell anyone I bumped into that I needed to read the Journal to stay current in the members only club of high finance that I longed to be included in and that I felt existed only in New York City—the new center of my universe. After my summer internship, I felt bigger and badder than my inane Midwest town. Arrogance oozed from my pores, and I wanted everyone to know it.
The Sunoco store marked my third attempt to find the right paper that morning. I stomped out the store and huffed my way to the Trailblazer. I shook my head at my sad sack hometown. I had graduated from small-town USA and matriculated into the bright lights big city and why would I want to turn back now.
I slammed the car into reverse, pounded the accelerator, and cranked the steering wheel to the left with my right hand. I was on the go to another station and didn’t pay attention to anything in my rear view mirror. If I had, I might have seen the gas island with four pumps in the center of the parking lot. But I didn’t and before I realized anything could be wrong the Trailblazer’s back tires crept onto the ridge of the island and my rear bumper tapped the base of the pump.
Phew, I exhaled. Thank the lord I reached the brake in time and the pumps didn’t topple. Now that would have been embarrassing, I thought, and jerked the car into drive.
Then, it happened. I pressed the accelerator with too much force and when the SUV lurched off the island I had more speed built than I wanted. Still a safe distance (maybe 10 yards) from the convenience store, my brain yelled “right foot jam the break,” but my foot refused and gunned the accelerator instead. The world went black for the next few seconds, and when the light returned I was inside the Sunoco store with my ass still planted to the driver’s seat and the radio still playing music out the half-open window.
If pride comes before the fall, then mortification pounces after the crash.
Panic gushed through my body after the haze from my crash lifted and I opened my wide, terrified eyes to the mangled storage racks thrown everywhere about the store. I first looked to see if my catastrophe had injured anyone. Thank God, I thought, when I heard and saw no signs of bodily harm.
Second, I wondered what the hell just happened. I smacked the right side of my face—once, twice, three times, and then again except harder on the left. “Wake up, please wake the fuck up,” I screamed into the carnage I had just created. But this was no dream. My cash-colored fantasy had become a nightmare occurring simultaneously inside the Trailblazer and the convenience store.
I steadied limbs now shakier than those of an addict strung-out from missing his smack and jumped from the truck screaming for a phone. The female cashier, her face ashen from fear, ran back to behind the counter from the storage closet mumbling something about a possible heist in the works through frantic gasps. She thought I planned to rob the store and fled the scene at the first clink of breaking glass. In her confused terror, though, she failed to see the challenges posed by the location of my get-away car: parked without a front bumper in aisle nine.
“Phone,” I said. “Give me a phone, now.”
Her trembling hands handed me one and I called my mom. “Get to the Sunoco station on State Street and Rawson. I had an accident.”
Two police officers soon arrived at the crime scene followed by an ambulance not long after. In only a few minutes, the Sunoco’s parking lot turned into one giant public service party courtesy of my driving and eventually funded from my dad’s checkbook. The crash had battered my psyche, and the smirks that spread across the officer’s faces after eyeballing the wreckage added insult to my cock-up.
Two-liter bottles of Coke and Pepsi erupted, coating the ceiling with their carbonated sugar water. Hostess© Brand pastries collected on the floor after I rocked them from their shelves. Twinkies and fruit pies mixed with sharp, fractured glass pieces to form a desert cooked in the bowels of Hell. The cops, shocked that a sober driver could launch a large SUV over a parking curb and eight-foot wide sidewalk into the store, asked me three-times if I had been drinking. I finally convinced them of my honest, if obnoxious, intention of looking for a Wall Street Journal—although I left out the fact that I already owned an online subscription for the service and could read any article I wanted on my computer.
Fuck my life, I mouthed under my breath.
The cops placed me in the back of their cruiser to sort through the paperwork of my mess. I made eye contact through the window with my mom after a few minutes as she pulled into an empty parking spot, driven to the gas station by the daughter of one of her close friends and coincidentally my date to my senior prom in high school. If I didn’t make a good impression then, I certainly didn’t cut one now.
Eyes wide, jaw dropped, and shoulders slumped, Mom’s face stared at me with a bombed out expression of complete and total confusion. With her car lodged in the storefront, an ambulance in the parking lot, and her Ivy League son sitting in the back of a cop car, I can’t say I’m surprised by such bewilderment.
Time elapsed in long, strenuous moments as sweat dripped down the center of my back, which I refused to move from the hard plastic backseat. My neck throbbed but I knew I couldn’t complain. No pity exists in circumstances as embarrassing as this one. Apprehension replaced the cockiness I woke with that morning. Two Vietnam War veterans suffered conflict flashbacks after experiencing from inside the store the explosions caused by my ill-timed accelerator jab. They weren’t hurt physically, but I prayed they would also emerge from the ambulance healthy mentally.
“Please, officers, take me to the police station,” I begged. “Book me, I don’t care. Just get me out of here.”
Horrified, I needed to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, really, but stuck in the cop car staring at the local newspaper reporter who lurked near the crash site like a vulture hoping to feast on my whiplashed remains. The officers refused my request.
After several more teeth-pulling minutes passed, everyone exited the ambulance in good order, I left the cops, and greeted the reporter with a firm “no comment.” When I retreated home, I called a number of friends and left the following message:
“Hey, it’s Kelly. I drove through the front window of the Sunoco gas station store on State Street this morning. I’m OK and I wasn’t drinking. I thought you should know before you read about it in the paper. I don’t want to talk about it, so if you call back I might not answer.”
If embarrassment loomed in my future, I wanted to be the one to deliver it. Unfortunately, the newspaper did me no favors by pasting 11 paragraphs of humbling text on the front page under a headline quote taken from one of the petrified war vets: Glass blew up.
There was a time when I avoided any talk of this incident and kept my oft-outsized ego outsized. Now, though, I not only laugh at the morning’s absurdity, but I appreciate its usefulness. If the temptation arrives to inflate my self-worth, puff my chest over accomplishments real or perceived, or treat others as inferior in any way, then I have to dismiss them. I am forever the kid who drove his parent’s SUV into a Sunoco convenience store, and there’s no room for arrogance when you have this accident on your record.
Pride does go before destruction and a haughty spirit does go before a fall.