Firefighter Chic

Blue-Collar Reality and the Folk Hero Archetype

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.' "

Every Hose has its thorn.
photo: American Social History Project/Old York Library, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Every Hose has its thorn.

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'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."

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.

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."

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