September is my birth month.
Since my birth day occurs frequently on or in association to the yearly memorial of the American Labor Movements I have a very strong sense of what that means. Despite the national insurrection against organized labor that continues to brew in the underbelly of political discourse I am supportive of the power of the American laborer. The kind we so adore in our images of those so brutally murdered in the effects of the terror attacks at World Trade Center.
We, collectively, think of the typical businessman. The mid-priced slate grey or midnight blue suit wearing dude who bears the stressful commute arriving disheveled at the office with well worn suitcase in hand who puts in a few more than the nine-to-five hours to ensure his wife can be around for the kids as they arrive to a suburban house with a fairly manicured front lawn after a day in public school. He is partially balding, she is worried about his ring-around-the-collar, they are worried if the dog ate their homework. He’s accused of sleeping with the secretary because that’s the only woman he really sees during the day. She’s accused of sleeping with the paper boy because he’s the only male source of energy she encounters. They’re probably sneaking from the liquor cabinet while lingering a little too long coming home from school at the local merchant, probably smoking in the parking lot.
The reality is today we are just a more skewed version of this America that pushed these 1950s themes beyond the cartoonish 1980s ideas I grew up with to what really was occurring for many who perished in the terror attacks. Dad, and probably mom too, were working more than ten hours a day and traveling in unbearable mass transit just to get into a job they hate where they’re expected to provide more efficiency than their parents were ever asked to for less money, mobility and proactive responsibility.
As a society we’ve demonized standing up for ourselves, stepping up for our personal needs. We’re more railroaded into being slaves to the system than we were 100 years ago when the modern labor movements congealed.
I bring this up because of it’s relation to our perception of those who lost their lives in 911. There were high powered investment banks and major finance institutions within the context of World Trade. Those men and women who were voluntarily a part of those companies though were not all earning executive salaries. Many who were in their offices for those companies at the times of the attacks were paid a pittance compared to the big wigs who were away when the planes first impacted. These are the people we first imagine in our collective mind anyhow, but we quickly dismiss how hard they worked, how much they sacrificed when we remember the value of the companies that occupied those floors. The fact one floor of the either building could generate in year-end revenues more than most towns and some small cities have in taxable revenues, nevermind collective GDP.
I bring this up because we villanize and demonize our first responders and at the same time we adore them. We love when a police officer prevents a crime or intervenes at a vulnerable moment. We love when a firefighter goes beyond the scope of their job description to rescue a kittie almost as much as we love when they run into a burning building. We love when security (Port Authority, Amtrak and other related officers) guide us through the “maze” and especially when they bust the bad guys. We adore when EMTs and other medical first respondents happen to be there because they were fortunately assigned there. And yet we hate these people’s pensions and complain about their already under valued salaries coming out of our taxes and disdain when their jobs unfortunately interrupt the normal flow of our lives even when their jobs make possible the “normal” we consider our lives in the first place.
I bring this up because today I am tired of hearing people complain about their lives. They are lucky to be alive and they don’t see that. They are fortunate to have had people like the servers and bus boys at places like “Top of the World,” the receptionists and greeters like those you’d find on nearly every elevator stop, the maintenance crews and janitors that worked behind the scenes and even the grunts that worked the menial desk jobs for 10-12 hours a day, underpaid, under appreciated and relatively unknown outside of their small circle for whom without life wouldn’t function, not at WTC, not at anyone’s normal life function.
We struggle with 911 because ultimately we struggle with our own self-valuation. We call these people heroes not because they died tragically but because they went to work in the first place. We deep down recognized it wasn’t that they were standing up to anything, a traditional version of heroism, but that they acted bravely because it takes bravery being an employee most days these days. Sure, some of them loved their work, had the perfect career trajectory and adored their own existence having it cut unceremoniously cut short, but despite the story book, that probably wasn’t all of them. They died living their daily life and their real bravery was living that life, not dying by accidental circumstance. Many of them probably acted bravely, took measures to aide others, to ensure last wishes were met, to take control of their own final destiny. Those acts of personal heroism are what we claim to celebrate but if we look honestly, at ourselves, it isn’t a matter of if we would have done the same, it’s a matter of the empathy we have to how we assume these people led their lives long before their final moments in the wake of the tragedy.
It would behoove us to not focus on what they may, or may not have done in the confines of that day, but remember their lives as they led them to the point the morning of. To remember they were the great American workforce and not since the labor wars of earlier in the decade has the American labor force faced such an assult on its well being, on its defining existence, on its identity. We should use this moment not to work harder, or to work smarter, or to work faster, but to work toward a cultural balance a brevity that contributes to a healthy society that isn’t bound like a slave to work, that isn’t chained to the reminance of the towers, one that appreciates family, neighborhood and life, in-and-of itself…