Those are the happy aftereffects of overnight megastardom. Then there are the crushing demands on his time, the friends and family looking for handouts, the money problems, the identity questions, and the lawsuit.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, Wesley Autrey is sitting on the couch with his sister Linda at his niece Quiana’s two-room apartment in the Bronx. Since reporters started staking out his tiny studio on Riverside Drive in Harlem, Wesley has used Quiana’s home as a sanctuary—somewhere to escape to without having to leave town. Wesley and Linda have always been close, but the last few months have made them closer; he’s come to rely on her and Quiana to handle his scheduling and a large part of his business affairs. “I don’t know what I’d do without Linda,” he says. “I’ve got to go somewhere and find an award for her.”
Before he came to the attention of half the Western world, Wesley was known to his friends and family as a modest, hardworking construction worker and something of the family patriarch. He was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1956 and brought up on a farm in Alabama with an older brother and two younger sisters until he was 12, when the family moved north to Harlem. The second-oldest of four kids, he’s never not been the man of the house. His father, Robert Autrey Sr., also a construction worker, left the family when Wesley was a toddler, and while his devout Christian mother, Mary, never divorced him, Wesley hasn’t seen his father’s face for 30 years.
Wesley joined the Navy at 17; had a son, Wesley Jr., now 33, whom everyone calls Boo; and had his two daughters, Shuqui, now 6, and Syshe, 4, with a different woman, who left him when Syshe was a baby. Wesley says he would have married her, but she wasn’t interested. “I thought we had a great thing.” He’s determined to support his kids the way his father never did. “The world looks at black men as deadbeat dads,” he says. “But that’s not me.”
After the Navy, Wesley worked for the Postal Service, then switched to construction. Recently, he’d been working for an outfit called T&S Management on a school project in Williamsburg. A shop steward in the Local 79 Laborers Union, Wesley had achieved a certain amount of seniority but was still living paycheck to paycheck. To varying degrees, he supports not just the girls but also his mother, Mary, a retired school-cafeteria worker; Boo’s daughters, Jéahni, 10, and Wesli, 1; and his sister Lucile’s three sons—Erroll, 28, Darius, 18, and La-la—and Quiana’s 2-year-old boy, Keyon.
Wesley’s life of quiet working-class anonymity came to a full stop on January 2. What happened that day has already taken on the quality of legend: the man with the seizure on the platform; Wesley’s shout to a stranger to watch his daughters and his dive onto the tracks; the split-second decision to grab the man and roll into the 21-inch gutter between the bottom of the train and the rails; the train’s abrupt halt, its first five cars passing over the two men; the twenty-minute wait for the MTA to cut the power to the third rail. On Letterman, and later on Ellen, Wesley explained why he did what he did. “Fool, you got to go in there,” he recalled thinking. (“I like that your mind called yourself a fool,” Ellen said.)
Had Wesley ever given any hint that he was the type of guy who’d jump in front of a speeding train to save a stranger? No, but to those who know him best, his act of selflessness wasn’t really surprising, either. “We always knew he was this great guy,” Linda says. “The world is just getting to know the brother we knew all along.”
It took time for Wesley to recognize the magnitude of what had happened to him. At first, he wanted to go straight to his job in Brooklyn. “I didn’t think nothing of it,” he says. “If anything, I thought it was going to make the paper, but that would probably be it. I had a family to support and maintain, and in construction, if you don’t go to work that day, you don’t get paid.”
As soon as he was outside of the subway station, he realized this was bigger. The News and Post reporters were wrestling over who got to drive him to the hospital. Inside Edition and CBS wanted him to go back to the station and reconstruct what happened. Within a day, Letterman, Ellen, Oprah, Charlie Rose, and Montel were calling. Hillary Clinton wanted to make a resolution on the floor of the Senate commending him. Trump sent his check. The MTA offered a year’s worth of free subway rides. One guy stopped him on the street and handed him a $10 bill.