He Was Someone

January 31, 2009
Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Photo credit - Max Ortiz/Detroit News

Coming home from work night before last, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with a gentleman by the name of Charlie LeDuff. Charlie is a reporter with the Detroit News, and a story that he recently published has caught a bit of national attention. While many might read his story and decide that any hope for a return of civility is completely lost, I actually think that Charlie and a man with no name and new shoelaces give us reason to believe in the value each of us has.

Charlie LeDuff received an anonymous phone call from a man who told him that someone was frozen in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the old Roosevelt warehouse at 14th Street and Michigan Avenue in Detroit. After the building had burned in 1987, it was left to rot by its multi-billionaire owner. For nearly 20 years the warehouse has become a repository, not for Detroit city school books as it once was, but for homeless and forgotten citizens of the Motor City.

Charlie went to investigate, and sure enough, he found a man frozen solid in several feet of ice – head first in the cold tomb with his feet sticking out from the shins up. Charlie mentioned in his news article and the radio interview that the John Doe had new shoelaces. After rooting around to get some answers as to who the man was, Charlie was shocked to learn that the man had been there for at least a month – with a world of activity going on around him. People simply walked by the corpse for days and weeks on end. Charlie’s news report has a hint of quiet desparation in its opening line:

“This city has not always been a gentle place, but a series of events over the past few, frigid days causes one to wonder how cold the collective heart has grown.”

As I mentioned at the top of this entry, it might be easy for us to ascribe animalistic behaviors to the homeless who saw the corpse as nothing more than a shoe rack. Or, we could lament the apathetic and pathetic response of the Detroit Police Department when they were finally called, by Charlie, and failed to come out to investigate after the first 911 call. We could bemoan the state of American inner-cities and point to the failure of leadership as the reason for the conditions that created the situation that eventually led to this lost soul being frozen and forgotten. All of these observations, and more, might lead us to the conclusion that civility is irretrievable.

But, I think that Charlie LeDuff is breathing proof that civility is alive and well in the form of one single individual who is willing to acknowledge that intrinsic value in every human life.

Charlie called 911 again and followed-up with the police until they came and literally carved the man with the new shoelaces out of elevator shaft. When he was speaking on NPR, he said some things that gave me hope and pride.

“He was someone’s baby. He was someone, and he deserves an obituary.”

Obviously, if there had been someone in the frozen man’s life that cared and respected him as much as Mr. LeDuff did in his death, there probably would be no news story. But that is the point, isn’t it? In exercising a kind act, in offering a hand to a stranger, in consoling a friend, in letting someone have our place in line – is it not in these small acts of humanity and civility that we validate that intrinsic value in all people? Mr. LeDuff certainly isn’t the only civil person in Detroit, and it is sad that a senseless death is the catalyst necessary to draw attention to this fact. But, thank you Mr. LeDuff for having the boldness to print your story and to care about a man with new shoelaces.