Wednesday, July 6, 2016

We Can Be Heroes

I'm not sure if anyone else saw the article by Max Blumenthal essentially shooting holes in the legacy of nobel prize-winner Elie Wiesel.  His bitterness was maybe poorly timed, and no matter how valid his points, we are all flawed and human and we make mistakes, and fame not only does not assure protection but maybe leaves us more vulnerable to poor choices and insecurities.  The bloggers who obsess about Mr. Wiesel's disappearing tattoo… well, I'm not sure their vendetta is worth the energy… his death seems to have made this all a bit moot.  

I had a personal interest in the death of Mr. Wiesel.  Thirty years ago,  for some time, our telephone land lines were one digit apart.  In the days of answering machines, I often got messages for him; one day I looked him up (he was listed) and called to tell him I'd received some of his medical test results in error.  We had a friendly little New York City exchange, and that was that.  Several months later I ran into him at a huge NYPL dinner honoring local authors… and I introduced myself.  I was pretty then--- dating a well-known writer, and Elie was charming and warm.  He called me several times when he'd got voicemail he was certain was intended for me… we talked a little, laughed a little… a New York connection.  I left that apartment, and the landline, 19 years ago.

Recently someone offered to take me to a restaurant-- they mentioned the name of a well-reviewed bistro in my neighborhood.  I rarely go out these days.  I've dispensed with everything but the barest supplies; I walk and drink my coffee black.  A little bit of hunger is good for imagination.  But the name of the place brought back an association. Years ago, a Goldman Sachs young wunderkind asked me to help him buy some art--- he needed me to see his new Park Avenue apartment-- unusual in those days for a young bachelor-- and of course he insisted on taking me to dinner first.  I cared little for these suitors back then, when I was a marketable human commodity…  but he was a friend of someone I liked, and I repped artists in those days, and was thrilled to help place their work.  So of course he was a little interesting and ivy-league smart, even though he would never have been my 'type'...and we drank some expensive wine, etc.  The bistro closed.. and our errand began.  Minutes after entering his massive apartment, the guy literally attacked me-- the term date-rape hadn't been invented. Yes, he professed his eternal love among other expletives… I can remember the way he smelled and his custom shirt…. the beautiful cotton… things like this cross your mind in these moments of extreme observation… like magnifications.  I had on a black Norma Kamali dress-- he was pulling at it like an animal… and somehow I managed to kick him in his balls and run out.   My dress was never the same, and that restaurant which remarkably has thrived over the years--  a personal taboo.  In my suede purse was a copy of 'Night'.  I lost it in his apartment, when my things dumped out… and I bought myself a 48-cent copy at the Strand ( they were common)-- my reading copy which I pulled out to look at after I heard about Mr. Wiesel's death.  And I recalled the incident.

In the context of life, this was nothing.  Children are abused and raped and beaten by relatives, parents and kind people.  Politicians profess benevolence and tip badly, yell at staff, have little compassion for neighbors.  And we are all so guilty of ignoring people in need.  Then again-- what good can we do? I spend days trying to help women who refuse and sabotage and self-pity and destroy and use me up.  Brilliant musicians and young guitarists make me cry with their talent-- and drink my sympathy down with their habits.  Does it bother me that this Goldman guy is one of the Masters of the Universe now?  Does his massive fortune make me crave revenge?  Not really.  I left his house that night and discarded the incident like a cigarette butt.  He has a paid army of lawyers on staff because he needs them.  These people commit petty sins and have them erased or charge and convict a dead pedestrian in a hit-and-run.  I have my pride and maybe he has the memory.  It hadn't crossed my radar until the mention of that restaurant triggered.  And then the Elie Wiesel connection.  I'd thought about his hideous tale of survival, the historic retelling, the way he became a sort of hero or symbol of this episode, and used his life to spread the memory-- the lesson.  At the time it had put things into a kind of perspective and helped me process my little violation.  Do I have a physical scar, a tattoo?  I don't.

It is well known that Elie Wiesel's foundation and personal fortune were decimated by the Madoff scandal.  Having built a sort of personal citadel based on his platform of survival, he was economically hijacked… suffered a late-life personal tragedy not of holocaustic proportion, but the irony of these Jewish charities being the worst-fated victims of the Ponzi scheme is double-edged.  So whatever Elie Wiesel did that may have been less than stellar in his final chapter of comeback seems less heinous to me.  He was old, he was tough-- had made some shocking choices in his youth in the camps, and confessed in his account.  His death was acknowledged by political leaders and dignitaries everywhere.  His moral status in history is assured.  The book will remain in its place of honor.  It will be read as a document, as a memoir, as a testimony of bravery and courage and survival.

The third irony occurred at the funeral-- a private ceremony on Fifth Avenue when mourners were startled by the sound of an explosion, attributed to a stray July 4th device or celebration.  Later on it was revealed that this was the sound of a 'random' mixture of chemicals in a container left in a plastic bag-- just yards away--  literally blowing the foot off of a young strong boy who minutes before was innocently exploring the park, enjoying a holiday with friends… when some hideous design of fate caused him to be in the right place at exactly the wrong moment-- one false step and his life was radically altered.

As Elie Wiesel was laid to rest in a civilized world, his coffin driven away in a hearse before rows of celebrities and famous men and women… it was a reminder that there is no guarantee of peace-- not anywhere, not for any of us.   No matter how good or evil we may be,  we are not safe… we can tiptoe through our lives or we can forcefully march through streets laughing and shouting… there are attackers and people with guns, and predators, and bitter victims seeking revenge… and there are accidents-- careless acts of preoccupied phone-texters or sleepy truckers or drunk distracted motorists who get behind their wheels thinking about their bed and end up in a line-up of coffins.  But there is no clear path for any of us and we can only try to kiss the dawn when we wake up, and cross ourselves when we step off a curb and a cab just misses us.  We marked another Independence Day and fireworks were displayed in peace… despite a few weekend gunshots and a poor ill-fated boy in the Park who will go on to win races with a prosthetic foot, I predict.  Catapulted into some version of forced heroism--  like Mr. Wiesel, in a way, he is forever changed.

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