I came out of the gym on Friday and turned the corner to discover a car being eaten by fire. There was a very energetic cohort of firemen buzzing around the scene shouting at each other. The flame seemed like the Christmas tree from the Nutcracker–it kept growing exponentially taller and pointier. The car was an Audi sedan. All the doors were open and the windows were soot-blackened and menacing. The interior was charred and the leather upholstery was curling away from the metal core of the seats like wood shavings from a small carving.
I was fascinated and horrified by my fascination. I looked around and noticed that an ambulance was still on the scene and I comforted myself by imagining that if anyone had been injured in the fire, the ambulance would already be on its way to the hospital. I looked at the front of the car and determined that it hadn’t crashed into another vehicle. And just as the firemen extinguished the blaze in a puff of steam and ash, I noticed that the fire wasn’t coming from under the hood, but from inside the car, as if someone had dropped a particularly ambitious cigarette or worse, had set the car ablaze on purpose.
At that moment, before I could imagine who sets a car on fire in the middle of the day on a busy avenue in the middle of a residential neighborhood, a guy walked past me holding up his cell phone. He had clearly recorded the whole thing and was saying to himself over and over, “Let the m*ther f*cker burn!” His callousness snapped me right out of my voyeuristic indulgence and I went quickly through the cloud of debris, around the corner and on to my apartment.
But I have been thinking about it all weekend. He was not the only one with his cell phone camera. He was not the only one who wanted to capture this strange, scary, awful scene. To commemorate it? To share it with friends?
Then, I heard about the man in Washington DC who was attacked for no reason on a metro platform by two kids. No one intervened or called for help. Several people did, however, record the attack and put it up on YouTube. While I know that I have to be very cautious living in a big and often violent city, and that I am ill-equipped to put out a fire or intercede in an assault, it breaks my heart to see our natural voyeuristic impulses play out in these ways.
On a side note, I remembered that my third resolution is to pick up the phone more often when people call, or, if I don’t pick up, to at least return my missed calls. But this weekend has made me hopeful that in addition to my more mundane resolutions, I will also be good at asking for help when it is needed, on my behalf or for others.