“No one messes with the cook,” the senior firefighter said, watching my every movement. I was standing at a broad stainless-steel counter, trimming skin and fat off chicken breasts for dinner. I’d been warned that all eyes would be on me, the new guy, during this probationary period. I got the message: The firehouse could use a resident cook. Here I was, the rookie, trying to fit in—shouldn’t I volunteer?
Hell naw, I thought. My gay ass will not be Geoffrey, the butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, up in here.
In a roundabout way, the Great Recession of 2008 brought me to the fire station. I’d been doing media research for an ad agency when I was handed a cardboard box and told to pack up my cubicle. When every door in media and communications slammed, I considered enlisting in the military. But, in my mid-30s, I was too old to go that route. A few years later, when an ad for firefighters appeared in my weekly job search, I talked it over with my father. “They work 10 days a month,” he said. “You ain’t got no pension, no house, no savings. If you get on, don’t turn ’em down. You need a job!”
I was claustrophobic and mechanically challenged, and had other concerns besides. “Don’t trip about the gay thing,” my father said. “I raised you to not put limits on yourself.” His words became a mantra whenever I started to feel exhausted, physically or emotionally, during training—a grueling process that can take up to a year, where would-be firefighters need to pass everything from a psychological exam to a physical-agility test. When the shit hits the fan, can you pull a colleague out of a burning building? Can you carry 100 pounds of tools and equipment up several flights of stairs?
I also needed to learn some things they don’t teach you in fire academy. Firefighters, I knew, are supposed to be good cooks. The old-school captains are adamant that the best fire crews make meals and eat them together. Once I joined my first crew, when we assembled for morning meeting, the most important question was always: What’s for dinner?
Shared meals are a fact of life at most firehouses in the United States—a custom well-known enough it’s been analyzed by scholars who’ve found that firefighters who eat together tend to perform better as a team. At our station, just north of Midtown, we worked 24-hour shifts and rotated cooking chores. I remembered some advice I once heard from Wendy Williams, back when she was a radio host, that everybody should master the preparation of five hot meals—so I taught myself to make dinners including baked chicken, yellow rice, and roasted broccoli, and lemon pepper and buffalo wings fried hard, served with regular or sweet potato fries.
Friday was wing day. On Meatloaf Monday, Sergeant Cory—a veteran firefighter with no filter between his brain and his mouth—prepared the main dish plus butter beans, cornbread, and mashed potatoes. For Taco Tuesday, CK browned ground beef with a package of chili spices (I contributed homemade guacamole). Wednesday was Alex’s Chicken Slop, a casserole made of pulled rotisserie chicken from Kroger or Publix, mixed vegetables, and yogurt—dusted off with crumbled Cheez-Its. Other days, we improvised. Sometimes, neighbors chipped in: Food from local rib joints, Irish pubs, American grills, pizzerias, and sandwich shops frequently arrived at the station.
I once offered to make a pot of oxtails with rice and peas, but Cory told me not to bother—he said that tail involved too much effort for too little meat. Sometimes, I reflected on how surreal it was that I ended up working in one of our culture’s most hypermasculine workplaces—in the South, no less. I’m Black, gay, and from Madison, Wisconsin. The crew at this station was half white, half Black, and all male. When I arrived to start my shift, it was not unusual to see Fox News on TV or hear praise for Donald Trump, whose campaign for president got underway when I was a rookie at my first firehouse.
Being around the same people 24 hours a day creates an intimacy that makes the firehouse different from other professional environments. Our workflow consists of eating, cleaning, training, and waiting on calls, and the downtime gives way to conversations that range from the mundane to the macabre. Often, the dramatic events of the street follow us back into the quieter confines of the firehouse. And, conversely, the intimacies forged over shared meals are tested in the heat of the moment.
• • •
A little after 3 a.m. on January 9, 2016, our engine reached the scene of the most horrifying accident I’ve witnessed. Rain that morning had made the asphalt slippery on a Midtown overpass, and the driver of an Audi A3 lost control, careening through a barrier. The car landed on its hood on northbound Interstate 75, flattened to a third of its original height.
As we arrived, we saw the wheels of a baby stroller protruding through the trunk, still spinning. We needed a special operations tactical unit to raise the car a couple inches, allowing us to get the jammed doors open and revealing limbs sporting Nike Jordans, denim jeans, and other urban athletic wear. No baby was inside, but all three occupants of the vehicle—three Black men—had died on impact.
As lights flashed from our fire engine, police shut down three miles of I-75. The medical examiner rolled up to take photographs. The officer in charge instructed me and a coworker to suit up in the special Tyvek suits that protect us from blood and airborne pathogens. My colleague Cory, who is white, helped zip me up, wrapping duct tape around my wrists to ensure that no skin was exposed when I helped pull the lifeless bodies from the car. “They must’ve carjacked somebody and were out joyriding when they crashed,” Cory said.
It was just an idle comment, offered blithely while we went about our work. But Cory’s words shook me.
This wasn’t the time to go off on him and drag his ass across the highway. My job was to extricate the victims from the vehicle. But four days later, determined to show my colleague the humanity of these men, I attended the homegoing for one of the casualties of the accident—the first funeral for a victim I’d been to as a firefighter. All three men were gay, according to news reports; they’d attended a birthday party together earlier in the evening of the crash. The funeral I attended was for a 33-year-old who worked in healthcare management, remembered by mourners as having lived a sweet life. When I brought the funeral program back to the firehouse, I showed it to Cory. He told me he hadn’t meant any offense. “I spent years working in the metro area’s roughest neighborhoods,” he said. “You see enough of the worst in people and you begin to assume the worst.”
If I’m honest, I have my own preconceived ideas about Southern white men—the first being that they can’t cook. Cory’s butter beans and cornbread are damn good. But there is only so much a meatloaf can do to bridge divides of race, culture, and belief. I’m not on that first crew anymore, and no longer a rookie; I’ve now been fighting fires for nearly a decade. It was that experience on the Midtown expressway that made me realize that my job was more than protecting lives and property—it was changing perspectives, too. There’s so much work left for all of us.
This article appears in our July 2021 issue.