My very-intelligent father devours non-fiction books—he can probably name the fifth candidate to drop out of 1912’s presidential election. Dad says he rarely reads fiction, because he prefers educational books. I respect his views, but I’ve learned loads of interesting facts from reading crime fiction, and detective novels provide handy tools for everyday living. Let me tell you about my first car accident.
In 1990, I had just moved to Los Angeles, when I was rear-ended on the freeway. Having a perfect driving record, I went into shock. I knew there was protocol to follow for accidents, but my brain went into lockdown, denying what had just occurred. Instead of asking for the other driver’s license, I asked for his name, number, and address and scribbled them down. Before I could write down his plate number, he jumped in his car and took off!
Not surprisingly, when I rushed home to call him (before ubiquitous cell phone), the screeching on the line told me that number wasn’t in service. I called the police then, but they said they couldn’t help, since his name and address were likely to be false as well. The next day, my insurance company told me I’d have to pay a $500 deductible for my bumper if I couldn’t prove it wasn’t my fault. I got mad. Then I got all Sherlock Holmes-y. I decided to find this guy and make him pay.
First, I recalled everything I could—the man’s height, what he was wearing, his car, etc. I remembered he rattled off his address quickly and smoothly. I’d read in detective stories that a quick answer means recalling a fact from memory and, therefore, more likely telling the truth. So, even though the police had warned me that everything the driver said was probably a lie, I suspected there was some truth in that address.
It was an apartment building. When I searched the directory, the driver’s name wasn’t listed, but my pulse quickened because the game was afoot. I rang the manager’s buzzer and said, “This might sound crazy, but I need your help. I was in a hit-and-run accident a few days ago, and have reason to believe the driver used to live here. May I come in to talk to you?” To my surprise, he buzzed me into his office.
The stocky man in his fifties looked impatient as I launched into my story. His crossed arms and expressionless face gave away nothing. When I told him the guy’s name, he only shook his head. At the last, I threw in the driver’s spattered painter’s pants. And that’s when the manager’s eyes sparked with a hint of interest. In police procedurals, don’t they always say that witnesses never know what piece of information might be important?
“It does sound like someone who used to live here. His name was different, but the other things you told me fit his description. I kicked him out about six months ago after several tenants complained he stole from them. We could never prove anything, but there was always something shifty about him. He said he paints houses and offered to paint people’s apartments. That’s how he gained access.” The manager pulled out a three-ring binder. “I probably shouldn’t do this, but I’ll give you his new address. I told him I needed it to forward his mail, but I really just wanted to know where he was in case new complaints came up.” As I watched the manager copy the address onto a slip of paper, I almost leapt over his desk to snatch up the clue. After profusely thanking the man, I drove straight to the Van Nuys location he’d jotted down.
This time, the address took me to a house on a cul-de-sac. I drove past slowly without seeing any cars in the driveway. Since it was mid-day, I gambled no one was home. I turned around in the cul-de-sac, parked on the other side of the street, and commenced my stakeout. Three hours later, the sun was dropping in the sky, and I was cold and hungry. My bladder wasn’t happy, either. I considered whether the guy might’ve lied about this address, too. Maybe this was a friend’s house where he only stayed temporarily. Much as I wanted to leave, though, my gut told me to stay where I was.
Just as my legs started falling asleep (the rest of me not far behind), a rickety brown Pinto came down the street and pulled into the driveway. It was too dark for me to see without headlights, but as soon as the driver got out of the car, I knew I had him. I watched that smug jerk walk up to the house and said to myself, “Gotcha.”
The next morning, I drove to the police station. The desk sergeant gave me the stink eye when I told him I wanted to file a report without the other driver’s real name or plate number. (I couldn’t see it from afar the night before, and wouldn’t risk running up his driveway.) I said, “I have a very detailed description of the car, an address, and two aliases for the driver, so I think he has a record!” The sergeant gave me a look implying I’d watched too many cop shows, then he said, “I’ll run your info through the system and see what comes up.”
Not five minutes later, he was back. My heart sank. But instead of shooing me out, the sergeant asked, “How tall was this guy? I’m six foot. Was he shorter or taller?”
“Shorter,” I said. “But not much. I’d say five-ten or -eleven.”
“How much would you say he weighed? I’m 190.”
“He was much lankier, so I’d say between 170 and 175.”
“Either light brown or hazel. I know it wasn’t blue, green or dark brown,” I said, recalling how Sherlock Holmes said if you eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remained had to be true.
Suddenly, the cop grinned and his entire demeanor changed. “I think I’ve got your guy right here.” He handed over a printout showing the man who’d rear-ended me. He had another, entirely different, name, but I had no doubt. Five-ten, 172 pounds, hazel eyes, and registration for a brown Pinto. He had several points against his license already, and the sergeant said, “It’s time to nail this bastard. File a report, and we’ll suspend his license.” I filled out those forms faster than bullet time.
A couple weeks later, I got a letter from my insurance company saying they’d received proof that the accident wasn’t my fault, and that they were waiving my deductible. I took my car in for repairs, and was told it’d take a few hours. I decided to wait, not a bad thing since I’d brought along a detective novel to read.
Elyse is a freelance writer/editor who likes soup and the Bee Gees, not necessarily in that order. Due to a childhood incident, she’s scared of walking over manholes. For more info, visit her site Pop Culture Nerd.