Courage and Cleaning

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I'd been planning to write about how things have changed in the new world order post September 11. But instead, I'm reading books on Islam, consulting obscure publications like Jane's Defense Weekly. I've become familiar with Humvees now that they are all over downtown; there's one on every corner, and I've seen an M- 16 up close, now that armed guards at the reservoir a few blocks away carry them. I call members of Congress to see what they know. And I clean.

Actually, I clean more than I call. I took the small attachment to the vacuum, the one not worth the aggravation to use ordinarily, and sucked up every cobweb in my house. Even that nether region under the radiators would pass the white glove test. This wouldn't be worth mentioning, except there's a lot of this going around. Sen. Richard Shelby lives on my street and we marveled Tuesday morning about how the street was spilling over with black trash bags. A lot of closets being cleaned out. I told the Senator about my own and how I'd blitzed the kitchen cabinets, tossing stale spices and ancient condiments, and then trimmed the ivy around the windows, which I then washed. "There's a lot of nervous energy around. Gives you a sense of control, doesn't it?" he said climbing in to his newly shined car.

Sort of. Seeking order in the midst of chaos is one source of the nervous energy. But what's disturbing a lot of people is a deeper question that rises not from the evil we've seen but from the goodness: thrown into the same circumstances, would we behave as well as those who performed feats of courage and kindness? Would I risk my own life to help a colleague? A stranger? Would I, like the maintenance worker in the basement of the WTC, leave the relative safety of my office for the 44th floor to help people down?

Here is the other thing about the heroism we saw and read about: these were for the most part the back office people of the financial world and the Port Authority and government services. The Masters of the Universe work uptown. The moguls who do work in the WTC for the most part don't catch the early train to get in by 9. How people behaved was in many cases inversely proportional to their position in the corporate hierarchy. WTC security guard Esmerlin Salcedo was in no peril on the day of the attack since he was attending a computer class at a safe distance away. But when he heard the first strike, he raced from his class to his desk at the command center on the B-1 level. He walked fellow worker Roselyn Braud to an open exit and told her to run for her life. The last time he was seen he was helping another guard to safety. The 36 year old father of four earned $10.51 an hour. He has an $80,000 life insurance policy but, according to the New York Times, his survivors may not be eligible for survivor's benefits because he wasn't officially "on duty."

One of the most depressing stories I heard is of the Famous Gazillionaire Businessman who found himself and his private jet marooned in Europe when all U.S. airports were shut down. He got in touch with Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who personally refused his entreaties. Then the FGB took his request all the way to the President of the United States to get an exemption for his plane on the simple grounds that as a Famous Gazillionaire Businessman he was critical to the functioning of America. To his eternal credit, when Mineta got the second request from the White House, he refused again. Let's name an airport after him!

There's an air of surprise at how so many working stiffs rose to the occasion. But there shouldn't be. The FGB would have helped perhaps, by sending his chauffeur back in to help. The surprise comes in part because those celebrated, elevated, lionized, and lavishly compensated in our society are people like Jack Welch and Bill Gates, Roger Clemens and Tom Cruise, not firefighters and teachers and nurses and paramedics. Had you seen a fireman interviewed on prime time TV before this week, before 300 of his fellow firefighters died saving others and his boots melted on his feet after digging 24 hours at a stretch in ruins that could still crush him? I don't remember any. Instead, we are served a steady diet of glamorized businessmen. Welch is hailed as an icon of our time for driving up the stock price of General Electric.

I thought of this as I watched the airline executives come to Congress to ask for a massive infusion of cash, which they got Thursday ($5 billion in emergency cash and $10 billion in loan guarantees). They should get help for the unforeseen harm that's hit them. But this is a corporate CEO bailout as well. The airlines were in deep trouble before Sept. 11. US Airways was so rickety that its chairman had recently sought to save himself with a merger with United Airlines. This week, he announced that 11,000 employees would lose their jobs, without any of the cushions usually associated with undeserved job loss. But the chairman has all kinds of protections. If he were to leave by November 12, he would split with two other executives a $45 million severance package they negotiated for themselves. Although pressed at a shareholders meeting on Wednesday, the chairman wouldn't agree to a pay cut himself. It seems like the good old days now when in exchange for a government bailout of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca reduced his salary to $1.

The Pew Research Center released a report today in which nearly three- quarters of Americans say they have felt depressed over last week's terrorist attacks, nearly half have had difficulty concentrating and one-third are having trouble sleeping. Almost 70% of those say they are praying. I'm doing some of that, and lots of scrubbing. I discovered yesterday that many others are seeking solace in sugar. At the Safeway last night, there wasn't one pint, not one, of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, not even a default flavor, like vanilla. The manager said he'd never seen such a run on ice cream.