Saturday, March 13, 2010

DEAD FOR A GYM BAG AND SOME DEODORANT

OESTERHOUDT STRIKES

Two days ago, a Manhattan lawyer dropped her gym bag onto subway tracks on the Upper East Side. She leaped down to fetch it. She had difficulty getting back onto the platform, then she panicked as a train came rushing into the station. Horrified witnesses froze. Some told her to lay between the rails so the train would pass over her. Most said nothing and just watched. The lawyer tried to press herself against the platform wall so the train would pass her. It didn't; the train squashed her.

Later, officials reported that the gym bag contained keys, a cellphone, gym clothes and some deodorant. See N.Y. Post, Panic on tracks doomed subway victim, March 13, 2010 at p. 5. It did not contain priceless diamonds or even confidential client files. There was absolutely no need to risk life to save it.

I recount this sad story because it represents yet another occasion on which my writing has foretold true events. Just last month, I penned a satire called "Some People are More Valuable Than Things They Drop on the Tracks." See http://reasoncommercejustice.blogspot.com/2010/02/some-people-are-more-valuable-than_01.html. In that piece, I analyzed the New York Transit System's admonishment never to chase dropped property onto subway tracks. I used satire to show that our society places disproportionate weight on property over human life. At the same time, I made my own perspective clear: That it is grotesque to assign monetary value to individual lives. Still, my own sarcasm now seems eerily macabre in light of this new incident: "Further, I understand that some customers might disregard their own safety if they drop something onto the tracks, such as an iPod or other relatively expensive object;" and "The bottom line is: Property is worth more than individual human beings."

I was trying to elicit uncomfortable laughter when I wrote those words. Anyone with a shred of compassion understands that property is petty compared to human life. Yet at the same time, it is incontestable that property wields immense influence over both our society and individual perspectives. All too often, property seems to mean more than life itself. My satire reflected on that sad truth. It dared to suggest that life was more important. Privately, I held out hope that people would respect their lives more than their property.

But my hopes fell on deaf ears. The Post story shows just how much property means to people, even in very small amounts. Here was a woman with a career--and ostensibly, something to live for--who disregarded her life to save some deodorant and gym clothes. Her property was more important to her than her existence. So she jumped after it, even as a train raced toward her. At that moment, she thought herself less valuable than her gym bag.

Perhaps there are alternative explanations. I can think of several. For starters, the Post article recounts that the victim was a "lawyer" who--according to neighbors--used to wander hallways and elevators in her apartment building "muttering to herself in a strange way." See N.Y. Post, Panic on tracks doomed subway victim, March 13, 2010 at p. 5. One neighbor even said she looked "distressed" and that she was "not 100 percent there."

Many functioning lawyers have latent mental problems. When I practiced law, I knew many "well-respected" attorneys who muttered to themselves in elevators, sighed loudly, grumbled in abject frustration and habitually balled their fists from stress. It is not an easy job. "Getting results" in court is not an exact science; in fact, it is not a science at all. There are no sure things in law practice. Lawyers live with biting uncertainty and deadlines every day. They live on a razor's edge; and they are surrounded by striving, ambitious, ruthless people at every turn. They make their living battling contentious people for money. It is an extraordinarily negative enterprise. Their success depends on chance as much as preparation. Everyone wants something from them: Clients, bosses, judges. Everyone wants results now and no one wants to wait. There is never enough time; and there is always something else to do. They live under the clock; and the clock does not forgive. In fact, no one forgives. It is a fretful, ulcerous existence. That is why it is no wonder that lawyers fall into alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness at a far greater rate than the general population.

Lawyers on schedules are dangerously unpredictable creatures. You don't want to get in their way; they might do something impulsive. When they have somewhere to be, they get there at all costs, even if it means taking absurd chances with their own lives. I own recalled my uncomfortable days in law practice when I read the Post article. I remembered what stressed-out lawyers are like. My memories helped me understand why this poor woman jumped on the tracks: She was in a hurry; she was trying to squeeze in the gym during her busy day; she did not want to wait for help to get her bag because that would throw off her schedule; if she got behind schedule, she would have to make unpleasant phone calls to disappointed superiors; she wanted to get home before 9 PM; if she waited for help to get her bag, she would never finish her day; and she really wanted to finish her day on time.

On an impulse, she jumped onto the tracks. She did not want to wait. She did not want to make those phone calls. She did not want to fall behind schedule. So she took matters into her own hands and died for deodorant.

I am glad I don't practice law anymore. And no matter how much my satires presage reality, it really saddens me when they do. I am not proud of it.

In the end, it's hard to exaggerate anything to satirical effect. Reality always sees your bet, no matter how high you make it.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

sad indeed. i would hate to lose my keys, but it too can be replaced. more disturbingly though, most watched and said nothing. did anyone attemp to pull her up? if not, what does that say about our society?

angelshair said...

Yes, I agree with Sarah here. This is the question that comes to my mind.