Tad Friend’s recent New Yorker piece on self-consciously pensive auteur Derek Cianfrance focuses a fair amount of attention on the filmmaker’s most unusual physical feature: a tattoo across the knuckles of his right hand. Rather than going with the quintessentially cinematic “L-O-V-E / H-A-T-E,” which leaves the thumbs conspicuously naked, Cianfrance has opted for the full five fingers: “A-M-I-G-O.”
Friend explains that Cianfrance’s tattoo is “a reminder of the night that he was in a parking lot, changing camera tapes, and a Hispanic man with an oozing stomach wound asked for help, saying, ‘Hey, amigo?’ Cianfrance thrust some pocket change at him. Then, on second thought, he turned back to offer actual help, but the man had disappeared.”
I’m a sucker for these stories of “too little, too late,” this type of memorializing of a rued moment of insufficient action. This is a particular variant of regret narrative that comes up surprisingly often as a trope in the development of the artistic temperament. When I read the Cianfrance piece, it brought to mind another example, from comedian/activist Dick Gregory’s terrific memoir, Nigger. This first third of the book is devoted to Gregory’s recollections of growing up poor in St. Louis in the 1940s and 50s. As a child, he scrounged together pocket change by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and doing whatever other odd jobs he managed to secure. Gregory tells this story from his childhood, about sitting down to a diner meal after having worked all day:
“Bought me a bowl of chili for fifteen cents, and a cheeseburger for fifteen cents, and a Pepsi for five cents, and a piece of chocolate cake for ten cents. That was a good meal. I was eating when this old wino came in. I love winos because they never hurt anyone but themselves. The old wino sat down at the counter and ordered twenty-six cents worth of food. He ate it like he really enjoyed it. When the owner, Mister Williams, asked him to pay the check, the old wino didn’t lie or go through his pocket like he suddenly found a hole. He just said, ‘Don’t have no money.’”
Gregory goes on to describe the owner’s rage at discovering that the man couldn’t pay, with the owner ultimately beating the man until he bled. At that point, Gregory offered to pay for the meal himself. But again: too little, too late. “The wino got up, slowly, pulling himself up to the stool… . He looked at me with pure hate. ‘Keep your twenty-six cents. You don’t have to pay, not now. I just finished paying for it.’”
These stories are the hardscrabble cousins of the more straightforwardly inspirational narratives about what it means to give and receive help: the random good turn that is improbably rewarded when the once-victim later comes to her savior’s aid, or the man in palpable need who receives a check from a benevolent stranger, only to frame it. Tales like Cianfrance’s and Gregory’s, of being haunted by inaction, are the ones that may loom larger in the personal histories of writers when they sit down to analyze what spurs them in life and art, what they carry from their pasts forward into the world. Personally, I’d like to see more writers recall their own inaction sequences. It seems a great testament to the empathetic consciousness that is a prerequisite not only for living as a solid citizen, but for creating powerful art that can induce those around you to do so as well.