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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"[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."