Somebody much better looking would need to play me in the movie version—taller, with only one chin, majestic and square. His hair would be dark, but the eyes would be clear blue so you knew you could trust him, and becoming a cop would have been this guy’s calling since he was a kid. On September 11, 2001, he’d be choking on white dust, just like me. He’d scramble away from the fires on a spiderweb of hot steel beams, rubber soles melting. He’d be the type that gave a fuck, and was out to save the world, not like me.
I took the job because I was sick of sleeping on the couch at my parents’ house and I needed a steady paycheck, but that shit doesn’t play in movies. And anyway, no one’s trying to make a movie about cops doing post-9/11 rescue and recovery, set in May 2002. The fires are out, the press is gone, and it’s just dirty overalls, back-breaking cleanup, and getting in as many hours of overtime as we can. Movie cops never care about paid overtime—they love working around the clock for free. In real life, we’re racking up time-and-a-half.
If you want to know the truth, by now, there aren’t very many remains left to recover. We’re mostly stuck vouchering cars and personal effects. This scene would end up on the cutting room floor, too: I pop open the smashed-in trunk of a Caddy buried in the parking lot, and pulled out a set of brand new Calloway golf clubs. A short, fat fuck with a mustache comes over like he owns the world, and asks me if I minded if he took ’em—Sully at the firehouse would kill for a set. All the firemen had mustaches, but the rest of them weren’t as short and fat. I told him to go fuck himself, and he took it hard.
He got loud, breaking my balls over the pickaxe hanging from the pocket of my remain-stained coveralls. “They give those to you guys, but not us?”
I’ve been down there eight months picking through dead bodies, and this wasn’t even his eighth day. “I’ll give you my pickax,” I said, “right between your fucking eyes.”
Our guys and the FDNY guys broke it up before anything happened, and that was that. Shifts were as boring as ever. At dinner break, we’d send the most junior guy down to Dallas BBQ in the East Village or WoHop in Chinatown to pick up chicken wings or ribs. We all started saving the bones for when we returned to The Pit. When the fire department changed tours, we’d drop the tiny bones in their search area, kick some dirt on top, and watch the show.
It never stopped being funny. Watching those firemen vouchering bright red spare ribs from the Chinese restaurant—they had to know the difference between human remains and appetizers, but they were so desperate for glory. Firemen really bought into the whole hero thing. So did their cult of worshipers, groupies, and tragedy tourists, happy to supply a sloppy blowjob or a free round of drinks at McSorley’s.
The rest of Fat Fuck McMustache’s time at Ground Zero was spent recovering the chicken wing bones I tossed in his direction. Me? I watched him pretend to be part of something. That’s entertainment.