The Bourke Street terrorist attack ten days ago was a case of Melbourne real life glancing in the rear-view mirror and finding Hollywood. Let’s not ruin the fairytale.
About twenty-five years ago, Dustin Hoffman starred in a long-forgotten film about Bernie, a pickpocket-cum-petty thief who finds himself the first person on the scene of a downtown plane crash. Intending to pilfer whatever he can from the scattered bags and bodies of this urban disaster, Bernie instead starts rescuing the wounded, paving a path to his own redemption in the process. There’s a bit more to it – a subplot with Andy Garcia and a weird romance with Geena Davis – but in essence, that’s the story, hence the title: “Accidental Hero”. Much like Michael Rogers, or as he’s better known, Trolley Man.
46-year-old Rogers risked his life by using a rickety shopping trolley to try and save innocent people caught in a deranged knife attack. He was too late to save Sisto Malaspina, the much-loved café manager of Melbourne institution Pellegrini’s, but Rogers’ act of bravery has sparked an extraordinary, unprecedented public response which has seen almost one hundred and fifty thousand dollars spontaneously raised to try and help sort out his life.
Rogers, as it happens, is a deeply-troubled bloke who has ‘form’, for petty theft and drug-related offences over many years. Just the day before the Bourke Street mayhem erupted, he broke into a cafe and pinched five hundred dollars. A few weeks earlier he was released from prison after he ran off with a shiny push-bike that didn’t belong to him. Mr Rogers, of no fixed address, is well-known to the authorities; nothing violent but a public nuisance with a record as long as… well, as long as a stack of shopping trolleys lined up at the entrance to a Woolies car park. Still, when asked about that terrifying moment when he came face to face with terrorist Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, Trolley Man said with simple sincerity, “I just wanted to help. And do something right for the first time in my life.”
In a big week of “firsts” for Rogers, he did something else just yesterday he’s never done before: he turned himself in to West Melbourne police, agreeing to the parole terms that ban him from re-entering the Melbourne CBD, grateful that this time he wasn’t going back to gaol, but to his brother’s house and into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
Next Tuesday the Victorian Government will hold a State Funeral for Sisto. Pellegrini’s has been filled every day since the attack with mates and mourners, the outside footpath awash with flowers and cards. Tuesday’s State Funeral is a caring, public-spirited event that every side of politics applauds, on the eve of a Victorian state election. It’s a commonsense initiative that makes everybody feel a little bit better and gives people a chance to come together and grieve: for their friend and for their city.
But Trolley Man – in his own way – also brought people together. For about forty-eight hours last week, nobody knew his true identity. Social media and talkback radio had a field day painting him as a mysterious figure who had done good in a truly hilarious way, and then just disappeared back into some Melbourne laneway…until next he was needed. Like Melbournians reminiscing over the last time they drank espresso at Pellegrini’s, applauding the extraordinary heroics of the ordinary man with the shopping trolley brought some light to the darkness, some levity to the despair. So what if it turns out he has a bit of a murky past, that he’s certainly no poster boy…does it really matter?
— John Cameron (@Cameron_John) November 9, 2018
Police Prosecutor Paul Bush said it does when he opposed bail, suggesting Rogers posed a serious risk of reoffending and his long list of crimes spoke for themselves. But I reckon you’ve got to give people a chance. I doubt Rogers expected this notoriety, but surely he realised that when trying to avoid the attention of the cops, offering yourself as backup in a bloody street fight with a crazed terrorist isn’t exactly laying low. Fundamentally he’s a good man and he did what he thought he should. His commonsense approach to a problem deserves a commonsense response: give him a break. Don’t labour on what might have been (as some cops have done when criticising his recklessness) but celebrate what was: an astonishing act of bravery.
On Saturday, Trolley Man, in a line straight out of his no doubt soon-to-be-written biopic (I’m guessing by the team behind The Castle) told reporters, “I’m not gonna lie. (Staying outta trouble) It’s gonna be a task… But, I’m glad to be out and I’ll give a good crack at moving on.”
As for the public donations, he won’t have free access to the money. Donna Stolzenberg from the National Homelessness Collective who first started the fundraising drive said that her organisation would help him by putting it away in a trust fund and by offering guidance on how best to use it.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Rogers is right. It is going to be “a task” for him to turn his life around. The real world is not a Hollywood film…or even a Working Dog one.
The police prosecutor may have wanted Rogers to pay for his latest crime, but what’s the sense in that? Nobody would have benefitted if Melbourne’s accidental hero had gone back to prison. That’s lose-lose stuff for a city already in agony over Bourke Street. At a time when we’re short of heroes, there’s something quintessentially Aussie about Trolley Man’s “have a go” spirit, and the way his story is now playing out. Just a basic common-sense attitude that good people are getting what they deserve. Right now, it’s like a Tale of Two Citizens, and Sisto’s state funeral and Michael’s second chance should make everybody feel just a little bit better – despite the sadness and the madness that surrounds us all.