Six years ago today, I drank Guinness Stout and Jameson's whiskey in O'Hara's Bar, a low ceilinged place with brass rails, checked tile floors, yellowed white walls, and stools with worn green fake leather cushions. O'Hara's is tucked neatly on the corner of Cedar Street in the shadow of the Liberty Street firehouse, directly behind and one half block from where the World Trade Center once stood.
I'd been there six, maybe seven hours when I ordered a tenth Guinness and fifth whiskey. Neon shone above me and I remember raising my face to bask in the gaslight, enjoying the charming buzz only men who'd quaffed nine beers and four whiskeys could know.
It was a perfect drunk---one that slowed time, yet allowed me to remain sharp and bright as that neon. It was not the kind of sloppy drunk that encouraged men to piss their pants or fall off bar stools.
And even if it had been, I wasn't worried---I'd never been that kind of drinker.
The pants I did not piss that day were what I called “buffet” pants: itchy black polyester with a band of elastic at the waist. A proper fireman's uniform required quartermaster issued dark navy blue trousers with a crisp crease and loops for a real belt. My official trousers lay crumpled in the bottom of my closet or buried in the backseat of my truck.
My uniform jacket fit, as long as it remained unbuttoned. The jacket's left chest bore medals I'd collected during my nine and a half years on the job, all won the summer of 2000 when a blown pilot light and an innocent flick of a switch took down three floors of a Brooklyn brownstone yards from my firehouse on State Street.
Three people died.
I'd found a fourth, alive, in the cellar---an old man mumbling, “Miles, Miles, where is my Miles?” His hair was snow white and stood pin straight from his bloodied head. “Where is Miles?” he asked. I'd laid my hand on his arm and remember wanting to tell him something-anything---when Miles appeared over the old man's shoulder. He was doing dishes in a pristinely cluttered kitchen. And brushing his teeth in a white tiled bathroom. Or was he walking a dog in Prospect Park?
I saw Miles never hearing the explosion that knocked dishes off the wall in my firehouse half a block away.
A great fireman from Ladder 110, one I'd always admired, bulled through the rubble from the rear into the cellar. I smiled at him and thought about Miles reaching for that light switch but never about the brick, wood beams, pipe, beds, clothes, doors, knives, forks, plates, and cantilevered floors that balanced over our heads. The fireman from 110 lifted the old man then carried him into the safety of hundred-year-old Brooklyn elms in the yard. Other firemen began wading into the debris.
I remember thinking that I should move, that I was in their way or that I might be standing on Miles. I pictured him flat as a pancake with jaunty cartoon X's for eyes. I began searching for Miles when something, or someone, grabbed my leg. I tried to scream. Gas from the leak coated my tongue. I was afraid to look down. When I did, I saw that a gray tomcat had curled himself around my black leather fireman's boots.
Weeks later I learned the cat's name was Miles.
Six or seven years ago, I'd sat on that barstool and looked at the medals on my chest. They were washed green and red and neon blue and I drank more and tried to ignore the ghost of my Marine Corps drill instructor screaming insults every time I sat, stood, or stretched in my ridiculous pants. An angry red stripe had cut tight across my lumberjack belly despite the elastic. The bartender tossed a wet, sour rag on the bar in front of me. I picked it up by the corner and dropped it on the floor. I didn't want to stain my pants. They had served a purpose. The jacket, too. They were part of a costume. They were the scuffed black Keds poking out of the bottom of a small boy's plastic Superman costume--- the kind of shoes never shiny and red enough to make a boy truly believe he was a superhero.
O'Hara's was packed with firemen from all over the globe that day. They drank like moonshiners and fawned over a spattering of FDNY firemen holding court in the corner. When I looked at my brother firemen, I imagined we looked like the random few native New Yorkers who reveled in Times Square on New Year's Eve, necks stretched skyward like wide-eyed science teachers from Ohio or stay at home moms from Wichita, Kansas.
I'd buried my nose in the black stuff and did my best to ignore the party hats and noisemakers I saw shimmering in the barroom haze. Fire company patches from California and Spain and Minnesota were ripped off uniform sleeves and stapled to the low ceiling and the crowd roared every time like it was the first time.
