The Real Life Sherman McCoy

17 Nov

Have you ever read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities? It’s one of my favorites. One of the three main characters, Sherman McCoy, is a stock broker in 1980s New York, a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe.” Without giving too much of the book away in case any of you want to read it, McCoy, heading back from the airport to his Park Avenue apartment, makes a wrong turn and ends up in the Bronx. When his car is approached by a few young black men McCoy makes the assumption that they are going to try and rob him and his mistress and takes off, hitting one of the men in the process. He flees the scene, not knowing whether or not “the skinny one,” as he is referred to, survives.

At this point I could, obviously, take this post in myriad different directions. I could point out the racism and classism, make a comparison between the New York of the late 1980s and the one that I live in today. I could note how much has changed or, more accurately, how much has not. I could go on about how the in-your-face biases that existed then have, in many ways, been replaced by something slightly more hidden but certainly more dangerous. I could talk about all the people who believe, because they live in some alternate universe of privilege and ignorance, that we are living in some sort of a post-racial society. Those people, of course, are all white. But I won’t. Instead I am going to tell you a story.

The other day at work these two middle aged women came into the bar, sat down and ordered some drinks. They asked me my name, which always makes me a little nervous — that request tends to lead to more annoyance than anything else — and settled in to chat and laugh and enjoy the afternoon. After about an hour and a half, give or take, during which time some guy who was clearly on pills tried to bolt on his bill, one of the women left. The remaining one told me that they were sisters and that they were up in New York from Philadelphia. As she spoke a heart-breaking story emerged. Her sister’s son, her nephew, had just moved up to New York in June and was working in film, living in Bed Stuy, commuting by bike. About three weeks earlier, on his way home, he had been struck by a car and then, while he was on the ground, he was struck by a second car and dragged down the block. Both cars left the scene. A by-stander called 911. I immediately asked about his head, his spine, she assured me they were both, miraculously, fine. She and the doctors attributed his survival to his sheer size: 6’2″ and solidly built. But he still wasn’t out of the woods. The accident broke his arm clear through, fractured every one of his ribs which in turn punctured his lungs. His spleen ruptured and the skin where he was dragged down the asphalt, well, I am sure you can imagine. Gone. This poor kid. He had been here for 4 months.

So I thought back to Sherman McCoy. I remember when I read that book I simply couldn’t get past the not knowing. I couldn’t understand how a person could continue with his life with the knowledge that he may have killed someone and, even worse, that if he hadn’t fled the scene he could potentially have done something to help. Accidents happen but how do you leave? It’s not really an accident anymore, is it? It morphs into a choice.

When she finished telling me the story she asked,

“How did they sleep that night?”

And all I could say, in some attempt at comfort, was

“I hope they never sleep again.”

I meant it. I hope their days are consumed by looking at the news, searching the internet wildly for any information about an accident that occurred on a specific night, in a specific place, clearing their search history as they go for fear that their secret will be discovered. I hope they find nothing. They should continue to wonder. I don’t hope that anything in kind happens to them but I do hope that they have souls because, if they do, then this will eat them alive. As it should. Sean — his name is Sean — will be okay. His Aunt convinced me of this and it seems better to believe it than not. But those assholes? I hope they suffer for the rest of their lives. There is no way they could have mistaken Sean for anything other than he was, is: a human being. And yet not one but two different drivers decided to protect their own asses rather than stop and help. It was an accident. But now it is a choice. And it makes me feel a little sadder about the world I live in.

 

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