Enough already. That's what I thought after 45 minutes of Friday's night's celebrity telethon for the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We still had almost an hour and a half more to go, including a finale with Willie Nelson leading the assembled multitude in more choruses of "America, the Beautiful" than any of them previously knew existed.
Enough -- or too much, said William Blake in a moment of supreme wisdom. As anyone who has ever grieved knows, there is a point where grief becomes a denial of the life one is grieving for; where ongoing life has to be tended to again. It isn't that grief disappears, it's the demands of life reasserting themselves quite properly and taking over. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president, and the first lady have been right for quite a while now -- the strongest weapon most of us in this country have is to go back to our lives and do whatever it is that we usually do.
No one could possibly blame the majority of that staggering assemblage of first-tier celebrities for trying. Most of them just wanted to help, somehow. They wanted to stand up and be counted and they wanted to put up a united front doing do. It was a bit of a risk to do it, too. With such hatred and madness in the world, what terrorist wouldn't think such an unprecedented assemblage an inviting target? Security was so tight that its actual locations were kept a secret.
And so they appropriated no less than 30 channels of American television for two hours and change on a Friday night -- the most remarkable display of raw celebrity power I've ever seen.
And there they all were, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey (who'd already pledged $1 million to the cause), among the standups giving us moving tales from ground zero and Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Wyclef Jean and Celine Dion among the endless parade of pop music grandees, some of whom wrote songs for the occasion. The phone banks were manned by Jack Nicholson, James Woods, Al Pacino, Cuba Gooding Jr., Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg and Kurt Russell, just to name a few.
The intent was to move us. To unite us. To inspire us. To remind us of our national identity and our cultural destiny, and of course, to raise a lot of money, too, for anyone affected by the catastrophe who needed it. The result, for me, was to make me yearn for the real America, not this secular religious observance of it. I didn't find out until the next morning that, at the same time the telethon was on, Friday evening's Curtain Up! celebration was a sellout. That fact made me immensely happy.
There was a brief moment in that well-intended telethon when I fully understood how little it provided of what I wanted. The camera, for a brief second, showed us James Woods, at the phone banks, hanging up after one call, laughing and bursting with the desire to tell something to Jack Nicholson in the row above him and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell next to him.
I wanted to yell at the set: "Tell us, Jimmy, tell us. We need it right now, sitting through this thing."
It was then that I realized that even though the biggest part of the telethon was taking place in New York, what was missing entirely from it was the spirit of the city that took the hit for the rest of us.
I was hungry for humor, for one thing. And noise. And vulgarity. And dispute. And energy. And ethnicity and probably arrogance, too -- the whole ragout of wildly flavorful elements for which New York City is famous around the world. Some of that was in that long parade of pop music but not nearly enough. (As Neil Young sang John Lennon's "Imagine," I couldn't help wondering what John Lennon -- a transplanted New Yorker who didn't let others do his thinking for him -- might have sung if he'd been allowed to live.)
Instead, we got, by candelight, a quasi-religious service of soggy cornflakes which -- if a laughing James Woods and Jack Nicholson (both native New Yorkers) were any indication -- didn't even fully nourish those who came together so amazingly to serve it to us.
But then, maybe that was the whole point. Maybe we needed, after all these days of horror on the tube and all these expressions of solidarity, community, heartbreak and resolve, something that propelled us back into the rough and tumble of the lives we live -- and ought to be living to the fullest once again.