Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004


Firefighters at Key Food; heroes among the aisles

By Heather Fenby

The firefighters are at Key Food again, shopping for dinner. They are not vegetarians. Their truck idles out front. They are jocular and large. They engender complicated emotions. Blocks away, and for almost a year, people would clap for them every time they went by. Even if they were on their way to Key Food, where it would just be too bizarre to clap. Nice rib steak choice!

We’ve all become inured to this cognitive dissonance. It’s part of the surreal triangulation in which our televisions show us codified images, wrapped in slogans and logos and words like “hero” and “rising”; images that somehow sanitize, flatten and call into question our lived experience. In Key Food, the familiar platitudes refuse to stick to these men. They’re not striding into dust under a waving flag graphic as part of a patriotic montage. But it’s hard to know how to behave. These are the exact guys, the very same ones, whose yellow-striped overcoats cause a tightening in the throat worldwide.

Their appeal is not new. Don DeLillo celebrated their straightforward, male pragmatism in his novel “Great Jones Street.” The firehouse, its community and purpose and energy, became symbolic counterpoint to his rock-star protagonist’s self-involved debauchery and gradual dissociation from the world. DeLillo got it right. I would pass the Great Jones house guys on my way to yoga. They’d be playing ball on the street, lounging on the bay doors and calling out good-humoredly to neighbors. They gave off a grounded solidity, and evoked some earlier New York where people watched out for one another, where lives were composed of small moments of connection, unfolding at a human pace.

At the Red Cross respite center closest to Ground Zero, my favorite task was at the boot washing station. Everyone who came through had to be hosed down, and it felt the simplest ritual, the most right. I was not the only volunteer who took enormous care not to dampen socks, who tried to channel bewildering, alien emotion through precise wielding of the hose.

It might be that, hours later, slightly uptown, I’d encounter those same men picking up their pizzas from Arturo’s. How to express our communion? How to offer just the right words, or maybe a restful silence?

Last night I dreamed that I was swimming in a sea that was so viscous I could hardly move. It looked normal, and the density seemed to be localized exactly where I was, as if I had entered some thick spot. When I woke up, I realized it must have been salt, and the phrase “Dead Sea” came to mind. Earlier in the dream, I had watched a line of victims from some unspecified disaster parade by. They were, literally, the walking dead. They were to be put in piles to be buried. But only I seemed to realize that they were not dead, simply frozen. Their only ability to communicate that was through their eyes; they could move their eyes just a little, and they were frantically semaphoring from them signals that no one could decipher. But if they were just left alone, not processed through the bureaucracy of the dead, they would awaken, fully functioning, slightly disoriented.

The firefighters are on television again. It’s the anniversary and maybe there’s more pathos and meaning to be harvested. At Key Food tonight, the air around the shopping men will be supercharged and dense. If you were religious, you might describe it as a halo. I feel it as the imparted magnetic afterimage of the gravity of ground zero itself, now dispersed and particulate, but no less powerful. It is just as unfathomable as its initiating event, just as untouched by word and repetitive image. The homage I pay is to let them shop in peace.

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