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My father, a retired New York City firefighter, has never fully recovered from a stroke he suffered about two years ago, so his speech is very hard to understand in person, let alone on the phone. So I have not asked him his opinion on the Supreme Court case involving the white New Haven firefighters (and one Hispanic) who are challenging the city's decision to throw out a promotion exam after no black firefighters scored high enough on the test to be promoted. It's one of the court's most-watched cases this term and probably the most emotionally charged. And it is easy to see why: Our American ideal of the meritocracy — it's a level playing field; just take the test and let the test decide — is bumping against the political realities of a world in which the people who say the playing field is not and never has been level finally get to have their voices heard, too.
The truth is, even if my father could make himself understood, I am not sure he would want to. My father never talked much about the job, where he was always one of a tiny minority of African-American men. He told us a few things — like how when he was a new hire or "probie," his toothbrush would constantly disappear and be replaced by a toilet bowl brush. He told us how despite his service in the military, he had a hard time sleeping in a room full of other men. And how he had left the New York City police department to become a firefighter, despite the lower pay and higher mortality rate.
He said he would rather pull people out of burning houses than either drag grown men to jail in their underwear as their children cried or ward off entreaties of shopkeepers waving $10 bills at him in hopes of some extra attention when the bad guys came around.
"There are meat eaters and there are grass eaters," he would say, "and I am a grass eater."
And we saw a few things for ourselves: A friend on the job, who was white, kept pushing him to move out to Long Island with a bunch of the other firefighters. We went one day to look, but my father couldn't see past the dirty looks of the white neighbors, many of whom he knew were getting up every day to do the same job he was. And he couldn't block out the little girls screaming "Eww, niggers!" and pretending to hold their noses and run away from us as we walked into the open houses. So no Long Island for us.
Long Island might be different today, but the job is not. I don't know about New Haven, but New York City's fire department is the least diverse of any major city's in America, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights advocacy group. In 2007, in a city where 27 percent of the people who lived there were black, fewer than 3 percent of New York's firefighters were. And only 4.5 percent were Latino, which represents a slight increase for Latinos in recent years but almost none for African-Americans. Why might that be? Because no black people want to fight fires? Because no black people want to be like my father and save people from burning buildings? I don't know for a fact, but I doubt it.
I have both of his helmets — one has dents where rioters threw bricks at his head and is the one he wore as he fell through the floor of a burning building and survived. And the other he had when he retired.
I wish I had learned more about my father's life when he had the chance to tell me himself. I do know he loved that job, and he was proud of it. And he and our mother taught us to be proud of it. We would jump up and wave whenever we saw a firetruck go by, and part of me still wants to, although I do not understand why I see so few people who look like my father on those trucks.