I was almost a hero, once. Emmes.
Early Summer of 2001 I was hustling for the last shards of the dot.com boom and secured an interview with a banking corporation that bears the name of a famous American Robber Baron who sowed the seeds of his first fortune on the bloodlefilth of the Civil War. He sold defective arms to Union Soldiers, (or was it Confederate soldiers? Possibly both). Some called this Johnny-Bad-Apple-Seed a war profiteer; others said he was merely planting heroes.
It was supposed to be a three-to-six month gig writing ad-copy, business documents, executive speeches and other corporate propaganda. Thing was, they wanted me to wear a suit and tie. I told the woman at Human Resources that I didn’t sport such garb, particularly not in hot weather. Sorry, no suit, no gig, she said politely.
So I missed the opportunity to work in the Word Trade Center offices of this particular establishment on September 11, 2001. Had I not been so damn stubborn and uppity, I would have been a hero for sure. Like that nice woman from Human Resources, may she rest in peace.
Now, I know all that crap about a hero ain’t nuthin’ but a side of Cole-slaw all mushy white slimy gives you gas and blah, blah, blah; and it’s true that I don’t know much about firemen and EMTs but what I see on the News; and my only real experience with the men in blue is watching them harass young black and Hispanic males in the streets and subways and the occasional news story about some bad apples who – oops! – mistake a wallet for a bazooka and empty 41 slugs into some kid in front of his own home; but really the “men and women in uniform” – cops, firemen, EMTs etc. – who rushed toward the burning towers exhibited courage, self-sacrifice, compassion and all the virtues we associate with the word ‘hero.’
Then again, such people do this for a living. I assume it’s part of their job description. They, the ones who are true to their calling, risk their lives often. So why is the fireman who rushed into a burning building on September 10th any less a hero than his colleague who got caught beneath the rubble on September 11th? Why haven’t the guys who died saving folks from fires before September 11th not become a National Fetish portrayed on postage stamps, raising the flag like the Marines at Iwo Jima, or displayed in life-sized corporate-sponsored posters all over NYC, or feted like celebrities of lesser worth but more renown on splashy tabloid covers?
Could it be that it’s time for We the People to grow accustomed to praising – and mourning – men and women in uniform? With corporate sponsors, yet. Graphic artists doing their best Norman Rockwell to portray the generic, multi-ethnic, “EMT-COP-FIREMAN,” in bold colors beneath a tactfully understated corporate logo. Anybody read Gogol’s “Dead Souls?” Interesting book.
Vampire Ghouls From Planet X
Okay, so let’s say the men and women in uniform got the recognition they deserve. Are they the only “heroes” of this sad tale, just because rabble rousing, publicity-hunting, vile, hate-filled twigs like George “I-Fought-the Law-And-My-Paw-Won” Bush and Rudy “Two-timing Man of the Year” Gillian, (who built his tax-payer funded security bunker INSIDE the WTC; no Odysseus he; and played hide-the-pickle with his ‘female associate’ while his wife and kids watched it all on television INSIDE tax-payer funded Gracie Mansion; again, no Odysseus, he) say they are?
Boy, was that Giuliani brave when he stood in front of the cameras and assured us “I’m okay, you’re okay – if not, we’ll set up some kind of fund for your family or something.” And darn, was Emperor Bush tough on terrorism aboard Air Force One, or in Cheney’s Bunker, or wherever the hell he was while his beloved men and woman in uniform were dying like heroes.
No way. I’m not buying. Not this time.
I give all the credit due to the cops, firefighters and others who risked and/or lost their lives trying to save the victim’s of that heinous attack; but I’m not gonna fall for the propaganda of these virulent soul-sucking vampires, Bush and Giuliani. Let’s see, when did I first encounter the phenomenon of Microphone-At-The-Microphone? Oh yes, 1992 it was. A mass rally of off-duty out-of-uniform (but still heroic?) cops protesting for better pay, benefits and working conditions. Nothing wrong with that. Except many of these cops were drunk, armed, swigging beer, and shouting racial epithets about their boss, Mayor David Dinkins. And how did challenger Rudy rise to that occasion? Exhort the unruly drunks to go home, sleep it off and start a new rally (sans firearms) in the morning? Oh, no. He speech-ified, riled ’em up, made ’em hungry for action. Maybe he was just being a smart politician. That mad trip to the microphone in 1992 didn’t hurt his campaign any; and that somber shtick before the microphones on 9/11/2001 turned him into a National hero (there, I said it. happy now? he’s a ‘hero.’) and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.
