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August 2005
Vegetarian Advocate: The Troubles of a Fly
By Jack Rosenberger

It’s common for me when walking alone at night or enjoying a quiet moment, to contemplate a proverb or a clever thought. I like to mull it over, turn it upside down, and perhaps memorize it through sheer repetition. Lately, while walking around Manhattan during my lunch break, I’ve been relishing the taste of a Yiddish proverb—“The troubles of a stranger aren’t worth an onion.”

I work in midtown, and one of my goals at lunch is to walk for 15 minutes. My lunchtime walks are a matter of personal health. They help me attain my target of exercising at least an hour each day and reduce the ungodly level of stress created by my hectic job as a magazine editor. Also, my walks enable me to explore new neighborhoods or wander aimlessly, like a surrealist poet in André Breton’s Paris.

Last May, before Manhattan was besieged by a turbulent heat wave, I was walking on the sunny side of East 26th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington. I was headed to Chennai Garden, a vegetarian Indian restaurant on 27th Street. As I walked along, I passed a couple—a man and a woman in their early 30s. They were holding hands and talking on their mobile phones—but not to each other. He was passionately bemoaning the Yankees’ lack of consistent pitching; she seemed to be airing a major gripe about her mother.

I blew past the couple and noticed, about 10 yards ahead, an unruly pile of garbage heaped against the side of an old apartment building. In the middle of the pile was a thin cardboard box inside a plastic bag.

As I got nearer, I noticed a black fly was trapped inside the plastic bag, caught in a spotlight of direct sunlight.

I felt immediately sorry for the fly. One end of the long plastic bag was only partly open. Also, the fly was at least 24 inches below the opening. Moreover, she or he wasn’t moving in the direction of the open end, but was busily banging against the plastic, trying to escape.

The mobile phone-obsessed couple were still walking behind me, a group of students from Baruch College were walking toward me, and only God knows if someone from the office was on the other side of the street. But I didn’t care about what anyone might think as I stopped to carefully rip open a section of plastic near the fly. Within seconds, the fly escaped to freedom.

Urban Critters
As I walked the last few blocks to Chennai Garden, I got caught up in what I had just done. I felt a small sense of self-pride and accomplishment because I had rescued a fly, but I knew my action in the scheme of the world meant absolutely nothing. It doesn’t matter to most people if a fly lives or dies. But surely the fly, no longer trapped inside a hot plastic bag, felt much better.

Most people—i.e., most carnivores—wouldn’t have bothered to free a trapped fly. They regard flies as dirty, unworthy vermin. I recently came across a nonfiction book titled, Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th-Century Science. The author’s bio, a succinct two sentences, strikes me as representative of the human species’ attitude toward flies: “Martin Brookes has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and spent eight years in biological research. He hates flies.”

I hadn’t walked 10 yards before it occurred to me that rescuing the fly seemed like a Buddhist deed. I quickly rejected that idea, as most religions are not sympathetic to animals in a meaningful, significant way. It is emotionally and physically easy to rescue a small animal from a dangerous situation. To not eat animals, and to do so for the length of one’s life, is something that requires dedication, mindfulness, and will power. What I’d done was truly the action of an ethical vegetarian. Perhaps the troubles of a stranger aren’t worth an onion. But the troubles of a fly are worth the world to me.



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