Collateral Damage

by Sandy Nelson on December 11, 2012

Manhattan, 6th Avenue at Central Park South, December 5, 2012, approximately 4:30pm EST.

I am in a taxi on my way from Penn Station to my hotel. The taxi driver is in the second lane from the curb and intends to go straight ahead to enter Central Park at Center Drive. In the curb lane immediately to our right is an MTA Bus. This is where it gets interesting.

The bus driver is determined to turn left onto Central Park South. The driver of my cab is equally determined to go straight into the park. Horns are blown, gestures exchanged.

Reading emails and sending texts on my iPhone, I am mostly oblivious of events, though annoyed by the interruption caused by horns and cursing. Suddenly, the bus driver aggressively turns his steering wheel to the left and slams into the cab. The point of impact is just a few feet behind the right-hand, rear passenger door—just a foot or two from where I am seated. The decibel level of the collision and simultaneous crunching of metal on metal is extreme—exceeded only by the yells and profanity of the taxi driver.

Out of the car, into the street he goes. Charging toward the bus, he elevates the confrontation. Fortunately, the bus driver sits silently and, seemingly, impassively.

I lower my window, look into the eyes of the bus driver who is by now, after all has settled, just a couple of feet away and almost exactly parallel with me. I ask, “What were you thinking? Why did you hit us?” He stares blankly, exhibiting no emotion and no affect.

After an indeterminate period of time, I begin to wonder why I am still seated in the cab’s passenger seat. There seems to be chaos all around me—horns blowing, traffic stalled with loud voices emanating from cars stopped dead in the street as a result of the obstruction caused by our collision.

I move to the opposite passenger door, open it and step out into the middle of the street. Now, the surrounding chaos grows louder and infinitely more intense.

Suddenly, I am vaguely aware of a man running from the sidewalk and speaking urgently to me. For a moment, I cannot, for the life of me, interpret what he is saying. Events unfold in slow motion.

Eventually, I see that he is pointing to my feet. He smiles benevolently and with obvious concern. Looking down, I see my money and credit cards spread out on the pavement below me.

Suddenly, I can hear his voice. He is telling me to be careful. I am standing in traffic. He warmly but firmly suggests that I pick up my cards and money.

I thank him, wondering how in the world they got out of my pocket and onto the street. I bend over, retrieve the objects, place them in my pocket. I am lost in a seam between reality and dissociation.

After more urging from the kind citizen attempting to help me, I say to the driver, “I’m going to get out of the car.” He signals to me to get back into the cab. I do. He starts the engine, puts the taxi in drive, and begins a painful, noisy, jarring process of disengagement from the bus.

Soon enough we are at the curb. He stops the meter and asks me to pay. By now, clearly in shock, I placidly comply. Once our transaction is complete, he gets me out of the car, opens the trunk and hands me my luggage and briefcase.

What to do now? I step onto the sidewalk, look around and think briefly about hailing another cab.

The next thing I know I am walking East on the sidewalk with Central Park on my left. A man and woman, arm in arm, approach heading West. He looks just like Robert Pattinson. I do not think, initially, to look at her. A few yards past I turn and wonder if, indeed, it was Pattinson and if his friend was Kristen Stewart? I have only briefly paid attention to their recent tabloid drama, and seeing him, or someone who looks a lot like him, adds to my disorientation.

I continue to walk. It is cold, windy and life seems surreal.

Soon, I am stepping over horse droppings as I come to the curb at East Drive where horses, carriages and their drivers wait for the next couple seeking a romantic interlude in the City. Across the way is Grand Army Plaza—the site of one of my favorite New York landmarks. Towering above, the heroic, gilded bronze statue of William Tecumseh Sherman by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

For a moment, I pause to wonder why Sherman, why here? Later, through Google, I learned that after the civil war Sherman moved to New York City and rode his horse and carriage through the park daily.

