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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2002 / 22 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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For some acts, no trophies, no ovations -- THE Golden Globe Awards in Hollywood and the fatal high-rise fire near the John Hancock Center and Water Tower Place in Chicago took place on the same night last month. You might think there was no connection.

As they gave out the Golden Globes, the televised evening felt, on the surface, a little like the beginning of something: a return to frivolity. The way we were.

The red carpet was there, the fawning interviews with actresses about the dresses they had chosen to wear, the fans screaming as the handsome and beautiful stars of the movies and television arrived. Since September, America has, symbolically, been dressed in dark and somber colors. No one has wanted to be accused of being trivial.

Which has been a bit of a burden, in a nation that long ago raised triviality to an art form and a robust industry. There has been a sense since September that the country has been waiting for a voice to say "Move on," and really mean it -- a voice to say that it's all right to go back to vapidity. There also has been a sense that -- absent another cataclysmic terror attack -- the tentative return to frothiness might be just around the corner.

The Golden Globes felt a little like the start of that. The firefighters and police officers and soldiers, America has dutifully been saying since September, are the real heroes. But you can't buy a ticket to see them, and the video footage from Sept. 11 has been played from just about every angle, and Americans, for better or for worse, are the world's leaders in demanding something new and easy to swallow. Pain relievers sell better than pain.

So screams of admiration greeted the stars arriving at the awards show, and the gowns were costly. The news from the site of the September terror attacks has been ambivalent as of late; a certain backlash, it has been reported, has even been developing toward the families of Sept. 11 victims who will be receiving the contributions donated by the public. Life is not unambiguous or monolithic; life, unlike a motion picture, is not scripted and cannot be re-edited. There is a futures market in Russell Crowe; as for the police officers and firefighters we have been praising since September . . .

Well, September was a long time ago. We did that already.

The Golden Globes ended, and after the worldwide telecast the stars in Los Angeles, having finished giving trophies to each other, applause ringing in their ears, headed out to their parties. After midnight in Chicago a fierce fire broke out in a high-rise condominium about two blocks east of Michigan Avenue. It soon became apparent this was not going to be an easy one.

When I got to the scene there were more than 130 firefighters either inside the building or converging on it. One woman on the 14th floor was already dead, burned beyond recognition; eight firefighters had been injured while trying to get to her. Residents, seemingly dazed, were being led out in bathrobes and pajamas; I saw two babies carried out by frantic parents, escorted by Chicago police officers and Chicago firefighters.

On the east side of the building, a hydraulically powered platform, with one firefighter perched upon it, was being raised in darkness toward the blown-out windows of the apartment where the fire had begun; from those windows enormous billows of water were emerging, as the men inside battled the blaze. The firefighters entering the building were weighted down with heavy equipment; they would lug it up long staircases, because they don't ride elevators to a floor where a fire is raging.

Here it was, after 1 a.m., and these guys kept coming toward the building. Some of them looked impossibly young; I checked later and was told that you can take the firefighters' test at 19, and be on the streets at 21. The residents kept pouring out, stinking of smoke, and the firefighters kept hurrying in.

What was the news in this? There was none -- that is the point. Our appreciation toward the people who serve us can ebb and flow -- sometimes we remember to thank those who risk their lives for us, often we don't. This was just one fire on one night -- I found myself thinking about how often these firefighters are asked to do this, so later I called the Chicago Fire Department to ask. The answer, last year, was 21,900. During 2001, firefighters in Chicago got into the trucks and went out to face the unknown 21,900 times. It happens every day and every night in every city in this country.

I asked Fire Chief Patrick Howe if there was a way the firefighters prepared themselves for the knowledge that a new cry for help might come at any second.

"I'm not sure I understand your question," he said. "This is the nature of our job. It's what we do."

Yep. They kept hurrying into that building, in the post-midnight cold, as the frightened residents kept hurrying out. "Moulin Rouge" won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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