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October 2, 2010

A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:38 PM * 40 comments

While skimming Talking Points Memo this evening (trawling, I confess, for blogging material), I was drawn to this post. It’s just a one-line pointer to the gentle and caring obituary of a Florida cyclist named Neil Alan Smith, who was struck by a hit and run driver on September 12 and died six days later.

It’s worth a read. At 1200 words, it’s probably the longest thing that’s been written about the quiet, private man who washed dishes at a local crab restaurant for minimum wage plus a couple of beers. According to the reporter, Andrew Meacham, this effort was inspired by a piece of web trolling:

Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times announced Mr. Smith’s death on its website, a reader posted a comment stating the following: A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

The comment, on this article, was deleted by the moderators. Judging by the remaining conversation, it was probably posted by someone with the charming handle of “liquorbutt”. The remainder of the thread is a mix of low-grade trolling (with visible lacunae where the worst comments have been deleted) and cyclist advocacy. For a newspaper comment thread, it’s not very toxic. I have seen much worse.‡.

I was reminded, contemplating the sketch of this man of whom I would never otherwise have heard, of a passage in Busman’s Honeymoon. In it, a police superintendent looks up the details of a case of cranial injury in Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence*. “A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise”, he reads, and then the narrative gives way to a brief and kindly speculation about the life and character of a nameless accident victim.

It’s worth pausing for these things. It’s worth caring.

Obviously, given the choice, I’d rather live in a world where people don’t get thrown against lampposts by hit and run drivers. Likewise, I’d rather live in one where people don’t troll comment threads, where college students don’t jump from bridges, and where people’s love lives are not streamed on the internet against their will.

Sadly, I am not given that choice. But I’m grateful, at least, that I live in one where a reporter is inspired to spend the time to research and write a thoughtful obituary for a dishwasher, where someone on a busy and contentious political site is touched enough to link to it, where I can regret the loss of people like Tyler Clementi and Neil Alan Smith, whose names I would never otherwise know.

‡ Here do I tip my hat at the moderators
* An earlier edition than the one I have (the twelfth)†; I trawled mine in vain for the passage in question, but it has been replaced by the story of an eight year old boy and a half-brick.
Taylor’s is the reason for our household rule that children may only read books they can reach. It’s stored on the top shelf, because the photographs and descriptions are fairly upsetting.

Comments on A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise:
#1 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 07:10 PM:

What an excellent opportunity for me to rant about class prejudice in the USA.

But I won't, this time.

Someone could do a rant about the invisibility of bicyclists in car culture. We lose too many bicyclists in Tucson.

#2 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 07:19 PM:

((connected more by mood than logic))
A minute ago, I sent a friend a link I though would intrigue her for a couple of minutes; her husband went into the hospital two days ago with yet another sudden, surprise medical emergency.
Part of composing an email, for me, is clicking at my .sig randomizer until it comes up with something I like for whatever the context is. And below is what I chose.

IMNSHO, the most neglected, extra-large clue-by-six Bible lesson is the repetition, over and over and over, of "remember when you were a stranger/slave in the land of Egypt." The rich will take care of themselves. The cutters of wood and drawers of water require our attention as well. [paraphrase]that things may go well with you in the land[/paraphrase].

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing...
-- Deuteronomy 24:19

#3 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 07:22 PM:

The writer's last paragraph is damn fine.

#4 ::: jmk ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 07:38 PM:

I am so moved by this writers reaction. It's a beautiful obituary.

I wish mine was as eloquent, but reading that comment made me want to hurt someone. badly. My father happens to be an older man of limited means. In fact, he works as a dishwasher and often bikes to work.

The idea that this man has family who could have read that is making me incredibly upset. I swore off reading comments on news sites years ago, and for a reason...

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 07:55 PM:

There is, on the second page of the Metro section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and carried every day in the paper's online edition, a fascinating ( look into the minds of people with the time to write in to the paper. The troll/good sense ratio is, shall we say, interesting.

#6 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 08:32 PM:

And NPR has this story on the mass grave of 11 women who apparently were not important to anyone but their families...and whoever killed them.

#7 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 08:39 PM:

I wonder if, deep down, "liquorbutt" is afraid that no one would miss him?

#8 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 09:47 PM:

The story quoted the guy's manager saying how hard it would be to find another employee as good.