A year or so ago, I read David McCullough’s magnificent tale of adventurous and innovative American artists, writers, inventors and others in Paris between 1830 and 1900, The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris. I became fascinated with Saint-Gaudens. Odd to find myself thinking about his life and this sculpture under these circumstances.

Strangely enough, it seemed fitting that as I made my way through the City in the daze of shock that I should come upon a work by an inspirational artist whose obsessive attention to detail I much admire. And, this is where the concept of collateral damage enters my thoughts.

Saint-Gaudens piece is dedicated to the memory of a man who led the March to the Sea that left much of the antebellum history and landscape of my native state of Georgia charred and in ruins, engendering decades and generations of resentment and separation from the mainstream on the part of many descendants of those whose lives were forever changed by the ferocity of the General and his army. So many innocent people lost home and heritage—classic examples of collateral damage. Is this not always the way with war? Are loss, emotional trauma, alienation and disenfranchisement not typical results of battle?

A moment before I was sitting comfortably in a cab looking forward to a week of creative engagement and contribution when the egos of two dudes overcome rationality and go to battle. Seconds later, I with my shock and injuries are collateral damage. Yet, in times of duress, inspiration is always welcome. The beauty of the place and sculpture serve as a reminder that all could be much worse.

I forge ahead on my journey with gratitude for Saint-Gaudens’ inspiration and a life continued after a startling collision filling my thoughts.

Blocks North, well up Fifth Avenue, dragging luggage and barely noticing the bite of wind and cold as it chillingly permeates my open overcoat, I turn right onto 76th and find myself standing at the arrival desk at The Surrey, my hotel of choice in New York.

Within moments, it becomes clear to the gracious individual at the front desk that something is amiss with me. I remain in the deep fog of shock.

The next thing I know, the ever gracious Shan Kanagasingham, General Manager of The Surrey is at my side. Soon we are sitting comfortably in the lobby with a welcome bottle of water in hand, though I am trembling uncontrollably and stunned. Shan’s wonderful guest relations manager, Rita Cabral, appears, speaks soothingly to me and escorts me to my room. A few moments later, a lovely lady from housekeeping and others magically appear to care for me with kindness and compassion for the balance of the evening.

Now, a week later, I am safe and sound at home suffering mildly from an aggravated concussion, residual pain and stiffness from whiplash. I am deeply grateful to have escaped the accident safely, for the thoughtfulness and care of the wonderful people at The Surrey, and for the understanding of valued clients inconvenienced by changes in schedule.

Events, fueled by testosterone within a mano-a-mano confrontation between two immature players, changed the course of life for me within an instant. With little warning I had gone from peaceful engagement and eager anticipation to unwelcome collateral damage.

On reflection, I see this phenomenon occurring in different venues almost daily:

  • two executives compete to advance personal agendas while leaving bystanders alienated, compromised and cynical in the wake of immaturity and self-centeredness,
  • managers lose sight of those whose contributions move their businesses forward as they place personal goals and performance measures over the interests of the whole,
  • organizational priorities are subjugated to departmental protectiveness at the costs of opportunity lost, disenfranchised talent and diminished mood,
  • cultural evolution and enterprise advancement are short-circuited and delayed as sophomoric games are played by those who resist change to protect legacy fiefdoms, and
  • individuals stop caring, choose not to be accountable, do only what is necessary to get by, etc.

Unfortunately, the damage incurred in organizational collisions is not as immediately obvious as the soreness and loss of balance generated by injuries obtained during the violent coming together of taxi and bus. But, rest assured, the damage is there and the costs are high.

Employee dissatisfaction, elevated attrition, suboptimal performance, weeks and months to make decisions and take action while opportunity is lost—these symptoms and more are among the plagues that damage and compromise those leaders, cultures, teams and individual contributors that tolerate immature behaviors, dysfunctional patterns and dynamics, and allow egos to override grounded business data, needs and opportunity.

What can you do today to assure that collateral damage within your team, business or enterprise rapidly becomes a relic of the past?


Sandy Nelson


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