A familiar road, in the dark

I can't say for sure that I ever crossed paths with Karen Greenstein, but I'm fairly certain I knew the sound of her voice.

It's the sort of relationship that develops between those who work in newsrooms and those who toil anonymously in the public sector — the clerical staffs, the receptionists, those behind the counter at fast-food restaurants who hand newsroom types a bag of dinner a few nights a week.

We talk to them on the phone, or through the speaker at a drive-thru. Sometimes, you hear them enough, you can tell when they're having a bad day, or are aggravated or have a cold.

Deal with them long enough over the years, and the formality in their voice drops and you create what passes for going from “contact” to “acquaintance” to (sometimes) something close to being a “friend.”

It's like friending someone clear across the country on Facebook — only with actual human interaction.

Karen Greenstein's voice came into the lives of those of us here at the Mail Tribune through her work as an emergency dispatcher for Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon — the sound in the background alerting first responders of critical moments that needed their attention, and reporters, photographers and editors of possible stories to cover.

We get to know these voices in the newsroom. And because most of them — dispatchers and responders alike — are with us every night, we tend to incorporate them in the flow of our evening, into the pulse of our week.

And for those of us who — like Karen — pull late-night duty, we establish a connection by osmosis. That someone else out there is sitting in a different cubicle, behind a different desk, on the wrong side of midnight.

The night Karen Greenstein died on Interstate 5 in the vicinity of milepost 25, I had driven that same stretch of southbound highway roughly two hours earlier — like her, on my way home to Ashland.

I've been making that drive for nearly 15 years at some point between midnight and 2 a.m. — watching for the small group of deer that feed just off the shoulder, noting the semis that have pulled into the rest area or parked to grab a bite at the Iron Skillet.

We're most likely by ourselves at that hour, returning from work, with perhaps the radio or a favorite CD to keep us company — and awake. A few times a month, a glorious moon decides to light our way … and we feel for a fleeting instant that we are alone in the world.
At that time of night, that time of morning, every section of stillness along the asphalt is at once familiar and terrifying.

Regulars who know the drive know what to do when there's a threat of snow, when long-haulers need to get over the Siskiyou Summit.

We know to watch for construction crews, the occasional hitchhiker, the way traffic slows in the fog as someone up ahead is navigating their way to the exit for Phoenix or Talent.
What Karen Greenstein couldn't have known — shouldn't have had to know — was that at about 3 a.m., her ride home would end when a driver approached her on Interstate 5 going the wrong way.

Those of us who have to make that drive — knowing the dangers that could await are often related to the poor recreational choices of others — find no solace in this “There but for the grace of God” moment. Her family's tragedy is no one else's good fortune, no matter how familiar we are with the road Karen Greenstein traveled.

Or, for that matter, if we know we could have been in the other car.

I've traveled that particular road, too. Tuesday marks the 25th symbolic anniversary of my sobriety. Symbolic, because while I know what time of year the choice was made, the exact date remains fuzzy in my memory — like so many other events of the years that came before it.

April 1 stands for the day I decided to stop fooling myself.

It is not a milestone to be celebrated. I'd much rather have had no reason to mark it at all. That I've purposely missed generations in the evolution of alcohol — craft beers, boxed wines, Zima — is a choice filled with regret, occasional envy and moments of strained personal fortitude.

There are now smartphone apps designed for alcoholics in recovery, or in denial, that provide courage, diversion or assistance in times of weakness. April itself is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Be a friend ... to someone you know or to yourself.

A life after drinking is a whirlpool of emotions, slowed by moments such as Thursday morning, finding out about the crash on I-5 that took one life, left another hanging in the balance, and affected dozens more as the ripples of personal interaction spread out.

We read stories about a nightmare such as this, we stop in traffic as emergency personnel do their duty, we hear the details in casual conversation ... and still it has the ability to strike in a place deeper than when we hear of tragedies larger in scope.

We find a reason to relate, a moment to reflect. We find ourselves asking the same questions that come to mind the last time this set of circumstances led to this same result. It's not a question of “why?” but a question of “why again?” And, more than likely, “why the next time?”

The voices of those we have lost are stilled, but we hear them.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com

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