I'd come home from my rather extended Christmas Eve family gathering at my aunt's big house down in the Galleria area around 9 p.m. My daughter was flush with the joy of her loot and the thrill of running around with her cousins, and insisted on having every present opened and briefly played with before she would even consider going to bed no matter how thoroughly exhausted she was. After an hour of examining her collection of Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Sophia the First, and Doc McStuffins officially licensed baubles, we finally lured her away with the all-important ritual of leaving cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. With that odd take on Communion out of the way, she finally snuggled down in her room to wait for Christmas morning.
That left me with several hours in which to do all the parental Christmas last-minute preparations. There were a few surprise presents to wrap, stockings to fill, the bleeding Elf on the bleeding Shelf to move, milk to drink and crumbs to scatter, and most importantly the construction of her big present, an art desk.
The desk, a massive plastic thing that offered the visually artistic child the perfect station to draw as many rainbows and Tardises as she desired, was the latest in a long line of big presents that needed last minute assembly because they were too big to construct and transport in my tiny Escort beforehand. The kid in me that still builds LEGO sets every opportunity didn't really mind, though, and I figured if I started at 10:30 I'd be finished by midnight with just enough time for a glass of wine and a few chapters of a book before bed.
Around 11 p.m. the lights flickered out once, came back on for a minute, and then went out for good. In the distance, I heard sirens.
After a check to make sure the kid was OK and a call to CenterPoint to make sure that they were aware of the outage, I decided to put on my late grandfather's big coat and see if I could scope out what exactly had happened. There wasn't much else to do. I couldn't follow the instructions by candlelight and my wife had already laid claim to the 3DS. In any case, the sirens worried me.
As I trudged down West Road several things occurred to me. The first was just how incredibly dependent we have become on the ambient light of civilization. The power was out for what seemed like miles in every direction, and the lack of the landscape of twinkling holiday lights that I had grown accustomed to left the area in a sinister darkness. The only light I had was smog-shrouded stars and the hypnotic flashers of emergency vehicles up ahead near Gleason Elementary.
The second thought was that I had heard idiots letting off fireworks right before the power was cut. I was praying to whoever was listening that whatever bro in mandles had been lighting them off hadn't started a fire that could spread to my apartment complex.
There was no fire, but there was assuredly carnage out in the gloom. Wreckers, police cars, CenterPoint trucks, ambulances, and a line of pissed off commuters honking and flashing their headlights in anger at the closed road lit things up well enough. Four light poles and several signposts had been toppled and the grass in from of the school was torn up something awful. One wrecked car was being pulled away just as I came up. Three officers stood quietly in the cold near me.
"What news, constable?" I asked, because I tend to get archaic and anglophilec when under stress.
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The story was fairly simple. A very, very drunk man had just come down West and crashed into the first light pole. The fall of the one pole pulled down the other three. Injured but still able to drive, the man tried to leave and was pursued by a civilian car that had an off-duty officer in the passenger seat. Both cars subsequently became involved in another accident, one that was fatal to one of the pursuers.
As for the drunk man...
"They just took him away in an ambulance," said the officer. "He looked like he badly needed Life Flight. The fact that they didn't bother to call them tells me that he is probably too bad for it to matter much."
We watched people try and cut through the shopping center parking lot where we stood, only to be turned away by the cops with a resigned patience and gritted teeth at the gall of people who didn't seem to grasp the size of the accident.
"They even tried to cut through the school parking lot," said the officer. "I caught one on the grass and stopped him. 'Do you see that dump truck?' 'Yeah' 'Did you see the corpse you almost ran over when you drove by it?""
With that he pointed to the dump truck and the still draped body of the pursuer. It's always strange to see a dead body. You can never mistake them for anything but no matter what the movies have told you. There's something inarguably still about them that is more than just a cessation of motion. It's a like a tiny pocket of stopped time in human form, and even the dancing red and yellow lights from the flashers couldn't animate the body to be anything but a corpse.
Though New Year's Eve gets all the hype for drinking, the fact is that Christmas and Christmas Eve are actually worse in terms of DUI accidents than NYE. Alcohol consumption in the United States increases by 30 percent over the holidays, and Christmas and Christmas Eve lack the increasing infrastructure and education campaigns that have been launched to get the inebriated safely home on NYE.
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The results lay before me. Someone's holiday was going to be forever marked by a loved one's death, to say nothing of the people all along West Road who would be spending their Christmas morning in the cold with no power until CenterPoint, who was still working at noon the next morning, could repair the damage.
As we go out to celebrate the end of 2013, and I will certainly raise a glass hoping the door hits the year in the ass on the way out believe you me, take a moment to think about that glass. It's nice that society has dedicated so many resources to ensuring the safety of the roads on a holiday largely built around booze.
But it's just one of 365, and no Christmas magic can repair the damage an out of control car can do to you and hundreds or thousands of others. Please, drink responsibly.