Sunday, 16 January 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Some years ago, when I still worked for a local arts organisation as a project manager, I walked to work almost every day (or else I biked). Every morning I made the same short journey, accompanied only by the sound of my CD player (these were pre-mp3 player days). And on every occasion I ran into the same familiar face: the road-sweeper who kept our streets clean. Sometimes I would stop to ask him how he was, or to enquire about the music to which he was listening (he, too, wore headphones whilst doing his job). His mood was usually cheerful, his demeanour humble, his features youthful, although a few wrinkles on his face pointed at an older age than the one I accorded him.

In my mind this road-sweeper was a hero of some sort. Yes, I know that he was only fulfilling his professional duty, but the way he went about his work, not only making sure that the pavement was litter-free, but also that there was no rubbish anywhere near the kerb, was a spectacle to behold and praise.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I grew accustomed to heroism with a capital 'H'. We, Cuban students, were educated in the shadow of all the men and women (especially the former, less attention to the latter) who'd given up their lives fighting for our independence. Our pledge ran thus: '¡Pioneros* por el comunismo, seremos como el Che!' ('Pioneros for communism, we shall be like Che!'). Of course, there was always the joker at the end of the line who whispered: 'What? Asthmatic?'

Hence my change of mind when I hit my twenties. I began to see more heroism in the modest woman who turned up to work at my local cinema everyday, despite the lack of viable transport options, than in the general speaking on the telly about courage and selflessness, then retiring to his big house in the suburbs where a table full of food awaited him.

My initial scepticism about all things heroic was given a boost when I moved to the UK. I realised very soon that I shared the same cynical British attitude towards what sometimes was nothing but emotional blackmail. A lot has been said and written about the Blitz spirit, and occasionally the idea of people going about their business as per normal after an atrocity (for instance the London bombings on 7th July 2005) might be viewed as defiant, but really and truly, did people have an option? I'd sooner believe that Britons' famous resilience, no-nonsense attitude and deadpan, dry sense of humour are more influential factors in how they deal with emergencies.

In my opinion there are many scenarios that beget heroes and heroines. One of them can be the one-off event, for instance tsunamis and terrorist attacks. The unpredictability of the situation, plus our own survival instinct make us behave in ways of which we were probably unaware before. Just as there are many cases of human cowardice in the face of disasters, there are plenty of tales of courage and bravery. I would like to believe that the latter outnumber the former.

Another scenario involves everyday life and mainly people at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. It's called daily grind. Bread and butter. Nine to five. We come up with words to describe this kind of contribution: menial, rut, toil. There's no glamour in it. And yet, in my book, I view it as important as, or more important than 'one-off heroism'. Right now, outside my kitchen window I see men spreading rock salt on the pavement in almost subzero temperatures. The postman/woman delivered our correspondence today as if the Arctic weather was merely a blow of the nose. In a couple of days the refuse collection people will arrive at my door (I'm writing this post before Christmas) and empty our recycle bins in their lorry. As I mentioned before, you might think that these people are just doing their job, but let's consider that idea for a second. The post office faces an overhaul which could leave thousands of its workers without employment. Local authorities have been told to cut back their budgets, which begs the question: how many of those refuse collectors will be facing the sack in 2011? And still, they go about their business as per normal, in the face of an uncertain future.

Around the same time I met this road-sweeper, I found out through my local volunteers' centre that my borough had decided to award prizes to 'local heroes'. I picked up a form without having any second thoughts as to who I wanted to nominate. But I had to let the candidate know beforehand. One day, on my way to work I saw the cleaner early in the morning and stopped to explain to him why I thought he should get the red-carpet treatment. His response still resonates in my ears after all these years: 'Me, hero? No, mate! I'm just doing me job'. I smiled, shook his hand and chucked the form in the next bin.

*Pioneros: literally, 'pioneers'. From age six to eleven, all Cuban children belong to the Organización de Pioneros Jose Martí.

Image taken from Studio Arts

Disclaimer: The clip this week contains some strong language but I have not seen many cover versions of Lennon's 'Working Class Hero' as beautifully sung and heartfelt as this one. I hope you enjoy it.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Let’s Talk About...’, to be published on Wednesday 19th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Buenos dias Cuban,

    The super-heroes in Malaysia now are mostly non-citizens.

    I enjoyed watching the video clip. Thank you Cuban.

  2. And a massive Hear Hear from this neck of the woods too.

  3. In my blog's A Hero's Journey series, I included a post on the heroism of the silent voices of society. I used a fictional character Pancho Valverde to highlight the heroism of those everyday heroes who face sometimes unspeakable challenges but who still rise to heroism. I grew up mostly around such humble, heroic figures. Even after having spent time among more publically recognized so-called heroes, the humble men and women of that humble childhood still lead my list of heroic figures, for all the reasons you state.

  4. Judith is right on.

    I've never known a hero who wasn't reluctant. As in politics, give me someone who is reluctant to serve, and I'll show you someone without self-interest. A hero doesn't need to wave a flag; he knows how heavy it is to hold one.

  5. I, too, nod in agreement. There's entirely too much faux hero worship in our country (U.S. of A) and it always makes me cringe. Everyday heroism is an interesting concept, but I think I prefer the grand notions of a hero. My husband, who is a Chef always calls himself a cook -- that he's Swiss explains that!

  6. Well written, well said, as usual....

  7. An excellent reflection of life on your beat. Heroes are usually in disguise, aren't day?

  8. Let's hear it for the working-class hero. I admire anyone who has found joy and meaning in their work, no matter what the job description is.

  9. I heard a piece on NPR recently about how we're sending all of our American kids off to college to get specialized higher education, hence a shortage of the essential regular everyday blue collar workers, the road sweepers, the plumbers and electricians. We're out of balance in that regard.

  10. With you one-hundred percent about the workers. Now in the States there is so much union-busting, so many attacks on government workers. The private sector want to grab their livelihood.

    Cheers too for the unpaid workers who pick up a piece of drifting trash and put it in a bin and walk on.

    All the best!

  11. I agree with you. There are heros who go about their normal business everyday, never being given a thought by others or even by themselves. Many times it's ordinary people who are the most extraordinary.


  12. Many thanks for your lovely comments.

    Greetings from London.

  13. I know Kenyans, Africans in general that would accept a blue-collar job in the U.S.A and look down upon and refuse the same type of work back home. I find it an interesting complex, or view of themselves.

  14. Courage and heroism seem to spring forth quickly, an instant after disaster strikes..even the "hero" is surprised at what they carried within. I can refer to the Tucson hell..
    Sorry I've been lagging, but my computer has been crashing and burning!!

  15. I like how you explored and expanded the hero theme in this post, grounding it in personal experience and in music (lovely voice and moving lyrics!) How terrific to have a local hero award. Did you see the movie Local Hero? It’s one of my favorites. Has a great soundtrack too.

  16. Heroism certainly comes in many shapes and sizes. I was just reading back through your blog: your bladder control during Fidel's speech was pretty heroic, too, in its way. :)



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