A few weeks ago I wrote a column called “God Is Back,” about how, within a day of the events of Sept. 11, my city was awash in religious imagery—prayer cards, statues of saints. It all culminated, in a way, in the discovery of the steel-girder cross that emerged last week from the wreckage—unbent, unbroken, unmelted, perfectly proportioned and duly blessed by a Catholic friar on the request of the rescue workers, who seemed to see meaning in the cross’s existence. So do I.
My son, a teenager, finds this hilarious, as does one of my best friends. They have teased me, to my delight, but I have told them, “Boys, this whole story is about good and evil, about the clash of good and evil.” If you are of a certain cast of mind, it is of course meaningful that the face of the Evil One seemed to emerge with a roar from the furnace that was Tower One. You have seen the Associated Press photo, and the photos that followed: the evil face roared out of the building with an ugly howl—and then in a snap of the fingers it lost form and force and disappeared. If you are of a certain cast of mind it is of course meaningful that the cross, which to those of its faith is imperishable, did not disappear. It was not crushed by the millions of tons of concrete that crashed down upon it, did not melt in the furnace. It rose from the rubble, still there, intact.
For the ignorant, the superstitious and me (and maybe you), the face of the Evil One was revealed, and died; for the ignorant, the superstitious and me (and maybe you), the cross survived. This is how God speaks to us. He is saying, “I am.” He is saying, “I am here.” He is saying, “And the force of all the evil of all the world will not bury me.”
I believe this quite literally. But then I am experiencing Sept. 11 not as a political event but as a spiritual event.
And, of course, a cultural one, which gets me to my topic.
It is not only that God is back, but that men are back. A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since Sept. 11. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth to get our great country out of the fix it was in.
I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who do construction, men who are cops and firemen. They are all of them, one way or another, the men who put the fire out, the men who are digging the rubble out, and the men who will build whatever takes its place.
And their style is back in style. We are experiencing a new respect for their old-fashioned masculinity, a new respect for physical courage, for strength and for the willingness to use both for the good of others.
You didn’t have to be a fireman to be one of the manly men of Sept. 11. Those businessmen on flight 93, which was supposed to hit Washington, the businessmen who didn’t live by their hands or their backs but who found out what was happening to their country, said goodbye to the people they loved, snapped the cell phone shut and said, “Let’s roll.” Those were tough men, the ones who forced that plane down in Pennsylvania. They were tough, brave guys.
* * *
Let me tell you when I first realized what I’m saying. On Friday, Sept. 14, I went with friends down to the staging area on the West Side Highway where all the trucks filled with guys coming off a 12-hour shift at ground zero would pass by. They were tough, rough men, the grunts of the city—construction workers and electrical workers and cops and emergency medical worker and firemen.
I joined a group that was just standing there as the truck convoys went by. And all we did was cheer. We all wanted to do some kind of volunteer work but there was nothing left to do, so we stood and cheered those who were doing. The trucks would go by and we’d cheer and wave and shout “God bless you!” and “We love you!” We waved flags and signs, clapped and threw kisses, and we meant it: We loved these men. And as the workers would go by—they would wave to us from their trucks and buses, and smile and nod—I realized that a lot of them were men who hadn’t been applauded since the day they danced to their song with their bride at the wedding.
And suddenly I looked around me at all of us who were cheering. And saw who we were. Investment bankers! Orthodontists! Magazine editors! In my group, a lawyer, a columnist and a writer. We had been the kings and queens of the city, respected professional in a city that respects its professional class. And this night we were nobody. We were so useless, all we could do was applaud the somebodies, the workers who, unlike us, had not been applauded much in their lives.
And now they were saving our city.
I turned to my friend and said, “I have seen the grunts of New York become kings and queens of the City.” I was so moved and, oddly I guess, grateful. Because they’d always been the people who ran the place, who kept it going, they’d just never been given their due. But now—“And the last shall be first”—we were making up for it.
