Most of us are five days into the new year and already disgusted by the negative news bombarding us: Trump and Rosie, encephalitis scares, the sanctity of the our mail in question, Lindsay Lohan’s appendix, and more troops on the way to Iraq, to name just a few. So when a feel-good story comes along, especially here in New York, well I just want to shout to the world about it. Why? Because we need more positive stories, particularly ones that show we New Yorkers are more kind and generous than our reputations that have painfully preceded us.
Submitted for your approval (with apologies to Rod Serling, I’ve always wanted to say that) the story of one Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who has been dubbed “subway savior” and “subway saint” by the media here in New York. The fifty-year-old construction worker was on his way to work on Tuesday morning and somehow stepped through the looking-glass into the world of notoriety and celebrity. All of this did not come cheaply, for when the proverbial chips were down, Autrey literally jumped into action.
While waiting for the subway in the 138th Street station in Harlem, Autrey (who was with his young daughters Shuqui, 6, and Syshe, 4, at the time) witnessed twenty-year-old student Cameron Hollopeter fall off the platform into the path of an oncoming train. In what MTA Executive Director Elliot Sander hailed as “a death-defying act of bravery,” Autrey leaped from the platform to the tracks, pushed Hollopeter and himself into a well, and held the young man down as the train raced into the station.
When Mayor Bloomberg bestowed the Bronze Medallion (the city’s highest civic award) on Autrey in a ceremony at City Hall yesterday, he said Autrey “makes all of us proud to be New Yorkers.” I certainly agree with that and will even take it a step further: Autrey makes us all aware of something called civic duty, something that has been painfully lacking in the world around us. His actions are laudable because they are so infrequent, and yet there is in such behavior the thing that just might make others change their ways.
Educators often talk about “teachable moments,” and this rescue by a regular fellow going about his everyday routine definitely qualifies as that. It’s a lesson in courage, in love of one’s fellow human beings, and in shedding that selfish shell that many of us tend to ensconce ourselves in on a day to day basis. Mr. Autrey didn’t stop to think about much before leaping into action. He didn’t have time, for one thing, but he also ignored his own safety and reacted.
We often talk about heroism in generic terms. Sometimes jokingly we’ll say to someone who has just changed a light bulb or taken out the trash, “You’re my hero.” Like the word “love,” “hero” is often misused. In Wesley Autrey’s case it is completely justified and offers a new look at the concept of being heroic. We don’t have to be someone with superpowers to achieve heroism; the heroic act comes from the regular person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Oftentimes, as Mr. Autrey has said, it’s just about doing the right thing. “What I did is something that any and every New Yorker should do. If you see somebody in distress, do the right thing, you know, help out. Okay, that’s it?”
Amazingly, the man is as eloquent as he is brave. “That’s it?” You bet it is. The equation is simple. Everyday heroism doesn’t have to involve jumping into danger to save someone. It could be as easy as holding a door for someone, helping a senior citizen carry heavy packages, or watching a neighbor’s child in an emergency.
The heroic can often generate sublime moments such as Mr. Autrey is experiencing now. I am certain as he leapt into action on Tuesday morning, he never would have imagined the ceremony at City Hall, the free MetroCard for a year (to ride the subway), a vacation to Disney World, a $10,000 check from the aforementioned Donald Trump (who happens to do lots of nice guy things that many people don’t hear about), and an appearance on David Letterman's The Late Show. Mr. Autrey’s motivation was strictly based on his natural instinct to do something good to change a potentially horrific situation.
Teachable moments are few these days, but in this early January of 2007 we New Yorkers (and the rest of the world) have been fortunate to get to know Wesley Autrey. Hopefully, his selfless behavior will inspire others to do the right thing if they are ever faced with a crisis. As Mr. Autrey noted, “Good things happen when you do good.” How right you are, Wesley Autrey. How very right you are.