Knowledge of what might happen, a sense of limits and possibilities, make New York firefighters' lives simultaneously extraordinary and essential.
"It wasn't in the plan for that morning," begins Dennis Gordon, New York City firefighter. "People woke up, they had their coffee, right? Just like they do every day." And then, he goes on, without pause, "Something tragic happens, whether it's a fire or an accident, and they're dead or somebody who's really important to them is killed." Now he takes a breath, looking at his off-camera interviewer. "You know, one day that's going to be our morning. We're gonna all get up one day and it's gonna be our last day and we have no idea."
Gordon's observation here, at the start of A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY, is at once mundane and unnerving, indicating an awareness of limits and possibilities that most people don't consider every day. While firefighters do consider this as a matter of course, the stories told here of first days on the job reveal how the firefighters control their fears. When, as 33-year veteran Rocky (Rochelle) Jones puts it, "your knees knock," or "your adrenalin starts," or again, as Joseph Esposito says, “You should be scared. That’s what keeps you alive.” Just so, former fireman Steve Buscemi remembers his first day: "I was actually praying that there wouldn't be a job."
Buscemi's self-deprecating storytelling helps to shape the documentary, but he's not unusual here. Each of the firefighters here reveals a nuanced, complex mindfulness, a sense that what they do is dangerous, but also rewarding, exciting, important, and, in a word, what they do. As much as they face the idea of mortality each day, they also see their work as necessary. "You put it in the back of your mind and you just go on," says Harriet Duren, "In New York City, the war is on fire." And so, each morning, they have their coffee and they go on each morning, anticipating that today, they'll have a good job, that is, a fire that's substantial. "You don't want to have a little one-room, stovetop fire," says Jones, a firefighter since 1982. "You want to have like, you know, one or two rooms, you want to put out a lot of fire."
Almost all the stories in Liz Garbus' documentary are like that, simultaneously noting the risk and also drawing your attention to context. "You don't feel sorry for yourself," when you come home from a fire, says Captain Brian McKeon. "Nothing happened to you, you didn't lose your life, you weren’t hurt." It's a calculation, however you articulate it to yourself or your family. You appreciate loss and you chance it. Viewers of the film, which premieres on HBO 8 September, will be aware of multiple contexts, of course, including the anniversary of 9/11, which inevitably brings with it stories of first responders. The subjects here have memories of that day, the sheer numbers of casualties, the people known and loved, the families affected. But the movie is careful too to frame that day with the many days that came before and after, the expectations of firefighters, the courage and consciousness and sense of humor too, that allow them to continue.
The film shows what the job can look like, with photos, footage, and headlines announcing damage done by fires or lives lost. Some of these images suggest the harrowing aspects of fighting fires, and some illustrate the sense of camaraderie that develops in the firehouse (in particular, in the kitchen, when firefighters cook and eat and clean up together). In between, Buscemi sits for an interview and conducts several, the interactions respectful and also, energetic. The storytellers share admiration for one another and also, an understanding of what shapes the job. "You don't even think your brain can work that fast," observes Jones. "It's the one time when I feel really focused," Gordon adds, but still, "You never have it 100%." That is, you might walk around the next corner and meet disaster: the floor might collapse, a wall might blow in, the fire might catch you.
It's not always only the fire that might trouble you. Harriet Duren recalls not only how hard it was to be a woman firefighter during the '80s, when the men on the job were less than welcoming (she and Jones both share stories of abuses and cruelties). She talks as well about what it was like to be a black woman. Though she grew up during the '60s going to white schools, she says, the only black student in her class. "I was always the first at doing something," he says, "That helped me, actually, in the firehouse."
It may have helped her too when she was almost killed in an accident, having entered a house on fire and made her way to what she describes as "the dead man's room," the room from which the victim had no escape except out the window. Here she met the fire head on, and so, she remembers, she closed her eyes and jumped Explosion I never saw a light like this—fire started up my neck—stood in the window closed my eyes and I jumped out the window. On the ground, she was surrounded by fellow firefighters. "I thought I was in heaven, I know it sounds silly, everything I'm saying to you."
But as she says it, it doesn't sound silly at all. It sounds true and incredible, as does the rest of her story. Though she didn't break anything, she was badly burned, and had to undergo skin grafts, and then, work through the post-traumatic stress that followed. "I was seeing people we had seen at fires," she explains, "dead people. It's just like being a soldier at war. You always ask why me, but if you're on the job long enough, you're gonna get hurt. Your time comes around."
Again, this knowledge, this sense of limits and possibilities, make the firefighters' lives simultaneously extraordinary and essential. If post-traumatic stress is something of an occupational hazard for firefighters, all races and all genders, they all find their own ways to survive. If they can't talk about it one way (it can be hard to convey the experience to spouses, for instance), they find other ways to express themselves, to communicate with one another, to explain to their loved ones. They share meals, the make jokes, they raise money for fellows stricken with illness or loss. A Good Job shows all of that, in fleeting moments, some poignant, others raucous, moments that reflect the stories they tell.