Thursday, January 04, 2007

There are some things for which tabloid papers are perfect. One is populism (though under the watchful eye of Mr. Murdoch tabloid populism in New York City has tended toward the right-wing, anti-union variety). Another is tales of everyday heroism.

The story of Wesley Autrey combines both qualities perfectly. On January 3rd, Mr. Autrey, described by the NY Times as "a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran" taking his two daughters home after work, saved the life of a 20-year-old student, Cameron Hollowpeter, who had fallen onto the subway tracks on the 1 line. He did this by jumping down and pushing the young man into a narrow space between the tracks and lying there with him as the train passed inches over both their heads.

This is obviously first and foremost a tale of basic, startling decency. Of a solidarity that is human and--with its split moment decision-making--far above politics, race and culture.

But it is also the kind of story that pops up now and then, most notably on 9/11, wherein working people are held up as the heart and soul of America. Firefighters, cops and construction workers. Or, less glamorously, the farmers courted in Iowa every four years. People who we say show us what it's all about.

For too much of the media, this is where it stops. Good people. Then forgotten.

The TV stations will go back to a steady stream of sitcoms about ridiculously upper-middle class citizens, facing--we are told--problems common to us all. In cars and homes beyond most of our reach. And spaced between ads for investments and technologies most of us won't ever handle.

Taking up working people's specific needs--in wages, time with family, healthcare, housing, workplace democracy--is either only a vague slogan (a la the Democrats routine half-baked plans for almost-"universal" healthcare) or, when broached by the wrong people (like the immigrant MTA employees during last year's subway strike), portrayed as downright "disruptive."

Working people aren't any more virtuous than the bourgeoisie. People are people, filled with the same faults and same valor. And, again, an act like Mr. Autrey's is a human act above all else.

But stories like his (and the response they receive) reveal a need to connect, to give thanks that goes beyond a specific moment of heroism. There is a sense of debt bigger than that of one student nearly hit by a train. And, in the sense of the community such moments offer, the possibility of a real community somewhere off in the future.

[Photo courtesy of NY Times]

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