MARTHA THOMASES: We Shall Not Be Moved
Unlike almost everyone else in Manhattan, my family doesn’t usually go away for Labor Day Weekend. Ten years ago, we went to Cape May for the week, but it was so much effort to drive home through the Lincoln Tunnel that any benefit derived from relaxing on the beach, playing ski-ball or bird-watching was burned up thoroughly on the drive back.
Now, we find it more relaxing to sit on our terrace and listen to the tide of traffic on Varick Street, backed up from the tunnel as people rush to their respite.
New York City, on these holiday weekends, is like the Bottle City of Kandor. The city seems built up tall and sparse, with an overcast of humidity and exhaust. Most of the people on the streets are tourists, who walk in the careful cadence of out-of-towners that infuriates those of us who live here all the time and have to get down the street right now because we’re very important people with very important business to take care of so stop gawking and get out of my way!
Ahem. Excuse me. Kandor probably doesn’t have this particular problem with tourists.
New York City in the summer is, as David Letterman once said, the city that makes its own gravy. It’s hot, and it’s humid, and the streets are lined by skyscrapers whose air-conditioning blasts hot air onto the sidewalks. The garbage on the sidewalk cooks in the heat. Different neighborhoods seem to have their own weather conditions: a wind always blowing through the canyon that is the Avenue of the Americas; Broadway in the Twenties is a Delhi street, with bargains and music blasting from the stores.
Central Park is an oasis within the oasis, making New York feel like a chocolate covered cherry of a city, with sticky green replacing the cherry. I imagine that Kandor feels like that, too, with the air recyled in the bottle for decades.
We have no Wal-Marts here. That’s another thing that makes New York feel like it’s separate from the rest of the country. The retail Goliath tried to open stores in the outer boroughs, but New York is a union town, and we weren’t having any of it. We know that “everyday low prices” aren’t free, but come at the cost of low wages, child labor and no health insurance. We’d rather pay a little more and have neighbors who can afford their rent. Also, have you ever been to Loehman’s, or Century 21? That’s a New Yorker’s idea of a bargain.
Unions are important to New York. We depend on them, and the people who belong to them. Teachers, fire fighters, police, sanitation – the city would stop without them. You would think that Labor Day in New York would be a glorious city holiday, with politicians courting endorsements, and dancing in the street.
It’s not like that. Labor Day means the end of summer, and the start of the fall season. The newspapers on Sunday are really thin, and the stories, written far in advance, are dull previews of upcoming movies, television, and theater, not real news.
Union members are like most other New Yorkers. They’re taking a break, at the shore or in the mountains, or in their backyards, tending to the grill. They know that on Tuesday they’ll be back on the job, and, for the most part, they’d rather spend their free time with their families than with politicians.
There was a Tuesday in September six years ago, a beautiful day with none of summer’s humidity. The fall season had started, and most of the tourists were gone. The kids were back in school, and the streets bustled with business. When the World Trade Center was attacked, it was these uniform services – the fire fighters, the police, the emergency medical technicians – who ran in to save their fellow citizens. It was these heroes who died by the hundreds, more than ten percent of the total lost that day.
For nearly a year, they were celebrated, as they deserved to be. A fireman who runs into a burning building to rescue a stranger is the very definition of a hero. In the months that followed, other union members, even those not employed by the city, were on the ground, digging out the rubble and inhaling poison smoke. They were heroes, too. I remember seeing a group of people on the West Side Highway, every day, waving flags and signs and cheering every truck that went downtown.
It was a bittersweet time in our bottle city. We mourned, and we bled, and we helped each other with our recovery. For a week or so, some of us even slowed down.
And then, the politicians decided we needed a war, and the fire fighters and police heroes New Yorkers (and others) admired were replaced with soldiers. Soldiers sacrifice at least as much as fire fighters, but they also kill people. It’s part of the job. Fire fighters don’t.
In Kandor, I imagine, they’re more like New Yorkers. They revere their civil servants. I bet Labor Day there is fun.
Martha Thomases, ComicMix Media Goddess, is a member of the National Writers Union.