The harried bartender had pretended he didn't hear me when I asked about the old man who'd been working the bar on the 11th. Ignoring him ignoring me, I'd waited for someone to inform him that six or seven or eight years ago, I was there too.
I'd stroll outside the bar from time to time to take phone calls, real or imagined, or to look up and down the block with narrowed eyes as if searching for a tardy friend. I'd leaned against the scaffolding surrounding the still damaged building and breathed great mouthfuls of second hand smoke until my eyes watered. Then I waited, red faced and coughing for someone to nod solemnly, to know the cough was from the ash and smoke and grit and sweet baby Jesus who knows what else I'd swallowed that day.
I'd spat in the gutter hoping the smokers knew it was from the cancer I prayed wiggled through my body like termites.
The glasses piled up. By 10pm, I believed it really was New Year's Eve. I'd traded the 226 memorial bracelet, the one I took off only in the shower, for a sweat stained London Fire Brigade hat. I'd rambled about the men memorialized on the small bracelet, how they were more than tiny scratched names on a black metal band. I told the English fireman about the old bartender I'd seen that day six or seven or eight years ago, how we were now sitting in that very bar and how the old man's face was covered in dust, streaked wet with sweat or tears as he struggled to close the heavy door and metal gate.
I pointed through the bar's window to the back of the firehouse across a street that was really more alley than street and told how I'd pulled crying civilians and one damaged fireman from the broken back window of the firehouse.
I remember the fireman from England, or was it California or Wichita? nodding politely before gushing about how brave we were. I nudged my pint to the floor reaching for the second or third whiskey he'd bought me. The sound of shattering glass made me jump and I'd wished I hadn't switched positions that day and I drank more. I knew the Englishman wanted to be involved, wanted to really know. He yearned to touch me so he could touch that day--- to be part of it--- and I'd point to the bracelet on his wrist, not mine, and say no, no they were the brave ones, they charged into those buildings I stayed outside doing my job and they went up those stairs and I'd twist his arm and point to the bracelet and say you see this name right here? that's the man I switched with, the man who saved my life, and my shoes ground the broken pint glass into the checked tile floor and I would have went up too I swear I tried to go up but it was my job to stay and pump water into the building but they were in the building and I ran when they came down but I never left, I never left my friends and then I retired and then my stomach fell into my shoes and my balls crawled into my fat goddamn belly and I hated the Englishman for wanting to know for wanting to touch me to be me to have my medals and my FDNY patch and memories and I'd drink and try to raise hell to remember/honor my friends and I ran for the door barreled through the visiting firemen random bagpipers and bikers wrapped in American flags clogging the street that was really more alley than street and sometimes I'd get the bracelet back and sometimes I wouldn't and sometimes I'd stay and sometimes I'd leave and always I raged broke windows teeth small bones in my hand and I'd try to remember how many bracelets remained from the handful I kept wrapped safely in felt in the top drawer of my dresser at home a thousand miles away.
That was six, or seven, or maybe, just maybe eight years ago.
I don't know. It's hard to remember.
It's even harder to forget the things you remember.
Last year, I didn't go to O'Haras. I locked my door and pulled the shades.
I busied myself reading a thin book about men carrying things in Vietnam.
I didn't drink stout. I didn't sip whiskey.
The pants with the elastic band? Stuffed in a black plastic trash bag.
A girl who'd refused to let me hurt her also refused to let me to crawl under my bed. When I wept, she ran sweet, soft hands over my ugly knuckles.
She is a wonderfully freckled southern girl and she smells like sunlight and I thought she might be my love. She whisper-cooed in my ear when I tried to run into the street, run to O'Hara's or a place that wasn't O'Hara's in the shadow of where the World Trade Center once stood.
The girl held me tight when men in the book died and held me even tighter when the author of the book about men carrying heavy things in a jungle a thousand miles from home spoke of watching men die.
This year, I don't want to go to O'Hara's. I don't know where I'll be. Maybe under my bed, alone, or in the mountains of upstate New York with the girl. Maybe I'll run a trail through the woods. Or fall asleep in the girl's arms.
Most likely I'll read.
Maybe I'll cry.
Wherever I am, I will try not to think of my friends.
This year, I pray to honor these men by ignoring them.