only the names change

A week or so before leaving for Seattle, I had breakfast with Marian, Brandon, Robin, Emily, and Kate* at Paul’s. After breakfast we headed up a couple of blocks to the ABC comic and book emporium on Granville, which is a treasure trove of the sort of weird old adventure books I love. Every time I go there, I have to grab a chair from somewhere in the store and drag it back to the travel/adventure section, get up on it, and pull deteriorating paperbacks from stacks of books wedged between two tall bookshelves. The books are awesome, lots of vintage gems about mountain-climbing and traversing oceans in small sailboats, and being frozen into the arctic ice for multiple starving winters, and all that fun stuff. I always have better luck picking through unknown authors within this particular genre of rousing outdoor hi-jinx than I do with novels. I’m more picky when it comes to fiction, I guess.

So anyway, I got all excited about five or six books – one of which, about the first winter ascent of Denali, is now disintegrating page by page as I read it, which is irritating because it was clearly overpriced by not being, you know, free – and decided that the first book I’d read would be this one: Report from Engine Co. 82 by Dennis Smith. Now apparently this book is still in print and has about a hundred positive reviews on Amazon and so on, and the new editions look like this:

Okay fine, but the book’s apparent longevity does slightly annoy me. See, when I saw it I imagined it as this glorious Nixon-era treasure that nobody else my age would ever come across without my heroic intervention. Not only is it book about real-life fire fighting, which promises, you know, excitement, a smattering of morbidity and… um, actual heroic intervention, the cover of my copy looked like this:

Evocative, no? Look at that nonchalant pose on the back of that fire truck. That carefully placed helmet, the author’s cocky leer so at odds with the prominently displayed wedding ring.

Basically, I saw this cover (actually it’s the back cover but I saw this side first) and thought “this guy is the last guy on earth I would recommend to write a hard-hitting expose on pre-9-11 firefighting in the South Bronx, and therefore this will be HILARIOUS.”

And it is occasionally hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but I guess he actually knew what he was talking about, because the book is like a classic of firefighting literature now and I looked up Dennis Smith’s Wikipedia page and that is a thing that does actually exist. Then I went to his website and saw what he looks like today:

Boner kill! I mean, or possibly not? Silver fox! Whatever, I don’t even know anymore. You can bet, as I did, that this guy was all over September 11th 2001, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way.* I mean he did write a lot about it, yes. Though come to think of it, that’s probably distinctly un-hilarious, so let’s go back to his earlier days of fighting fires. And lighting them. In ladies pants.

So yeah, when Dennis (I call him Dennis) wrote RfECo.82, the United States was still in its  nutty phase where people didn’t know yet that presidents are generally creepy. All sorts of antics were going down. The South Bronx was apparently filled with tenements built out of matches or something, because they burned to the ground constantly. Where there is now a trendy bistro specializing in pork, there was once a flaming building filled with poor people who had this thing about seriously hating firefighters because firefighters are The Man.

Maybe these dudes shouldn't have taken their clothes off during that last fire. Now they're all sooty.

This was before firefighters were universally loved and had calenders that featured them greasy and shirtless, holding a dalmatian puppy in each hand and mouthing the words “I will always protect you”. In my mind. In fact, from reading RfECo.89, I sort of got the feeling Dennis Smith might have single-handedly changed the entire world’s perception of firefighters from “pig white motherfuckers” (a bunch of local kids chant this at Dennis and company throughout the book) to hunky multicultural rescuers you tend not to throw bricks at. That’s another thing people did when Nixon was president: throw bricks at firefighter’s heads, often when the firefighters were still doing that crazy-ass suicidal thing where they hung on to the back of the truck as it sped willy-nilly through the fiery, fiery streets.

Actually, early in the book you find out that one fireman was recently preforming this hang-on-for-your-life routine (anybody know why they did that in the first place?) and he lost his grip and hit the road going however-many miles per hour and bled out before help got there. What’s worse, the fire engine was racing to a false alarm at the time.

