Salt of the earth

New York's finest got the party they deserved on Saturday night -- and if you don't think so, you know what you can kiss.

Published October 23, 2001 7:39PM (EDT)

I loved Saturday night's VH1 Concert for New York, in all its loopy, poignant, working-class excess. And anyone who didn't -- including Salon's Jim DeRogatis -- can kiss my royal Irish ass.

Did I wince at some of the macho bluster from the grieving, beer-drinking cops and firemen and paramedics in the crowd? You bet I did, and then I remembered to check my luxurious left-coast snobbery. The politics, the posturing, even the music were beside the point. I've been to enough Irish wakes to understand the tears and laughter, and the crazy ranting that keeps the worst feelings at bay. Paul McCartney and Harvey Weinstein and the other show business mensches threw a party to help the grieving get on with their lives, to remember the dead and celebrate them too, to say it's OK to live. And they did a great job.

The events of Sept. 11 have been hard for the simple-minded on the right and the left, who want their heroes perfect, their villains all-evil, their causes easy to understand. Who do we think died trying to save the World Trade Center victims that morning, Richard Gere and Ralph Nader? Snotty rock critics? No, they were working-class guys, a vast number of them Irish and Italian, from Queens and Brooklyn and Long Island. Some of them drink too much and vote Republican and lots of them apparently hate Sen. Hillary Clinton, who got roundly booed when she came onstage to feel their pain. But they're heroes nonetheless. They deserve our unqualified gratitude. They deserved a big, sentimental, over-the-top party without any preaching, and they mostly got it.

They're also my family. I grew up in New York, the niece of three NYPD officers and a city fireman. As I got older I couldn't get through a holiday without arguing with them about Vietnam, Watergate, Ronald Reagan and always race, crime and American cities. I moved as far away from them as I could as soon as I could, but in adulthood, as they softened a little and I softened a lot, I've found myself moving back, learning to respect their values, their work ethic, their tribal loyalty and their love -- for their families, their neighborhoods, their brothers (and sisters) at police stations and firehouses, and their country.

One of my favorite cousins, a Grateful Deadhead and an amazing artist, followed his father into the NYPD. I still don't like all of his attitudes about race and politics. But at his daughter's christening I was surprised to see black officers -- especially since I still go to so many groovy liberal gatherings that are entirely white. But I shouldn't have been; he's colorblind when it comes to his brothers. After every fight -- and we still fight -- my cousin tells me, "I'd do anything for you," and he means it. And if you were in trouble, he'd do anything for you. Guys like him proved it Sept. 11.

The New Left screwed up American politics because it was disproportionately run by elitist college kids who sneered at the working class, at the guys who weren't fortunate enough to hide from the war in universities (or, like the privileged sons of the right, in the National Guard) -- the ones whose families sent them to the police academy, not Harvard. Celebrating the Sept. 11 heroes doesn't mean we forget about police abuses like the killing of Amadou Diallo, or relax efforts to diversify departments that are still too much of an Irish and Italian enclave. But lefty cultural elitists are wrong when they reduce police and fire departments to those flaws, when they forget about the heroism it takes to do those jobs every day, not just Sept. 11.

So I loved Saturday's concert for helping us to remember exactly who died saving lives at the World Trade Center. We needed to see their widows and children weeping onstage. I'll never forget the Stackpole family, the mom and daughter wiping away tears and the little boys too young to entirely understand but trying to be brave like their dad; or the amazing Yankees manager Joe Torre hugging another little boy who will never again feel his dad's big arms.

The musical high points of the evening were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' "Salt of the Earth," which hit just the right note, and of course the reunited Who tearing the place apart, with those middle-aged, uniformed men on the arena floor dancing to the music of boy rebellion they grew up with, when maybe they had bigger dreams than just following their dads into the force. Now, of course, they've become the heroes they always dreamed of being. And then there was my crazy homeboy, the beefy fireman who saluted his fallen brothers and then said, on behalf of all Irish Americans, "Osama bin Laden can kiss my royal Irish ass," and called the Saudi rich-boy terrorist a "bitch." I winced, I laughed and then I cried. Only a cynic could simply sneer.

By Joan Walsh

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