You have your hard-lick story about the Great Snowstorm and I have mine.
Our collective hard-luck story is that we did not function too well as a community.
Along with two feet of snow, God dumped some responsibility on us. Responsibility means the ability to respond -- in this case to a minor emergency affecting all of us, the community.
The snow flurry showed us that this ability is dangerously weak. The spirit of service all but evaporated.
That spirit, as we have seen, is more important to the life and welfare of a metropolis than even transportation, communication or sanitation. Without people who have a sense of duty, our life support systems do not function. We cannot rely on technology alone.
An illustration of this was the Metro failure. The snow made $500 million worth of advanced rapid-rail technology, magnetic farecards and all, dependent on men wielding shovels. It took three days and 700 men to dig out the trains and clear the surface tracks.
This was ludicrous. As Cody Pfanstiehl, the Metro spokesman, so candidly admitted, the citizens of this region voted overwhelmingly for this expensive system because they were promised that it would take us safely and conveniently around in bad weather.
But while Metro's crew shoveled for three days to open 10 miles of track, the area's highway departments cleared hundreds of miles of freeways in a matter of hours. Metro's one snow-blowing plow that operates on tracks only worked intermittently. Efficient snow plows are expensive. So are 700 men shoveling for three days at $5 an hour. This penny wisdom cost the community millions in lost business and working hours.
But if we cannot rely on technology neither can we rely on our public servants.
A smart television news director woke up Monday morning, saw the snow, hired some four-wheel-drive vehicles with drivers and brought his crew to work. He also brought initiative to his sense of public service. So, to be sure, did thousands of others. Many citizens were not only helpful but heroic.
But it was considered news that H.A. Shacklette, a security guard at the Cannon House Office Building showed up at his job on time last Tuesday. "It never occurred to me not to come," he said. "I am proud of my work and consider myself essential."
There was a time when such pride was taken for granted. In the days when most security guards took the trouble to find a way to work, there was not the looting of shopping centers that there was last week.
But most government employes assumed, perhaps correctly, that there is no importance in their work. The government's own instructions on who and what is essential -- supposedly defined by the code name "Condition 3" -- are ambivalent.
Even cabinet members like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia R. Harris, who probably could summon a battalion of tanks if she deemed it necessary, did not go to work -- even on Tuesday, when the storm was over and the sun was shining.
More shocking was the postmaster's admission that only 10 percent of the area's postal workers saw fit to brave the snow. Remember "Neither snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds?" Only 19 of the city's substations were open Tuesday.
Under discussion here is the public service ethic, the spirit of service.
Lack of this spirit was not confined to public servants. It was dismaying to see that most cars on Washington's streets last week were occupied only by their drivers. It was more than dismaying to struggle through mountains of snow and swamps of slush in front of business establishments that were too busy doing brisk business to clear their sidewalks. (To say nothing of most taxi drivers and their spirit of service.)
What is it?
Perhaps years of affluence without satisfaction have made us self-centered. Perhaps popular psychology has taught us too well to look out for Number One and to blame others for our discomforts. Perhaps post office and store clerks, taxi drivers and others in the service industries are too tightly spun in the cocoon of incessant music noise to mind their jobs. Their personal addiction to constant music seems to them more important.
At any event, the diminishing spirit of service is a worse blight on modern American cities than deterioration and neglect. It is, in fact, largely the cause of deterioration and neglect.