Applying to the SF Fire Dept Was Not What I Expected
Somewhere in between winter and spring of 2018, I was snooping around for a new job. My past was filled with low-brow, laughable, but wholly necessary jobs: hot dog cart guy for Stanley Steamers SF; bike delivery guy for Pita Pit and Pot Belly’s in the freezing Chicago winter; a mover; a caterer, a warehouse worker; a food runner at Whole Foods; Lyft and Uber Driver. I once applied to be a writer/editor for a gay porn website. My writing example was a fictitious humor piece about date turned romp with David Schwimmer or Ross from friends. I thought it was a great story. They did not.
As a millennial with an affection for the arts, more specifically for literature, books, and writing, I had no idea where to go with that desire in the sense of an actual job. I was in the throes of finishing my graduate degree at San Francisco State and no professor, advisor, or student had in any way share how they were going to make money with a 20-thousand dollar degree. Teach? I tried that, but I was a firm believer that I had nothing to share but my work at that point. Also, I sweat…profusely. The idea of me up there everyday rambling a lesson plan pouring putrid water from my pores trying to build a bridge from my brain to the fields of susceptible brains did not seem appealing. I just wanted to work on my novel, expand my toolbox of tricks and craft, and try not to drink so much I that couldn’t type.
Was that so much to ask?
Of course, it was.
This is America where the NEA receives 297 million dollars, only 0.042%—less than one-tenth of one percent—of state general fund expenditures.
Where does one go when they like stories? A bookstore? Sure, but so they’re dusty and does anyone else seem to notice how time stops in that place…like in a bad way? Stagnant. Yeesh. There is publishing, but the walls there are gray and the kitchens too big and there’s never enough actual literature happening there, more of the monetization of an idea that really, in the end, is, like all business. So, where does that leave me?
Att 7 PM on a Tuesday, I found myself alone at The Homestead of San Francisco, with a few pamphlets on how to become an SF firefighter. If you’ve never been to this ancient watering hole, it’s like being in a sailor with a peg leg’s favorite bar, taking a load off with other like-minded sea drifters. With a beer and a whiskey on the long planked bar sprinkled with peanut shells smelling of raging sweat, I noticed around my dangling legs there was at least ten dogs of all different sorts roaming about. None of them had leashes. Everything smelled of suds and sea air. Weirdly, I felt at home amongst the darkness and the rose tainted walls, a brilliant array of liquor bottles all singing their individual siren songs at wayward drifters simply looking for a place to plant their corpse for a second or, forever.
“What are you up to tonight?”
The bartender asked me this.
I ignored them, not on purpose, but there was this two-legged pooch licking its nuts. I had never seen that before.
“Looking to be a firefighter,” I heard myself say.
“Seriously?” they asked shocked. “A firefighter.”
“Yeah,” I said my voice getting closer. “I think so.”
“Why?” they asked.
I had to think about his question for a second. A voice told me the shot would help – make me think clearer, deeper. I tipped it back, let the acrid burn roll up my nose and down my throat. Thick like molasses and bitter like a small paycheck. One of those dogs yipped as the sound of piss on wood took the air. I hadn’t actually meditated on the dangers of the job or the actual communal responsibilities or even the level of selflessness one would have to possess to truly be a firefighter. All my assumptions were of course generated from public service announcements, the news media, and movies, because I didn’t know any firefighters. Something inside of myself told me I should just trust they were the heroes society said they were.
Which brought me right back around to the bartender’s question.
“Shit man,” I said. “I guess I just need a job.”
“We’re hiring,” the bartender scoffed. “And you don’t gotta’ burn.”
“Everybody’s burning,” I said mystically, immediately embarrassed.
“Shit,” I said sidetracking. “I gotta’ get going.” I slapped a ten on the bar. “That’ll cover it, yeah?”
“More than enough,” they said shrugging. “Come on back in celebration or failure. We’re good for both.”
“Why ya’ll stay in business,” I said. “Business is always good, either side of the tracks.”
The room itself had a stale, white poorly lit glow to it. Everything smelled of disinfectant and order. There were rules here; there was organization. Naturally, this made me uneasy. Making my way to a seat, I passed two gentlemen with their arms crossed in dark blue jumpers with expressionless faces plastered on their mugs. Would they smell the booze? I thought. Would they care? I smiled, said ‘hello, how are yah’, yeah, yeah, and they were motionless. This was not a place for antics or jovial reveries.
Seriously, I remembered the bartender balking. A firefighter?
I was in a serious place yet, I was just there for a job…
I calmed down when I saw there was a two-pack of Triscuit Crackers on the table appointed to each seat.
As soon as I sat, the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the floor.
What was shown right off the bat was one of those promo videos embellishing – aggrandizing – the hero aspects of the job. As I was watching, I felt and knew not to be duped by good lighting and poor words whose sole purpose was to trick minds to believe the reality – we are the ones who put ourselves in front of others on the day to day – and tie that shit up in a bow. I looked around at the other interested parties. One guy looked like a younger version of Bradley Whitford, followed by a mix of good-natured, solid soul-bearing youngsters looking for a place to put their energy. Then the video stopped.
The lights rose and the main lieutenant came to the podium.
Black guy with a crisp dark blue uniform on. I remember his shoulders were rolled back in a yoga kind of way and he had one of those mischevious smiles like he knew something about life that you didn’t, that you never would unless you’d been around for as long as he had.
“I’ve been here for almost thirty years,” he said chuckling. “But when you build a family-like you do here, it doesn’t feel like time. It feels like work that’s worth it.”
Jesus, I thought. I don’t want that kind of emotional baggage at work. Most I had ever had was looking for a missing pack of hot dogs…
But, the lieutenant went on.
“I’ll be frank with you…you’re going to have some of the most difficult moments of your life here.” A halved ripple of acknowledgment fluttered through the air. They understood this fact – the ones that had put in the community service, had gone to the off-site training, read the handbooks, heard the stories of victims and firefighters alike – nodded in respectful empathy. Then, there were the ones like me, the ones that had no idea what the hell was going on other than a decent paycheck, job security, and a decent insurance plan. “You may have your best friend die in your arms…you may have baby, something that happened just a few weeks ago, pass in your arms and…that’s impossible.” He stopped, tapped his jointed middle and pointer finger on the podium in a stunted drumbeat of the futility of man’s absurdity to be so perfect yet so fragile, then said, “But that’s our job…our job is to do the impossible.”
There was a round of questions asked to every candidate to see where they were in the process of becoming a firefighter.
“I thought you just kind of applied and got in,” I joked to the room of 50 – all silent. “Like Petco.”
After my impromptu jokes bombed, I would learn that most everyone in that classroom was devoted to becoming something more than a capitalistic provider. They wanted to be a service to those in need and, sitting there half-drunk in need of a new adventure and, to be honest, something I could write a story on, I see now I had no place being there. I heard stories of people working two jobs to pay for classes to better their scores for tests I would never even fathom taking. I heard histories of mothers who had tried but couldn’t because of the sexist times and they were the 2nd generation coming in fast. I heard tales of just wanting to be good, good for a state, for a city, for a community, for every citizen they believed their life was more valuable than their own.
I didn’t get the job.
I’ve got a lot learn.