Saturday, January 03, 2009

Priorities and People

Yesterday evening, I realized the mayor was coming.

It wasn’t hard: Department of Sanitation workers were cleaning the sidewalks in front of my house, my neighbors’, and across the street. Normally, that’s left for us homeowners to do. That, coupled with signs stapled to trees and posts stating “No Parking Saturday –Police Department,” made it clear that something unusual was happening.

This morning, the engines were out of the firehouse across the street, replaced by rows of blue chairs, and large tents were going up out front. I can’t see what’s beneath them, but I assume it’s more chairs. There are other fire trucks parked around, tow trucks blocking access to streets along with police cars, emergency vehicles on the sidewalks, and sanitation trucks disgorging workers to clean up any garbage that has blown onto the street since yesterday. People in uniforms mill everywhere.

All in all, it’s quite a production.

When I went out to makes sure I would be able to get in and out of my garage, the authorities were very nice. “Sure,” they said. “The mayor’s car will probably be in your driveway later, but the driver will be with it.” Everyone was pleasant.

Now, I’ve nothing against a good ceremony (I don’t know what this one is for—probably recognition of the contribution of one of the Lieutenants, a man who died fighting a fire about a year ago) and I know our firefighters deserve every bit of recognition they get—and more. That’s not what’s got me scratching my head.

Right now, we’re in the midst of an economic crisis so grave that services with an impact on the well-being of residents of this city are in jeopardy. And it is our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is having to make the decisions on what gets cut and what doesn’t. Yet (for all of his claims of taking the subway, of being out among the people) he is living in a bubble. Not because he is extraordinarily wealthy (though he is) but because he can’t go anywhere without a sanitizing force preceding him. Mark Twain parodied the cocoon of the elite in The Prince and the Pauper well over a century ago—and was not close to being either first or last. The situation, though, hasn’t changed: our leaders haven’t the experience of the street that Tom Canty has, allowing him to sensibly deal with situations arising as he stands in for Prince Edward—or the experience that the prince gains through time in Tom’s shoes.

9/11 became an excuse for further isolating our leaders—though they (individually) were not the targets that day. Probably less than at any time in our history, our leaders know little of the experience of the average American. Even Barack Obama now lives in isolation (though he, at least, is only recently surrounded by the protection for the elite). Yet they are being asked to make decisions whose impact on Americans will be life-changing. Decisions whose impact they can’t even imagine.

The bubble constructed outside my window this morning, though, isn’t my only concern about what’s going on right now. I’m also wondering about the expense, and the sense of priority shown. Today’s event, whatever it is, is costing New York City tens of thousands of dollars, I am sure. Many of the people who will be here are coming simply because the mayor is, to bask in reflected glory. The appreciation isn’t really for the firefighters, but for themselves, for being seen. And the city is paying for this.

There’s no reason for all of this preparation, all of this hoopla, for a ceremony attended by the mayor. Certainly not in a time of budget crisis. The first things that should be cut are those that have no impact on the people, but are only perks for the elite. This has not happened and will not happen—not while our leaders accept the sweeping of the sidewalk in front of them as their due.