A short story about fractured faith...
He sat straddling the center divider of the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway dressed in a dark blue suit with a white turtleneck sweater. I couldn’t figure out how he got out there. There were no abandoned vehicles nearby and I couldn’t imagine anyone letting him out as a hitchhiker, so I figured he must have walked up one of the on-ramps. Didn’t he know it was too hot for a turtleneck sweater?
Still, what was he doing out there? He could get hit. Hopefully, he knew he was in New York, and some poor misguided fools here lived for the opportunity to show someone they shouldn’t have been doing what they were doing, out in the middle of traffic? They’d hit him just for sport and the opportunity to see their retarded faces plastered across the nightly news or the New York Post, as “Beast or Savior.”
He didn’t seem afraid nor did he have the appearance of one of those loony tunes that managed to wander into high traffic zones every now and then, convinced they were walking to the park or some highly industrialized soup kitchen. No, by the little I could see of him, he looked normal; whatever passed for normal in New York City in 90-degree weather and steaming humidity.
Being from California, I, of course, didn’t slow down to stare at the darkly suited miscreant obviously in need of some mental health treatment, regardless of how well he was dressed. I’d met some pretty normally dressed insane people. Actually, I worked with a few. I did exercise a little professional training and changed lanes, making my way to the far right side of him. I didn’t feel like trying to explain to my car insurance company that though my domicile was located in Brooklyn, I was not an example of the lower level driving skills so evident in my community. I could drive, and I could avoid crazy people, not infrequently doing both at the same time.
Later that afternoon, I read a crawl from the local news broadcasting a story about a man wandering on the BQE. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out the complete story since at exactly that moment my client was demanding my attention. He was one of those people who didn’t respond positively to being shushed. I had tried it unsuccessfully in the past. It had necessitated the use of a chokehold maneuver to bring him back down to earth. He had to pass through unconsciousness to get there, but we got him back down here with the rest of us. So I tugged myself from what was interesting to me to what was interesting to my client. There were so few opportunities to help people that I felt the need to be open to the remote possibility of helping this chronically ill non-medicated man, even though my heart wasn’t convinced of it.
On my drive home, I managed to miss my favorite news program by two minutes, and due to my intolerance of poor news reporting, couldn’t force myself to listen to any of the other New York news stations. The other stations often had me so wound up listening to their tripe that I had to have a drink when I got home. If it had been legal to drink while driving, I would have had a drink in the car like all the other brown bag five o-clock drinkers I spotted to the right, left, and rear of me. No, I couldn’t drink with them. I had to keep my wits about me to avoid sharing a hot afternoon on the tarmac waiting for the disinterested police to arrive, just so I could show them where the idiot tossed the alcohol bottle. My drive home, if not listening to “My” news program, was spent turning up the volume of some soulful jazz and trying to tune out my terror. I looked upon my drives home as a sanctuary bubble traversing the cruel world beyond my windshield.
After a relaxing evening at the gym, my bowl of cold cereal in my lap, I anxiously tuned into my favorite news station, and there he was, Mr. BQE. They must have been filming from one of those news helicopters; otherwise, the traffic jam on both sides of the BQE would have precluded them ever filming him. They showed him sitting there, and then jumping up as the police officers pulled up on the right side of the road and across the center divider. He ran south, towards the Williamsburg Bridge. I watched in fascination, not hearing any of the dialogue, as he ran up the ramp and out towards the bridge. He was fast. The helicopter filming didn’t miss any of it. The poor policemen must have just left Dunkin Donuts, because, swear to God, he simply pulled away from them as though they were stuck in jelly doughnuts.
What was he going to do? Run into Manhattan? He’d have to know they’d be waiting on the other side, and by then he’d be tired. I sent him messages to that effect. Why did I want him to get away? And didn’t this happen already?
I was sitting there with my mouth full, having forgotten to chew. I was about to swallow when they filmed him climbing over the pedestrian barricade and jumping. I choked. I think he caught the cameraman off-guard because he missed a few feet of his descent and just managed to catch him entering the water. He went in beautifully, feet first, holding his nose, little splash.
At that moment, the food fell out of my mouth. I was holding my breath waiting for him to resurface, but after a few seconds; it seemed like hours, they pulled the camera away. It was at that moment I could hear the announcer saying that the man didn’t surface. I felt myself gasping for air; I’d been holding my breath. They sent the police frogmen out to search for his body, but they didn’t find him. The announcer almost gleefully announced he’d been swept out to sea.
