The inside of Wesley Autrey’s brand-new four-door Chrysler Sebring smells of aftershave, and the CD player is blasting The Best of the Gap Band. We’re squinting straight into a blinding rush-hour sunset, hurtling west on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, out over the George Washington Bridge, on our way to see Jason Kidd and the Nets get clobbered by Allen Iverson and the Nuggets. Wesley is behind the wheel; in the back is his 15-year-old nephew Elias, a basketball fan whom everyone calls La-la and who is glad tonight to be in on his uncle’s good fortune (if not his uncle’s eighties sound explosion). The car is a gift to Wesley from Chrysler, a loaner until he gets the 2007 Jeep Patriot he was promised in January on the stage of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The tickets are a gift, too, from the Nets—season tickets for two years. When you’re the Subway Superman, some people just like giving you things.
Later tonight, we’ll talk about the downside of instant fame. But right now, Wesley is talking about the good things. Like Beyoncé. When he was on Ellen, the diva appeared to him in a vision—via satellite, actually—promising backstage passes to an upcoming show. Just thinking about Beyoncé, with the soundtrack to his younger years pumping on the Chrysler’s speakers, makes Wesley break into a sweet, wistful smile.
“I’m gonna meet Beyoncé?” he asks. “I can’t wait. I always tell my nieces and nephews I’d like to have a woman like Beyoncé.”
I laugh. But Wesley is serious. He’s making a point.
“She would be the ideal woman,” he says. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders, her own business. She’s someone I wouldn’t mind signing a prenuptial agreement with, know what I’m saying? What possibly could I do for her financially that she don’t already have?”
As we cross into New Jersey, Wesley talks about the emotions he’s cycled through in the past few months—euphoria, confusion, anger, disillusionment, hurt. It’s not that Wesley regrets throwing himself in front of a speeding No. 1 train to save the life of a stranger. He’d do it again in an instant, even if no one heard a word about it. And it’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the good things that have come from what he did. It’s just that the whole experience has proved to be a lot more complicated than he expected. “I thought I’d have fifteen minutes of fame and that’s it,” he says. “Hollywood? The political arena? Movie deal? Book deal? I’m just letting the good Lord guide me. I’ve never dealt with this.”
Wesley veers off the turnpike at Exit 16, the entrance to Continental Airlines Arena. The last time he was here, he tells me, he sat with the team’s owner. He rolls down the window.
“Wesley Autrey, subway hero,” he tells the attendant, flashing his tickets. “Where can I park at, so I don’t have to walk far?”
The attendant waves him through— “Up the hill to the left.” Wesley taps the gas pedal and laughs. “That’s the greatest thing about all of this. They recognize me!”
The arena’s lots are a maze. With every turn comes another gatekeeper. The next one waves him through. He’s two for two. “I love it!” he says.
There’s another attendant. “Yeah,” says Wesley. “Where can the hero park at?”
This one takes his time. He examines the tickets, then checks with a co-worker with dark sunglasses. The man looks at the tickets and slowly shakes his head. “K-20,” he says. Siberia.
For a rare moment, Wesley is silent.
Then La-la starts ribbing him. “Oh, my God! We are so far away!” he says with a teenage groan.
And Wesley just laughs his loudest laugh of the night and starts singing along again to the Gap Band: “I said oops-up-side-your-head, I said oops-up-side-your-head!”
Being the Subway Superman, it turns out, is a lot harder than it looks. Yes, since saving 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter after he collapsed and fell onto the rails at the 137th Street subway station on January 2, Wesley Autrey has been showered with adulation and no small amount of material goods. Donald Trump wrote him a check for $10,000. He was jetted for free to the Super Bowl. He’s received cars and vacations, fur coats and expensive meals. He’s been honored by Mike Bloomberg, Eliot Spitzer, and Hillary Clinton, and was singled out by George Bush at the 2007 State of the Union address (that’s when Wesley blew kisses to the nation that morphed into peace signs—the gesture became his trademark, and something everyone in Harlem, where he lives, mimics back to him now). He captivated the famously unsentimental David Letterman, and brought his little girls on Ellen. B.B. King literally dropped to his knees and thanked him for what he did. One woman on the street told him she was glad she didn’t abort her unborn child because the Subway Superman showed her that the world isn’t so cruel after all.