As for George, certain allegations made by Gore Vidal and others that he knew more about the imminence of the WTC attacks than one would ever want to believe are still debatable (and should damn well be debated), but NOBODY’S gonna tell me that his fellow spoiled brat millionaire’s son and fellow life-abuser, Bin Laden (more on that criminal later) didn’t give George the greatest gift this man, who’s been given gifts a-plenty all his life, has ever received – with the possible exception of the Supreme Court’s donation of the U.S. Presidency.
But enough about these ghouls – they’re giving me the chills. Let’s talk about some real people. The men and women in uniform. No, not the cops and firemen this time. I’m talking about the men in suits and women in skirts and blouses and what not. The kind of uniform I wouldn’t wear, which is why I’m just an almost-hero instead of a real one.
Close To Home
Well, I hate to brag, but even though I’m not a hero, I happened to go to high school with one. I didn’t know him all that well. But I remember him in his flannel shirt, unbuttoned and untucked, a black concert t-shirt underneath. Skinny guy. Quiet. Seventeen, still. In my brain. Again, I don’t mean to brag, but with all these PATRIOTS waving their flags and whoopin’ it up for war with terrorism, I figure I’ve as much right as anyone to wanna kill terrorism, I mean, to grab terrorism by the throat and kick its craven balls in and punch it in the mouth and shove it down the stairs and, and –
— actually, there’s someone else who might want to kick terrorism’s plastique ass even more than I do: my wife. You see, one of HER high school friends was also a hero. Grace, her name was. A great big hero, who left behind a daughter. Unlike my hero, who was really only an acquaintance, Grace was a dear friend of my wife’s. Which was probably why my wife just sat there dumbfounded, crying, when we heard the news on the radio (okay, so we didn’t have a TV at the time, but we can still be PATRIOTS, can’t we?). Grace had been a waitress for a long time while she was supporting her daughter and going to school and she considered herself lucky to have worked her way up to a white collar position in a cubicle in a famous skyscraper so she could construct a richer existence for her kid.
So, in honor of my high school hero and Grace, and all the other folks who wore the uniform I didn’t have the guts to wear myself, I’m gonna play PRETEND. Imagine I really was a hero. Imagine I took that hack writing job and woke up real, real early so as to beat the mad rush of potential heroes to the subway (a potential target) so I could maybe catch some light and air before ascending to my cell – uh, I mean cubicle – in an office suite high above the maddening crowd. Or better yet, let’s put you in the hero’s seat. Let’s pretend YOU are ME pretending to be a hero (due to my embarrassingly sparse imagination, we’ll have to make you a corporate propaganda hack; it’s all I know).
Morning In America
Okay. Here we go. You hate your work (obviously, or you wouldn’t be throwing away money on IRA’s, 401(K)s and other scams; in fact, you don’t even have real work; what you have, my poor hero-to-be, is a JOB). You despise your boss, your “corporate family,” the cheery company news-letter you helped fabricate, your co-workers paranoid about down-sizing (little do they know HOW down-sized), your nine-to-five (six, seven really) life, so called.
But there are little things: you have your Starbucks coffee and your raisin bran muffin, and since it’s your habit to come so damn early so as to avoid the proverbial “rush hour” and maybe get your mental shit together for the coming day, you can enjoy some preparatory peace and solitude.
You pass the shame-faced smokers outside the building. Smoking’s frowned upon – hell, we don’t wanna pollute the pristine air of NYC or anything – but you’ve got a full-day’s stash of mint-flavored Nicorette gum. The supersonic elevator takes you to your dreaded destination. The speed and altitude cause your ears to pop; the gum helps somewhat.
For whatever reason, you feel kind of okay. Secure, in fact. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the office, the routine. Or maybe it’s the techno-regal power of your surroundings: this big-assed skyscraper made of stone and steel and heavy glass. The World Goddamned Trade Center. You’ve aced the commute and you’re in your home-away-from-home, with time to kill before you have to pretend to do whatever you’re being paid to pretend to do.
