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The Firemen's Friar

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September 15, the day he was buried, would have been the twenty-third anniversary of Judge's sobriety. When he first told his closest friends he was an alcoholic, many of them were stumped. "When he drank," says Duffy, who worked with Judge in the early seventies, "Mike didn't look like he had a problem. I denied it, in fact. I said, 'Nah, you're not a problem drinker.' I think he just decided it wasn't good for him, and he allied himself with others that way."

But Judge knew it was more serious. "He said that he didn't know whether it was genetic or inherited or whether it just was," says McCourt, "but that it led him into lunacy. There wasn't too much detail about what he did, other than that he'd find himself in blackouts, or in situations he didn't want to be in. He'd share only in general terms. But he always had his hand out to newcomers."

Often, he led AA meetings himself. Once in a while, he'd take a dozen members on a three-day retreat to Long Island to discuss their struggles with recovery.

"You would tell your story," says Mychal McNicholas, a retired lawyer who attended one of the getaways. (McNicholas changed the spelling of his first name from Michael after Judge died -- on his credit cards, business cards, everything.) "You had men who'd been in hell, and they were back now, sober. He would clasp his hands, shake his head, and murmur, 'Oh, beautiful, just beautiful. Such sobriety . . . ' " McNicholas drifts off. Then, abruptly: "Did he ever hug you?"

No, I tell him. I never met Judge. Why, did he give a powerful hug?

"No," he says. "Just the opposite. It was so soft and gentle . . . I haven't been the same since this happened. That's what my daughter says."

"One of the things people missed about Mychal Judge," says Brendan Fay, the gay activist, "is that there was a core of sadness or vulnerability in him. He was very in touch with human vulnerability. And that sensitized him, it really did. Good ministers have an outsiderness and apartness to them. And he did, more so than anybody else."

Judge's outsiderness didn't just come from his being an alcoholic; it also came from his being gay. "He recognized the tension between the worlds he lived in," says Fay. "He'd be honored by these members of the far right, and yet at the same time he felt he had to constrain himself. There was a certain sadness about that."

The city's community of gay activists and officials knew Judge was gay early on -- Tom Duane, the state senator from TriBeCa who tested HIV-positive in 1988, says he always assumed Judge would do his funeral. But many of Judge's straight friends learned he was gay rather late in their friendship, if at all, and his manner of coming out could be oblique. McNicholas remembers when Judge asked him to sponsor a gay man in AA. "I figured it out after that," he says.

And Judge seems never to have come out to the men across the street, at Engine 1-Ladder 24. Tom Ryan, president of Fireflag/EMS (Firefighters Lesbian and Gay), says it's still tough to be an openly gay firefighter. "Because I had made it public that I was gay," he says, "I kept my distance from Mike Judge. I had to be very respectful of his position in life and realize that he was able to accomplish more in the way he lived."

But he was out to Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner. "I had no problem with it," Von Essen says. "I actually knew about his homosexuality when I was in the Uniformed Firefighters Association. I kept the secret, but then he told me when I became commissioner five years ago. He and I often laughed about it, because we knew how difficult it would have been for the other firefighters to accept it as easily as I had. I just thought he was a phenomenal, warm, sincere man, and the fact that he was gay just had nothing to do with anything."

But the fact is, sometimes it did -- particularly when he was ministering to Catholics who were struggling with their own sexual orientation.

"Mike taught me how to come out as a young man," says Brian Carroll, who in addition to being a friar at St. Francis is also a psychotherapist. "And how to see sexuality as an important part of who I am. He took away the shame. For some people, sexuality is a part of their shame. Or homelessness is a part of their shame. Or addiction is a part of their shame. Mychal helped people embrace all the shame parts of themselves and turn them into something good."

He asks to put down the phone a moment so that he can find something. When he returns, he reads aloud from a letter Judge wrote him from Lourdes.

Almost midnight, September 26, 1994.

The Mass was beautiful. I got a spot to stand right under the feet of Mary so I could keep looking up at her and tell her of all my New York people and their needs, and I knew she heard me. Like all other people in the world, Mary knows that New Yorkers are a very special people, and that we need to be looked over in a very special way. For sure, I march to a different drummer. If ever I had any Episcopal ambitions, I'd better put them in the dustbin. Looking around at all the clerics in the church, they are great men, probably good to the core -- but I often think I'm in a different church than them . . . and that's okay.

Somehow, Judge's body got from the sidewalk at Church and Vesey to St. Peter's. When Christian Waugh went back to look for him, he found Judge lying regally on the altar, his helmet and badge perched in mute tribute on his chest. Tom Ryan found him there, too. "I walked into this church," he says. "And in a world that was gray and dark, there was color, and laying on the altar was the body of Mychal Judge. In a horrendous moment, it was a beautiful sight."

The pastor at the church called the cardinal's office. The cardinal's office called the friary. An ambulance picked Judge up. He was slipped into a body bag and brought back to Engine 1-Ladder 24.

The firefighters placed their chaplain on a cot in the back of the station. Then they cordoned off the area with a clothesline and some sheets, creating a small, private shrine. The men formed a circle around him, got down on their knees, and started to cry.

Keenan sat with Judge until he was taken to the morgue. His death certificate bears the number 00001 -- the first official casualty of the World Trade Center.

On September 10, less than 24 hours before he died, Judge happened to rededicate Von Essen's old firehouse in the Bronx. The department has the ceremony on videotape. "Good days, bad days," says Judge, clad in a bright white robe. "But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea, when you get in that rig, what God is calling you to. But he needs you . . . so keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together. You love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is."

Since then, many have pondered the meaning of Judge's death -- as well as what he might be doing with himself these days, provided there's a place to go after this one. At his funeral, Duffy ventured that Judge had to be the first casualty of the World Trade Center because God required his services. There were too many dying firemen for him to bless while still living, he reasoned; Judge had to greet them on the other side, with his arms outstretched.

At the memorial, McCourt told the mourners about his own fantasy. Judge, he says, dies and is momentarily disoriented, because after leading such a simple life, he suddenly finds himself in a place with large marble hallways. A figure approaches.

"Can I help you?"

"Well, I don't know where I am."

"What's your name?"

"Judge. First name Mychal."

"Really? Some people call me Judge, too."

"Oh? And what's your first name?"

"Almighty. What kind of work would you like here, Mychal?"

"I'd like to be someplace where there are fires."

"We don't have any fires here. The only one we know about is very far away, and that burns eternally, because all the firefighters are here, and we don't tell them about it, because otherwise they'd be down there fighting it."

"Well, could I go there and give some people a hand?"

"No, Mychal. Because if you go there, you have to be a sinner, you see? And you're a saint."

"Could I have a temporary pass to go there, then? Could I be an honorary sinner?"

"Yes. But please don't bring back any conservatives."

At that point, the crowd, already laughing, started to howl. McCourt paused to let everyone collect himself. "And away he goes," he finally said. "That's my fantasy about Mychal. He keeps working. He never stops. He's trying to get all of us out of hell."


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