Happier Days

by Susan Markisz
New York Times

New York has seen better days. With folks still reeling from the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, it has been difficult to find something to smile about. For New Yorkers, there is an underlying sadness; grief still feels palpable and raw. It feels like a death in the family, multiplied by thousands. New Yorkers are in mourning not only from an attack on our city, thousands of civilian deaths, economic casualties, but also the loss of 343 of New York's Bravest: firefighters and emergency workers who rushed into the World Trade Center as thousands fled the towers. It's personal here in the Big Apple.

Before September 11, New Yorkers quietly loved their firefighters and grieved silently with them when they lost a brother. After September 11, New Yorkers, once reserved in their admiration, became vocal and visual in their tributes. They expressed their condolences in a myriad of ways, with written tributes, and votive candles. New Yorkers went to their local firehouses and brought platters of food to places where food was legendary. New Yorkers stopped to chat with firefighters outside their local firehouses, that is when the men weren't sifting through debris at Ground Zero. New Yorkers distributed water and platters of food along Greenwich Street to firefighters and other workers. New Yorkers waved American flags along West Street and clapped and shouted "God bless you, we love you" as firefighters came off the pile or started their shifts at Ground Zero. New Yorkers sang "God Bless America," on street corners as firefighters passed by. New Yorkers who once might have loosely used the term "heroes," now reserve it for the real ones: New York's Bravest.

Men with a Purpose Firefighters on Greenwich Street, get ready to go on a shift at Ground Zero.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times
The pages of our newspapers are filled now with stories of funerals and memorial services. One longs to visit a firehouse that is not touched by sadness and loss. It will be a long time before things get back to normal, if they ever can.

It isn't the last images of firefighters that we're left with to grieve over; there are none. Three hundred and forty three of these guys simply disappeared into seemingly indestructible towers to do their jobs, and they never returned. The images we do have, are of their brothers, working tirelessly at the World Trade Center site, now called Ground Zero, to find the bodies of their brothers, and the bodies of the thousands of others who perished alongside them.

A few months ago, I was assigned to spend a day with Ladder 43 in Harlem, "El Barrio's Bravest," ironically enough, to see if they were taking care of themselves. It was one of those days full of lore and legend, and, well, a few calories too. Sadly, the story may seem a little trite now. But what comes to mind, is that firefighters of the New York Fire Department weren't just a giving community after September 11; they have always been committed to serving the neighborhoods of New York. They are compassionate, kind and hospitable, particularly to strangers and visitors to their house. In a word, they are simply the epitome of the best of New York. I offer this simple story here as a tribute to happier days.
Captain Al Hagan, of Ladder 43 asked me "Where ya been?" as I arrived at the firehouse on Third Avenue & 101st Street shortly after noon. "We almost left without you."


Al Hagan, Captain of Ladder 43 "El Barrio's Bravest" sets out with his crew to do a little marketing. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times 

Let's go shopping," he said, as a half dozen men of the 43 (and I) went to market. Parking is tedious if not impossible in NYC, so I kind of figured we'd be walking to the local grocery store. Nope. Everyone suits up for shopping expeditions and goes in the rig just in case they are called out on a run. The 43 responds to over 3600 calls a year. Shopping excursions and lunch have had to be postponed before. On this particular day, we made 4 stops: the butcher, the baker, the supermarket and a local bodega for a newspaper. As we pulled up in front of Casablanca on East 110th Street for chicken cutlets, owner Luis Perez greeted them outside the store.

George Hear, right, greets Casablanca owner Luis Perez, as firefighters from Ladder 43 head inside to pick up chicken cutlets for lunch. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times 
Folks on the sidewalk chatted with the guys; a mom brought her kids up to the rig for a closer look. People smiled as they passed by. After a stop at Eli's Bread on East 91st Street for whole grain and raisin bread, we stopped at a local C-town, where I followed a foursome of firefighters as they searched for the perfect veggies and other goodies, delighting more than one customer in the store. 

Gerard Suden, a firefighter with Ladder 43, El Barrio's Bravest, snacks on a pretzel as he stuffs produce into a compartment in the rig.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times.

On our way back to the 43, a gaggle of itty bitty nursery school children crossing the street with their teacher, stared in awe at the truck and the men who leaned out of the windows and waved. I could already tell what some of these kids wanted to be when they grew up. There's always been a mystique about firefighters. It's real. 

Back at the 43, lunch preparations got underway. Gerard Suden marinated the chicken and fired up the grill out in the back while Pat Cleary, Todd Fredrickson and George Hear chopped the snow peas, broccoli, romaine and onions for grilled vegetables and a salad. It was a meal fit for a king, during which they also dished up some dirt about the good natured rivalry between them and Engine 53, who they contend, do not cook as well as the 43, thus ensuing a lengthy discussion of Engine cooking vs. Ladder cooking. 

"Truck cooking is fine dining," Hagan insisted. 

George Hear, Todd Fredrickson and Gerard Suden of Ladder 43 "El Barrio's Bravest," shopped for fresh vegetables for lunch. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times 

A shopper at C-Town smiles as firefighters from El Barrio's Bravest, Ladder 43 pass by, while shopping for lunch.
.© Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

Firefighters from Ladder 43, Pat Cleary, George Hear, Todd Fredrickson and Gerard Suden all pitch in to prepare lunch. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times
Still, they all agreed they were eating much healthier, and keeping fit by working out in the gym inside the firehouse. Indeed, everything we brought back to the firehouse for lunch that day could not have been healthier. It wasn't until lunch was over that I happened upon a freezer full of ice cream, a stash of cookies and Entenmann's cakes. The spell wasn't so much broken as I realized they're only human Well, heroes larger than life, but human after all.
Firefighter Gerard Suden grills vegetables and chicken for lunch at Ladder 43, El Barrio's Bravest. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

Firefighters from Ladder 43, El Barrio's Bravest, are eating healthier these days: grilled chicken and vegetables, on a bed of greens. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times 

Firefighters from Ladder 43 are eating healthier these days.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times


Susan Markisz

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