But it also says in his 10 years working at the Crab Shack he never got a raise, a Christmas bonus, nada.

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 09:54 PM:

Jon H @ 8... It kind of made me twitch to have the boss decry the mean comments when he himself didn't appreciate his employee enough to show it in a manner that mattered.

#10 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 10:30 PM:

That employer was counting on, or assuming, the certainty that an aging dishwasher's salary would never be a scandal up for public discussion. But now he's in the public eye for a brief moment.

I don't think I can claim for myself Mr. Smith's virtues -- knowing what he liked, living within his means, being someone others could depend on -- and those seem like good things to aspire to.

#11 ::: mea ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 12:29 AM:

*Lifting a glass to Mr. Smith, my deceased sister, and all the other people in our lives who have had to overcome struggles, who are reliable workers at needed but thankless jobs, who make the best of daily choices that are constrained by circumstance while also taking small steps to help lighten our weight on the planet (like bicycling to work), who find their daily joy by taking an interest in something that many of rest of us may fail to even notice, and who do all of this without fanfare or, all too often, adequate respect.*

Good on the newspaper for doing that obituary.

#12 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 04:10 AM:

Actually Mr. Smith got a raise every time we increased the minimum wage. I'm sure he deserved more than that, and there are many people like him, which is why we should increase the minimum wage some more. It is not an intractable problem. It should not be solely up to people like Mr. Smith's boss, who seems like an okay guy but conflicted by self-interest, to make sure that people like Mr. Smith are valued.

#13 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 06:14 AM:

I wish Mr. Smith could see that obituary. Although it does sound like he was pretty private, so he might've been embarrassed. I wish he could've heard the compliments, though. Preferably before he died.

Why are people so sparing with compliments?

#14 ::: Bill Ripple ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 06:23 AM:

Melissa, I ask the same question myself many times.

What end is served, especially at the passing of a life, when something as easily given as a simple compliment to the memory of another human being is refused? And how grating when (as in this case) the deserved compliment is replaced with an insult.

(Abi, I began to think you'd put Making Light on hiatus, as the last post was nearly one week old. Thanks for stoking the fire.)

#15 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 07:27 AM:

Abi: Second edition of "The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence" is available as a scanned copy online ( and you can download it as .pdf or various other formats, but so far I haven't found the story you mention which was referenced in "Busman's Honeymoon".

As for this story, it shows the worst and the best of human nature, in the event, the original comment, the newspaper story and the comments thereon.

Neil in Chicago @ 2: Those are the parts I try to follow, along with e.g. "do not put a stumbling block before the blind, nor curse the deaf" - which the rabbis expanded on, to show how this means you shouldn't say bad things about someone when they are absent,, for example, since that is, effectively, the same thing.

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 08:01 AM:

TomB #12: Lots of people work their hearts out for minimum wage, are told they're appreciated,and never get a penny more. Without them it would be hard for the economy to work.

#17 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 12:20 PM:

That is an obituary worth having. Serious, not maudlin but mindful of the weight of human worth without celebrity or flashy accomplishment.

The Kind Person in me hopes that the idiot who made the "better off dead" comment comes to understand the wrongness of his/her words. The Mean Person in me hopes that his/her obituary is shorter and far less graceful, whatever the accomplishments.

#18 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 01:02 PM:

The part of that obituary which pleased me most was this: Every year, Rogers put up a small artificial Christmas tree and decorated it. "I kind of forced him" to celebrate holidays, Rogers said. She gave him a mountain bike after his was stolen, and bought extra reflectors for his birthday. Because it was important not to wait, she gave him the reflectors Sept. 10, before his birthday.

#19 ::: pm215 ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 02:26 PM:

dcb@15: the discussion of the gentleman who was thrown out of a chaise is on page 621 of that edition (the "read online" version has a search box which will take you straight to it if you look for "chaise").

#20 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 02:35 PM:

pm215 @ 19: Well found!

#21 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 04:24 PM:

I somehow feel grand for having read the original version of the quote I know so well, even though I didn't even do the work of finding it for myself.

Well, cheap amusements aren't to be scorned, I suppose. Thanks to dcb and pm215 for doing the work!

More important, thanks for pointing out the original obituary and the story flowing from that.

