The Barbarians

old firefighters I rapped at the bright red door of Firehouse of Engine Company 37 Ladder 17* with my cold, bare knuckles. I thought they would shatter. It could have been a perfect Dickensonian situation: a member of the fairer sex wearing an over-sized coat, shivering in the cold, begging for help at one of the few institutions in the city where heroes exist.

Moments later a face appeared in the window. A firefighter, tall and wearing a navy blue shirt, looked skeptical but opened the door anyway.

I was only there because I was doing outreach off 125th Street in Harlem. People in my city agency get overtime hours to engage with the public about traffic safety. This time we were there to tell them about the change in speed limit from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. I had to borrow a man-sized department-issued coat because in the morning unrealistic expectations about the weather encouraged me to wear the thin, sparsely insulated but cute coat I got on sale at Burlington Coat Factory, which left me feeling nearly naked. I was also wearing a department-issued blue hat that scrunched over my head like a condom. We were allowed a fifteen-minute break, and were advised to go to the firehouse nearby for warmth and to use the bathroom. My co-workers decided to warm up in their cars, but I like to pursue novelty whenever possible.

“How can I help you?” The firefighter’s brow was knotted with bafflement. Compared to most people who came by the firehouse a sense of desperation and destitution was lacking in my appearance.

I told him what I was doing and what city agency I was working with. He shrugged and let me in. Perhaps he was obligated to let me in no matter what my story was. He didn’t offer his name either, but for the sake of this story we’ll call him Frank.

“Come to the kitchen,” he said.

In the kitchen there was a huge wooden table that looked big enough for a Medieval banquet. The numbers of the engine and ladder companies were carved into its surface. There were two firefighters sitting there, each stamping the pages of a book. They put two stamps per page, though there was room enough for four. Then they turned the page over to stamp some more. The stamps looked like little charts. They nodded at me, then looked at Frank, who offered me coffee. I wasn’t tired but my hands were cold so I gratefully accepted his offer, cradling the Styrofoam cup to warm my fingers.

If having a female in the kitchen was a novelty, the men certainly didn’t let on. Frank poured himself some coffee and the stampers stamped away. These two were significantly younger than Frank, who leaned on the counter nonchalantly and authoritatively with his mug. Frank had a ruddy, slightly weathered face. He looked fit, albeit slightly stout with an extra layer of winter flesh. We quickly established that I’m from out of town, and that he’s from the Bronx, but lives in Long Island and his commute is an hour and a half on good days, two hours on bad days.

“So whose idea was this speed limit thing?” asked Frank after I situated myself at the table. Its vastness made me feel like a child. I thought the change of speed limit made sense, but I didn’t want Frank to toss me out into the cold so I distanced myself from my true feelings on the matter.

“Well, it wasn’t mine.” I said, offering a smile.

Frank chuckled. Many drivers, especially those in the outer boroughs, haven’t warmed up to the idea of a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. My office had gone all throughout the city doing outreach about the change in speed limit, so we had a good idea how people felt about the new law, which had been voted on in Albany and signed into law by Cuomo months after Mayor de Blasio announced an initiative to reduce traffic deaths and fatalities. We stood on the street corners and passed out literature to pedestrians and drivers. On red lights, when drivers had no choice but to be a captive audience, we would knock at their windows to offer pamphlets. Some would shake their heads and vehemently wag their index finger.

“Not interested!” they would holler.

“But I’m not selling anything!” I would holler back.

Shockingly, still more drivers did actually lower their windows at the behest of a complete stranger. They listened to my spiel, took my literature and thanked me. On the sidewalk people’s responses to the new speed limit were also varied. Some, especially the elderly and those with children, were grateful.

“It’s about time,” they said, their gait hobbled by arthritis or strollers. Others would have rather sent Mayor de Blasio to the seventh circle of hell than go five miles per hour slower.

“This mayor hates drivers!” They shook their heads so hard you could hear the spite rattling around. “Won’t see him more than one term.”

It was hard to tell which side of the fence Frank sat. He didn’t seem to know himself. For a time he stroked his chin, as if trying to polish away his facial stubble. “So who lowered the speed limit?”

“Albany. And Cuomo.”

“It might not be such a good thing.”

“Yeah, people don’t like going slower, but I feel like it’s impossible to go over 15 miles an hour anyway, with all the traffic.”

“True. It’s just that when we’re responding to a call it’s better for us that traffic is going faster, not slower.”

“Well, the idea is that maybe with the traffic going slower there will be less emergency calls and accidents.”

Frank shrugged in the typical New York fashion, with his palms open and the edges of his mouth curling downward. “We’ll see.”

“Yes, we’ll see.”

And then we didn’t say anything. The lull in conversation worried me. What could we talk about? The weather? How his day at work was going? That was probably a bad question. What if there was a bad fire and someone died on his shift? Maybe this was the moment to make a graceful exit, but I wasn’t ready to go back into the cold just yet and I wanted to maximize the time I spent at the firehouse.

My eyes wandered around the kitchen. To the left of the door there was a whiteboard with a schedule and to the right was a bulletin board were a series of article clippings. Most headlines were too small to see, except for a Daily News piece. I could make out “something something Hoarder’s Hell,” which seemed to be about a conflagration in Harlem. I directioned towards the article with my chin. “So what happened over there?”

