We are more than our mistakes.
Jeff Conklin’s bout of instant infamy is a good reminder of that. Conklin lives in the South End, land of many cars and few spaces, where parking is misery.
Maybe if he had been thinking more clearly last Thursday night, he would have realized that the wide-open parking spot on Rutland Street, which he found after circling the neighborhood for ages, was too good to be true.
But he wasn’t thinking clearly. He was returning from a meeting with the teacher of his 5-year-old twins, and he was feeling emotional. Conklin, who is divorced and has the kids half the time, worries a lot about whether he’s doing a good job as a parent. He is, the teacher told him. The kids were doing very well. He was so relieved he’d cried.
“I was in this state of really intense relief and gratitude,” he said. “I don’t even remember driving home.” It was dark when he backed into the spot. The fire hydrant was on the rear passenger side. He swears he didn’t see it. He got out of the car, crossed the street, and walked home.
On Sunday morning, Conklin and his son took the dog for a walk. A couple blocks from home, firefighters were knocking down a fire on Rutland Street that had displaced seven people and done $300,000 in damage. One of the firefighters came over to pet the dog and say hello. Conklin noticed a red car had been smashed because it was parked too close to the corner, and the fire engine had hit it. “That’s what you get,” he remembers thinking.
This would be hilarious, if Conklin were given to hilarity these days. Because even then (and this feeling will be familiar to many South End residents), he had no recollection of where he had parked his own car a few days earlier — no idea that it had been by that very fire scene. He had no inkling that the car had been towed, after the Fire Department tweeted out a picture of it parked so close to a hydrant that it rendered it useless to firefighters. And he was completely oblivious to the fact that, within minutes, the picture, and the outrage that attended it, had blown up on Twitter, transforming him into something he isn’t.
Conklin, an attorney and very successful former software executive, is used to people making assumptions about him. So he isn’t surprised that people looked at the picture of his BMW wagon parked at that fire hydrant and concluded that he was a rich, entitled jerk who did it on purpose, that he thinks rules don’t apply to him.
He hasn’t had the heart to look at those judgments himself, but he has been told they’re bad.
He was blissfully ignorant of all of it, until a Boston Globe reporter called him as he was preparing dinner for the kids that Sunday night. He was disbelieving at first, then mortified. He walked over to Engine 22, on Tremont Street, and knocked on the window. Overwrought — his eyes welling, his voice shaking — he apologized from the bottom of his heart.
The firefighters were enormously kind. No one had been hurt in the blaze, they assured him. And though a department spokesman says his illegally parked car had made it harder to fight the fire, Conklin says the firefighters assured him it hadn’t. Perhaps they were just trying to make him feel better.
They kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, relax,’ ” Conklin recalled. A firefighter named Skip Askia was especially nice: He remembered Conklin from earlier in the day, when he’d stopped by with his son and his dog. Conklin offered to buy the firefighters dinner, but they declined.
Instead, Askia offered to do something for him, telling him to bring his little boy to the firehouse for a tour.
Those firefighters saw Conklin for who he is: a decent guy who made a mistake he regrets immensely. And he has been trying to make it right. On Wednesday, he talked to the union about making a $5,000 annual donation to the charity of their choice. He still feels awful, tearing up at the thought of what he did. He doesn’t blame his critics.
“I understand why there would be character assassination,” he said. “If my mistake means there will be less incidences of people parking in front of hydrants then I am willing to pay the price.”
It’s a steep one, though. On Twitter and Facebook, Conklin is a pretty awful person. The social media that connect us also make it distressingly easy to be vicious. Emboldened by anonymity, we pounce on people, convicting them with scant evidence. It is one thing when our targets are public figures, who generally know what they’re signing up for. But we’re as likely to collectively eviscerate some anonymous joe as we are to whale on a Kardashian. And there is something terribly wrong with that.
“What if my children Google me someday?” Conklin asks, his eyes welling.
Five days after the fire on Rutland Street, we’re moving on. It will be a while before Conklin can do the same.