The call about Michael Phelps' car accident on Calvert Street crackled over the newsroom police radio as I was about to leave work Thursday night. My first thought was, when I get home, I'll have to go online and see what happened.
But then, a moment of clarity, a sense of the absurdity: I was going to get on my computer to see what was happening on a street corner just several blocks from where I was standing?
As much to strike a blow for all that is nondigital as to feed my curiosity, as much as for the sake of experiencing something other than what is clickable or linkable, I headed out into - eek - the real world to check out for myself what happened.
It didn't take long to remember why going online is so seductive. You don't have to look for parking. The police don't throw up a perimeter of yellow tape to keep you at bay. There's no air conditioning outside.
But even more than that, online, there's a constant stream of words, pictures, video, random shiny, sparkly objects. I've wasted no small amount of time lost in its distractions, following one link after another until I'm so far gone from my initial search that I've forgotten what I went online for.
Now though I've learned - online, of course, in an article on Slate - that it's really not my fault. (I like when it turns out that way!)
A brain researcher has determined that we have this intrinsic, dopamine-fueled need to seek out new and interesting bits of information. Which, of course, is why the Internet is so addictive.
So even as I was headed up Calvert Street to see where Phelps had gotten into an accident, the tweets were piling up, and photos and videos were landing on various gossip and celebrity Web sites.
When I checked the next day, there were pages upon pages of tweets: how Phelps ran a red light at 50 mph, jokes about bongs and weed and such, even the rumor, quickly and roundly dispelled, that he had been killed in the crash. Many of the tweets and links led to Perez Hilton's Web site, which claimed to be first online with the news.
Everyone knows - or do they? - that being first doesn't mean being right. Police would ultimately determine that Phelps had the light, wasn't speeding, was sober and, yes, very much alive.
Still, looking at what was going on online while I was out in Mount Vernon, it all seemed much more breathlessly exciting than, well, real life.
At the scene, it was mostly people doing their jobs: Police had quite the abundance of personnel for an incident that obviously was going to get more scrutiny than the obvious fender-bender. Ambulances, a tow truck and, yes, The Baltimore Sun in full print, photo and video force went about their business.
A maitre d' and a few waiters wandered over from the nearby Prime Rib restaurant - no, they told me, Phelps hadn't been part of the Restaurant Week crowd enjoying the three-course, $30.09 bargain meals. Neighborhood residents wandered about, taking their own pictures and delivering tidbits - Phelps was barefoot, in the company of a stunning blond woman, his Escalade hit the Honda, which then plowed into a parked car. There was collateral damage to a corner mailbox.
Hardly barn-burning stuff, but it was just enough apparently to satisfy that part of my brain that the research says needs to keeping seeking new information. Even though it was obvious there wasn't much else to this rather ordinary collision, I stuck around.
Eventually the police cleared the streets to get the cars involved towed away, I was shooed away and felt let down that I might not get to see this to the end, however boring at that point. Luckily, Phil Baty, who lives in a splendid house on Biddle Street just down the block from the accident, risked a Henry Louis Gates moment to give us a vantage point from his place.
We ended up in one of those, um, discussions about the Constitution, the First Amendment, private property rights and public spaces with a police officer who wanted us off the street. We retreated to the sidewalk, and then to Baty's porch until all parties agreed, with some grumbling, that we could take our last stand and not be moved from the front doorstep.
No handcuffs appeared, but we became emboldened by our victory, or at least our nondefeat. There was exceedingly little to see at this point, but Baty was such delightful company - his house has a museum devoted to former Biddle Streeter Wallis Warfield Simpson, he's pals with William Donald Schaefer - we eventually found ourselves on the porch of Government House on Calvert Street for an even better vantage point of the intersection.
By then, there wasn't much to see. But anyone who wants multiple images of Phelps' damaged car, from just about every possible angle: Sun photographer Tasha Treadwell has 'em.
Braving real world to see Phelps' accident in person
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