NEW JERSEYANS ARE PRACTICALLY issued cars at birth. This state does not lend itself easily to car-free existence. Unlike a progressive state like Oregon or New Hampshire, where a thriving bicycle culture encourages the maintenance of options for those without cars, or New York City, where walking and taking mass transit is king, New Jersey has a sprawl structure and a culture to match. Acquisition of some form of beater car sometime in mid-adolescence is as solid a landmark for a Jersey boy or girl as the senior prom or the SAT. How else are you gonna get down the Shore on Memorial Day?
Thus the loss of a car is particularly painful. The violently exothermic death of a vehicle, however, carries a taboo fascination. This was evident in the parking lot next to my complex, in the parking lot of happening food market Trader Joe's, when I returned home from my usual Saturday chores.
As I rounded the bend to my cross-street, I couldn't help but notice a huge column of smoke arising from the vicinity of my apartment building. Flashing lights winked through the hedges bordering the parking lot. Traffic stood deep along the street, deeper than usual for this time. I learned why upon turning onto my street itself. An SUV was on fire. Flames belched from its open hood, giving it the look of a devilish forge. Firefighters swarmed over the busy lot — which surely had been thick with Trader Joe's shoppers before this car somehow burst aflame — diverting incoming traffic, keeping onlookers back, and aiming a hose full blast at the immolated engine.
I threaded my way down the street among cars being routed from the Joe's lot, parked, and called my parents as I tried to get a better view. As I briefed them on what I had found, the firefighters got in point blank on the car with the hose, suppressing the flames as their potential for setting off a gas-tank explosion diminished. By the time I had called Anne on the other side of town (who lives next to the fire station and had noticed more sirens than usual), the fire was more or less out, and the smoke rising from the truck was white instead of the sickly chemical brown.
But this wasn't all the excitement the emergency services of my town would face this weekend! As I had pulled into my lot, I noticed an ambulance parked next to the entrance of my building. I figured they had run out of room with the two firetrucks in the Joe's lot, so they had stashed this one here. Not hardly. While I was winding up my call to Anne, two EMTs exited my building, wheeling an elderly female resident out on a stretcher. (The average age of the tenants here is well above mine.) What were the odds? I didn't recognize the woman as I peeked in the ambulance window on the way in, but I did mention what I had seen to another tenant on her way out (under her own power, lucky her), so maybe she was able to determine who it was and can get news around to the other folks in my place for any follow-up.
I'll have to get the full scoop on how the fire started tomorrow in the paper. There sure wasn't anything inflammable around, not after the soaking rain we got over the course of last evening and part of the morning. For now, there's at least one more pedestrian in New Jersey, at least until the person's kin or friends scoops them up and rescues them from the horrors of having to expend effort on transport on foot.