Christmas in the Street Trades: An Appreciation Of Sorts

Christmas is maybe a time to think about people in the street trades — ambulance crews, cops, and firemen. Most of us don’t much see them, except the police, and that usually when getting a ticket or being told to stop doing something. Fires are rare these days. Usually people are healthy. An ambulance is just an annoying siren and a big white box on wheels that comes up behind us on the road.

Things look a bit different if you are out in the night with them. You realize that there’s a sprawling complicated network of people out there, trying to keep bad things from happening to the rest of us. For the most part, they’re good at it.

They don’t get holidays off. Twenty-four hours a day, every day, they’re on the job. While the rest of us are spending Christmas Eve with family and friends, they’re on the streets. The emergency rooms are manned while we’re opening presents. The dispatchers at police headquarters and the 911 operators are at their consoles while we’re celebrating the New Year.

That’s worth something.

It’s easy not to realize how much people owe to these folk until it happens. Your daughter of seven falls on the scissors while everyone is wrapping presents, and cuts something big. She’s bleeding and bleeding, and it won’t stop, and you realize, My god, we’re losing her, this can’t be happening. It can be happening. It does happen. All the time. Ask a paramedic.

Somewhere a garage door lifts and the ambulance rolls, and it bullies and air-horns its way through traffic. It rolls quickly because 911 generally works well. The operators are usually good, the electronics work, the data base is there. And if your kid is alive when they arrive, she’ll probably stay alive because the ambulance crews know their stuff. And they actually care. You don’t go into that line of work for the money. The money isn’t that great. The hours are terrible.

Fires aren’t as common as they used to be because of better engineering and building codes. Usually they damage property and not people. Usually isn’t always. If people are trapped in a burning building, firemen will go in to get them if humanly possible. It’s a horrible way to die if a wall collapses when you didn’t think it was going to. But they’ll go in anyway.

That’s worth something.

I remember a fire in Washington late on a freezing night. An electronics store of some sort was burning. The cops showed up, with me along, to keep gawkers out of the way. If you want to be cold and miserable and have really lousy working conditions, try working a fire hose in sub-freezing temperatures.

Cops, being the enforcement arm of government, are not loved by all citizens. Maybe people should occasionally reflect on what we owe to the police. In quiet suburbs many of us don’t realize that criminals are only a short drive, or long walk, away. Bad men exist, very bad men. I sometimes think nice people don’t understand just how bad. We read about drug murders, random killings, rapes, beatings, but for the most part they seem far away, something that happens downtown. Downtown is a bridge away.

And quiet suburbs are where there are things to steal. Often these things are in houses owned by people helpless to defend themselves. If the police disappeared, within days bands of thugs would roam your neighborhood, taking anything they wanted. There are men out there who would shoot you or your kids for the pure meanness of it, men who, whatever color you are, would beat you to death because of it. Without the police, we’d all have to build walls and buy dogs and sit up at night with guns. It wouldn’t take long at all.

I don’t mean to idealize cops, or medics, or firemen. None of them are perfect, any more than the rest of us. I’ve met countless of them over the years. Some I liked, some I didn’t. Some were better than others. They suffer from all the defects of character that afflict all humanity. You can find the occasional bad apple. You wouldn’t want to double-date with all of them.

But when the balloon goes up, when the drunk swerves into your lane or Sally falls on the scissors or an armed robber decides he likes your neighborhood, it’s the people in the street trades who show up.

That’s worth something.

Speaking for myself, I say, “Thanks, gang.”

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