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Hello, ma'am. Hi, is this Catherine? Yes, it's nice to hear your voice. Definitely. You too. Just to go now. Sure. OK, Randy was a good Jewish boy, I a shiksa.
Nevertheless, we dated in college happy until the Vietnam War intervened. He served while I went from sorority sue to protesting. Hippie time passed. We moved on the month of my wedding. Randy called, asking me not to go through with it. That night I got very drunk. The wedding happened, life progressed. My husband died. In my heart, I knew Randy and I would end up together when we were old. Old never happened for him.
I still see him in my dreams. All right, thank you, Father, thank you. Bye bye. Bye bye. Hey, Amy, how's it going?
It scared. How about you?
It's pretty good, except that there some construction. It seems like I might put some books in between my make to for soundproofing for my family.
So in my pillow part, your building. Do you have any seltzer by any chance?
I do, actually. I did some lemon seltzer. Good to get it open.
La la la la la la la la la. So I've been working on Modern Love since the very beginning, but Mia, you joined five or six years ago. What surprised you the most about what the content was, what was coming in once you started reading submissions?
I think the biggest shock for me was actually how many submissions were about death.
And I think it makes sense, given the fact that you would want to write about loved ones you lost or are losing.
But I wasn't expecting to open the inbox and come across all these, you know, very tragic stories, but also very ubiquitous stories. And I think it serves me like a reminder of what's worthwhile in the world, having these relationships, you know, while we still have time.
And I think in that way it's kind of liberating and inspiring to it is it's such a reminder of how fleeting love can be and relationships and. Yeah.
The biggest trauma for a lot of people is losing someone they love, and so they they often sit down to sort that out in words and to try to make sense of it and often to try to memorialize the person and honor the person. Yeah, it's it's interesting challenge to figure out how to get that in in a way where that's not the sole focus, like it's going to involve death.
But it's not just about the fact that death is sad or, you know, has that part of the story and has the story about something else, really.
Today's essay is Firefighter Chasez Woman Downstream, published in February 2020.
Written by Marlina Brown. Read by Jan LaVoy.
The firefighter and I met on one of the rare days I decided to wear lipstick, if I had to guess at a reason for him chasing me down the street that day, it was the lipstick. It always does something to my face. To be honest, I was so close to shutting him down here, I was on my way home from work a block and a half from my Manhattan apartment, already mentally having shed my shoes and bras. And here was this firefighter, a bald, white, middle aged New York City cliche.
I had passed on the sidewalk with his buddies rushing to catch up. He stopped me in my tracks and wasted no time. I think you're a beautiful woman. When are you going to let me take you out? Not if he could, but when.
I'm a sucker, so I fell for it, and to this day, I can't tell you why I decided to give him my phone number somewhere in the middle of being distracted by what I thought was his lack of eyebrows. I realized that I neither wanted to lie to him, nor could I find any real reason to say no. I figured he's a civil servant. How crazy can he be? Of course not five minutes later, standing alone in my apartment, I convinced myself that this date would be a disaster.
We had nothing in common and he was going to be as dumb as a brick. I'm a snob. I accept this about myself. But two days later, during our first phone call, he broke out of any box, I tried to put him in an avid music fan. He wanted to visit Macon, Georgia, because of the Allman Brothers. He shocked me by knowing Emory University, my alma mater, saying that's where they shot into the wild.
He was a travel fiend, he hoped to hike down through Gibraltar and work his way into Northern Africa doing volunteer work along the way. He was a hell of a lot more interesting than I in my snobbery, had given him space to be. When I told him I was looking forward to dinner, I meant it on our first date, we discovered that we both came from families of addiction, alcoholism, substance abuse. He hadn't managed to escape that legacy, telling me he was now eight years sober.
I had noticed this about him before. He told me about any legacy. When he asked me how I knew, I said you never looked at the drink menu.
People say addicts can walk into a room and spot other addicts. I wonder if that truth holds for those like me who teeter on the edge of that slippery slope, trying like hell not to fall while wondering, isn't it just easier to give in? We also learned that spirituality served as an anchor for us both. He came from good Irish Catholic stock but had been a bit of a prodigal son and was slowly making his way back through daily prayer, Bible reading and meditation.
I am a hopeful agnostic in a wrestling match with the God of my childhood. The Lord may eventually pin me down, but he will need to pop out my hip to do so. Politics were another story surfacing somewhere in our two of our first date conservative libertarian hymn versus bleeding heart liberal me. After dinner, we strolled through the center of Terrytown, jabbering non-stop. He was an unstoppable force while I, arms crossed, eyebrow cocked, remained an immovable object.
