The Island

The volunteer fire department in the middle of the nation’s largest city.

I remember old houses, weathered by wind and salt air and knocked sideways by hurricanes on their way to more newsworthy places. It was an island across the bay from Kennedy airport, surrounded by brackish water and interwoven by canals…fodder for tropical storms. It was populated by tough men and tougher women, union democrats with American flags on every porch and ready fists if you didn’t like it.

I made a few friends among the kids but generally, like their parents, they were wary of outsiders. The girls had gravelly voices and they might kiss a guy or they might slug him and then change their minds the next day. Either way there were brothers to deal with. I was known to them, but still an outsider…I kept my distance. The feeling was mutual.

This was my grandparent’s turf. My cousin once asked if I thought Grandpa, a union shop steward, had ever hurt somebody, like maybe for getting outta line on a job site. I stared at him for a moment and we both burst into laughter. Grandpa didn’t look for trouble, but he wouldn’t run from it either. He’d taught me at a young age to stand my ground. “Don’t start any fights. But if you think someone’s gonna hit you, hit them first.”

The island had no city fire service because of the drawbridges at both ends. Subway station yes, NYPD yes, public school yes. But they had to build their own volunteer fire and ambulance service. The men in my family volunteered…it was a source of pride and damn near mandatory. I remember the jackets they wore, like high school letter jackets; BCFD stitched on the back instead of the school name.

I don’t recall grandpa having any real prejudices other than for people who he thought were lazy. A same sex couple, two men, moved in 2 doors down from him. That was a novelty in the 1960’s on this rough and tumble working class Island. To be honest, being cut from the same cloth as my Grandfather, they were a novelty to me as well. I asked what he thought about it. “They keep their house nice. They don’t bother nobody.” And that was it…mind your own business and don’t let your house go to shit. It didn’t seem a lot to ask.

© Glenn R Keller 2021, All Rights Reserved

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