#22 ::: Wesley Osam ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 07:31 PM:

There seems to be a tremendous lack of empathy in our society. I feel like it's worse now than it's ever been. Maybe this is an artifact of perception, maybe with the internet and the 24-hour news cycle I'm just more likely to learn of a wide range of cruelties that fifteen years ago wouldn't have made it into my local paper, but it feels like we're more callous than we used to be.

What strikes me is that many people seem to treat strangers, anyone outside their circle of friends and family, as entertainment, as though other people were unreal, two-dimensional sitcom characters acting out simple plots for their amusement. Normal, non-sociopathic people don't talk (or even think) about the lives of human beings the way they might talk about movies, or books, or video games. It alarms me how often people show up in comment threads who don't seem aware of the difference.

#23 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 02:05 AM:

Wesley @ 22: "...many people seem to treat strangers, anyone outside their circle of friends and family, as entertainment, as though other people were unreal, two-dimensional sitcom characters acting out simple plots for their amusement."

Which seems, at least, an advance over automatically treating them as prey.

#24 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 12:20 PM:

This reminds me a little of Edna Buchanan's insistence on giving a separate paragraph to every homicide victim she wrote up, even during the late 80s and early 90s. Kudos to the writer.

(And now I'm trying to remember the sf novel where the author comments that people who live their lives simply, with minimal waste of resources, have nominally achieved what we all supposedly long for, yet they are almost universally despised.)

#25 ::: Shane ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 10:05 PM:

Mr. Smith, apologies for misappropriating this small memorial, but I want to reply to TomB at 12:

"It should not be solely up to people like Mr. Smith's boss, who seems like an okay guy but conflicted by self-interest, to make sure that people like Mr. Smith are valued."

Yeah Tom, I think it should. We have a minimum wage because okay guys like Mr. Smith's boss *don't do what they should*.

Employers have obligation to more than the bottom line. Stockholders aren't the only people who matter. I don't accept that employers ought only do what they're forced to, and I think it's important to push against that principle. They expect more than that of their employees, and I expect more from them as people.

We can go back to a militant union movement and adversarial workplaces if those at the top really want to. It will take time, but just keep pushing.

#26 ::: Shane ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 11:02 PM:

I'm not opposing your calls for minimum wage increases, btw. I just think it's a stopgap, not a solution.

Also, while you might well pay a dishwasher minimum wage on their first day, a more experienced worker should expect to be paid commensurate.

Also too, has it kept up with inflation? If not I'd say it's a paycut, not a raise.

#27 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 11:15 PM:

Reminds me of an article of heard of, but never seen. Apparently David Simon (later the creator of The Wire, and most recently MacArthur-certified genuis), when he was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, planned a long profile of a drug addict who was one of the police's most valued sources -- an all-time great snitch, who did it very well. (This character is one of the people that The Wire's "Bubbles" was based on, supposedly). But Simon's subject died before he wrote his article, so apparently the Baltimore Sun published it as an obituary -- a rare case of a drug addict getting his own obituary.

I mention this largely in the hopes that someone in the Readertariat here would have actually seen this article, and could point me to an online source for it, or (failing that) the specific date it was published in the paper.

(...And I don't mean to diminish the amazing, moving nature of this obituary by the comparison. It was a marvelous article.)

(OT: Now that he's a Genius and everything, wouldn't it be a good book if someone published a "best-of" of Simon's journalism? Should sell lots of copies to Wire fans anyway.)

#28 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 11:24 PM:

Incidentally, if anyone's interested, James Fallows posted a photo of Neil Alan Smith on his blog here:

#29 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2010, 12:36 AM:

I've been trying for the past few years to say nice things that pop into my head, because it's equally possible that either I or the other person might not be around to hear them on another day, whether they're 5, 25, or 95.

#30 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2010, 10:49 AM:

Joe McMahon (29): cf Christine Lavin's "The Moment Slipped Away" (lyrics, video)

#31 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2010, 07:14 AM:

An earlier edition than the one I have (the twelfth)†; I trawled mine in vain for the passage in question, but it has been replaced by the story of an eight year old boy and a half-brick.

What an extraordinary change to make. The meditation on the gentleman thrown out of the chaise is a great bit of writing, and I can't imagine why it would be replaced.

Here's the passage in question:

Still, a theory was only a theory; one had got to find evidence to support it. One must at any rate be sure there was no evidence against it. First of all, could a man kill himself like that, simply by falling off a pair of steps?