* * *
It may seem that I am really talking about class—the professional classes have a new appreciation for the working class men of Lodi, N.J., or Astoria, Queens. But what I’m attempting to talk about is actual manliness, which often seems tied up with class issues, as they say, but isn’t always by any means the same thing.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: Once about 10 years ago there was a story—you might have read it in your local tabloid, or a supermarket tabloid like the National Enquirer—about an American man and woman who were on their honeymoon in Australia or New Zealand. They were swimming in the ocean, the water chest-high. From nowhere came a shark. The shark went straight for the woman, opened its jaws. Do you know what the man did? He punched the shark in the head. He punched it and punched it again. He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark, he did not share his sensitive feelings about the shark, he did not make wry observations about the shark, he punched the shark in the head. So the shark let go of his wife and went straight for him. And it killed him. The wife survived to tell the story of what her husband had done. He had tried to deck the shark. I told my friends: That’s what a wonderful man is, a man who will try to deck the shark.
I don’t know what the guy did for a living, but he had a very old-fashioned sense of what it is to be a man, and I think that sense is coming back into style because of who saved us on Sept. 11, and that is very good for our country.
Why? Well, manliness wins wars. Strength and guts plus brains and spirit wins wars. But also, you know what follows manliness? The gentleman. The return of manliness will bring a return of gentlemanliness, for a simple reason: masculine men are almost by definition gentlemen. Example: If you’re a woman and you go to a faculty meeting at an Ivy League University you’ll have to fight with a male intellectual for a chair, but I assure you that if you go to a Knights of Columbus Hall, the men inside (cops, firemen, insurance agents) will rise to offer you a seat. Because they are manly men, and gentlemen.
It is hard to be a man. I am certain of it; to be a man in this world is not easy. I know you are thinking, But it’s not easy to be a woman, and you are so right. But women get to complain and make others feel bad about their plight. Men have to suck it up. Good men suck it up and remain good-natured, constructive and helpful; less-good men become the kind of men who are spoofed on “The Man Show”—babe-watching, dope-smoking nihilists. (Nihilism is not manly, it is the last refuge of sissies.)
* * *
I should discuss how manliness and its brother, gentlemanliness, went out of style. I know, because I was there. In fact, I may have done it. I remember exactly when: It was in the mid-’70s, and I was in my mid-20s, and a big, nice, middle-aged man got up from his seat to help me haul a big piece of luggage into the overhead luggage space on a plane. I was a feminist, and knew our rules and rants. “I can do it myself,” I snapped.
It was important that he know women are strong. It was even more important, it turns out, that I know I was a jackass, but I didn’t. I embarrassed a nice man who was attempting to help a lady. I wasn’t lady enough to let him. I bet he never offered to help a lady again. I bet he became an intellectual, or a writer, and not a good man like a fireman or a businessman who says, “Let’s roll.”
But perhaps it wasn’t just me. I was there in America, as a child, when John Wayne was a hero, and a symbol of American manliness. He was strong, and silent. And I was there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts. A lot of people killed him—not only feminists but peaceniks, leftists, intellectuals, others. You could even say it was Woody Allen who did it, through laughter and an endearing admission of his own nervousness and fear. He made nervousness and fearfulness the admired style. He made not being able to deck the shark, but doing the funniest commentary on not decking the shark, seem . . . cool.
But when we killed John Wayne, you know who we were left with. We were left with John Wayne’s friendly-antagonist sidekick in the old John Ford movies, Barry Fitzgerald. The small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator Barry Fitzgerald, who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing.
This was not progress. It was not improvement.
I missed John Wayne.
But now I think . . . he’s back. I think he returned on Sept. 11. I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down and shoveled rubble. I think he’s in Afghanistan now, saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, “Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy.”
I think he’s back in style. And none too soon.
Welcome back, Duke.
And once again: Thank you, men of Sept. 11.