Column: Getting Back on the Vespa After a Brush With Death on 96th Street

The author on her Vespa, before the crash.

By Katie Barry

I drive in New York City like everyone is trying to kill me, scanning the road “Mission Impossible” style. It has this illusion of fearlessness when really, fear is my mental fuel.

None of that seemed to matter on a sunny Tuesday morning in July 2017. In not even a blink, I was careening into the back of an SUV that cut me off, before bouncing off his bumper. Replaying the crash, I couldn’t find anything I would’ve done differently. I wasn’t listening to music, looking at a map, or flirting with pedestrians. I wasn’t belting out karaoke jams in the sound system of my helmet space.

It happened on 96th street between West End and the entrance to the West Side Highway in front of the Mobil gas station, a block from our former apartment. Gas attendants later told me they thought I was dead. I was headed to the DMV to report missing plates, later realizing it was opportune timing to have all my paperwork on me down to the title when the cops arrived. After the DMV, I had grand plans of scootering to Jacob Riis beach to act like a World War II pin-up girl with my Irish comrade Tom Cleverpig visiting from the south of France.

I heard the front end of my Vespa make contact and crack, then squealing tires and action-film sound effects. I sprung up in a total haze, denial, wondering why there were construction workers clamoring to talk to me. Normally they just whistle from afar. I could see people’s worried faces and hear hollow-sounding comments. I told Siri to call Krispy Koala.

It took a few months before the random outbursts of ugly cardio-crying stopped. My twin sister Kristy would look at me bug-eyed, bewildered why my face was a bowl of soup.

“You’re alive!” she’d coo. “So what’s wrong?”

When I knew there was no braking and impact was coming, this flash went scorching through my head: Kristy is going to be so mad. I thought of how angry she would be sorting my belongings, deciding whether to take ownership of my clothes or throw them out. Does she wash my dirty workout clothes and keep them or chuck them out with the Thai takeout containers? She would have no use for the handmade trophy a boyfriend made for me or my spare sheets. Dresses that we had two of — would she donate them to a Goodwill or another set of twins?

There were grim, grim days, reminding her that I loved her dearly nearly hourly. I iced my black bruised knees and knuckles with frozen okra while sprawled out on my couch, making welfare calls to humans I adore. I thanked my mom for building me like a bull when she invented me. She reassured me she would still ride with me, as we did together on red Vespas in Paris two months prior.

The author during her recovery.

I picked up the police report of the accident at a midtown precinct two days after the accident. Three days after that, I was on the Upper West in my work van and swung by the 24th precinct to finally report those missing plates. In the lobby was the driver of the SUV. I nearly fainted. He didn’t recognize me at first because I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The one I was wearing the day we unfortunately met was cracked and in the trash. He told me that he fixed his car and everything was “back to normal,” perplexed why I wasn’t sighing in relief. I asked him if he had killed me, would he have come to my funeral?

“Hell no! Just because you decided you wanted to kill yourself means I have to go to your funeral? (Insert numerous expletives)”

Cops told him to “keep it down” as he left a scream trail out of the precinct. They assured me everything would be okay. And it will be, I think. I have a newfound dual respect and confusion for football players who sustain helmet-to-helmet concussions yet are back in action a week or even two weeks later. A month out, I couldn’t wear headphones, drink coffee or alcohol or be in the sun without splitting headaches. Running jostled my brain and the unnerving fear of a random object flying in my direction hindered normal life.

No defensive driving course, endless Mario Kart-playing or studying YouTube collages of wrecks could have prepared me for that day. I got a new cream-colored Vespa and a sparkly gold helmet from my sister. “Maybe this will help people see you more,” she added. Friends and family still ride with me, their faith unrocked. I don’t throw caution in the wind, I put wind in my caution and hold on for dear life. Which it really is.

The author and her new ride.

COLUMNS | 10 comments | permalink
    1. dannyboy says:

      Yet another completely oblivious SUV driver. I am glad the writer has survived, with her sense of humor intact. The other driver and his attitude is sickening.

    2. LK says:

      Happy that you escaped from the wreck and proud of your courage! But there are a lot of distracted drivers and pedestrians – be careful!

    3. stu rosen says:

      I am happy to see that Katie is back on her feet. I do, however, pray she does not have another accident. As we all know, the 96th-West End Ave intersection, and all approaches into it, are really dangerous. I hope she doesnt ride on the highways; I have witnesses multiple motorcycle accidents on the West Side Highway (and others) to keep me off of my motorcycle in this city for good.

    4. UWSHebrew says:

      how can someone so smart and eloquent be so foolish? riding a vespa in manhattan? you’re taking a big risk getting into an accident; yes, a bigger risk than other modes of transportation. go ride a vespa in the barren roads of upstate new york, but not round these parts…if you want to stay alive that is.

    5. whatsupduck says:

      You’ve already had one TBI. Why put yourself at risk for another? You may be right about SUV safety, but I don’t admire your decision to get back on the bike.

    6. Tere says:

      You are a fabulous person!!!! I’m proud of you!

    7. Leda says:

      So glad you’re (mostly) OK.
      What happened to Mr. Cleverpig? How did he find out what happened?

    8. 2whls2xthefun says:

      You rock, keep on rollin’.

      In 20 years of riding, I sustained one street-skirmish on my motorcycle too (cab 14th street U turn) and I said, time to get back on that iron horse once my nerves had steeled and my steed was repaired. I never take any one ride for granted, and never will for the rest of my riding days.


    9. Terence says:

      We don’t own a car so we rent occasionally from the nice folks at AAMcar on W96th right next to Mobil. What should be a simple process of getting gas before returning the car is harrowing: cars waiting patiently in line along the north side of 96th for a spot to open up at the gas station can expect to be broadsided by cars coming off the West Side Highway who don’t think twice about making an illegal mid-block left across a double yellow to grab the gas station slot you thought you had earned the right to enter; then hold your breath as you try to back out of the gas station and swing into the AAmcar garage without getting clipped by the onslaught of cars coming westbound across 96th in a race to get to the highway. It feels like an accomplishment just to get handed my rental receipt and get the hell out of there.
      Glad Katie survived on her Vespa; she’s a helluva brave woman to be back out there again after her brush with death.