Back in the car city bound with abortion, the topic he said his Catholicism kept him from viewing the act as anything but murder as a recovering evangelical. I get it. I believe that, too. For a long time until I thought I was pregnant after a night of being drunk in my 20s. I realized abortion was a right, I would readily claim and could not in good conscience declare myself anti-abortion if I was so ready to choose it for myself.
Crossing into Manhattan, he let it fly, that he didn't think racism in New York City was as bad as people claimed. My roots are in the South. I am a descendant of slaves. And I'm always looking for somebody to say something stupid about racism so I can lose my mind. But I didn't with him instead pointing out that racism is not only about extreme acts like burning crosses, racism exists on a spectrum. And those micro aggressions I've experienced being asked why I always look so angry or finding out a man has stopped seeing me because his family doesn't want him dating a black woman may seem minuscule to him, but cut me deep after a while and off small slices to cut off a limb.
He went quiet at that aside, I would later understand to be him seriously considering what I had said, because, yes, happily there were more dates and even more debates, each one digging deeper into controversial issues. But don't you think he would start knowing good and. Well, I didn't think whatever was about to come out of his mouth, I would dive into a debate that should have been contentious and belligerent, but never was.
We never had an off limit topic, including police interactions with people of color when he let loose about how officers have a hard job and sometimes unfortunate things happen. It took all of my hard earned Southern charm to answer diplomatically. Because unlike mental illness or even abortion. I had living, breathing skin in this particular game. My father was born in southern Georgia in the 1950s, and like a lot of men of his generation, he struggled with addiction. He is six feet four, dark skinned, hawk eyed and curmudgeonly.
All he wants to do is sit on a porch, drink beer and watch the Flash. But thanks to our country's legacy of racism, his very being is perceived as a threat. I worry about him every time he makes the three hour drive from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, where I was born. I'm scared that some state patrol officer will see my father's big hands and long limbs and think he has to fear for his own life. What I needed was context for the firefighters point of view, which I got one warm summer evening when we met in Central Park for a concert.
As we approach the summer stage entrance, we passed two patrol officers who were eyeing everyone's comings and goings and he said, my dad and uncle used to work out of the precinct a few blocks away. That one sentence, as casually as he let it slip, created a huge shift in my perspective. His defense of police officers made sense because these were no longer abstract issues. This was personal. This was life. He and I carried the weight of our fathers.
His a cop. Mine, a black man in America. Every day we each worried about our own father's safety. I never asked him much about growing up with a father who was a cop. I wish I had. Instead, we drifted apart because he, as he put it, was like Jack Nicholson's character in As Good as it gets, not ready for a long term commitment and unsure he would ever be ready.
And later learned the truth, he was afraid of having a marriage like his parents, often strained union. That broke my heart. So imagine my shock when seven months after we stopped seeing each other, I Googled him and found his obituary. He had died suddenly on vacation, circumstances unexplained. The reality of it discovered in such a casual way broke my heart a second time. Even though we hadn't lasted the way we had bridged the political and cultural divide was refreshing.
It was love. The world seemed darker without him. After his death, while sitting in my apartment, I asked him if he could hear me, and when I fled outside in search of escape, there were two firetrucks. I knew he wasn't on either rig, but their presence at that moment made me think, Yeah. He hurt me, just as he always did. It's Marlina, I am seeing you for the first time, I think.
Oh yeah, I don't normally do my editors calls, you know, on video, so I know. Yeah. So I want to ask you about the morning the piece went live on the Times website. Within hours, we started getting emails from people who recognized this firefighter. Hello.
Someone emailed me this article. At first I glanced at the title and thought, Oh, it's another fireman story. I'm married to a New York City firefighter and my brother was also one. I get firefighter stories all the time. The next day I open the article. For what reason? I don't know. I only had to read the first sentence or two before I knew the firefighter in this story was my brother. He died, as the author says, suddenly last year.
I know he touched so many lives and was special. There are so many stories. I wish I had the time and patience to write a book of those stories.
Thanks for bringing back a piece of my brother to me. You know, we didn't even identify him by name in the piece, that really wasn't what it was about, and I sent all of those along to you.
What was that for you to receive almost instantly upon already dealing with the piece coming out with all of these really revealing and emotional emails from people who knew him so well?
It was. Heeling. There's something about. Grieving by yourself, that's really hard because by the time he passed away, we had broken up and I just I found it so hard grieving. And not having anyone around me understand how huge of a loss it was because they just didn't know. Something I think I had been waiting for for almost a year, it was just being able to connect with people who knew him and be able to grieve with them.
So when I started getting some emails, I was getting a haircut.
At the same time we were your stylist was like, are you OK?
You're reading them on your phone and just reading them on my phone. And I just started trying to respond to every single one of them. Oh, my God. Just to let them know that I. I understand how huge of a loss this was because he just he really was an. One of those types of people that you just don't meet every day. Like, literally tried to leave every place that he entered a better space than the way that he found it.
