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The Moments Between
Helen Zelon

"Honor and Serve"


December 10th, 2001, I pass the wide picture window of Farrell’s Bar, located at the corner of 16th Street and Prospect Park West, in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, as I do nearly every day. Farrell’s enjoys the dubious honor of being the largest retail outlet for Budweiser beer in the United States – the single tavern that sells the most cold Bud in the US of A. A couple of oldsters, faded men in baggy gabardine pants, had gotten started early that morning, and they leaned against the curved, dark wood of the bar, watching the tube and smoking. The bar is quiet in daylight, but evenings, the place is packed, as fathers, sons, uncles, nephews, brothers, pals and various hangers-on knock back tall Styrofoam ‘go’ cups of Bud and heckle the game on the bar’s TV.

Farrell’s is a neighborhood institution, beloved since the Great Depression, when Dennis Farrell, Senior, first flung open its doors to offer the working-class clientele nickel beer and salt sticks. The doors haven’t been closed too often since, save for the early hours of Sunday mornings, when the Farrell’s regulars reconvene three blocks down Prospect Park West at Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, for Mass. Dutiful fathers trailing flocks of shiny, scrubbed kids head out to church, then reappear mid-afternoon at the bar, solo.

It’s a man’s bar, smelling of booze and sweat and smoke. No tables, just a long polished hardwood bar and a pressed-tin ceiling. Women are officially welcome, a hard-earned triumph of the late 60s, yet it’s a man’s place, a testosterone oasis in a world of women, families, and domestic obligations.

Windsor Terrace, historically home to generations of Irish and Italians climbing out of immigrant uncertainty into the stolid middle class, has given New York City legions of teachers, civil servants, and uniformed service workers. Generations of cops and firefighters have been born and reared in Windsor Terrace; their mothers and grandmothers and aunts still live in the neighborhood, even though "the boys" may have moved on to one of two Islands, Staten or Long. Some of the boys stay, too, and live in brick or limestone rowhouses across the street from their parents, raising their own kids in the shelter of three generations of free advice and free babysitting.

I’ve lived in Windsor Terrace for twelve years now, and as far as the Farrell’s crew is concerned, I’m still a newbie. But I’m not new enough to miss a change in the Farrell’s landscape, and as I passed the window, I saw a hand-lettered sign, block letters in careful black marker. "Farrell’s will be closed for business on December 13," the first line read, slanting down and to the right as the letters crammed together. "To attend the memorial Mass for Captain Vincent Brunton, NYFD," announced the second line. The rest of the sign was blank.

I had heard of Vinnie Brunton, son of Windsor Terrace, all-around great guy, fire captain and weekend bartender at Farrell’s for the past 19 years. Everyone had heard of Vinnie, or knew him. Vinnie lived on 16th Street with his wife and a slew of kids, never did leave the neighborhood. Vinnie’s company went into the World Trade Center on September 11th. He never came back. Now, three months later, the time had come to let him go. The Mass was called for 11 AM on the 13th.

I kept walking along the avenue, past the little strip of shops that look like a UN tribute to capitalism: the Chinese take-out, the Japanese restaurant, the bagel store (with its Irish owners), the Korean grocery, Pushpa’s candy store and newsstand, Raj’s pharmacy. On the next block, a small crowd milled around the double glass doors of Frank Smith, the local funeral home. Vinnie was being waked there until the Mass and legions of firefighters in uniform had come out to pay respects. Three hook-and-ladder trucks sat idling outside, blocking traffic. One unit had come from Red Hook; another from Flatbush; the third from Canarsie, each crammed with men.

