The Man Who Came to Dinner

What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was but a wee boy and my dear old Popa, or some other interested adult, would turn to me and pose this time-honored question, I'll tell you what I didn't say.

I didn't say, "I want to grow up to be some whacked-out guy who goes around town talking his way into people's houses, grubbing a homemade meal, and then retreating to the darkened confines of his solitary bedroom to write about the experience for a local alternative weekly."

No. That would have been weird.
Fireman? Sure, I wanted to be a fireman. At least for a little while. I think it came right after magician (inspired by the performer at my older brother David's bar mitzvah, who was about to walk through our living room wall when he announced at the final second that, unfortunately, the humidity wasn't quite right) and just before Playboy centerfold photographer (as documented one year later by the caricaturist at my brother Kenny's bar mitzvah).

But when San Francisco firefighter Alison Greene invited me out to Station 40 to share in the regular evening meal, I decided I was awfully glad I'd become a writer instead, and headed to the Sunset for some free chow.

Station 40 sits inconspicuously on a quiet residential stretch of 18th Avenue. Were it not for the inevitable American flag waving out front, I might have driven right by. Inside I found Rocky Crawford working the main desk, surrounded by all manner of communication devices.

"You must be The Man Who Came to Dinner," she said.
"Yes, I must."
"Alison, your dinner guest is here!" called Rocky.

Around the corner in the house kitchen I found Alison and a small group of firefighters -- mostly female, as I'd been promised -- putting the final touches on the night's meal. Alison introduced me to Capt. Khai Ali, the woman in charge of this particular group, one of three rotating watches at Station 40. "I was going to ask," said Al, "if we get a run, do you want to come? Can he come?" she asked, turning to Khai, before I had a chance to decide.

"He'll need to sign a waiver," Khai answered.
This I had not planned on.
I took a peek at the kitchen, hoping to see just what was cooking so I could weigh the culinary prospects against my life.

Dinner won. Adjoining the kitchen was a living room-like area with two sofas, a huge TV, a fish tank, and a fireplace. But the central focus was a large round dining table topped with the biggest Lazy Susan I'd ever seen. Around the table I met some of the other members of the evening's watch: Clyde Watarai and Elizabeth Leahy, who had been sent to fill in from a nearby house.

Over a salad of field greens, cherry tomatoes, and almond slices, Alison, Khai, and the other firefighters explained many of the intricate workings of the SFFD and life at Station 40. Not least important was the difference between a fire engine and a fire truck. Station 40 is an engine house, maintaining one of the shorter, water-filled engines responsible for actually extinguishing fires. The longer trucks carry ladders and forcible entry equipment, and provide ventilation and rescue. "Some houses have both," explained Khai. "Or they have an EMT team. But everyone has something. We have a chief. Speaking of which ..."

A side door opened, producing Fire Chief Adam Young. Chief Young is responsible for one of San Francisco's 13 battalions; from his base at Station 40 he oversees five nearby firehouses. We all dug into Alison's Indonesian stew, a delicious concoction of pork, peppers, carrots, and onions in a chicken broth- and brown sugar-based sauce, with steamed rice and sauteed bok choy on the side. The food was great, although it was interesting eating with the knowledge that with any bite, a sudden alarm could cause you to drop your fork and leap into action.

"So what's on our agenda now?" asked Rocky, when we'd finished.
"I don't know," I replied. "When are we going to go on that truck?"
"Engine!" corrected the group, in unison.
"Come on, I'll give you a tour," offered Alison.

Rocky ran upstairs to meet us next door in the bay by sliding down one of the famous fire poles. After pointing out all the different hoses and gizmos that make their home on Engine 40, Alison showed me the oxygen tanks, or SCBAs. "Just like scuba tanks," she said, "but without the underwater part. Want to try one on?" She fitted one of the 30-pound tanks over my head and down onto my back. The mask covered my face and Alison hit the juice. "Suck in," she said, as I took my first difficult, Darth Vader-ish breath.

"Throw a hat on him," I heard Rocky call out. "Give him the full treatment."
"Now close your eyes," she instructed. "That's what you see in a fire."
"Now try talking to us," said Al.

"Fuck ...," I yelled in slow motion, mimicking a scene from Backdraft. "Get me out of here."

"OK, now we're going upstairs. Come on, run up the stairs," said Rocky.
"Yeah, that's fun for about a minute," I said as they lifted the tank off me.

"Now imagine you've got a coat, lacings, paddles," said Rocky. "You've got a bundle, maybe a line, and you're heading into a fully charged fire that hasn't been ventilated yet, and all you can see is orange. And you have to go towards the orange."

Back in the kitchen we found the rest of the group digging into a variety of Ben & Jerry's flavors topped with fresh strawberries. As I helped myself to some Cherry Garcia, Cynthia, a pregnant member of the regular E40 team who'd dropped by to say hello, rose to excuse herself. "But we're waiting for a run!" I called out with mock enthusiasm.

Just then the lights over the desk came up and the alarm began to sound. The entire team jumped to its feet as Alison grabbed the address and emergency information, which had instantly been sent over from headquarters. "You wanted a run?" she said. "You got it. Let's go."

Seconds later Khai was pushing me up into the front center seat of the big red engine. It roared like thunder, the lights and sirens came on, and the traffic pulled over to either side. Alison drove the engine while Khai manned the radio, calling out directions and information. My job was equally crucial: wear a pair of protective earphones, sit still, and shut up.

I think I did pretty well -- for my first run.
We pulled up to a two-story flat on a quiet street. No answer at the door. No neighbors in sight. The firefighters paced about, yelling, "Hello," into the air. As Khai considered the options (breaking down the door or pulling the ladders to scale the roof) the garage door was opened by a neighbor, who directed us to cross through her apartment and up the back stairs.

From the patio in back we could see a very old woman clinging desperately to her bedroom chair. The Life Line call button clasped in her hand had alerted the Fire Department. Although we could see the woman, the door was locked, and the clock was ticking. Just as Khai was about to give the order to break the glass, Elizabeth succeeded at jimmying open a window and climbing in.

As the firefighters began emergency care, paramedics arrived to help stabilize the woman. The group carried her on a stretcher down the stairs and out to the ambulance as I tried to stay out of the way. Looking around the room I saw school portraits of numerous faces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I imagined. I was struck with a sudden pang of guilt as I envisioned the chain of late-night phone calls that would likely soon communicate the news of the scene in which I'd somehow found myself.

Out on the dark street I stood beside the two vehicles with flashing red lights as the medics and firefighters worked carefully inside the ambulance.

Khai ran out briefly to get something from the engine. "They've intubated her," she called to me. "They're forcing air in with the ambo bag. Not good."

Once the woman was stabilized the ambulance took off for the hospital. We all climbed into the engine and headed back to the station. "She looked a lot better by the end there," said Khai. "But I don't think it's going to make much difference in the long run."

After watching Alison back the engine flawlessly into the bay, we all fell onto the couches inside as Khai went about the necessary paperwork and the crew debriefed the chief about the run. Elizabeth headed upstairs to try to get some sleep.

Although I was able to say my goodbyes and head home for the night, the firefighters knew that at any minute the alarm could ring again and send them out to another unknown emergency scene.

"Sorry you didn't get to go on a fire run tonight," said Alison, shaking my hand.

"That's quite all right," I told her. "I'm not sure I could have handled that."

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

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