There are all sorts of New York tours. Seeing the city by helicopter is one of them. I have never taken a helicopter tour of Manhattan, so I can’t speak to the upside of such an experience. But I today I saw a helicopter surrounded by police boats bobbing in the Hudson River, at the 79th Street Marina, so I can now imagine the downside.
We were a family of four on three bikes coming up the Hudson River on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, when we saw in the distance a bunch of blue police lights bobbing in the Hudson River next to the 79th Street Marina.
As we got closer, I saw a photographer, then a cameraman. Then many photographers and cameramen, with the telltale laminates around their necks. Clearly, to use a Joseph Heller title, Something Happened.
“What happened?” I asked one cameraman. He did not reply.
We were rolling along slowly through the crowd now, Evangeline in front, then Elizabeth, then me, with the boy in the child seat on the back of my bike.
“What happened?” I asked a photographer.
“Helicopter went down in the river.”
“Oh my God,” said my wife. “Is everyone alright? Evangeline wait! Honey, did you hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard it.”
“Is everyone alright?” my wife asked a passing photographer. He did not respond.
We were in the midst of a swarm of guys with telephoto lenses, TV cameramen with the media version of a heat seeking missile on the their shoulders. These are the media’s first responders, a grungy, avaricious tribe. My friend Matthew Roberts once worked in this world, rushing off to disasters to feed the insatiable appetite for news about mishaps, tragedies–the grimy opera of local news. He wrote several wonderful pieces about his experiences. My favorites are: this, this, and this one about Michael Douglas just after Catherine Zeta Jones had her baby.)
“Is everyone OK?” Elizabeth asked another guy, then another. No one answered. Finally a bald, sweating photographer briefed us without breaking stride: Crash landing. Special floatation devices. Everyone OK. Then he was gone.
I watched the cameramen fraternize, nod hello, and complain about the heat. A sense of denuement hung over the scene. A tragedy averted. Several French people stood on the grass behind the benches looking dazed an babbling into cell phones–the survivors, I gathered from their demeanor and the way they were sequestered behind the benches, a policeman nearby. But it was a guess. Among them was a mother with a small baby she held in her arms. Its head rested on her shoulder. Were these the people who had gone down in the Helicopter? (No: it was four Swedes.)
We made our way past the most crowded part, Evangeline weaving in and out but managing not to hit anyone, and then paused.
“Oh, My God,” said Elizabeth. “I can’t believe that. I hope they are all right.”
I didn’t respond.
“I mean, wow that is so awful,” she said.
I didn’t say anything. A little voice inside my head started saying, “Speak! Commiserate!”
But my real voice instead said, “You know it’s great they are all right, but there are disasters all over the world, and if you keep your finger on the pulse of the whole planet you go crazy instantly.”
As a coup de grace of jerk-ness I then put my finger on her wrist as though to check her pulse.
What this piece is about is a way of apologizing to my wife. I should have said, “Yes, that is terrible, thank God they Helicopter was able to land safely on the river. We will never take a helicopter tour of anything.”
Is it some innate lack of empathy on my part that made me so hard hearted in that moment? Was it that I knew by the time we found out what happened that everything was alright? Or was it that all those media people alerted me to the exhausting manipulation we must all fend off at all times, either in the form of advertising or television news, not to mention custom tailored internet ads, and on and on?
It was the end of a fun family adventure. We had met with friends and had ice cream and hot dogs. We had biked in Central Park. Maybe I just wanted to go home. You can’t be open to everyone, always, I thought. But then, among my family, I was the only one who noticed that the road race taking place in Central Park that morning, which we had biked along, was the Achilles Hope and Possibility Five Miler. It featured a number amputees or people with missing limbs. Evangeline was concentrating on navigating her bike down a steep hill. Elizabeth was concentrating on Evangeline. I have no idea what the baby was concentrating on. But once you see a guy running on two prosthetic legs at 10:30AM, and somehow it hardens you to the helicopter with red propeller blades bobbing in the water at 1:30PM.