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Crash Course: Adulthood Gets Redefined When Two Cars Collide

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Despite being solidly in my mid-thirties, I've only recently started to feel like a grown-up. I spent many years waiting for a definitive moment that would propel me across the threshold into adulthood. But it was something far less conventional than home ownership, marriage or having kids that made me think I'd arrived.

A few years ago, I was driving through my hometown of Charlotte, on my way to a show at Higher Ground in South Burlington. The town's only stoplight is at the intersection of Route 7 and Ferry Road, and, after a certain hour, there isn't much traffic. But on this particular evening, a driver was following closely behind me. As I approached the intersection, the light changed to yellow. I considered careening through, but chose to stop. The driver behind me had other plans.

Rather than wait out the light, the slightly sporty sedan passed me on the right and sped toward the intersection. That's when I heard metal scrape metal, and felt a sharp jolt. The driver had clipped my car. Are you kidding me? I thought. Now we're going to have to call the police and exchange insurance info.

As I watched the car zoom through the red light, I assumed it would pull over so we could handle the situation — like adults. But it kept going. As its glowing taillights disappeared up the road, incredulity and rage washed over me. Oh, hell no, I thought. You're not getting away that easily. I jammed on the gas, blew through the red light and tore after the driver.

My car was by no means fancy. My trusty 2000 Dodge Neon had dents, nicks, scratches and a couple of minor cracks in the windshield. She was rusty, the cassette player no longer worked and the cabin had an ineffable "old car" smell. She was basically motorized garbage, but she was my baby, and I loved her. Despite being rough around the edges, she got me where I needed to go.

Still, it wasn't the damage to my car that made me snap. It was the principle: You don't hit another vehicle and then just drive away. Not my vehicle, anyway.

Adrenaline pumped through me as I sped after my assailant. I flashed my headlights and honked my horn, but the driver still didn't pull over — until I brazenly passed the car and pulled in front of it at a stop sign.

I stepped out of my whip to confront the driver. He turned out to be a baby-faced, relatively clean-cut teenage boy, probably a freshly licensed 16-year-old. Let's call him Jason.

"You hit my car, you little dipsh*t," I yelled.

"I know," he said, gazing down toward his shoes.

"Why didn't you stop?"

"I was going to."

"When? You should've stopped immediately."

"I know, I just ... I didn't know what to do."

I rolled my eyes and inspected my ride. Sure enough, she was sporting a brand new dent and a small crack in the rear taillight. I told Jason I was going to call the cops. He nodded his head and seemed to accept his fate.

But then I stopped to think. Was calling the police the right choice? After all, no one was hurt and the new damage blended perfectly with the old. I certainly wasn't going to take her into the shop over minimal surface scars. I never had before.

Also, I wondered how long this process would take. I didn't want to be late for the concert. Given that this was a non-emergency situation, and the fact that Charlotte doesn't have its own police department, there was no way of knowing exactly who would show up, or how long we'd be waiting. Then I thought of a consequence that was both fair and exacting.

"Take out your phone," I ordered. Jason obliged. "Now, dial your parents."

A few seconds later, I was explaining what had just happened to Jason's father. He told me he'd drive over and address the situation.

While we waited for his dad to arrive, Jason displayed genuine remorse. He was on the verge of tears as he sought my forgiveness. He admitted he got swept up in his fear and panicked. He wasn't some punk trying to skirt consequences, just a scared kid in trouble like he'd never known. I actually felt bad for him.

Jason's dad thanked me for my call — likely because I'd saved his insurance premiums from skyrocketing. As I recapped the situation and explained my thought process, he seemed grateful that I chose parental justice over the traditional kind. I have no idea if Jason received a punishment, but I got the impression that he would not be driving for at least the foreseeable future.

I headed out feeling like I had done the right thing. My clarity and decisiveness — and the way I stood up for myself — left me feeling more like an adult than ever before in my life.

But over the years, I've come to view that night a bit differently. I still stand by my decision to call Jason's parents, but most of my actions were not those of a responsible adult. I ran a red light, drove at double the speed limit in a residential area and chased an unknown person. What would I have done if Jason had been belligerent, or armed? I didn't consider any of that at the time.

I also realize that the scared kid I reprimanded that night could easily have been a younger version of myself. And that the threshold into adulthood I once imagined doesn't exist.

Our lives are made up of a series of decisions, each affected by the last. Sometimes we stupidly sideswipe a car. Sometimes we chase down a driver who wronged us. Hopefully we learn something. There won't ever be a magic moment of total and complete maturity.

This realization is what makes me feel like I might actually be growing up.

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