You reach your cubicle, drape your jacket over your chair, log on to your machine. Check your email and internal memos. Surf the Web. You think: what the hell am I doing here? If you’re ME, you are writing copy or business reports or executive speeches or some such poppycock, which will take you an hour and a half, maybe two hours, then you have the hassle of looking busy — read left/progressive websites; detonate your special panic-button-instant-screen-saver if a “boss” or snitch strolls by — until five or six or whenever it won’t be too conspicuous to make your get-away. Unless some asshole calls a late meeting – not necessarily a bad thing if it lets everyone look busy – you’ll spend the day reading online essays and articles that will make you even more pissed off about your …uh…situation, than you already were.
On the other hand, if you’re neither me nor you, but my wife’s friend, Grace, you’ll gaze at the photo of your little girl pasted to the wall of your cell – oops again! – I mean, cubicle, and realize how LUCKY you are to have put yourself through school waiting tables and taking care of your baby and paying for day-care, the apartment, food, clothes, healthcare, and climbed to the esteemed position of white collar drudge, so you better quit yer belly-aching and thank God Almighty you attained the American dream of a better future for your kid (and fuck that global warming crap, they’ll fix it). You made it, you dreamed it and it became so, like the college advertisements said you would. So what’s the problem (besides your monstrous debt to Student Loans Inc.)?
But enough about ungrateful Grace. Let’s talk about me and you, or rather, me as you.
The coffee and bran muffin have done their work, so you take your copy of Bill Blum’s Killing Hope and head for the can. Scrubbed sparkling fresh so early in the AM. Toilet virgin clean. You open to some heinous atrocity – the book is full of ’em – and simultaneously unknot your sphincter and your tie.
Suddenly, KABOOM. Lights out. People screaming. Sirens sirening. You can’t move. You’re buried in debris, your legs are crushed to powder. You can’t feel them anyway because a big chunk of something snapped your spinal chord like a carrot. You know it’s probably THE END, whatever the hell happened, but if, for argument’s sake, you’re ME, you know damn well what happened – didn’t it ALMOST happen in ’93? – and it has more than a little to do with Killing Hope. “Stupid,” you think to yourself and of yourself. “Why didn’t I take that gig writing Unix text manuals?”
But maybe, if you’re Grace, you didn’t really have a choice.
You think you might want to call your wife on your cell-phone, but you left it in your coat pocket in your cubicle. You’re not in your safe little cubicle now, but your tile-and-porcelain tomb. Anyway, that’s not your style, making a call like that. Too painful. Too futile. Why make this nightmare even worse than it is?
But if you’re Grace, you probably want to leave a “good-bye” message for your little girl. You probably – no. I don’t know about YOU, but I can’t go on imagining kindly, stressed out, Grace, living loving mom, not yet 40, dying alone and broken in the pitch-black wreckage of an office toilet. In a building that’s about to collapse into a heap of ash. Better it were ME. Or YOU.
Say Goodnight Grace
I’m pretty sure only heroes are supposed to speak these days, but they’ve been strangely silent. Possibly cause they’re dead, and nobody wants to hear from their desperate bereaved (like, uh…Grace’s daughter). They might ask for something. Compensation. Understanding. Peace of Mind.
But, me being an almost-hero and all, I’d like to address the only heroes who seem to have survived this mess with their faculties – such as they are – intact:
I have nothing but contempt for you, Rudy, and whatever hack you hired to ghost your self-aggrandizing auto-mythography. Unlike Grace, I’m sure you’re no hero to the kids YOU left behind.
And George, Governor Death, President selected by a narrow margin of 5 to 4, man-child who’s always been given everything always and always managed to wreck it all, your nihilistic, narcissistic, narrow mind is rivaled on this sad planet only by your fellow spoiled brat brother of Thanatos, Bin Laden. You remember Ossama, don’t you? I know he’s not all that important now, what with the Iraqi menace breathing down your red neck. But really, George, treating Ossama like he’s nothing but a fanatical, mass-murderer and not the scourge of Western Civilization the poor lad wants so desperately to be just won’t do. After all, the Bin Ladens of Saudi Arabia are old family friends. And business associates. Just ask Poppy.
ADAM ENGEL lives and writes in NYC. He can be reached at email@example.com