Firefighter Chic

Blue-Collar Reality and the Folk Hero Archetype

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."

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