hell, there it is, tomato-red and baking in the southern California sun. It takes
me a moment to focus on the familiar sight of it through the school spirit banners
sloppily painted by toddlers on deadline, beyond the wilted houseplants for sale
and the decorate-your-own-stale-cookie tables that constitute the school fair.
My daughter, a kindergartner here, spots it first.
says my son, two years younger.
climb aboard!" She points erratically with one hand, dragging me forward
with the other. "They actually let you climb aboard, Dad. Is that
like your fire truck?"
it isn't. I am not, that is, a firefighter. Not anymore. Not since '99, when I
left the volunteer fire company of Garrison, New York to move back to Manhattan,
to have children, and to get a job at a media company that turned into a job at
a television studio that landed me in Los Angeles. I have been here long enough,
in other words -- almost three years -- to know what's typical LA. Parking a fire
truck and a couple sweating firefighters at a school fair is typical LA. There's
a sense here that the rest of the world and all its far-flung options can be hand-delivered
for a price, spontaneously ordered on salads, commanded to appear for the amusement
of our youth. This is the home of petting zoos in backyards for birthdays. At
Christmas my son's preschool arranges for its playground to be coated in manufactured
snow. We are custom-coddled here; even me -- especially me, with my reserved parking
space on a sunny Hollywood lot, with my air-conditioned office and tall blonde
assistant who asks my visitors if they'd prefer their bottled water at room temperature
or chilled. This is what we hope for: that life gets not harder but softer. But
it leaves me off-balance, quietly itching for a fight, and, unlike the old days
in Garrison, with no one to save.
let you try on the suit! Dad! I want to try on the suit!"
sit down to stuff her legs into the rubber boots so she can teeter and grin. My
son makes me drape the turnout coat over his shoulders and it flattens him to
the ground. There's a heavy helmet, too; but, I notice with something like satisfaction,
no Nomex. "You're supposed to wear a hood," I haughtily instruct my
children. "Under the helmet. It's called a Nomex. That's the material. It's
fireproof. It keeps hot things -- called embers -- from hitting
you in the neck and going down your back. But these clothes are just for dress-up.
Like your Supergirl costume. These are just for pretend --"
is over there," growls one of the firefighters, looming above us, scaring
the crap out of me. He jabs a finger to my left.
it is. Got it." I give him the no-nonsense nod of a former colleague.
daughter hollers from the side of the truck that it's time to climb aboard. I
tell her to go ahead. I help her brother clamber up after her. They make me join
them in the cab. As she riddles me with questions, and as he curiously presses
first his eye and then his tongue to the hand radio, I avoid the glances of the
glowering firefighters through the windshield. For me, now, to put out a fire
is to make sure the busty star of a sitcom doesn't fuck up her table read. A few
years ago, midnight could be split open with the shrill of a siren, and a screaming
truck ride to a fatal car accident or flaming barn. Now there is only an alarming
tone to a late-night email before I rise valiantly to the occasion by Blackberrying
a clever response and going to bed.
kids finally dismount from the cab of the truck to sprint into an inflatable bouncy
mountain that's supposed to be, with its climbing net and rubbery hurdles, an
army obstacle course.
standing beside me as we watch our kids, is a Creative Type. You can tell the
Creative Types in LA by their ultra-casual flouting of any kind of dumb corporate
dress code -- and thus their adoption of the dumbest dress code imaginable. Every
one of these writers and producers looks the same: emphatically uncombed hair,
retro tee shirt, mandatory jeans and garishly colored vintage sneakers. This one
(extra credit) is drinking a Slurpee.
get me on that thing." He indicates the bouncy military course with his straw.
"Day like today? Lose ten pounds."
has a point. My kids are visibly sweating and smudged with the black of hot rubber.
His son, older and bigger and faster than them, actually looks like he could be
in the army.
that I couldn't use it," he goes on, dead serious. "I should do one
of those boot-camp workouts. See those guys at the park in Silverlake every morning.
Kicks your ass. That's what I need," he confides. "Someone to kick my
ass a little. Throw a medicine ball at me." He slurps his Slurpee. "You
ever work out with a medicine ball?"
something's wrong. My son is wedged between two inflatable soldiers, having tried
to burrow through them. He is strangled there, being scorched. I leap over the
bouncy wall and start climbing. Once I had to crawl on my hands and knees through
an old folks' home at three in the morning, evacuating the oldies one by one while
the house leaked carbon monoxide. My daughter is pulling weakly at one of the
fake soldiers as her brother shrieks. Another time I used the Jaws of Life to
extricate a three hundred and fifty pound dead woman from her totaled Honda Civic.
I have to climb over the goddamned rubber net and almost fall off the edge. I
extinguished a car fire minutes before the flames climbed into the roadside trees
and lit a mile of woods. My son shrieks again, but my feet keep slipping. I loaded
a beheaded motorcyclist into an ambulance and spent an hour kicking through the
bushes with the cops till we found the head. I finally lunge and land next to
my son, possibly breaking my wrist. But by then my daughter has freed him. She
is sitting, bouncing slightly, with her brother in her lap and the two of them
are giggling -- laughing crazily now, their cheeks and arms smeared black.
is a slurp from my immediate right. "Hot, right." I realize that the
Creative Type has walked along with me and is standing, his head beside mine,
feet away. "Told you it'd be hot."
comes to me, then, that we might never be able to have what we want and be what
we want at the same time. That life may actually be a series of lives, each of
them as urgent and then as over as a midnight call. But if we're lucky enough
to have choices, and man enough to make them, then we have to be tough enough
to let our previous toughness go. Then something else comes over me: a thirst
to enjoy those choices, to live in the soft and frigging eucalyptus-scented present
tense with my children, with my smart wife and my frequently funny scripts and
my ignorable emails. It's a thirst worth having, I think. And it comes to me that
a Slurpee -- hell, why not, day like today -- is a decent start.
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