This Hermit Crab


A two-toned, square, late eighties Volkswagon Vanagon drives across the intersection, and as it passes slowly in the midtown traffic, I can see its suffusion of junk, a wall of thrift storage obscuring the passenger-window view into the cab entirely, like a two-dimensional diorama of plastics and errata.

Black and gray bathtub-sized Rubbermaid containers are bungee corded to the roof, and atop of one another, like stacks of luggage, the whole green and beige vehicle weighed down on its rusting hubcapped wheels. When I turn onto the street, about 5 cars behind this hermit crab, the person and the car seemingly of one being, one weird hybrid of an organism, collecting objects.

The driver is pulling over onto the shoulder between parked cars after each intersection to let the cars between us pull ahead, and he re-enters the road in front of me. I ease off to give him some space, looking at the whole situation for the unrushed lesson — don’t hold on to stuff — don’t be this person, this entire archetype of psyche and dysfunction adjacently familiar. The van’s movement ahead of me is painful to watch, and I’m sad, both for my initial disgust at the abject messiness of it, and from the brief glimpses I have imagined for a moment what trace of history led him to be barely making it down Seabright Avenue, if he’s making it anywhere at all. 

I see that in myself occasionally, that barely making it through, of holding on too tightly — usually more in pixels, words, and video and thoughts, memories and nostalgias, than in physical objects themselves. 

I hear from the whine of the engine that the van doesn’t shift, or perhaps it’s stuck in first gear, going at most twelve and a half miles per hour. BANG. It looks like the whole engine has died in the front and the van has stopped abruptly, some small cloud of dust or rust escaping in the sunlight on the passenger side.

But that’s not quite right, though, as I think about it, stopped about thirty feet behind him. The engine is in the back. And even a dead motor will coast, for a bit.

The driver ahead of him opens his door, and now it’s clear; the van hit the car ahead, rear-ending it, amazingly, with some amount of force. How did this inching-beast manage to rear-end someone? Did his foot slip off the break? Does this van even have brakes, I’m wondering. The banged car ahead is a newish blue Subaru wagon. Door ajar, the van driver says something — sorry man — makes what sounds like a mumbled excuse half connected to reality. From the half-mile we’ve been driving together I’ve gathered up a fair amount of sympathy and sadness for him already. Whatever it is in his life, it can’t be going well. And then here it is — reality meeting his insulated shell. He opens the door, and a water bottle falls out onto the street ahead of him, and his two feet barely in shoes touch the ground. 

“Everythings okay though, nothing happened” he’s trying to say, wrapped up already in gaslighting defensiveness. The long-haired Subaru driver faces him, pointing at the small gap between the cars, “Nothing happened?! How about the fucking whiplash man!” And all this crap here, he points out, too. How can you even see?

The van driver apologizes in a weird form of shameful dismissal, signaling the van is like some embarrassing quirk and you just have to look past all of that. Don’t mind the mess, you know, I haven’t been minding it, either. 

Underplays the whole problem, as you might when you are resigned to all of it. As if there wasn’t anything the drive could do about his van, all those objects just stuck to it and now it was stuck to the car in front. And there probably really wasn’t anything he was going to be able to do about it. He opens his door again, and another two water bottles fall out of the car as he climbs back into the seat. He gets back out to grab the bottles, and the more I’m watching now it’s questionable if he is wearing shoes, or if they are slipped onto his feet, the backs riding along underneath the heels in a makeshift slipper.

Couldn’t get enough speed. Couldn’t stop soon enough.

The Subaru starts up again and pulls over to the side of the road, and the wagon gate is up, and the driver is at the bumper, pushing on it to see about its damage. The van, ahead of me, slowly inches forward into gear and makes a right turn past the car down the next street, absconding from the scene entirely.

I feel sorry for him, and for the anger in his victim, too, and the whole mess. If I’d passed ahead back up the road, it could easily have been me shouting perhaps about whiplash, if I shouted at all.


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