A Reluctant Hero

The Old Man was walking the city streets when he came upon a fight between two toughs, flashing knives and sinister smiles.  His instinct was to cross the street and give a wide berth.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  He saw a few teenagers who were witnessing the fight from a safe distance, but there were no cops in sight.

So the Old Man yelled at the combatants.

“Hey, guys, what the hell are you doing?”

No one seemed to hear him, neither the toughs nor the gathering audience of passers by.  So he took a few steps forward—not too many; he wasn’t an idiot—and tried again.

“Guys, stop that shit!  You’re both going to get hurt.”

That got their attention.  And as they turned his way, they each took a step back from each other for safety’s sake.

“Fuck you,” said the one in the denim jacket.

“Maybe you wanna get hurt, yourself, old man” said the one with the navy blue watch cap.

“Wrong,” said the Old Man, now that his nerves were strangely beginning to settle.  “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Why don’t you both go your own ways.”

The old man had acted instinctively, without any thought about how effective he might be or what they were fighting about.  In fact, he could care less about the content of the drama.  A moment later, though, he came to his senses and realized that he had done something stupid.  He couldn’t wait to get away from the growing crowd.

But now everyone was looking at him, waiting for his next move.  And some of the teenagers were taking pictures with their iphones.

The toughs were looking around at the gathering gawkers and seemed thoroughly confused.  They turned back to each other, trying to regain their fierceness but it had fled.  They looked like creased and deflated balloons.  The guy in the watch cap turned and ran down a nearby alley.  The other, like a stage actor, pulled himself together, smiled broadly and bowed.  Then he, too, left, but with a slow and defiant dignity.  The crowd, now about 30 people, applauded.  For a moment, he turned back, smiled and bowed again, then walked off.

This left the old man alone on the stage.  The audience remained ready for more action and ferociously snapped pictures to commemorate the event.  He looked around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He would have loved to take a bow just like the thug but the gesture was simply beyond him, and he walked off with as little fanfare as he could muster.

And that was the beginning of the Old Man’s 30 seconds of celebrity.  The photos taken by the teenagers quickly found their way to their Facebook pages, the video that one of them had managed went viral on YouTube.  That’s where the Old Man’s 15 year old grandson found it and sent it along to the family.  From the family, snapshots and video began their rounds to friends and relatives.  The “like” notices barreled onto the Old Man’s computer screen.  Comments, too.  Days and days of this drained his capacity for witty, ironic responses.

Just as the event seem to have run its course, an enterprising local TV producer who was having a slow day, or a slow week, decided to feature the video on Channel 21 in Boston.

He called the Old Man that evening.

“Is this Sam Hoffman?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Sean Keegan.  I work with WQTB—that’s Channel 21—and I’ve got a video of you calling out some punks with knives.  Do I have the right person?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I said: I have a video tape of you talking down some violent men.  Was that you?”

“I guess so, but why are you calling?”

“I’d like to interview you.  We don’t have enough people standing up for others in our city.”

“I wasn’t standing up for others.  As far as I knew I was alone.  I just saw some guys fighting and told them to stop.  And they stopped.”

The Old Man, who had, since the incident, grown a little proud of himself, was nevertheless determined to exhibit the same modesty that he had learned on the basketball court as a kid.  The cheerleaders might cheer—“Sammy, Sammy, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!” — but his job, no matter how bursting he was with pride, was to scowl, as though no one should notice, and run as fast as he could back to the action and his teammates.

On the other hand, a very different experience had once made a big impression on him.  It was during his sophomore year in college.  A good friend and teammate on the track team invited him to come to a soccer game.  His friend was Nigerian and apparently not governed by American or WASPY rules of decorum.  During the second period, he rocketed the ball by the goal keeper—the miss may have saved his life.  Christian O’Bira was delighted and trotted off the field, chest out, clapping and smiling, smiling and clapping.  There was no arrogance in the gestures.  He didn’t even seem to be showing off.  He was just happy to have scored, happy for himself and happy for the team.  That delight became the standard to which the Old Man aspired during his entire life but with very little success.

Sean, the producer, brought the Old Man out of his reverie:  “Sure, just an ordinary thing to do.  Right Sam.  Just stop a couple of thugs in their tracks.  Just a random act of citizenship in a normal day’s work.  Come on, Sam.  I’d still like to interview you.”

The Old Man was stumped.  He wanted the admiration and he thought it was unseemly.  He was an old man.  Bragging or preening wouldn’t look good on him.  So his first tact was to resist.  He adapted a stance that he must have seen in an old, aw shucks, movie:

“Look, I was no hero and I wouldn’t try to be one.  What happened was an accident. Accidents happen. If I had thought about the situation, I would have avoided those guys.  They were terrifying.  And I’m not trying to be cute here.  I was walking along, lost in thought—no not thought, lost in a kind of reverie about a time when I was young—and don’t be smart.  The reverie had nothing to do with the incident.  I wasn’t remembering a time when I stood up to guys who were bigger than me.  I was just day dreaming.”

“That’s okay with me,” said Sean.  I’m happy to have you say that what you did was ordinary, instinctive and not courageous.”

Still in his resistant mode, the Old Man went on as if Sean hadn’t said anything.

“I’m an old man.  What would my action exemplify?  Stupidity?  Foolhardiness?  A lesson for helpless teachers, armed with guns they hate, when confronting a crazy person with an assault rifle?  Maybe you think I should take on the NRA or the US army?”  But as he went on, the Old Man realized how silly he was sounding, how intoxicated with his own rhetoric, and he stopped abruptly.

Sean saved him again: “For god’s sake, Sam. I won’t blow it out of proportion.  I just want to show the video and ask what was going through your head when you yelled at those guys.”

Now Sam could yield to the other side.  He really did want to be interviewed on television.  He might be old but he still wanted his day in the sun.  So he agreed to the interview;  but—and here he just couldn’t let go of his inhibitions—“Only if you promise not to make too big a deal of it.”

“Deal,” said Sean.

Inside, the Old Man was beginning to rehearse his Christian O’Bira-like stride to the sidelines.