I nearly called this book “You Shoulda Been Here”, because no matter how much time I spent driving up to the South Bronx and Harlem and sitting around waiting for some action, the first words upon my arrival were those. You shoulda been here. Five minutes before you got here, ten minutes after you left.
So I moved into the back seat of the Chief’s car, right there on the apparatus floor between the truck and the engine. Females were not allowed unescorted after 10 at night, and they certainly could not sleep in the dorm, like male reporters could…
So for over a year I slept on the back seat, and I stayed at the firehouse six days and nights around the clock. Then home for two nights, processing film and making prints.
Then back to the car. It was cold and it wasn’t a posturepedic, but I got to go to all the jobs in my bed.
Like most kids, I wanted to be a fireman. I guess I forgot about it when I found out I was a girl. I didn’t even remember it a few years ago, when I photographed a fireman who saved a cat. But the picture stayed with me, and became one of my favorites.
I started noticing firemen a lot more, liking something about them. And gradually I began wanting to photograph them.
I’ve always admired them. They were for me the antithesis of all the meanness and cruelty you see in the papers and on the streets. There was an altruism in the very idea of a fireman that interested me. I wanted to see what they were like. What kind of guy will risk his neck for someone else’s? Will run into burning buildings, and feel responsible for every stranger who needs help ? You see them sick. Throwing up, passing out, black running out of their noses, even dying. And always coming back for more, welcoming it, playing the fire like a bull. Loving the action. Who are these guys?
They are different than most of us. They are always there when you need them.They care about people all of the time, not just during wars or blackouts or disasters. All of their energy is positive. Their job is to protect people. And so they are always there; they will come when no one else will. People know this, and when there is an emergency they think of firemen. They call them for fights, for accidents, broken pipes, lost kids, no heat, cats up trees, no water, for lonely and sick old people. Frightened people. And they always come. That’s their job. No one is afraid of a fireman.
They are like soldiers in that they will die for someone else, or someone else’s property.They are not like soldiers in that they will not kill. They are there to help people, not to hurt them. They bring life instead of death. Sometimes they are too late, and they always take it personally. “We lost two,” they say. We.
They are never sentimental. Drunks are sentimental, and war movies, where people live in the past. A fireman’s life is too immediate, too real for sentimentality. They are not modest, but they get a little embarrassed when you say hero. And if you ask one about a rescue he made, he walks away saying he was just doing his job. “That’s what I get paid for.” And how much do you pay a man’s widow when he’s bought it?
Because firefighting is the most dangerous job there is. You give it everything, and you take a beating. You have to be fast, and you have to be ready. And you have to know that the other men are, too. And so there’s a closeness that grows out of being in combat together. Knowing that your life depends on the man working next to you. Sure that if you’re ever in trouble, he’s coming for you. Sharing those moments that only someone who has been there can understand.
Like how that black smoke feels in your throat. The panic when your windpipe starts closing. What it’s like to be sick from the smells or the pity. The joy of bringing someone back, especially a child. Or failing. The scariness, crawling into blackness, wearing a heavy mask you can’t see out of, knowing that when your bell goes off you have to get out. Wondering where out is. The fear. The heat. Burning your ears crawling under beds to rescue babies which turn out to be dolls. Having it suddenly light up between you and the window. Or on the roof, the stairwell an incinerator.
Can you make it to the ladder, and is it there? The sounds of glass breaking, muffled shouts, somebody’s bell ringing somewhere off in the dark. Will you get out in time?
So here are firemen as I saw them. New York City firefighters. Not as front page spectaculars, but rather as they are every day, in the firehouse and out on the street. Handsome men, whose boots look good on their legs. Kids trust them. Buffs hound them. Junkyard dogs adopt them. Because they are something special.
Here are real men, and let me tell you, they cry, all right. And they joke around, hugging, kissing, and they mean it. They love each other and boy, is it nice to be around that. I hope a lot of kids see these pictures. There’s no way you can call a fireman a sissy. Let kids see that truly strong men are also soft and gentle; that men can love and respect each other; that being nice instead of nasty makes you feel good. And not a gun in sight.
Being with firemen re-kindled all kinds of unrealistic dreams. They showed me that not all wars are bad. Wars on rats and roaches aren’t bad. Wars on hunger would be nice, or on loneliness; building cities instead of destroying them. As it is, I saw the only firefights I can respect, fought in the only uniform I like. If men must fight wars, let them fight for life instead of death. Let them fight for their own species, not for other men’s ambition or profit. If we must have heroes, then let them be live ones. And if we give out medals, let them be for saving life, not for taking it.
As one woman in the South Bronx put it, “Thanks, firemen. There’s a lot of children live here.”