It is a story heard around the city’s firehouses since September 11, 2001: the story of a smoke-eater named Bill, who, after several years attending night school, had quit the job to become a doctor. Everyone else in his family—his father and brothers—had been firemen, so it was something to be proud of, being a doctor. There were also other benefits. When you went into a nice bar and mentioned you were a doctor, women tended to look up. “Oh, really?” they’d say. After 9/11, however, things changed. Now when Bill said he was a doctor, the women would only say, “Oh, that’s . . . ah, nice,” which was pretty much the same response he’d get back in the days when he was a fireman. It was one more strange irony of the World Trade Center nightmare: Only when Bill added, “But I used to be a fireman” would women look up and say, “Oh . . . really?”
After 9/11, the simple presence of firefighters at a ball game would be enough to generate a standing ovation. It was when pictures of half-naked fire guys duked it out with Heidi Klum for the calendar market. The hero days.
New York’s Bravest will always be heroes. Anyone who will go into a burning building to save someone simply because it is his job is a hero in the purest sense. Only a couple of weeks ago, Captain Michael McAndrew, a Bronx firefighter, was burned over much of his body trying to rescue two young children up on Kingsbridge Terrace. There is a reason, after all, why kids instinctively wave to firemen (as opposed to accountants, or cops, for that matter). These are the urban warrior-saints, free of the class and race complexities of cops, men and women who run happily into the breach.
Over the past year or so, however, the 9/11-borne cult of the heroic fireman (and, to a lesser extent, cops) has receded. Street merchants have put their FDNY shirts on the back shelf. “They don’t sell like they used to; the kids are more like, ‘Screw Bush,’ ” says Ahmed of St. Marks Place. Plus there have been episodes, most notably the brawl last New Year’s Eve at Engine Company 151 on Staten Island, during which one firefighter attacked another with a metal chair after a night of serious drinking. The company’s attempt to cover up the crime led to a scathing internal report that revealed department-wide abuse of alcohol and a decided lack of supervision by senior officers. At a Bronx firehouse, one firefighter was fired after being accused of having sex with a bipolar woman who’s been described as a “9/11 groupie.” It is only fitting that it seems as if half the streets in Rockaway are named for dead members of the FDNY, but the recent dustups are enough to make you wonder if all the lionization has gone to many firefighters’ heads.
Mostly, things have swung back to what passes for usual around here. To wit: I live on a block with a firehouse. For years, many of the residents waged a low-level war with the fire guys over parking spaces. The big bitch was that even if the firemen had half the block reserved for themselves, they would drive in from Rockville Centre or whatever other dim suburb and park their stupid Jeep Cherokees in the spots supposedly open to everyone else. It didn’t matter if their Official Vehicle zone was wide open. If you said anything about it, they’d get all huffy. This was arrogant and lazy behavior, I did not mind telling the firefighters, at least until 9/11. After 9/11, when the whole company went out and not all of them came back, it felt exceedingly small to argue with heroes over parking spaces.
A couple of weeks ago, however, my personal moratorium ran out. At least five of the common spots were clogged up with fire-guy cars, their red emblem sticker on the front dash. As usual, their places were wide-open. Having some groceries to unload, I parked in the fire zone. It took about a minute for some youngish firefighter to come over and say, “Hey, we’re gonna need that space.” A year ago, I might have just moved, out of respect. But now, respect level no lower, I said I wasn’t about to move if they didn’t move their cars. The fireman was taken aback. “Move ours?” “Yeah.” Moments later, a trio of New York City heroes came out of the firehouse and put their cars into the fire zone. They weren’t happy about it, but they did it. We glowered at each for a moment, then went about our business. It was a return to normalcy.