Firemen Chic

Firefighter Chic: Blue-Collar Reality and the Folk Hero Archetype

The Village Voice

By Jessica Seigel

THE IRONY of their new hero status is not lost on firefighters. "I brought you a creamer," rock singer Patty Smyth announces to the men of Engine Company 74, walking into the kitchen of their West 83rd Street firehouse on Monday, October 15. "It's a manly creamer," says the onetime leader of the band Scandal, unwrapping the ceramic pitcher. She bought it after dropping by for coffee a few days earlier, and noticing that they pour milk straight from the gallon jug.

This is Smyth's second visit to the firehouse around the corner from where she lives with husband John McEnroe, though neither of them had stopped in before September 11. Waiting for her tennis champ hubby to show, Smyth settles in at the kitchen table to hear The Story, while her howling two-year-old daughter, Ava, spooked by Sparky the Dalmatian, calms down with a Mr. Potato Head play set—one of many toys donated for the children of the company's fallen member, Ruben Correa.

"Boom. Boom. Boom." Firefighter Jeff Johnson, a 22-year veteran with a stud in his ear, tells how he ducked beside a pillar in the Marriott Hotel just west of the twin towers as the building pancaked down. "I'm thinking, 'Lights out. Lights out.' " It's The Story everyone wants to hear, or just be near, to give inexpressible thanks for the sacrifice of 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center.

It used to be that working Joes bragged about encounters with fame. Now it's the reverse—as a primordial urban archetype reemerges from the ashes of more than a century ago, when firefighters were folk heroes and saviors of fire-prone cities. The resurrected icon status of our first worker-heroes since World War II is obvious. At the Madison Square Garden benefit concert on October 20, the loudest applause went to firefighters and police—not the A-list celeb lineup. And firefighters are the first regular people—"civilians," the publicist called them—ever to make the cover of the glitterati bible, Vanity Fair, in a special November edition.

It's the same all around town—celebs dropping by the local firehouses that protect fancy neighborhoods where few firefighters can afford to live. (In fact, only 2 percent of the force lives in Manhattan.) Singer Michael Bolton personally brought a $135,000 check to Engine 40 near Lincoln Center for the widows and children's fund. Paul Newman was spotted at union headquarters on East 23rd Street. Other celeb drop-bys at Engine 74 include actor Kevin Bacon and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who brought chocolate chip cookies he had baked himself. The note he and wife Jessica left is taped to the kitchen wall: "Thank you for your priceless friendship and courage."

With all the hugging and gratitude, comfortable New Yorkers may have forgotten about the upstairs/downstairs divide. But not firefighters. Despite Sex and the City stereotypes about adoring babes, the single guys at Engine 74 say Upper West Side women barely gave them the time of day before September 11. "We don't make enough money," firefighter Danny Kinzel, a five-year veteran, said. He says his take-home pay after taxes and deductions is less than $500 a week. Not even the price of a Prada bag.

When onetime tennis bad boy McEnroe finally arrives at the firehouse, he announces, "I always wanted to be a fireman." The men razz him, joking about likely fireside tantrums. And then one firehouse cutup asks, "Hey John, you don't mind if they raise your taxes to get us a pay raise?" Good one. John turns serious. "What's the starting pay?" he asks. Silence. The men are suddenly shy. Perhaps they're embarrassed to say what they earn compared to sports and entertainment luminaries like McEnroe and Smyth. Or maybe it feels rude to talk actual money when the upstairs folk have come into the kitchen to give thanks. (The base pay is $32,724 to start, rising to $49,023 at five years, which amounts to about $60,000 with the usual overtime, plus ample health and pension benefits.)

Discussion is interrupted when the firehouse radio crackles: "EMS: Amsterdam and Columbus. . . . " As the firemen bolt from the kitchen, a voice calls back, "Hey John, you want to go? Come on."

Gleeful as a five-year-old, John jumps on the truck and rides out with the men. When they all return, McEnroe is so pumped that he leaps onto the brass fire pole and shimmies up to the second-story bunk room. "Do I pass?" he hollers down. "Can I be a fireman? At 42?"

No, he cannot. The cutoff age is 29 (at most, 35 with military experience). After sliding back down, McEnroe explains privately why he is there. "It feels so much that we need to be together." Later, back in the kitchen, the company's second most senior man comments to no one in particular, "We don't hear from these people for, like, ever, and all of a sudden we're so popular."

Fireman chic is so sudden, so new, that department tradition has no protocol for celebrities at funerals, says Rudy Sanfilippo, the Manhattan trustee for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, because there have been none that he's aware of in recent years. Yet now stars want to get into the procession with the politicians and the fire department honchos, like at the packed memorial at the Central Synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street for David Weiss of midtown's Rescue 1. A member of the ceremonial unit had to ask what to do when a comedian from Saturday Night Live wanted to get in the front line. The TV guy was allowed a position of honor, but with ambivalence. "Some of the guys are starstruck. They love the celebrities in the firehouse," says Sanfilippo. "But at funerals? We're not Hollywood."

