The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Am I bringing my full self everywhere I go?’: Lessons learned from a stranger’s death


The headline read simply, “Woman Is Killed By Debris Off Building.” The story described an ordinary December day several weeks ago: “On a cold, rainy Tuesday morning, just north of Times Square, pedestrians were hurrying under umbrellas past a noodle joint, a Superdry Store and a nail salon.” Architect Erica Tishman, 60, was among those headed to work. Then, according to the news report, “the unimaginable happened”: A piece of debris from a 17-story building broke off, hitting and killing Tishman.

Horrifying? Absolutely. Unimaginable? If only. Random events puncture lives all the time. Sometimes they bring joy — a chance meeting or an unexpected romance. Headlines often portray the darker stories — people in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. Illness, too, can strike at random. Alas, I now find all to be imaginable.

It wasn’t always this way. Until my mid-20s, the “unimaginable” didn’t permeate my hermetic world. I completely missed the foreshadowing in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon, which I read as a grad student at Berkeley in the 1980s. Among the characters was Charles Flitcraft — husband, father — who lived his life completely within the lines. Hammett wrote: “A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down alongside Flitcraft. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. … He felt like someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

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My real life mirrored Flitcraft’s fictional one. Three mornings a week I got up at 7 a.m. and walked the same route to the university pool. I spent mornings at Doe Library working on my doctorate and afternoons teaching undergrads. After dinner I exited campus on the south side, following Bowditch Street toward People’s Park. More nights than most, I fell asleep in my boyfriend’s arms. This routine gave me structure and comfort — the way a straitjacket might feel to someone not struggling to escape.

To paraphrase Hammett, the lid of my life could not have been more securely attached.

Then one night, in the spring of 1984, I was half a block from People’s Park when a heavyset man approached. I considered crossing the street to avoid him but I didn’t, not wanting to succumb to “stranger danger.” As we passed each other I nodded politely. He reciprocated by pulling out a pistol and sticking it into my rib cage, hard. “Give me your wallet,” he demanded, which I did. He rifled through it, looking disgusted because it was nearly empty. Then he pointed to my watch, a Timex, which I dutifully handed over. No doubt another disappointment.

He nuzzled the gun deeper into my ribs, roughly pushing me toward the dark park. No good can come of this, I realized, quickly comparing the risks of acquiescing or making a break for it. I noticed a car approaching, its lights illuminating us, and ran wildly into the street, screaming “HELP!”

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” shouted the gunman as I rolled over the hood of the car and landed on the pavement, more disoriented than hurt as the sedan sped away. I looked back across the street. He was gone.

At first I thought of this as just another petty crime that had not ended tragically. I certainly didn’t view it as an opportunity to take stock of my life, like Flitcraft, who — after realizing his life had been nearly snared but then spared — proceeded to jettison his family, job and possessions. I planned to return to my regularly scheduled life.

“The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair,” Hammett wrote. “Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.”

But I didn’t return to my previous routines. I began taking different routes to and from campus. Then I began to vary my mornings altogether. My well-ordered life, once appealing for its promise of comfort, predictability, even safety, now seemed precisely the opposite.

A month later another “beam” crashed down on me. On a completely ordinary April day, in between lunch and dinner, I was diagnosed with cancer. Two mornings later I woke up after surgery in a hospital bed. I wrote in my journal: “None of this was on my personal road map. I suddenly understood that it was all random, and none of it was within my control.” The unimaginable had begun to become imaginable.

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I watched my daily routines evaporate, replaced by a new schedule set by doctors and nurses.

I flailed at this loss of control as I desperately tried to reassert it. Before I lost a strand of hair to chemo, I had my haircutter shave it all off. Fearing my boyfriend would leave me because of my illness, I dumped him first in the most perfunctory of breakups. I preemptively broke the yolks in my fried eggs.

But control — even perceived control — brought me little solace. What I really wanted was to go back in time, before those twin “beams” — robbery and cancer — struck me.

Except for in science fiction, however, time moves in one direction only. The disruptions took their toll as I began to deconstruct my old, orderly life, beam by beam. I left graduate school without my PhD. I came out fully as a gay man. And I moved to New York from the West Coast.

All of this came flooding back to me when I read about Tishman’s “unimaginable” and tragic death. Her story reminded me, again, that people live only while blind chance spares them, and die at haphazard when it doesn’t. I was lucky — twice. She was not.

Of the many tributes written about Tishman, this one from a colleague of hers stays with me: “To every opportunity, meeting, or event, she always brought her full self.”

By now I’ve learned I can’t control what’s random or what the fates have in store. As for the “unimaginable,” well, there’s no such thing. All I can do is ask myself, “Am I bringing my full self everywhere I go?”

I am trying.

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