Story of the Week: The Man Who Walked Away



The New York Times is, in many ways, a living contradiction. The newspaper is the so-called paper of record for the United States, yet it has also been embroiled in numerous scandals in recent years that have called into question the accuracy of its reporting. (Jayson Blair or Judith Miller ring a deceptive bell for anyone?) In addition, the old gray lady is continually attacked by those on the left and right, with one side screaming the paper is the voice of corporate America and the other believing it is the last bastion of left-wing hippie types.

Among all the controversy, though, is one undisputed truth: The New York Times regularly publishes news articles that transcend the news to reach the level of pure art.

Today's example of this is "Tracing Steps of the Man Who Walked Away" by Michael Brick, published in the November 18, 2005 edition of the Times. At first glance, this is the standard news article we see too much of, namely an article about the upcoming anniversary of a disaster. Every few days we see examples of these news articles in the media's remembrances of past earthquakes, tornados, assasinations, and so on. In this case, Brick's article covers the Dec. 16, 1960 airplane crash in Brooklyn, New York.

However, instead of taking the usual track with the article (which is to interview survivors and publish over-wrought quotes about how bad the disaster was, as if any disaster is ever good), Brick explores the tragedy through the lense of Jimmy Moy, a 70 year old man who owned a laundry where the airplane crashed in 1960. After the crash, Moy simple walked away from his life of decades, "leaving the lights burning and neatly packaged shirts on the shelves of his seared shop."

As Brick mentions in the article, "The man who never returned is a common legend . . . because it describes two ways of navigating life and times." In short, people either want to come back to the places they once lived and find that nothing has changed, or they want to reinvent themselves from scratch, to walk away from their lives and never return.

Jimmy Moy reinvented himself, leaving his shop and never coming back. By tying the article about the plane crash into this legendary motif, Brick's story transcends being a mere news account and becomes both an excellent story and high art.

Excerpt:

"He walked these avenues and then he was gone, as the inhabitants of one city give way to the next, as some are hurried along. Everyone leaves behind a name, a time, a place and a role, and his were Jimmy Moy, 1960, Park Slope, Brooklyn: the man who never returned."

Read more.

In the interest of total disclosure (something most newspapers preach endlessly about but rarely practice), I must admit that I was initially drawn to Brick's article because of my own research into the Brooklyn Aircraft Disaster. Here's my poem about Stephen Baltz, a brave little boy who survived the plane crash only to die of his injuries a few days later.