Here in New York, we have had two recent incidents which remind us that the veneer of civilization is thin, and that madness is always with us, while heroism only sometimes appears. Around Thanksgiving a photograph of a young police officer kneeling to help put boots he had purchased with his own funds, on the feet of a homeless black man in his late 50s, who was on the streets shoeless in the frost, won admiring comments from across the nation. The picture had certain iconic properties: a young man kneeling, almost Christlike, to aid a wounded stranger in need. For a policeman, this role change, was noteworthy. In the wake of the raggedness left by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, such an act of kindness to a stranger — a ragged, alcoholic living on the street as winter descended– touched hearts everywhere.
But some crusty old New York Post editor, with a heart blackened by the cynicism that adheres to those who watch humanity closely, sent out reporters to trace the homeless man’s background. And they, in turn, found that MR XXXX, was one of three sons, raised in the New Jersey suburbs. His two brothers, X and Y, who had failed to recognize him in the now iconic photo, (his face was, in fact, blurry), are prosperous members of families, communities and workplaces, living productive lives. They did not bother with the niceties of protesting that he was always welcome at their homes, and they would do anything to help him. Who knows what they have been through? The brothers noted, straight up, that he was living the life he chose. Alcoholism is a devastating disease, and not everyone has a nice recovery story. People who have grappled with an alcoholic relative know that, in the end, only that person can overcome the addiction. The other path, at its worst, leads to life on the streets, swilling cheap vodka, and living with mental disease/paranoia so great that one might hide the boots and continue barefoot on the cold, filthy pavement, for fear that the boots might be stolen.
Short of locking Mr. X up, cramming him full of drugs and overseeing a detox that won’t stick the moment he is free, it is unclear what the state can do. Though the Huffington Post seems to feel that it is a failure of all of American society that addiction and the drive to self-destruct shows its hideous head in a metropolis of X million people living cheek by jowl. In fact, given the ugly realities of the many ways humans are affected by addictions and mental diseases, it is a marvel that so few cases become stories.
Oddly enough, the second incident has some overlapping elements. Earlier this week, after some sort of not fully reported altercation on a subway platform, a 30 year old African immigrant with a long rap sheet, shoved a 58 year old Korean immigrant to his death on the subway tracks in front of an oncoming train. This is a far worse story. It commands attention, in part, because every New Yorker who has ever used our subways has considered the possibility of falling, or being pushed onto the tracks. It is one of the archetypal New York fears. Back in the pre-Giuliani era, when madmen and the violent homeless had complete run of the city, there were similar incidents not infrequently, and most of us lived with the suppressed knowledge that such a thing could happen.