I just got back from This American Life Live! at a local cinema, broadcast in glorious HD. I’ve been a fan of the radio podcast for years, keeping it in my Monday afternoon arsenal for that stretch between noon and five when work seems to slip into a hellmouth where time is stretched like taffy.
Mike Birbiglia’s portion of the broadcast was, as expected, hilarious. But at the same time, I had a Shining moment when, as he was describing his particular scenario, I started to get very angry. Abnormally angry for a person sitting in a cinema 3,000 miles away watching via closed-circuit. Mike Birbiglia (comedian) was telling a story involving a car accident he was in wherein the other driver, who was drunk, was absolved of fault for the wreck and where he, Birbiglia, was told he would need to pay 12 grand to repair the other driver’s damaged vehicle. It was in this moment of hearing the story that I was able to touch that part of me who looks at the story of Charles Whitman and thinks, “I understand.”
Five years ago I worked as a delivery driver for Dominos Pizza. At the time, this was a dream job. I was in that phase of life prior to marriage when you don’t need to worry about what in-laws or people driving nice cars think about you. I was making handfuls of cash, sleeping until noon, writing until five, and working a quick 6 hours so I could get off, get drunk, and continue writing until I heard newspapers smacking driveways.
That changed one summer when, covering a shift for a friend, I was struck by vehicle driven by another man who was using his car for commercial purposes. To this day it would require the likes of Bobby Fisher to figure out how my car got struck three times by the same vehicle, but something about the less-than-perfect 90 degree angle caused me to get hit straight-on in the driver’s side, sideswiped as his vehicle fishtailed, and then struck again as the crane mounted on his truck whipped sideways tearing out the back of my car. He was text messaging his boss and didn’t notice the light was red.
I ruptured a few discs, got cuts all along my neck and back and arms, and ended up on disability for 8 months while I had three surgical procedures, 72 sessions of physical therapy, 51 doctor visits, and 12 visits with an orthopedic surgeon. I was fired from my job three weeks later for not having a vehicle to deliver in.
There were five insurance companies involved, two for each driver (one commercial, one private) and the newly-revised Arnold Schwarzenegger worker’s comp plan which was suited to fit the needs of large businesses and punish the lazy bums who were so obviously seeking the riches which stockpile when one is paid 502 dollars a month to live on. Unfortunately for me, the four formers dumped me off onto the latter. I was forced to live with my parents, had no job, no ability to acquire one, and for eight months watched my life sink further and further into the muck.
To provide a Genesis recap: The Accident begat injury, which begat debt, which begat bitterness and pain, which begat isolation, which begat a self-perpetuating mess which spiraled on for two years. It’s interesting how quickly your nightly pain pills become the warm cradle of your day, and how with nothing but pain and idle time that those pills become an addiction. Who’d think, right?
But what made my situation so rage-inducing and similar to Mike Birbiglia’s was the absolute lack of accountability as far as where common-sense right and wrong exist. My insurance company, more specifically, the agent assigned to my claim, just so happened to work in the same cubicle-farm as the agent assigned to the other driver’s claim, both for the commercial side and the personal side. Three policies, one company. I was notified on a Monday that my insurance company, his insurance company, would not be covering me for this accident. On Wednesday, his insurance company, my insurance company, informed me that because I was not covered by my insurance company I was technically an “uninsured motorist” for this accident, and as such was not entitled to any type of compensation for this collision beyond the bare minimum of medical costs. But, as the agent explained to me, because that was being taken care of by the State of California, the insurance company would pretty much take a couple steps out of the picture and let the universe sort itself out.
In case you were wondering about the Dominos policy (we’ve covered 4 of 5 if you’re keeping score at home), the owner of the store who I was working for at the time of the accident, sold his business for unrelated reasons immediately thereafter so that he could fulfill his dream of being a conservative talk-show host in the midwest. His LLC was dissolved, and all of that paperwork was in archive with nobody left to retrieve it or know its whereabouts.
