The Firefighter Next Door
by Kate Clinton
On Monday night, September 10, we finally had our across-the-hall neighbors, Kevin and Jen, over for dinner.
Jen had recently quit her job with MTV International and was home more. A year ago, they bought two apartments across from us, and when he wasn't working as a fireman, Kevin was doing most of the construction to combine them. Whenever there was some problem in our place, I'd ask him over to look at it. He'd look, nod, and invariably say, "I gotta guy."
Over dinner, I asked Kevin how he came to be a fireman. He told a long story of all the jobs he'd had, interrupted by Jen kicking him under the table, teasing him about rambling. I loved both the looping narrative and their familiarity with each other. Later, when they got back to their apartment, she told him he was starting to tell Aunt Patty stories.
On Tuesday morning, Kevin reported for the 9 a.m. shift. The call came from the World Trade Center at 9:05. His ladder company was out of the firehouse at 9:08. That night, we went down to sit with Jen at the firehouse as she met firemen returning for a shower and a three-hour nap. She said that the fire department is very strict about making the fighters take a break. When Kevin was not in the first wave of returnees, she knew his storied luck had run out. Our "I-gotta-guy" guy did not come back.
The next days were a blur of locating friends and family, hearing stories, watching television, feeling nauseous, and cooking. We invited people over for Saturday night dinner, just to do something, to be together. Our one-bedroom, upper West Side apartment is small, but we squeezed in fifteen for dinner and opened our doors to Kevin and Jen's large family across the hall. We wandered back and forth. I met Aunt Patty.
Just as people were arriving for dinner, we got a call from a friend who lives downtown. After a quick check-in, she said that people were meeting on Sunday night to discuss what to do. I said we'd be there. My girlfriend was shocked because, unlike her, I am not a group person. If there are more than twenty-five people in a room, I would rather grab a microphone, move us out in an hour, and get paid.
Sunday night, with just a few initial phone calls, fifty people showed up. I generally have no patience with going around the room, saying your name and a few self-identifying sentences. Process is for cheese. But as each person took her turn, my resistance wore down, and the fear and despair of the week began to recede.
Then longtime New York activist Jessica Neuwirth read the petition she'd written, called "New Yorkers Say No to War" (www.petitiononline.com/notowar/petition.html). Out of that petition, we decided to start a group. Then followed hours of discussion about what to call ourselves. Was it better to use a peace frame, or was it more effective to use a security frame? There was that "let-me-be-the devil's-advocate" fellow I loathe, who kept bringing up important points.
We decided to meet again the following Tuesday night. I surprised myself and volunteered to be on the committee to help set the next meeting's agenda. We met for two more hours. Among us were exhausted activists who had finally returned from the racism conference in South Africa, cagey former Act-Uppers, and Vagina Monologue-ists. I have renewed admiration for my girlfriend's twenty-five years of such meetings.
We gathered again, more of us, with news of what else was happening in the city. We got reports from attorneys specializing in international law and from folks at the United Nations. After more discussion of the inclusiveness of the petition (Should it specifically include Afghan women? Should it mention the death penalty?), we broke into committees: arts, fundraising, actions, media, connectivity. We reported back. We scheduled the next meeting.
After each long session, I went out to dinner with a cadre of friends, hungry for their sweet faces and no longer willing to accept that New Yorkers are just too busy to get together.
Late each night, when my girlfriend and I returned from our peace meals, we would see huge piles of shoes outside Kevin and Jen's apartment. We would knock, open the unlocked door, and walk in to see their relatives all crammed in, looking grim and spent. They were all in stockinged feet, to honor Kevin's newly polished parquet floors.
Slowly, the reports changed from "still no news" to "we haven't given up hope" to "we gave them DNA samples."
In the days since, I've thought of telling Jen about our work, but each time her grief has stopped me, and I don't want to do anything that might close the doors between our apartments.
-Kate "Comedy Equals Tragedy Plus Time" Clinton is a humorist.