Since the attack, comfortable New Yorkers and the city's uniformed services have been inhabiting the same social space for the first time—at funerals, the firehouse shrine, and benefits. There is communing and great generosity, like the more than $325,000 raised at the Leary Firefighters Foundation's $200-a-ticket benefit held October 15 at the Park Restaurant. After a tête-à-tête with one gray-haired veteran, a subdued and drawn-looking Harrison Ford says he hadn't known any firefighters before September 11, but he's talked to many since. They've told him their story. He's expressed thanks. He's donated money. Yet it never crossed his mind to wonder how much money they earn. "I never thought about that one," he says. "I don't have a quote for that one. I'm sure it's not enough."

Meanwhile, another reality landed like a slap in the face in the ladies' bathroom. "They're so hot," one cleavage-packing twenty-something chatters, applying more lipstick. "They're such real men," her friend agrees, when a pale, gaunt woman in a black suit emerges from a stall—the 40-year-old widow of a Rescue 4 firefighter killed on Father's Day. "Run," the ashen lady whispers to the girls. Don't date a firefighter, she tells them. "Run. Run." The girls shut up, utterly chastened. Later in the hallway, the widow explains her outburst: "I wouldn't want anyone to experience the pain I have," she says.

But it's suffering that makes heroes. That kind of pain came to fewer families in recent decades, as fire department deaths continued to drop, from 112 throughout the 1950s to 22 in the 1990s. Before September 11, you'd have had to search history for such carnage, back to the time when deadly fires were a fact of city life, regularly consuming wood and brick buildings, like the inferno that leveled Chicago in 1871. Back then, firemen were among the celebs—like Boss Tweed, who got his start in the local firehouse, which doubled as an Irish American political club, according to Joshua Brown, director of the American Social History Project at CUNY Graduate Center.

The savior fireman was romanticized in fictional characters like Mose the Fire Laddie, a red-shirted, brawling tough guy—the Rocky Balboa of his day. A great early silent film, Edwin Porter's 1903 Life of an American Fireman, belonged to a genre that fell out of favor as fires became less of a threat. And perhaps more to the point, cops-and-robbers offered more plot possibilities. The few fire flicks of more recent years, like The Towering Inferno and Backdraft, were pretty cheesy.

Now firefighters are back on the pop culture charts. "I'm suspicious of how long this will last," says Brown. "It's probably not charitable to say, but it's a way to give a nod to workers without being really concerned about worker issues."

As for specific union issues in New York City, the attack on the World Trade Center also blew a hole in the city's labor landscape. Leaders of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents the 8800 rank and file, overwhelmingly approved the city's tentative contract offer this summer. The vote of the full union membership on the terms offering about a 10 percent salary boost over 30 months (retroactive to March 1999) would have been held in late October or November. But now it's on indefinite hold, according to union spokesman Tom Butler. "When it will come back for discussion remains to be seen." If not for the extraordinary sacrifices of September 11, the contract likely would have passed, according to many firefighters and labor watchers. "There was no question the firefighters were going to approve," maintains Diana Fortuna, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group funded by the private sector. "[The contract] was well above inflation at a time when there isn't a shortage of firefighters. If anything, it was generous."

With 5000 qualified candidates on the waiting list, competition for openings is so fierce that department brass have been accused of using loopholes to get their kids into the FDNY, which remains about 93 percent white and includes only 33 women in an 11,000-member force. By contrast, the NYPD is about 65 percent white, with 6200 women in a 39,000-member force.

But many firefighters say they feel nickel-and-dimed, burdened with complex retroactive contracts, which have left them without actual raises for two years. One often-heard gripe is that they don't like being paid the same as sanitation workers. "We risk our life every time we go to work," says Sanfilippo, a dissident member of the union board. "How come I'm getting paid the same as a guy picking up garbage?"

With the new threat of terrorism on American soil, many firefighters say they deserve combat-type raises as the front line protecting civilians. The military metaphor is problematic, though, since soldiers' pay is notoriously low. "Firefighters make much more than us," says Captain Kirk Harrington, a U.S. Army public affairs officer located in New York City.

While firefighters based in Manhattan's more expensive neighborhoods chafe at the class divide they experience every day, those assigned to poorer areas are in closer day-to-day contact with their communities. "What's going on in the ghetto and what's going on in Manhattan is totally different," says Dennis Logan, a 24-year veteran who works in Bed-Stuy. "There they're spending their food money to bring us flowers. We really are the neighbors."

It's delicate, talking about salaries with the grief still raw and the memorials continuing. One firefighter, a white thirtysomething from Engine 37 in Harlem, said his feeling was so unpopular he didn't want his name used. "I don't want a raise because 300 firemen died." In other words, to him it's blood money.

How a grateful city suddenly in economic crisis will ultimately value—or even discuss—a new contract is a question for the next mayor. Firefighters like Bob Barrett, 60, a 27-year veteran from Soho's Ladder 20, who plans to vote against the current contract terms,voiced conflicting emotions. "This isn't a matter of just money," he said at a Greenwich Village fundraiser in the Fiddlesticks tavern. "It's a matter of principle. We want a certain value placed on us. It took 103 floors to fall on our head for people to say, 'Wow, these guys are heroes.' I always knew that." His company at 253 Lafayette Street lost seven men.

"The only good thing to come of this is people walking by and saying, 'I was always afraid to talk to you.' I say, 'Why?' Then they thank me. I want to thank them back, because I don't feel I'm the only one suffering. The whole neighborhood is suffering with us."

And maybe the men at Engine Company 74 are pouring milk from that new coffee creamer.

Nov. 8, 2001