Oh yeah, so here’s the first instance of 1970’s Dennis being somewhat kooky. It turns out that the person who pulled the false alarm that led indirectly to the freak accident that led to the fireman dying on the street was a nine-year-old boy. In Dennis Smith’s own words:

“I do not advocate cutting off the child’s hand, but I do think he should have been institutionalized for year.”

Wait, Dennis, what? Surely by “institutionalized” you don’t mean…

“Anyone [he continues] found guilty of pulling a false alarm should be sent to jail for a year. Or, if under sixteen, to a reform school.”

Hmm. Bit harsh. I mean, kid was nine, it’s not like he threw a brick, and a South Bronx reform school in the 1970’s? Talk about school of hard knocks. You are going to turn that little boy into a hardened false-alarm-pulling, firefighter-hating machine. If he lives.

So anyway, Dennis fights a lot of fires, a lot of which are giant piles of garbage that kids or adults light on fire for fun, and more of which are those tenements built of matches I mentioned earlier, in which people die horrible deaths because the exits are chained up against burglars or because, in one case, a guy who hired a bunch of teenage arsonists to do their thing just waited until they’d covered the building with gas before tossing in a match and locking the door. It’s pretty much Gangs of New York-style mayhem without Daniel Day-Lewis and his facial hair around to make it entertaining.

Wow. This is getting long. Okay, here’s some more weird outdated stuff I found interesting:

Fact! This was back when firefighters only wore masks while fighting fires some of the time, like for example when they felt like running back to the truck to put one on, or when their supervisor was all “yep, looks like your face is burning off, better grab a mask.” It seems this wacky disregard for safety and oxygen led to the eventual death (by emphysema or throat cancer) of thousands of hardworking Nixon-era firefighters. Which isn’t in my old edition of the book because, you know, hindsight. So that’s depressing. I don’t know why, if they had the masks, they didn’t wear the masks all the time? Not that I’m blaming them, but just, man. Seriously. Wear some masks, guys.

Nixon-era firefighter. No mask.

Also fact! Almost all firefighters back then were chain smokers. During one dangerous escapade, a couple of firemen and Dennis are trapped on the floor above a fire, which is a very bad place to be, and the fire is all around them and their sudden crispy death seems eminent, when one wiseacre sticks a cigarette in his mouth and says “anyone got a match?” Yeah that was a big hit back at the firehouse, once they all got out alive. At one point Dennis talks about how he maybe should quit smoking for his health, but he’s going into all these burning chemical factories and whatnot without a mask anyway, so why bother? Hard to argue with that kind of logic.

Today's European firefighter. Lens flare!

But the weirdest scene in the whole book is this really out-of-place monologue in which Dennis pervs out over a Puerto Rican girl on the Lexington Avenue subway. Dennis is married and everything with three kids, no big deal, but he describes with bizarre and, (let’s face it), fucking creepy intensity how “the smoothness of her olive skin, the perfect symmetry of her lips, and the brightness of her dark brown eyes excited me beyond control.”

He continues: Her synthetic fur car coat is opened, showing a soft blue pleated skirt, which sits above the middle of her thigh. Tucked tightly into her skirt is a white nylon  blouse, her full rounded breasts pushing against it. The muscles in her legs slope gently, and the underside of her thighs sit flat on the hard plastic seat. Her whole body moves in small, graceful motions as the train starts and stops at the stations.

New paragraph: Thank God that she has not been victimized by the Seventh Avenue mid-calf skirt. [Man, haven't the police caught that skirt yet?] But even if she were, if her legs were completely covered, if I couldn’t see the shadowed triangle where her skirt falls over her thighs, if the nuances of movement were hidden beneath the modern style as she crosses and uncrosses her legs, even then, I would still have her face to look at…

Getting uncomfortable yet? Oh, don’t worry, he’s aware: She is made uneasy by my staring, and pretends to read all the advertisements plastered all over the car. She is probably wishing she had a book, a newspaper, or anything to focus her eyes on. I’ve taken possession of her beautiful face, and if I had a pencil and paper I could sketch her perfectly, even though I know nothing about drawing. Her eyes meet mine occasionally, but she turns quickly away, making a little movement with her lips. I can see as she turns, the soft, almost invisible down at the side of her cheek reflected in the light. How I would light to run the back of my fingers over it in an easy up and down way.

