Women in Manhattan have a tendency to fetishize firemen, their trucks and all the apparatus that goes with them, and I am no exception. One beautiful spring day, I decided to walk from 44th Street up to St. John the Divine at 110th and Amsterdam Avenue. On the corner at 66th and Amsterdam is firehouse Ladder Co 40/Engine Co 35. The doors were open and I looked in as I walked by; the red trucks were there, all seemed calm.
I began my cross at 66th and had only taken a few steps when I felt a foreign arm link through my right arm and heard a voice say, “You look like you need help crossing the street, young lady!”
I turned, and it was a fireman. A fireman had linked arms with me and was now escorting me up Amsterdam Avenue.
I laughed and said, “No I don’t!”
He said, ‘Oh yes, yes you do. I think you do.”
He was not dressed in fireman garb. He had on jeans, a blue shirt, a white tee shirt, and work boots. The ladder insignia was stitched onto the breast of his shirt, and may have had a title – lieutenant – but I am no longer sure.
What I am sure of is that he was one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen: sandy brown hair, a bit long, unkempt; a mustache, bright blue eyes, tall, about 6’2”, lean with a broad chest and muscular arms, and I know the latter because I felt through his shirt one of the arms he seemed unwilling to detach from mine. If I had to type him, he would be like an urban cowboy crossed with the eagerness of a puppy dog.
So, we walked and talked.
“How long have you been a fireman?”
“All my life. Never done anything else.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a singer.”
“Really? What kind of a singer?”
“I trained classically so I can sing anything.”
“Sing for me!”
“Now is a good a time as any.”
“I don’t even know you!”
“But there are all these streets to cross and I think you might need help with all of them.”
“Do you do this often?”
“Do what often?”
“Help women across the street.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I mean it; never.”
“So why me?”
“I told you; you looked like you needed help.”
“I think you need help,” I said.
“I could have told you that for nothing,” he said, “Listen, how far you going?”
He still had not let go of my arm.
“Up to 110th Street.”
“Mmmnnn…not sure I can go up that far. I’d miss a call. But tell you what; come find me. You know where I am. You can sing for me.”
“Okay. So…I’ll look for you in say, two days.”
“Two days. Okay?”
“In two days.”
And then he let go of my arm, turned and walked back the way we had come. He turned again and yelled, “Two days!”
Two days later, I didn’t go to find him. I can’t tell you why: it could be that in the back of my mind I thought that all fireman were on the make because they could be; or that he was just a flirtatious prankster; or that he frightened me a little. A year and a half went by. I never forgot him.
He died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, along with twelve other men from Ladder Co 40/Engine Co 35. They sent in thirteen, and one came back. It was beautiful weather on that day, too. Because so many firemen were lost, there was all kinds of blame to go round afterwards: if they had had radios, the firemen would have been alerted to get out of the second tower; the communication left a lot to be desired. But I think of firemen rushing into burning buildings the way they rushed into the burning towers, and they don’t know when a house or an apartment building is going to collapse; they just do it. And I believe that radios or not, the first tower down or not, they would have done the exact same thing on 9/11 in order to try and save people. It is what they do.
In order to humanize the three thousand people who died in the Towers, The New York Times ran “Portraits in Grief,” which were mini-eulogies written by family members along with a photo; they did this for every single person. I read them every day for weeks and weeks and weeks. That is how I saw my fireman’s photo. It was said that he liked to laugh and loved life. I think he had a wife, but no children. Having read them all, I no longer knew which was worse: being left with children to raise alone, or being left entirely alone. Either way, I couldn’t imagine what the families were going through. What his widow was going through.
It has been over thirteen years since then.
Sometimes, when I am crossing the street, I think of him. I think of him linking his arm to mine. I think of the look on his face when he spoke to me. I think of him happy. Today, crossing 96th Street, in cold, grey and rainy weather, I thought of him, a man I knew for only a moment. I can’t tell you why.
Cover photo by Matt Chesin.