Anatomy Of A Greenpoint Bike Accident

If a car slams you off your bike, the cops won't do anything

Streetsblog, a five-year-old nonprofit, compiles a weekly tally of fatal motor-vehicle crashes, culled from the news. At last count in the five boroughs, there were 91 accidents, and 13 drivers charged. "The pattern you see is that reckless driving is not taken seriously by the police," says Streetsblog editor Ben Fried. "Whenever you see that a pedestrian or a cyclist is seriously hurt or killed, you can't count on the police to give you a detailed account of what happened," he notes, having researched the problem for more than three years. "When you do find out about the investigation, it just seems sloppy. We've had cases where witnesses say they gave their names to the police and they never got a call back, or they were turned away at the scene." He hadn't been following Michelle Matson's story, but calls her account of dealing with the police "not terribly surprising."

Nor is the experience of Rachel McCulloch, mother of 28-year-old Web designer Neil Chamberlain, a pedestrian fatally injured by a Greenpoint hit-and-run driver in the 94th Precinct. "I tried to follow up with the police investigating the accident," writes the Brandeis University professor in an e-mail. "It seemed their unit was understaffed relative to the workload, but it was hard for me to know whether that was true or just an excuse. I did call the precinct to complain that no one called me back after I left several messages, and after that I got a return call pretty fast—though the officer who called confused Neil with another victim with the same surname, which was not very reassuring." Chamberlain was also hit along Calyer Street.

Lately, Michelle has been sculpting guts. "I can't imagine why," she guffaws on a recent Friday in the Williamsburg studio where the artist now spends at least 20 hours a week. On a drawing board are prehistoric Wall-E-type creatures, paperweights made of eyeballs, chattering teeth, and plaster-cast balloon-animal intestines. Beside them is the top half of a bald man's salmon-colored scalp, his innards stretched out and suspended like taffy. In a display case to his left, there's the skinless bottom half of a head, comprised only of muscles, teeth, and that menacingly symbolic C-spine. "It's impossible not to make work about things that happen to you," she reasons. "Even if you don't intend on doing it, it just happens. I can't not."

James Paz and Michelle Matson, run over once by a Greenpoint driver, then by the NYPD.
Celeste Sloman
James Paz and Michelle Matson, run over once by a Greenpoint driver, then by the NYPD.

Michelle can walk now, but she will never ride a bike again. "Just thinking about it grosses me out." She can't run or jog or even dance for more than five minutes. If she unintentionally ends up on a long stroll, she has to sit down periodically and wait for the pain to dissipate. "It's like your leg is a kid," she says, feigning a maternal whine, " 'Johnny's tired and we can't do anything because he's cranky!' I never really wanted a kid!"

There have been no arrests in Michelle Matson's case. Hit-and-run complaint No. 2010-094-03432 is still open, according to an NYPD spokesman, and thereby still under investigation. Yet Michelle hasn't spoken to anyone at the NYPD since January. The most serious offense listed on the paperwork is a misdemeanor, even though earlier this summer a Bronx woman was convicted of a hit-and-run felony for barreling over one of Mayor Bloomberg's aides and leaving her in a vegetative state. (Last week, the Brooklyn judge told the court the maximum penalty allowed by law was "inadequate.")

No one knows what John Doe remembers about October 23, 2010. He's the real-life Grand Theft Auto player, identified in the personal-injury suit that plaintiffs Michelle Matson and James Paz had to file jointly with Country-Wide Insurance, the New York–based company responsible for Jaime Conty Jr.'s vehicle, in order to collect claims for their Bellevue Hospital ambulance ride, medical bills Michelle's Medicaid didn't cover, and the lawyer they needed to handle the paperwork. Even with Medicaid, Michelle had to deplete her savings just to afford all the car rides: "Because of somebody else's error in judgment, I'm being completely and totally punished. And nobody else is."

Mr. Conty owes at least $443.27 for outstanding parking violations. All four 2010 offenses were originally a $45 fee, but unpaid penalties have made them balloon. No one knows if Jaime Conty personally left his Nissan there on Clay Street during street-cleaning hours to accrue all those fines, but he's the one ultimately responsible: Parking violations are explicitly charged to the "Name of the Operator, if present; if not present, Owner of the Vehicle Bearing License"; there's no mention of John Doe. The last street-cleaning fine was issued on October 18, 2010, five days before that same car would mow down Michelle and James. October 18 is also Michelle's birthday.

Coincidences can be cruel. That's the constant reminder of the two life-size yellow-haired acrobats dangling in Michelle's studio, limber figures she was focused on when that four-wheel monster bulldozed her body. "Gymnasts—and I couldn't move!" she declares now, with a despairing laugh. Her sister is a dancer; human flexibility was just something on Michelle's mind, until it became the only thing.

She finally returned to her studio on crutches this past February, forced to prop her ailing leg on a stool just to be able to withstand the strain. The athlete twins sat untouched since autumn, their skeleton existence something of an antagonistic gesture. "I finished them because it was a weird mental challenge," she explains. They were supposed to be part of a series. "I kind of lost interest after the whole accident." The pieces are presently untitled. "Maybe you could call them The Taunters?"

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