“Oh that? That was a Collyer’s Mansion,” said Frank.

“A what?”

“A Collyer’s Mansion. I guess you don’t know the lingo.”

“I sure don’t.” Frank told me about the two Collyer brothers that lived in a Harlem Brownstone until 1947. They were recluses who kept to themselves, and kept everything that passed through their hands. Their possessions grew into the home like a cancer, until there they had to tunnel their way through the mess to get from room to room. The brothers were eventually buried to death by their own stuff. 84 tons of debris and belongings were eventually removed from house, along with their decomposing bodies. Thereafter, any hoarder’s domicile was referred to as a Collyer’s Mansion, the worst nightmare of any firefighter.

The Daily News article was about a conflagration that happened at another hoarder’s residence in Harlem last year that raged through six apartments—but luckily didn’t claim any lives.

“It was really big and really bad.” Frank shook his head and folded his arms across his chest, still gripping the handle of his coffee mug. Then he didn’t say anything. No one said anything. The younger firefighters kept stamping away. I almost forgot they were there. The rhythm of the rubber on paper was as regular as a heartbeat. I left Frank to his thoughts and turned to the stampers.

“So how did you guys get stuck with this job?”

“We’re the new guys,” said the one with Diaz emblazoned on his shirt. Diaz looked at Frank and nodded. Frank nodded back.

“So who are the old guys? Who’s in charge?” The two shrugged at each other and looked at Frank again. Frank shrugged back.

“So how come you only have two stamps per page?”

“We need room for notes,” said the one with Payano emblazoned on his shirt. “It’s for the log.”

I had seen old FDNY logs once before, dating back to the 1920s. They were huge tomes with red covers and beautiful tiny script. The logs belonged to an old Irish barkeeper who was also a retired firefighter. He liberated them from his former firehouse and kept them at his bar in the Bronx.

“Wow, you guys still use logbooks?”

“Gotta have an archive,” said Payano. In fact, there was nothing in the kitchen to hint at the digital age. No computers, no tablets, no smartphones. Just a stove, fridge, counter, table and chairs, which is really all you need in a kitchen anyway.

A couple new faces sauntered in to take their places at the table. Other firefighters came bearing grocery bags. They acknowledged me and nodded hello. Some thumped them on the table like a sack of potatoes and others set them down as gingerly as they would have a one-year-old baby. I decided to leave the firefighters to their dinner routine, but wanted to use the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to make an awkward return in the near future.

“Would it be okay if I use your bathroom?” I asked Frank.

“Sure, um, I don’t know what state it’s in.” For the first time since I came Frank looked flustered. He turned to Diaz and Payano. “Can you guys check it out and see if it’s….safe?”

The two of them plunked their stamps on the table and swiftly and wordlessly got up.

“Look it’s okay, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“It is. We’re barbarians,” said one of the recent arrivals, who introduced himself as Joey. Joey said barbarians with a pirate-like gusto.

Soon Diaz and Payano scrambled back in and nodded at Frank, who nodded at me. I was keen on seeing what a firehouse bathroom looked like and was disappointed that this one was exceptionally ordinary, with a blue tile floor and a clean sink and toilet. There was no trace of any kind of mess. If these guys were barbarians they were also really good at cleaning up after themselves. Maybe cleaning just entailed making sure there were no dirty magazines and soiled Kleenexes lying around. I left the bathroom as I found it and went back to the kitchen to thank the firefighters for their hospitality.

In the short time I was gone more and more tall men had filled the kitchen with themselves and their grocery bags. They were just starting their shift and their physiques were not yet obscured by their uniforms. My gaze fell on one who was wearing a Uniqlo coat through which was evident the broadness of his shoulders and the narrowness of his hips. He had green eyes, a sleek jaw with a five-o-clock shadow, and hair thick enough to grab. He carried a paper bag from Whole Foods, out of which protruded some organic heirloom fingerling potatoes. He would have had me at hello, but to my frustration he just minded his own business, bending down to put some eggs, milk and meat in the fridge. His glutes and quads looked like they belonged to Cristiano Ronaldo.

I did not want to seem like the type to plaster my bedroom with past and present editions of the New York City Firefighters calendar, so I refocused my attention to Frank and thanked him for the coffee and the warmth and turned to leave when I saw a caricature someone had drawn on the whiteboard near the door. It was of a paunchy firefighter with droopy eyes, a crew cut, and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. I turned to Frank. “Who did this?”

“I did,” he said, emitting a laugh. “It’s Joey. See the resemblance?”

Joey had a slight paunch when slouched in his chair, and he did look a little tired. The resemblance ended there, though. The drawing must have been an inside joke. “Joey smokes?”

“Ask him.”

“Joey you smoke?” Joey shrugged, with his palms open and the edges of his mouth curling downward. “Keeps my hands warm.”

I shrugged too, and headed out into the cold.

*Not the real firehouse number!

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Barbarians

  1. The inertia you create from simple stuff is kinetic…..An ordinary visit to a bathroom becomes extraordinary. How fun! You write from the gut while tickling our ribs. Your cameos start where a camera stops…bravo.

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