Friday, September 19, 2014

This Perversion Called “Celebrity Culture”

Robin Williams

August 14th, 2014

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, most headlines and news stories have started with “Robin’s inner pain,” and “Robin’s battle with depression.”

Who’s this “Robin”?

I’m vaguely familiar with T.S. Garp (The World According to Garp) and John Keating (The Dead Poets Society), a couple of memorable characters that Mr. Williams played and a little familiar with the standup comedy of Robin Williams, but ALL of these were personas, or masks that he wore for public consumption.

I never knew this “Robin.”

Was his suicide tragic?

I can’t say. I never knew Mr. Williams.

Ernest Hemingway killed himself in 1962, reportedly to avoid a painful and protracted demise via advanced cancer. If that’s true, was Hemingway’s suicide “tragic”?

From my own perspective, if those reports are true I’d say no.

To me, it seems he made a rational, reasonable decision, accepting that the person he’d been his entire life was already gone. BUT again, I didn’t truly KNOW either of these guys. I read the books of one and am familiar with some of the characters portrayed by the other...nothing more.

I did know John Garcia. He worked in a neighboring firehouse in the South Bronx for many years.

John was a Lieutenant working in Engine 24 in lower Manhattan, when he led firefighters Robert “Bobby” Beddia and Joe Graffagnino in the Deutsche Bank fire in August of 2007.

The Deutsche Bank Building had been heavily damaged in the September 11th attacks in 2001 after being blasted by an avalanche of debris, ash, dust, and asbestos that spread from the collapse of the South Tower. In fact, the collapse of 2 World Trade Center during the September 11th attacks tore a 24-story gash into the facade of the Deutsche Bank Building. Steel and concrete were sticking out of the building for months afterward. This was eventually cleaned up, but due to extensive contamination it was decided that the 39 story ruin was to be taken down. After the 9/11 attacks, netting was placed around the remains of the building. The bank maintained that the building could not be restored to habitable condition, while its insurers sought to treat the incident as recoverable damage rather than a total loss. Work on the building was deferred for over two years during which the condition of the building deteriorated.

The three became separated in the pitch black just after the FDNY finally got water into the building despite a severed standpipe system inside that building. Engine 24 was on the 14th floor in blinding smoke and intense heat, but with no visible fire at which to direct the nozzle. In keeping with standard practice, the lieutenant working with Engine 24 ventured away from the line to search for the fire and direct where the water should go.

From that point their situation grew much worse. In the maze-like conditions, the members of Engine 24 were unable to reconnect. Lt. John Garcia, fell through the plastic sheeting that had replaced the building’s windows and, like dozens of other firefighters that day, onto the scaffolding some 6’ to 8’ below. Had it not been for that scaffolding, August 18th would’ve certainly been the 2nd deadliest day for the FDNY after September 11th.

Firefighters Beddia and Graffagnino both died inside that building after running out of air.

There’s always “survivor’s guilt” that accompanies any fatal fire and for an Officer that is typically much worse. Garcia, retired in 2009 after being diagnosed with PTSD and often blamed himself for the deaths of Robert Beddia and Joe Graffagnino.

At trial the wealthy bankers seeking to defend a dishonorable bank from the indefensible (the Deutsche Bank Building was supposed to have been already torn down, but for wrangling with insurers over fiscal matters) and craven city officials and cowardly FDNY “Higher Ups” sought to deflect scrutiny away from their own incompetence and poor decisions by throwing a lowly “line officer” under the bus. After continually being badgered and harangued by both Deutsche bank and City attorneys over the two deaths, John Garcia was finally driven to suicide on May 13th, 2011. In that way a good and honorable and innocent man was driven to suicide by those looking to desperately deflect the rightful blame that belonged to themselves.

I knew John Garcia, from our days in the Bronx. I lament his death and remain diminished by it.

I DO NOT feel the same way, nor even close about the death of Mr. Robin Williams. His death may be regrettable, or it may have been a reasonable, rational decision like Mr. Ernest Hemingway’s...I can’t know which from this distance and it’s not for me to know.

I do know that suicide tends to afflict the most advanced countries, especially among the most affluent and well-educated...the people with the most leisure time and the greatest propensity for existential naval gazing.

I’m certain early hunting and gathering man didn’t do much naval gazing...too busy expending all their energies trying to survive. The same seems true today for people who live in crisis, either in war torn regions were the next time you turn a corner might be your last act on earth, or those in grinding, oppressive poverty that makes mere survival a full time endeavor.

That’s not to say that our Western obsession with naval gazing (“Why am I here,” “What’s the meaning of life,” and “Why do I feel so empty”) isn’t rooted in reality. It IS! It’s very much rooted in our modern reality, such as it is.

Nearly everyone who’s worked in any emergency service in “busy” (high crime, high fire) areas, has had their close calls. I can think of a few off hand – getting caught in a collapse on 169th Street and Walton Avenue in May of 1990, getting lost in a fire at the Fordham Hill Oval in 1988 and having my car totaled after it was hit by a tractor-trailer in 1990.

In every one of those instances, there was a moment when the ONLY thought that completely dominated my mind was, “I’m gonna die right here...right now.”

There was a peace that came over me in every incident. Not that I was going to “go easy,” that’s not my way...never has been, but there was an overwhelming peace that washed over life flashing before my eyes, none of that, but a calm peace...definitely.

I laughed after every one of those incidents. I laughed hard over “dodging a bullet,” or “getting away with it”...or “cheating death,” at least for now. I slept easy too and have slept easy in all the nights since.

I never shared any of those experiences with john Garcia, never spoke about such things either. I’m sure he’d had his own close calls, his own near calamities. So there’s never a need to talk about such things.

I also know that different people can interpret and react to similar, even the same event in vastly different ways. Some, like me, walk away with a deep and abiding gratitude and the ability to savor the sweetness of the next breath even more, while some seem shocked to regard the arbitrary randomness of life.

There’s no “wrong” answer…no right or wrong way to process such things. Myself, I’d already long ago considered the arbitrary randomness that is such a large part of life, but that, to me, is best exemplified by the car killed by a falling tree on a highway on his way home from work, or the 6 y/o killed by a tree falling through his roof at 3 am. As emergency workers we put ourselves into such scenarios, at least we’ve taken a job that makes us prone to being involved in such things much more likely and so my own survival has brought me only a sense of profound gratitude.

Which brings me back to why I am so uncomfortable with all this familiarity with people we don’t know. I don’t know this “Robin,” only T.S. Garp and John Keating. His death seems like it SHOULD BE a private, personal matter.

If he chose an early exit the way Hemingway allegedly did, more power to him.

If he succumbed to a clinical depression, WHY is that any of our business? It certainly WAS the business of those close to him...but me? I didn’t know this “Robin.”

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