LOS ANGELES TIMES
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2002
in the Smoky Rubble Was the
Image of True Courage
September, my life was irreversibly changed by two phone calls.
One was from my father telling me a plane had just struck the
World Trade Center, only a few miles from the desk where I was
sitting. The second call came the next week from a friend of my
sister's looking for someone to help a fire captain compose
eulogies for the eight men he lost in the collapse. I answered the
call and was moved both by the experience and by the grace of the
man I was working with.
A few weeks later, when I was asked to write a
play about this experience, I agreed. The play--"The
Guys"--has been successful.
Yet the most that I can claim is that I've held
up a mirror, polished by journalistic technique, to reflect a
culture that people needed to know about, and through the power of
theater, presented it in a way that made an emotional connection.
One reason people seek this mirror is that, in
the rubble of the World Trade Center, we also encountered a
shattered self-image. New York in the 1990s was an exciting place
to be, but it wasn't always a kind one.
We were told that everything was for sale and
went to the highest bidder. If you were smart, you became a CEO
with those glorious stock options or a dot-com millionaire. Left
in the dust were us chumps, plodding along on a paycheck in a
Sometimes it seemed as though the rule was that
the greater the contribution, the stingier the public recognition.
Inner-city teachers and social workers striving to rescue lives
seemingly written off by everyone else. Librarians struggling with
shrinking budgets and shortened hours. Nurses laboring to put a
human face on managed care.
Firefighters have had the same gripes about
city budgets and stagnant pay as everyone else. But at the same
time--as I have come to learn--they love and celebrate the job.
Their trade secrets include the humor and
camaraderie of the firehouse, the unlikely combination of
structure and spontaneity in a day's work and the very nature of
the mission and the people it attracts.
Sept. 11 took a devastating toll on firefighters' workplace
companions and environment. Holding on to their collective
identity and asserting their core values have been part of the
When I wrote my play, I decided that I was not
simply going to write it and move on. To the extent that I was
welcome, I would accompany friends I made in the firehouses over
the difficult year ahead.
Their first few months after the attack were a
time of blinding, disorienting grief, disbelief and overload.
Even the firehouses that had no casualties
suffered the loss.
Every firefighter who survived Sept. 11 has
been tormented by the question: "Why him and not me?"
And every firefighter has family members who look at him
differently now when he goes out the door to work.
One of the trickiest aspects of the last year
has been the firefighters' relationship with the public. New York
firehouses traditionally are good-natured fixtures in the
neighborhoods and, in a city of walkers, have always made a
welcome pause along the way.
But there have been hordes of what the
firefighters call "well-wishers," laden with the best of
intentions but sometimes overwhelming gifts. So the officers have
had other tasks this year--rerouting thousands of teddy bears,
dispensing vast boxes of cookies and pies stacked to the ceiling.
Visitors arrived, unannounced, from many states and many lands,
and some firefighters complained that, at times, it was impossible
to hold a drill.
At the same time that the firefighters were
being deluged by symbols of sentiment, they were anxiously seeking
more concrete forms of support.
The city has been slow to remedy a quirk in the
pension system that might cost the department more than a third of
the senior officers and firefighters over the next few months just
when their knowledge and experience are needed the most.
Most firefighters are uncomfortable with the
"hero" label. They don't want to be canonized--they just
want to be liked, respected and given the tools they need to do
For my part, I think of them as role models.
I've made a point of taking frequent reality
checks and realizing that every community must have some flaws.
But what I see overall is a group of people who have the courage
and commitment to do work they love, in the company of people they
care about, for the good of the community.
They've taught me a lot.
ANNE NELSON, Anne Nelson is the author of "The Guys,"
which has been presented in a number of cities and has been
published by Random House.
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