Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hero: Wesley Autrey

"I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right."
Before he came to the attention of half the Western world, Wesley was known to his friends and family as a modest, hardworking construction worker and something of the family patriarch.

His life of quiet working-class anonymity came to a full stop on January 2. What happened that day has already taken on the quality of legend: the man with the seizure on the platform; Wesley’s shout to a stranger to watch his daughters and his dive onto the tracks; the split-second decision to grab the man and roll into the 21-inch gutter between the bottom of the train and the rails; the train’s abrupt halt, its first five cars passing over the two men; the twenty-minute wait for the MTA to cut the power to the third rail. On Letterman, and later on Ellen, Wesley explained why he did what he did. “Fool, you got to go in there,” he recalled thinking.

But being the Subway Superman, it turns out, is a lot harder than it looks. Yes, since saving 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter after he collapsed and fell onto the rails at the 137th Street subway station on January 2, Wesley Autrey has been showered with adulation and no small amount of material goods. Donald Trump wrote him a check for $10,000. He was jetted for free to the Super Bowl. He’s received cars and vacations, fur coats and expensive meals. He received the Bronze Medallion, the city's highest civilian honor, from Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

He's been honored by Eliot Spitzer, Hillary Clinton, and was singled out by George Bush at the 2007 State of the Union address (that’s when Wesley blew kisses to the nation that morphed into peace signs—the gesture became his trademark, and something everyone in Harlem, where he lives, mimics back to him now). He captivated the famously unsentimental David Letterman, and brought his little girls on Ellen. He is on the 2007 Time 100 most influential people in the world list. B.B. King literally dropped to his knees and thanked him for what he did. Oh yeah, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority gave him unlimited metro rides for a year.

On January 9, when Wesley came home from the Ellen taping in California, he wanted to go back to work (he’d taken what he had intended to be a brief leave of absence). But there was too much to do. The American Stock Exchange wanted him to ring the opening bell on January 11. Spitzer wanted him on the 16th. The union local was honoring him on the 17th.

Wesley became exhausted. He told Linda he lacked time to savor even a little of his good fortune. His new life was cutting into his weekends with the girls. “They don’t like that,” he says. “I don’t either. I try to explain, ‘Daddy’s got kind of a new job, and I’m trying to make things happen and maybe get a house and a better way of life.’ But they don’t understand.”

He started to worry about money. You can’t pay the rent with a Jeep. And given the value of some of the gifts, the IRS would be watching. A friend at the union told him people could sue him now. His custody and support arrangement with the girls’ mother could be called into question. He might have to think about setting up tax shelters, and trusts for the kids.

Making money off his heroism had never been a priority for Wesley. But the president had just saluted him on national television, and he started to wonder if failing to capitalize on what happened wasn’t noble but foolish. It had been almost four weeks since Wesley had taken home a paycheck. He’d paid some bills but hadn’t even bought a new suit for the White House. What kind of a son and father would he be if he didn’t make the most of this? “I wanted to surprise my mom with a house,” he says. “There’s a lot of things I wanted to do. There was a possibility of that happening if a book or movie thing jumps off. And I’m dying to just get a house for me and my family.”

On February 5, the day after the Super Bowl, Wesley was a special guest at the Citizens Committee for New York’s annual gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. He had decided he needed a new management team, and that night met a lawyer, Diane Kleiman, and a movie agent, Mark Anthony Esposito. Wesley wasn’t just a news story, they said—he was a commercial and intellectual property that could and should generate revenue.

They presented Wesley with a four-page contract on Monday morning, just before he and his daughters were expected at the White House for the Black History Month celebration. Wesley signed the contract without reading it, and they left. “They were rushing me,” Wesley says. “The word was, ‘If we don’t hurry up and sign this, Wesley is going to be yesterday’s news, because when this Sean Bell case hit, that’s gonna knock you out of the box, so we need to do this—we need to sign these papers.’”

The three-year contract entitled Ms. Kleiman and Mr. Esposito to 50% of the profits related to his fame, regardless of whether they result from their work.

On March 22, Wesley filed court papers against Esposito and Kleiman, accusing the pair of embarking on an “unconscionable scheme” that began at their first meeting. The lawsuit alleges that when Wesley met her at the Waldorf, Diane had said she wouldn’t charge for her legal services; that she falsely said she was an entertainment lawyer; that the duo promised nothing would be done without Wesley’s input; that they sprung the contract on him in Washington and took advantage of him.

By late October, he settled the lawsuit, voiding the contract he called "one-sided" and stopping Mark Esposito from exploiting his heroic story.

Wesley’s getting used to being recognized everywhere he goes now. “When you’re in the public eye, you can’t be mean,” he says. “I love people, you know what I’m saying? That’s why I did what I did for that man that day.” There are still scores of requests for appearances and interviews, but he and Linda have set limits now: No more than one event, appointment, or interview a day. The rest of the time, Wesley can rest, be with his family, be anything other than the Subway Superman.

"People wanted to hug me, they wanted to kiss me," Wesley says. "It was an honor and a privilege to save a man’s life."

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