A subway hero's year of living famously

In an era of 'empty celebrity,' an ordinary man who performed an extraordinary act of heroism got more than 15 minutes of fame – but the freebies and swag are running out.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    As the swag wanes and freebies expire, an ordinary man who did an extraordinary deed, says, 'I still make a living with these two hands.'
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Being a hero sometimes means, among other things, that commuting costs less. And so Wesley Autrey Sr. – "Subway Hero," says his business card – has become accustomed to padding the morning with a little extra time to drive his Jeep Patriot from West to East Harlem, park it, and catch a crosstown bus to work.

His daily commute for the past year has been largely free of charge. The car, the parking, the insurance, the bus fare – all were gifts for his moment of bravery, or madness, or divine design a year ago when he jumped in front of a train to save a man he'd never met.

Cameron Hollopeter, a film student, had a seizure on Jan. 2, 2006, and fell on the tracks at a Manhattan subway stop as a train barreled toward the station. Mr. Autrey leapt on top of him, wrapped him in a bear hug, and squished Mr. Hollopeter and himself into the 21 inches between the bottom of the train and the bottom of the drainage ditch between the rails. Unscathed but for a bit of grease on his hat, Autrey kept the young man calm for the 20 minutes it took officials to free them. He retrieved his 4- and 6-year-old daughters waiting for him on the platform, changed his clothes, and went to work, learning, from the first moments, to fend off pushy reporters: "The New York Post wanted me to put on a Superman costume, but I said, 'No way, I'm late for work already.'"

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With that, he learned the first rule of celebrity: Reality is mutable. The Post superimposed his face onto a Superman body instead.

This is the story that bounced around the world: In a city famous for indifferent inhabitants, an ordinary man performed an extraordinary act of heroism. Autrey was praised, thanked, and heralded as an inspiration. He was given $10,000 by Donald Trump, a $5,000 Gap gift certificate, an undisclosed sum from an anonymous patron, and a whole lot of swag: Knicks and Broadway tickets, a jersey autographed by Derek Jeter, a fur coat, a week in Disney World that he hasn't had time for, another Jeep he doesn't need. President Bush told Autrey's story in his 2006 State of the Union address, and B.B. King knelt before him after a concert to say, "You don't know what you've done to and for America."

But the spoils of heroism fade. Those year-long freebies expired Jan. 2. Today, a bus or train ride to work costs the Subway Hero $2; the parking space, $240 a month.

These are the first days of the rest of Wesley Autrey's life.

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Autrey's brand of heroism is all-Americana: one ordinary man's daring feat of selflessness; the kind of thing politicians like to get near, institutions like to ritualize.

"[It] functions as an affirmation of the American people ... a way to kind of counterbalance all those other negative stories," says Maria Sturken, a culture and communications professor at New York University. The vast number of cable channels operating 24/7 create a need for content; content fuels the creation of celebrity, sometimes out of nothing. Autrey stands out as an old-fashioned kind of do-gooder in an era of what Ms. Sturken calls "empty celebrity."

Autrey's celebrity had to compete in that realm. Fame is worth little if it doesn't travel, and Autrey's sped around the globe: Blogged about across time zones, he was twice jetted to Germany, where a TV talk show made him one of its 2007 People of the Year. Autrey kept a grip, largely without trying, on the spotlight reserved for ordinary people.

But fame that's not cultivated eventually yields fewer dividends, and turning himself from a good all-around guy into a good marketing buy has been difficult. Which means Autrey's is, all things considered, not such a different life. He still stops at the same small diner every morning at 6, ready for the construction site – a hammer dangling below his jacket, a white hardhat stacked on top of a backward baseball cap – and returns there, most days, for dinner around 5. "I still make a living with these two hands," Autrey says.

True, he has tripled the number of suits and tuxedos he owns, purchases prompted less by a sudden loosening of purse strings than by the nature of the elbows he now rubs. You wouldn't want, for example, to wear the same thing on two trips to meet the president. Otherwise, his material life has changed little. There's no new big-screen TV or leather sofa.

The second rule of celebrity: It doesn't come with the money commonly expected.

What has changed are Autrey's ideas of the possible. If celebrity brings anything with potential longevity, it's a different set of expectations than any Autrey picked up as the grandchild of Alabama sharecroppers. His parents separated when he was 4, and his mother moved to New York to train as a nurse. On their grandparents' land, the four Autrey children milked cows and fed chickens before school, and picked cotton and peanuts after. They cured their own meat, churned their own butter, made their own toys.

"My grandfather used to give us one bullet and say, 'Go out there and come back with something to eat,'" he says. "After a few misses, I got tired of nothing but vegetables, so I got to be good."

Though Autrey, now 51, grew up on the cusp of change in the Old South, he still rode in the backs of buses and drank from different fountains than white kids. His most distinct childhood memory: Walking into a diner. " 'We don't serve your kind here.' That's what they told me."

The young boy in that diner would have a difficult time imagining the opportunities of the man he'd grow into. When Oprah Winfrey wanted Autrey in Chicago on the same day the game show "Deal or No Deal" wanted him in L.A., he came up with the kind of solution only people with access to resources and power can afford to think of. "You're going to laugh at this," he admits with a smile. "I called the White House contact to see if the president could get me one of those stealth jets so I could be in two places at once."

But this new landscape of possibility isn't all lighthearted. Autrey wants to surprise his mom with a house, and to get his own, where his girls have their own rooms. "I want them to be financially secure, so they don't have to depend on a man for anything," he says. He'd like to start a foundation for underprivileged children. Or get his own talk show. Or get into real estate: "Being the black Donald Trump of Harlem. Why not?"

This trajectory doesn't surprise those who study the mechanics of "Accidental Celebrity," to borrow the title of P. David Marshall's book. "Celebrity is a kind of currency, a kind of capital that moves through culture and actually breaks down certain barriers," Mr. Marshall says. "In the nature of celebrity is the usurping of class." If one can debate the feasibility of Autrey's intentions, being famous may give him room to dream them up in the first place.

Not, however, without cost. A legal dispute about what Autrey calls a "one-sided" contract with a lawyer and agent cost him a good deal of money, he says. Other costs, though, are less easily measured in cash. For the first time in Autrey's life, his father called him – not to congratulate his son, but to ask for some of the windfall. "If you're coming to the family reunion," Autrey recalls his father asking him, "bring some of that money with you." His mother, a very religious woman, doesn't like "words of the world" like heroism and celebrity, and she won't take any more trips or go to any more black-tie dinners. Her conscience, she says, won't allow it, unless her son finds a way to bring all the attention back to "what God wants."

Autrey's kids, meanwhile, enjoyed their father's year in the spotlight – they took their first plane ride, which was to California for the Ellen DeGeneres show; they met Beyonce Knowles; and got new computers. But after a while, the demands wore on them, and they told Autrey, " 'We want our construction daddy back.' "

Autrey himself has had to learn what to give to the public, what to keep for himself, and when to say no – a choice he's never sure he can afford.

The third rule of celebrity: It's fleeting. As the sands of culture shift, so, too, does the notion of who's worthy of notice.

The Subway Hero's story has all the elements of a great American myth, but no one knows how often even that classic can be retold. Autrey wants to finance his dreams with income from a TV movie and a book deal, neither of which have materialized. He's banking, literally, on the timelessness of selflessness. It's his shot at doing for his girls what his mother did for him.

And maybe, he admits in a rare moment of indulging a purely material wish, he'll have enough left over for that dream car, the raspberry red Bentley coupe with walnut finish.

Meanwhile, a $2 subway ride will have to do.

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