Side by side with half-crown editions of English poets and philosophers, flanked on the right by Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and on the left by that handy police publication which dissects and catalogues crimes according to the method of their commission, stood, tall and menacing, the two blue volumes of Taylor's Medical Jurisprudence, that canon of uncanonical practice and Baedeker of the back doors to death. Kirk had often studied it in a dutiful readiness for the unexpected. Now he took it down and turned the pages of Volume I, till he came to the running head: "Intercranial Hæmorrhage—Violence or Disease." He was looking for the story of the gentleman who fell out of a chaise. Yes, here he was: he emerged with a kind of personality from the Report of Guy's Hospital for 1859:

"A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise, and fell upon his head with such violence as to stun him. After a short time he recovered his senses, and felt so much better that he entered the chaise again, and was driven to his father's house by a companion. He attempted to pass off the accident as of a trivial nature, but he soon began to feel heavy and drowsy, so that he was obliged to go to bed. His symptoms became more alarming, and he died in about an hour from effusion of blood in the brain."

Excellent and unfortunate gentleman, his name unknown, his features a blank, his life a mystery; embalmed for ever in a fame outlasting the gilded monuments of princes! He lived in his father's house, so was presumably unmarried and young—a bit of a swell, perhaps, wearing the fashionable new Inverness cape and the luxuriant silky side-whiskers which were just coming into favour. How did he come to be thrown out of the chaise? Did the horse bolt with him? Had he looked on the wine when it was red? The vehicle, we observe, was undamaged, and his companion at any rate sober enough to drive him home. A courageous gentleman (since he was resolute to enter the chaise again), a considerate gentleman (since he made light of the accident in order to spare his parents anxiety); his premature death must have occasioned much lamentation among the crinolines. No one could have guessed that, nearly eighty years later, a police superintendent in a rural district would be reading his brief epitaph: "A gentleman was thrown out of a chaise..."

#32 ::: hedgehog ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2010, 07:53 AM:

#31 ::: ajay

What an extraordinary change to make.

I believe Abi is referring to the 12th edition of Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, not Busman's Honeymoon wherein the meditation is contained.

#33 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2010, 08:30 AM:

Joe McMahon @29, Mary Aileen @30

Kathy Mattea, Time Passes By (songwriters: Susan Longacre & Jonathan Blair Vezner)

(one of my favorite songs from an excellent album of the same title)

Time passes by, people pass on
At the drop of a tear, they're gone
Thoughts are like pennies we keep in our pockets
They're never worth nothing till we give them away


#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2010, 02:30 PM:

hedgehog @32:

You are correct. My edition of Busman's Honeymoon, which is the Fifth Impression of the Coronet Crime Series edition, and thus the eleventy-jillionth edition of the book, has the scene precisely as ajay @31 transcribed it.

The "Intracranial Bleeding" section of my red, two-volume, seventh edition copy of Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (revised by Keith Simpson, 1965) contains the following case involving a lucid interval*:

N obl bs rvtug, cynlvat jvgu sryybj fpubbyoblf ng 4.30 c.z. jnf fgehpx ba gur yrsg grzcyr ol n unys-oevpx. Ur fgnttrerq naq sryy, zbzragnevyl pbaphffrq, ohg tbg gb uvf srrg naq ena ubzr. Ur ngr uvf riravat zrny ng 7 c.z., naq jrag gb orq ng 8.30 jvgubhg znxvat nal pbzcynvag. Ng 7.30 arkg zbeavat ur jnf sbhaq fvpx va orq, naq nf ur pbhyq abg or ebhfrq ur jnf erzbirq gb ubfcvgny, ohg ba neeviny jnf sbhaq gb or qrnq.

* Rot-13'd because it's about a child, and death, and Not in plain text.

#35 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2010, 04:24 PM:

Joe McMahon #29: I've been trying for the past few years to say nice things that pop into my head, because it's equally possible that either I or the other person might not be around to hear them on another day, whether they're 5, 25, or 95.

xkcd agrees

#36 ::: David Harmon sees fresh spam ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2012, 09:00 AM:

spam spam spam

#37 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2012, 07:57 AM:

More spam @ #38.

#38 ::: fidelio agrees with Paul that it's spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2012, 08:42 AM:

I don't even need to look at the View All By.

#39 ::: lorax sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2012, 10:05 PM:

Spam or perhaps spam-probe @40.

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