The 1973 novel by Alice Childress entitled “A Hero Aint Nuthin’ but a Sandwich” dealt with a young man’s struggle to fight against the attraction and inevitable decline of heroin addiction. The recent health crisis has given rise to many heroes and heroines in our society, some from surprising places.
Our celebrity obsessed culture has long consumed itself while admiring athletes and movie stars and worshipping vacuous TV celebrity families famous only for being famous. We also have YouTubers and social influencers peddling all manner of clothing, lip gloss and shoes. All this celebrity worship is nothing new. In the late sixties, Mick Jagger sang about someone wanting to know how white your shirts could be. In the 70’s, David Bowie’s Major Tom was asked “whose shirts he wore” by an adoring media.
With millions of people trapped and isolated by COVID-19, a resolute and reluctant few kept the world going. We think of the truck drivers who delivered the needed medical supplies and food, driving across the country while being turned away from food vendors, hotels and fueling stations. Deserved attention was finally given to the nurses and first responders toiling away, in some cases protected only by haphazard and makeshift personal protective equipment. Sadly, in too many cases they tragically succumbed to the very diseases they were trying to save us from.
Thinking about the forgotten hospital cleaners, janitors and other “low skilled” (and low paid) professions that we only think about when they are seen to be not doing their demanding jobs properly by those of us who forget, demean or ignore them. “Look at that person,” they tell their children. “Stay in school or you’ll end up like that.” As though that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to them.
So, what is a hero? Is it someone that jumps higher, swims faster or applies makeup better than the average person? Or is it a dedicated first responder or firefighter first on the scene, risking their life to save yours? Is it a fantastically overpaid athlete who shoots balls into baskets or pucks into nets better than his peers, bringing glory down for his team and vicariously upon their fans? Or is a hero an elderly immigrant woman, mopping a never-ending hospital hallway and scouring the bathrooms after a sickened patient has used it. Is it a cashier at the local grocer, knees shaking, standing in front of a nonstop line of frightened and angry people “speaking moistly” and sneezing all over them day after day, then going home to tend to their own children?
When the expected second and possibly third rebound wave of COVID-19 arrives, we will need those average and normal people far more than we will ever need disposable celebrities and sports stars. What kind of sea change does our society require to value our teachers more than being trapped at home teaching your own children?
The salary paid to one NBA superstar would pay for tens of thousands of new teachers, a hundred thousand books in libraries or transportation for poor children to get the education they need.
COVID-19 has forced us all to make value decisions on ordinary things.
We have fussed and fretted over not getting haircuts and moaned about not being to wander shopping malls as a pastime.
The decision we should be talking about is how do we value the previously unvalued?
How do we respect those people who clean up after us, who deliver our food, toilet paper and other consumer products and who keep us alive?
Pick your heroes very carefully or you may end up with nuthin’ but a sandwich.