Interestingly enough, one of my brother's friends just texted me a link to it without any information, just a link to the article. That morning, my phone literally just started blowing up about four or five texts of different people who I used to work with in the fire department and from the firehouse. And I laughed and I opened it and then I cried. After I read it, as I was reading, I was just like, oh, my God, this is see, I knew it was him from the first sentence.
The fact that he was a firefighter, the fact that he did that, in fact, that it was Manhattan then which talked about his lack of eyebrows that cemented it in his passing.
We found so many aspects of his life that he kind of kept private. Everybody at his wake was kind of coming forward. Just different story of how, you know, he's a hospice volunteer who stayed with my mother while she was passing. I didn't see how he got off the ledge at rock bottom with my grandkids. And everything was just this shock of you thought you knew the guy, but there were a million different pieces to them.
And then for here we are here and change after he passed, it'll have him pop up in, of all places, the romance column in The New York Times. It was just like one last surprise for him, Steve. He had his own opinions that were very strong. And I think that created some friction between him and a lot of other people. And Steve and I agreed on a lot of things and politics was not one of them, pretty traditionally conservative.
But he did his reading, which is why I respected when he had an opinion. That's what I thought was so beautiful about her story, was their relationship is very interesting because I'm glad that Marlina was able to give Steve the chance, you know, to open up. You know, I think a lot of people might have been turned off, unfortunately, get turned off in those situations.
And I think Marlina probably has a lot of strength. I could tell you, you must be very special, Steve, because she got to know him very well, which wasn't an easy thing for a lot of people. So this was back in February, so much has happened since then, we've had the protests, a lot of violence, there's so many raw feelings lately. Do you feel like he would be a good person to be talking to now or would it be a harder conversation now?
Oh. It would be a hard conversation, but it would be a hard conversation worth having. Because I think in times like this, it's so easy and I think and certain measures is kind of necessary, like you want to bond with people who feel the same and you want to make sure that your feelings are being affirmed. I feel a certain sort of way about police relationships with African-American people, particularly black men here in the US, and that's real.
And having other people who think that is in a way healing and it's affirming for me, but at the same time, too much of that, it becomes an echo chamber. Right. And you can get so caught up in, again, thinking that you're right and thinking that this is the only point of view that sometimes stepping over and kind of talking to someone from the other side, as long as it's respectful, as long as you are recognizing that we're both complex and more nuanced and things are complicated, that that can be healing as well.
I'm curious what, since so many of your conversations with him were about police and about race. I'm wondering what kind of conversations you would be having if you were together. It's a great question. I think about that a lot, often I can see him falling on the side of, you know, police officers, but I always in the back of my head, I think that he had he always managed to surprise me on some of his opinions or things that he was willing to kind of accept and listen to.
And I remember one particular conversation we had about police interactions, and it was something that I had gotten riled up about.
It had happened in Georgia was about this young boy who was 10, was watching his father get arrested and the police officers were white and the boy was black. They threw him on the ground and they handcuffed him. That was their immediate response. I was like, that's his impression about police. He's going to take that through the rest of his life. He's going to think about this moment when they had a chance to show him something different. I'm like they chose Rob.
And lo and behold, he's like, yeah, you're right. And I was like going.
My brain didn't even know what to do with that. Yeah.
So he he didn't act defensive when you would bring up stories that people wouldn't ordinarily be defensive about now. And he would be like, yeah, you know what, I hear you.
I think at the end of the day, what made it work or why we were able to. Have productive conversations is that we both, when it came to our core values, like the things that we thought were important, we were actually coming from the same place. We both felt really strongly about things being just and things being fair and leveling the ground for people who need it. And we were just coming at it from two different points of view, because I remember like just kind of listening to him talk about his involvement and being like it's like union at work or like in town councils.
And it just struck me how much he actually cared about people that even though I'm like, we're political opposites, I get that. But I'm like, have you ever considered running for office? Because that is what people actually need. They need someone who goes in there and cares. And like we did, politicians like you. He never took my suggestion by their side. Thank you so much, Marlene, I really appreciate it and thank you for having me.
Modern Love is produced by Kelly Prime and Hans Butoh and edited by Wendy Dorr, music by Dan Powell. This week's essay was written by Marlina Brown and written by Jan LaVoy, Our Tiny Love Story. It was written and read by Catherine Jarvis. Special thanks to Julia Simon, snorkeler Mahima Tagliani, Laura Kim, Bonnie Wertheimer on Yester Me and Sam Dolnick and Corsica and also provide Wagner and Kelly Rogers at Autum. The executive producer of New York Times audio is Lisa Tobin.
I'm really. And I'm Dan Jones. Thanks for listening.