Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My rant for the week

Something I just read on another blog has got me thinking. And grinding my teeth a little, to be perfectly honest. When it comes to fame or notoriety, what crosses the line? Is it acceptable to approach someone you see on the street who happens to be famous, even if they're clearly busy doing something not remotely related to you? What about showing up unannounced and uninvited at that person's home? Now, let's change it up a little: We're not talking about a celebrity, but rather a famous landmark, a historical event that occurred there, and the neighborhood of very ordinary people who surround it. Do most of us ever think of how our behavior around such landmarks affects the individuals of that community?

I'm not at all famous myself, but the neighborhood where I work, go to church and live much of my life certainly is. There's Wall Street--and it is an actual street, by the way, one that contains both office buildings and residences--there's Battery Park, where people can get gorgeous views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; and of course there's the World Trade Center site, where you can't see much of anything. Though that doesn't stop people from coming to gawk.

Let me make it clear that not all visitors to the WTC behave inappropriately. I've taken out-of-town guests there myself, and I've seen people become very visibly moved upon first viewing a site that I've out of necessity become accustomed to. (I wouldn't say that I'm used to it.) I'm glad that even after six and a half years, so many people want to learn more about an event that so thoroughly altered my and many others' lives. I'm grateful that people still care. At the same time, I can't get over the crassness and thoughtlessness that some visitors display around the site.

I'm conflicted about just how much carelessness crosses the line. I recognize that my emotions are very much involved, and I don't think it's entirely fair to try to impose my feelings on individuals for whom Lower Manhattan is just one stop on a whirlwind tour of the city. Is it too much to ask, however, that people not appropriate the site for political protests that have little or nothing to do with 9/11? That wacko conspiracy theorists not harass me as I make my way from the subway to the post office? That tourists not purchase graphic photographs from street vendors, then blithely carry said photographs around for all to see, including those of us who really don't need or want to see those images?

Right next to the WTC, on the same block I worked on three years ago, there is a firehouse. It is a real, functional firehouse; the brother of a friend of mine was stationed there and was one of the 343 firefighters murdered in the attacks. The crowds around this house are easily as large, and as obnoxious, as crowds I've seen around celebrities. The guys there generally try to remain friendly with tourists, but being treated like public figures gets to them, especially because it only reinforces the daily reality of their surroundings. For most people, 9/11 meant a shocking TV event; but for these firefighters, it meant countless funerals for friends and colleagues.

It gets to me the way so many tourists seem to think of the area around the WTC site--and New York in general, for that matter--as a museum, or even an amusement park, set up specifically for their benefit, rather than as a real home and place of work for hundreds of thousands of very ordinary people. Large tour groups often crowd an entire block, and what's worse, get angry with people like me as we try to walk through them to get to work. What possesses someone to behave this way? Would they find it acceptable if I were to behave the same way in their neighborhoods, on their front yards?

I remember being horrified, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, at the site of reporters and camera crews barging into abandoned and decimated homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. Those houses may not have been inhabitable at that time, but they were still private property and should have been treated as such. The fact that their owners had obviously suffered tremendous loss in the storm should have engendered compassion, not exploitation. Hadn't they already suffered enough, without having to endure the indignity of having their flood-wracked kitchens and bedrooms and basements broadcast on national news?

What much of this comes down to isn't so different from the reasons why some people find it acceptable to annoy, pester and sometimes thoroughly creep out famous actors, singers, athletes and politicians. It's a struggle for me to put into words what I sense is going on here: That something about seeing a person, place or event on TV, in a movie, in a magazine article, etc., leads to an inherently warped view of the subject. To most people, both 9/11 and the community in which the worst of the devastation occurred are current event subjects. They're not really "real," at least not in the same way that they are when you spend a lot of time in the immediate vicinity. And while most people understand intellectually that the attacks were and are much more than a media event to some people, the full implications of that aren't processed, and people behave in ways they never would when confronted with a much more private tragedy. It's not all that different from society's habit of objectifying public figures. We're treating normal people who happen to have high-profile jobs in ways we would find unacceptable were such behavior to be directed back at us.

It's a struggle for me to find the right way to express this, but when I observe the way people crowd around someone who happens to be well-known, the behavior and the underlying attitudes behind it often seems familiar, not at all unlike the behavior of some tourists who visit the WTC site. There's an undercurrent of both novelty and thoughtlessness that at best can only be described as distasteful. And yeah, it bugs me.

OK, rant over :)

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