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.
(Page 3 of 3)
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?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.