Accidental tourist

Last Friday, on the way to what I assumed would be the next Nothing Ever Happens experience, my friend and I got into a car accident. It was embarrassingly similar to one of those Volkswagen “safe happens” commercials: two active young professionals in a moderately priced compact car, swapping irrelevant but humorous tales of junior high school, when WHAM!

Our car spun across two lanes of traffic and into a gutter. Fortunately, no one was injured. Since I was only a passenger, there was little for me to do in the two hours it took to file reports, call tow trucks and plan repairs. I stood on the roadside and shivered in the chill January wind. Rush-hour drivers gawked out their windows, undoubtedly thinking, “Better you than me.”

As the sun went down and the temperature continued to drop, I distracted myself from my chattering teeth by searching for meaning in the accident. Did life have a larger purpose in thwarting our plans, wrecking two cars and leaving us all by the side of the road? What was the silver lining here?

I never found one. In many ways, this was more unsettling than the accident itself.

I woke the next morning with stiff muscles and a sense of wariness about the world. I decided to take the day slowly and to keep my feet on the ground at all times. I put on my tennis shoes and grabbed the used digital camera I’d gotten for Christmas. I hoped a long walk would work out the kinks in my neck and hips, and that camera-hunting for beautiful sights would reconnect me to a universe that seemed dangerously indifferent to my well-being.

Having never owned a camera, digital or otherwise, in my adult life, I had no idea what to photograph. After walking several blocks down Capitol Avenue, I decided to begin with camellias. Thank God no one has ever told camellias that flowers don’t thrive in winter. Their generous red, pink and white blossoms are Sacramento’s springtime missionaries, sent to convince January’s unenlightened residents that warm salvation is on the way. Surely their presence was worth a photo, if not a modicum of faith in life’s essential goodness. I snapped a few pictures, leaning into the red-flowered bushes outside W.F. Gormley and Sons funeral home.

At the end of the block, I saw a large, three-tiered SN&R box knocked over onto its face, its metal base bent where it was still tethered to a traffic light. I attempted to right it, but failed. Feeling somewhat guilty, I took its picture and moved on.

I walked for miles, capturing the details of the city: hearts spray-painted on the crosswalk at 15th and Q streets, a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle cap on the ground near the Old Tavern, railroad tracks stretching across the grid, the words “Fuck Him” tagged on an office window, balloons advertising an apartment’s move-in special, a bulldozer chewing through the rubble of a demolished building on the Capitol Mall, a pagan Mickey Mouse statue with a sun painted on one ear and a moon on the other, tree roots busting up sidewalks, squirrels racing up tree trunks.

I stopped taking photos long enough to examine the ones of Allen Ginsberg and his friends on display at the Crocker Art Museum. More often than not, I found myself looking past the poets to the sparse apartments and haphazard views behind them. It was amazing what little stability, how few furnishings it took to support lives of great writing and greater adventure. “You don’t need much,” Ginsberg’s snapshots seemed to say, “beyond a roof, good friends and a belief in your own voice.”

Standing in the museum, I realized I certainly have the first two, and I’m learning about the third every day. Perhaps that is not an accident.