During what I call my “Jodie Foster” phase, my mindset became eerily similar to what Birbiglia described in his piece during the broadcast. I stayed up until the late hours of the morning, no longer writing, but ranting on insurance message boards, looking up laws in odd parts of the country, and writing letters to local journalists, sure that I was sitting on a massive story which, if split open, would probably undermine the way we view insurance. But the saving grace for the citizen who believes in civil discourse is having their day in court, and I was sure that this would be a reckoning. The judge would hear my side, then brow-beat the defense attorney who would be pulling on his collar for air, realizing how far in over his head he had become. “They didn’t teach us about this!”
To make a case, I spent an entire year tracking down contact information for the dissolved Dominos franchise. If I could prove I had a policy, I could prove I wasn’t uninsured, and would therefore be entitled to my rewards. After 12-months digging, I was able to ascertain a copy of that very policy. I was set.
My attorney’s file, some 1400 documents involving all five sides, took up two boxes. We could have been auditing records for AIG. We went into arbitration with one of the most complicated cases imagine-able, with doctor reports and witness statements and CAT scans and photos and transcribed phone calls between myself and the insurance company who were clearing acting in bad faith. And their defense attorney came prepared with a three-page document which he had drafted the night before.
Page one outlined the problems with the insurance industry as it existed today. That there were thousands of erroneous claims filed each year, that we had fostered an environment where those seeking free money could win the jackpot through personal injury, and that this was ruining the system for everybody else. Page two outlined me. In short, it summarized me with words like “sponge” and “opportunistic” and “unstable”. It argued that because I was then living with my parents, and had no job (at the time of the disability) that I was the model for those who would bleed the medical system with fake injuries while trying to make a buck. It also included the attorney’s own psychological evaluation in which he believed that it wasn’t necessarily that I was this loser who was purposely cheating the system, but that I was a highly unstable individual suffering from delusions of grandeur and that most likely I actually believed I had been injured and deserved to be compensated for my imaginary losses, the ones outlined in our report. Apparently one can will 20 grand’s worth of receipts into existence if one has enough practice.
“Fuck,” I thought, “He’s good.”
Page three was a brief summary of statements made by a doctor I saw when I was sixteen. Because my health records had been subpoenaed, the insurance company was able to access files relating to my being placed on Prozac for bipolar when I was in high school. For them this was either the smoking gun, or some “it can’t hurt” effort to really necessitate the cost of that staple.
And that was that. It took three years to pay my bills after that.
I spent the month following learning everything I could about the defense attorney. Where he lived, where he commuted, his family, everything about his wife. There was a short period when I had planned to plaster his face on a few thousand flyers with the words “LIE, CHEAT AND STEAL” and leave them all over his neighborhood, but because I had recently become engaged (I had met someone, fell in love, and proposed in the time this fucking case took), my attorney left me with this: “You lost, it’s not fair. Go enjoy your wife and your honeymoon and forget about it.”
My wife’s first comment leaving the theater this evening was how she knew that this would rekindle all sorts of anger and resentment, which it has. To be honest, I’m thinking about the sonofabitch right now it makes me want to watch Gran Torino again. What scares me about this kind of obsession with fairness is how, aside from just anger, it becomes a justified kind of righteousness. To be so right about something so unfair that was so devastating almost becomes a kind of entitlement. And whereas anger is usually balanced by one’s recognition of how silly the focus of the anger usually is, these situations only confirm just how little anger there actually is, and how more is needed. Like a general calling for more battalions to rush the lines. You find yourself crossing into an area wherein nearly anything could suddenly be justified. This attorney was a bastard, do we need his children growing up and becoming like their father? Isn’t his existence really a detriment to society? Wouldn’t I be helping the world by running him over with my car a few times? And wouldn’t it be profoundly ironic if I did it with Dominos decals decorating my vehicle?
My first car was totalled following an accident wherein five drunk gang members fishtailed into my car. While not the usual “hit-and-run”, they did threaten to kill me if I called the police, which I did. They told me it was a hit-and-run. My second car was stolen, incidentally it was car-jacked during a Dominos delivery. The thief, who had my cell phone, used it to call me at work an hour later and thank me for my car and various belongings inside. If I can console myself with anything, it’s the words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “Character is fate.” I’ll let perpetual-asshole motion take care of the irresponsible. But it won’t ruin my deli tray (I’m eating a sandwich right now).