Fame!

“I’m gonna live forever…”

The line from Irene Cara’s 1980 hit song featured in the hugely popular film Fame is a tad hyperbolic for sure. However, I am totally appreciating its metaphor along with a surprisingly enduring influence in my life.

In 1985, I was working as a Firefighter with The New York City Fire Department’s Ladder Company 4 in Midtown Manhattan. My firefighting career spanned twenty years working in some of the world’s busiest fire companies. I have experienced lots of exciting stuff. One of my most memorable experiences was fighting a fire in the original location of the La Guardia High School of Performing Arts. Fame was a movie about the performing arts high school.

The building on West 46 Street was unoccupied when the fire occurred. PA had moved to a new location near Lincoln Center.

It is a beautiful old building. Ladder Company 4 arrived on the street late at night responding to an odor of smoke. When we arrived it was apparent from the smell there was a fire close by; but it was not immediately apparent where. While the bulk of my company was drawn toward one end of the street, I went the other way. No sense following four other guys. I’m still a bit of a contrarian. Anyway, I discovered fire coming out of a window on the second floor of the PA building toward the back of the gap visible between the PA building and the gray building on the right side of the picture. I felt good. Finding a hard to find fire is kind of a fireman atta-boy. It’s a fireman thing.

We worked hard pulling down heavy plaster walls exposing the source of the fire so our engine companies could put the fire out. Just as we felt we were getting the job done, I heard a radio report that fire was discovered on the top floor. The construction style of these buildings creates a void between the plaster wall and the outer most wall of the building. Fire communicated within the void to the underside of the roof and was consuming most of the space between the top floor ceiling and the roof. We still had a lot of work to do.

I can still easily envision a surreal scene from that fire that makes this such a memorable part of my life. We went to the top floor where we began using six foot hooks, a tool that resembles a harpoon, to pull down the plaster ceiling so engine companies could get water on the fire. The plaster in such an old building is laced with a metal mesh called lath to make it stronger. Puling it down is drudgery, made dangerous by the presence of the fire we were exposing.

I needed to take a break. I stepped into the stairway. Stairways are generally a stronger part of a building. Structural collapse was becoming a possibly, at least I was thinking about it. From the stairway landing, I was looking through an archway. On the other side of the archway was Battalion Chief Foley encouraging four Firefighters to expose the fire, to keep pulling. The Chief was like a coach getting the best effort possible from a team of men. The building was dark and the fire the men were exposing above them was visible as an orange reflection off the five men.

“Pull, damit, pull”! Encouraged the Chief. Then suddenly Chief Foley, with a wave of his hand, ordered us all off the top floor. Before we even reached the floor below us, the roof of the building collapsed onto the top floor.

We eventually put the fire out from the outside using tower ladders, often called cherry pickers. While it was a damaging fire, we saved the building. It was rebuilt and today houses The Jacqueline Kennedy High School.

Back in quarters, after the fire, I asked Chief Foley how he knew to evacuate. He could not give me an answer. He just knew. I’ve written about this kind of intuition in other stories. It is not magic. During dramatic events our ability to think linearly is overwhelmed with information. However, Chief Foley had nearly thirty years of experience. Subtle cues trigger intuitive response that are not necessarily conscious. In Thinking Fast and Slow, pulitzer prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman opens his book with a story about a fire chief doing exactly the same kind of thing Chief Foley did at the PA fire, accessing information in a way that is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious. It was an impressive thing to witness. I never forgot.

“I’m gonna learn how to fly…”

The College of Music, Mahidol University is immersed in a lush tropical garden in a Bangkok suburb. Traditional Thai teakwood structures share the garden with art deco style buildings in beautiful urban oasis. I have a tight knit circle of ex-pat friends here in Bangkok. This past Sunday (10 Mar 19) four of us went to Mahidol to support our buddy Darren.

Darren Royston is a British choreographer, dancer, director, actor and visiting teacher at Mahidol. We went to see Darren’s production of the musical play Fame. The company of Thai college students and teachers performed two shows on Sunday. My friends and I met Darren for dinner between shows where I told him of my experience with the original high school of performing arts building that inspired Fame nearly four decades ago. Darren Royston

(l to r Piort, Marcus, Darren and me)

Fame is a New York story. It is not only set in New York City, there are slang references and idioms that are quintessentially New York. Watching the orchestra in front of the stage caused a wave of nostalgia for me, remembering so many Broadway shows from my past. During the show when a Thai college student playing the roll of a black New Yorker exclaimed “Oy Vey”. I nearly plottzed (if you need to Google plotz, you’re not a New Yorker).

Theater, drama is an art form at the bedrock of western culture. Much of modern psychology emerged from viewing classical Greek tragedies as an abstraction of the human experience. And now, in 2019, here I was sitting in a Thai performing arts college, feeling nostalgic about my home town, trying to reconcile and understand this very western, New York work of art’s influence and meaning now being performed by Thai college students forty years later. As good drama can do, I was transported back in time. Toward the end of the show, characters talked about how PA is moving to a new location near Lincoln Center. One character asks: “I wonder what will happen to the old building”.

Almost as if it were the 1980s again I thought “I could answer that”.

After the show, my friends and I met Darren and much of the cast. Prior to the second show, Darren had told his students of his conversation with me at dinner.

Lead role of Carmen played by Natt L. Natthacha with Darren.

Being with these beautiful young performers was moving for me. My daughter Keri is a graduate of La Guardia High School of Performing Arts. Keri had a decades long, successful career dancing in live shows, videos, TV commercials and on Broadway too. I’ve been to many post performance gatherings of excited, beautiful young performers. It was nice be be around them again.

“This is the fireman I told you about who saved PA” Darren declared to his troupe. Suddenly, I was the center of attention. The actors reacted as if I had somehow influenced what they had just accomplished. “You saved PA” one of them asked?

“I was only one of many” I said trying to be humble. It was their night. I wanted to direct the attention back to them.

On the ride home with my friends Marcus, Pirot and Poe, Marcus joked: “looks like you became part of the show’.

“Remember, remember, remember…”

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Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.

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Charlie Hub

Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.