I was no longer hungry. I was stunned. I felt so bad and guilty at the same time. Maybe I could have helped him. I should have stopped and rendered aid. I slapped myself. How ridiculous? Not everyone can be helped no matter how much you might want to try. In any case, I flipped off the television and massaged my ego to sleep.
The next morning, as I drove by, I stared at the site where he had been sitting. It seemed all the other cars did the same, as some type of homage to him. No one had called to identify the young man. In all that filming, no one had gotten a clear shot of his face. I realized that if asked, I couldn’t give them a description beyond “well-dressed, young man in a dark suit and wearing a turtleneck in the middle of summer.”
Over the next several weeks, after multiple showings, the incident faded into the background just as all the other unexplainable horrors of big-city life. I think I had managed to drive past the site on more than one occasion without even thinking about him, but curiously only when I was in a hurry. Otherwise, I still pictured him sitting out there all alone, waiting for something, waiting for anything.
I used the incident as another reminder to do what I can, when I can, because otherwise, I may have nothing to do. It didn’t last very long because I was buried, but even a few weeks were better than none. Today, I impatiently shushed the same guy, and again, he had to be choked and brought to earth. This time, I gave him an injection to wipe away the memory. It was the least I could do since I’d caused the whole disaster. He had no control over his behavior, but I had control over mine. I just forgot every once in a while.
Today is not a pleasant day, temperature or otherwise, so of course, there are miles of backed-up traffic to deal with. Rather than whimper, I just turn up the volume on the stereo, balance the speakers, and try to place bets with myself over whether I’ll see the cause of this particular back up. Odds had it that I wouldn’t; I rarely did.
During a particularly nauseating new age jazz piece, I veer to the edge of the truck in front of me to see the back up and I see him. I know it’s him. He’s running up the center of the incline section of the BQE, just before the Kosciusko Bridge. He’s not dead. He’s obviously not dead. Now I know why the traffic is backed up. I see myself actually smiling until I see the trail of sweaty police running behind him. He’s a league ahead of them, of course. He ducks to the left, right, and then sprints behind two eighteen-wheelers trying to change lanes. Suddenly, he’s bent over running alongside of some cars, right in front of me and between the three trucks surrounding me. I don’t think, but roll down my window and motion for him to get into the back. “Get down,” I tell him.
A few minutes later, the police run past. I expect them to stop and turn around, but instead I see them take the exit ramp at full gallop. Somebody will need to give them CPR soon, and quite possibly, some water.
The traffic begins to let up, so I accelerate, driving forward while looking in my rear-view mirror. “Where can I drop you? And please, don’t say off the bridge.”
“No,” he says. “That hurt. I’ve spent these last few months healing a dislocated shoulder.” He laughs. I laugh.
He’s not as young as I thought, but obviously in great shape. The Nosey-Parker in me is bursting with questions, but the therapist wins out and I remain silent.
“It was supposed to be an experiment. I’ve been losing faith of late, and I was looking to see how long it took for someone to stop to help me. As usual, it was a poorly planned experiment, from the way I was dressed, to the fact that I hadn’t considered being arrested. And when the police showed up with the cameras overhead, I suddenly felt the need to protect my family, my church, and myself, from embarrassment. Imagine, risking death rather than embarrassment. Insane, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t as insane as you might think, and definitely not as unusual as you might suspect. I’m just glad you didn’t hurt yourself more seriously. No sense in being permanently maimed for an experiment. Tell me, have you watched the footage? It was everywhere for days.”
“Yeah, I know. It scared the wits out of me. And, you won’t believe this, but you’re the first person I could speak to about it. Oddly, I think I came out today so I could talk to someone. I was standing on the Williamsburg Bridge, and I think I managed to get too much attention, because the next thing I knew, police were everywhere. I panicked and ran.”
“You ran all the way to here?”
“I could have run to the Bronx with all the adrenalin I had going. I’m just glad you let me in. Why did you, by the way?”
“I should have stopped when you were out there the last time. I figured God wouldn’t give me too many chances. So, when everything was set up so perfectly with all the trucks around me, I just risked it.”
“Well, my faith has been restored. Kind strangers during a time of need…Thank you.”
“No my good man, thank you.”