Right? Creepy right? But he’s not purely a lech: I am trying now to look at her in a different way. She is a human being, I say to myself, with friends, perhaps and husband she loves dearly…

Etc, it goes on like this while he tries to imagine her knowing “a lot about something, and enough about everthing, to make her interesting in ways other than sexual” until the train starts up again, “generating in my body a return to passionate perception. Stop it Stop it.”

Anyone else getting a heavy serial killer vibe from old Dennis? Now the best part:

Go sit next to her and say, “Hello, my name is Dennis, and I’ve been trying not to look at you in a dehumanizing, symbolic way, but as  real person, with feelings and intelligence, opinions and a point of view. I don’t care about the tightly tucked blouse, or the shadowed triangle. I want to know what you think, and why you think it. Do you think Spiro Agnew will be President? Will cybernetics ruin us? How are you handling future-shock? Are you a Consciousness III person?

Aren’t those questions fucking GREAT? I love it that they’re almost complete nonsense to me. I vaguely remembered Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s V.P. only because I was obsessed with Nixon for a couple of years in my late teens. But let’s see.

Will cybernetics ruin us?

Tough call. Let me just check-in with Wikipedia to get my exact definition straight… alright, okay. Will the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems, um, ruin us.? Still tricky. Let’s see. When I think of cybernetics, I think of things like artificial eyes and all of that T2-type shit, generally, so um, yeah. Yes. I think it’s safe to say that cybernetics have/has replaced us, and are/is using us as their cattle batteries, yes. Oh, right, and it’s almost impossible to make any money in publishing or the entertainment industry lately because of the dang internet but you don’t have to worry about that, Dennis, you’re going to be a National Best-Seller.

How are you handling future-shock?

Well, lately, you know, I’ve been doing some blogging. No really though, what the hell was going on when Nixon was president that was leaving people in future-shock? Electric typewriters? I’m sure they’ll be saying the same thing about us one day, ho ho ho, but yeah. I still love that question. So sensitive. So now.

Are you a Consciousness III person?

What’s that, like a communist? A stoner? I really did try to understand this concept, and the closest I came was this random musing online. It isn’t as interesting as it sounds, and it never sounded very interesting. But still, very sexy question. No doubt. What’s your sign?

The weird thing is that this detailed passage about the terrorized Puerto Rican commuter is by far the most lyrical or descriptive Dennis ever gets about anything in the whole book. There is an unfortunate incident [SPOILERS YOU GUYS] later on in which a baby is discovered burned to death in a hallway and Dennis’ description of the obviously traumatizing event (I mean he put it at the end of the book for a reason) is literally just another fireman saying to him “it’s a baby.” So why so much about the “shadowed triangle” on the subway for gods sake? Perhaps he was afraid his chain-smoking chums would call him queer for writing a book and wanted to prove otherwise. Who can say.

This book isn’t the hotbed of comedic inspiration I hoped it would be, but it does make me feel like a great citizen for not constantly setting people and buildings on fire, or pulling fire alarms when I haven’t set anything on fire, or throwing bricks and full garbage cans at firefighters even as they try to resuscitate me with their poisonous smoke-tarred mouths!

Also, I’m never riding on the subway ever again.

*I mention this not because it has anything to do with this overlong post, but because it makes me seem popular and Emily and Kate are really cool and I want to show off that I hung out with them, okay?

**nor do I mean that in a hinting-at-conspiracy sort of way. Yo crazy people! Stop looking to me for protection and leadership! Thank you!

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One Response to only the names change

  1. Sister says:

    I have always wondered what writers partners think when they read their beloveds books and discover an ackward description or love scene. Then I immediately jump to that shakespere sonnet “My ladies eyes are nothing like the sun”, or however it goes. Shakespere must have spent a night in the doghouse for that one, what was he thinking? I suspect old Dennis bunked with the dalmation the night his wife got hold of a copy.

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