9 June 2007...2:10 pm

Multiple Dwelling

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I woke up at 7:30 this morning to go to the Fire Library. “Fire library!?” asks my little sister, who spent the better part of her toddler-hood wearing a toy fire hat backwards so the brim stuck out like a baseball cap. Yes, Hannah, the Fire Library. The Fire Academy Library, in fact.

The New York Fire Department trains its recruits–probies–on Randall’s Island, which I’d only known as (1) not Roosevelt Island and (2) the source of perpetual family debate on the way to Shea Stadium. Was there a prison there? What the heck was that building with impossibly small windows and, I was observant enough to point out this spring, selectively positioned window air-conditioning units? Some prisoners got sweaty and others kept their pinstripes crisp?

It turns out the prison has closed, and in its place are drug treatment centers, a mental institution, and acres and acres of firefighter training grounds. I was told the library operates on a “fireman’s” schedule–doors open at 6am and, this afternoon, everyone was gone by 3. I spent most of the day looking over statistics, but I left for an hour around lunchtime (and, on that schedule, I was thinking about lunch by ten). My other companion at the library–a former responder on Engine 10, or 1, or something (whichever numeral merits Tribeca)–was a member of that massive cross-section of the U.S. citizenry who sit at desks all day and are greeted every few minutes with the iconic America Online mail call. Those people click frantically at whatever links their aunts have forwarded and immediately exclaim “a woman fed her husband to the fish!” And, “a wheelchair! It traveled seven miles on the grill of a semi!” (Must have been some wheelchair, I said).

The big news on campus (campus? I’m not sure, but there was landscaping, and more than one circular drive. Also chief-designated parking: yes, campus) today was a media event wherein members of the press would experience a hot morning in heavy firesuits; the volunteer head librarian–an Honorary Chief who sleeps with a beeper next to his bed, insuring that he will be alerted of every two alarm fire in the United States–enthusiastically billed the spectacle as “Feel Like What It Is To Be A Fireman For A Day,” and I’m not a better abstracter than that.

I left the library to go check it out, and I smelled Quetzaltenango. The air in poor cities takes on the resolute odor of burning rubber, decaying trash, and leaded gasoline exhaust. I smell it when my mother heats up spaghetti sauce on Monday nights, too. The press folks’ first assignment was to hold a hose up against the flaming metal echo of car

that, conveniently and, I realized, suspiciously (!), managed to self-reignite each time a new magazine crew suited up to take its turn. After I’d caught on to the grand deception of civilian hose management, I figured wandering around was the second most interesting thing. I walked between two decoy buildings, one of which was smoking out of its windows and one of which was conveniently labeled “Multiple Dwelling.” It was the municipal bowels’ answer to Epcot.

Before the river, which was sparkling and breezy and obscured by nine feet of chain-link, there was a line of crushed, forgotten cars–Plymouth vans and Peugeot station wagons and the odd Ford coupe. They stood in row that ended at the kind of white linoleum trailer in which elementary schools serve their students slices of damp, square pizza. This trailer’s sign read “Hazmat Operations Training School,” and I’m pretty sure there was an unattended trash fire smoldering outside.

I went back to the library to ask the non-volunteer librarian about all of the fake buildings. He told me that there’s an entire town inside Building 5, kind of, with false store fronts and construction materials with varying degrees of flammability, but that the architect had forgotten to include a drainage system, so there would never been any fire-fight training there. He was rueful about the whole academy, it seemed–working inside was not what he wanted to do, but he’d gone on “quiet duty” a year or so after September 11th. He was hoping, maybe, to be returned to the field, or maybe go back to his old job as a UPS delivery guy? “Emma,” he told me, “there is something about women and UPS men. You think, yeah, chicks will like the firefighters? Let me tell you, I never got as many women as when I was working at UPS.”

“Uh, well,” I said, “men in shorts? And maybe it’s just more realistic to have a fantasy that doesn’t involve a cat in a tree or the threat of imminent scarring?” He laughed. I suggested that if he were considering a career change, maybe he could just become a librarian for real. I didn’t mention how conveniently such a decision would play into my fantasy.

“Nah, nah. Being with books all day is not for me. But you know what, Emma?” I love lessons. I said I didn’t know what.

“You know what? I go into a library now,” (he goes into libraries?)

“and I take something off the shelf,” (he takes things off the shelf??)

“and, now, I always put it back where it belongs. The guys that come in here? It kills me. They don’t care. I’m like, fellas, you’re killing me.”

“Your perspective has expanded!” I was weirdly triumphant. “Every firefighter should have to work as a librarian!”

He admitted that I was probably right.

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