As I watched, two elderly ladies ventured off the curb. Were they sisters? Cousins? Arms linked in the easy intimacy of what looked like lifelong familiarity, they teetered off the curb and cautiously stepped into the street, leaning forward to scan for traffic that might be hidden by the firefighters’ rigs. Two firefighters half-sat on one rig’s bumper, slouching against the truck’s chrome grille. They saw the ladies look, then hesitate. One bounded to his feet. "You ladies need a hand?" he asked, smoothing the corners of his walrus mustache. "How’s about I help youse out crossin’ the street?" The ladies, flustered by the attentions of this handsome young firefighter, looked at each other, unsure. Like Maurice Chevalier in rubber boots and a fireproof jacket, he offered one arm to each of them, flamboyant and generous. Charmed, the ladies relented, and the unlikely trio crossed the busy street.

"Thank you," they called from the far curb.

"Nothin’ at all, ladies" sang out the firefighter. "Glad to help out." He went back to the bumper and sat down again, bumming a cigarette from his friend. All in a day’s work.

Three days later, I made it my business to be out on the street before Vinnie’s Mass. The day was gray and dry, with a light wind that occasionally kicked up little eddies of scrap paper in the intersections. I zipped up my coat and headed over to Prospect Park West.

Prospect Park West runs for more than a mile, along the length of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, but as far as Windsor Terrace is concerned, the avenue begins at Bartel Pritchard Square, oddly a traffic circle and war memorial to the neighborhood’s lost war dead. Vinnie’s family was waiting there, and would proceed – with an official escort – along the four-block length, from Bartel Pritchard to Holy Name.

Eight hook and ladder trucks were parked end to end across the avenue, one pair at each of its four intersections. Each rig had extended its ladder its full height – towering above the squat brick storefronts – until the ladders met, high above. From each pair of ladders flew an American flag, fluttering in the morning’s weak breeze. Not penny-ante plastic flags – these were the Real McCoy, big bright banners spilling down from the sky. The flag on Windsor Place, a massive 20 x 40 feet, was anchored to the rigs with nylon guy wires, making an impromptu striped portal, a kind of flimsy but heartfelt shelter for Vinnie Brunton’s family and friends.

No cars or buses drove on the avenue. By order of the brass at the 78th Precinct, parking was forbidden on Prospect Park West on the 13th – no business traffic whatsoever, that morning. Instead, people lined the streets, and stood where the cars should have been. Thousands of firefighters and rescue workers lined the long block of Prospect Park West facing the church. Lined up ten deep, they stood in the chill cold, most in dress uniforms – single-breasted, double-breasted, gold buttons and silver, braid trim in canary yellow or chrome, white hats, blue hats, blue shirts, white shirts, black shirts and black ties and white gloves everywhere. Some firefighters were in full regalia – boots, asbestos pants, heavy striped coats – and others were off-duty, in jeans and NYFD windbreakers. They lined up in rows, ten deep and a block wide, intimately familiar with the bitter routine of saying goodbye.

I found a place on the corner, next to a Fire Chief from Malverne, Long Island, and two of his men. Nearby, I saw the school crossing guard and the Mexican boy who helps out at the grocery; we nodded to each other as we waited. An elderly nun in a brown polyester habit squeezed past the crossing guard to get a better view.

At 11 AM, the procession began.

The cortege led off with a police car, lights flashing, and two motorcycle cops, crawling along the street’s double-yellow center line at a walking pace, the cops scooting their feet along on the ground to steady their slow-going bikes. They passed under the large flag and continued down the avenue. After the cops came three firefighters, walking in a halting step-pause, step-pause.

Each of the three men carried the only surviving evidence of Vinnie’s firefighting life: One held his white captain’s hat, brass insignia glittering. Another held his spare duty helmet, coal black and decorated with a gold insignia, a cross between a hood ornament and a miniature bulkhead wraith. The firefighter in the center carried an American flag, folded into a tight triangle, his broad hands knuckle-white, clasping the flag tightly from above and below.

As the three men walked past, the crowd turned very quiet. Suddenly, simply, the loss was sharp and clear. The man whose hats were walked past, on display, was gone, for good. None of the three honor guard looked left or right as they walked. Charged with the responsibility of leading Vinnie’s processional, they took a visual bead on the church, their destination, and followed the invisible thread between their eyes and the sanctuary.

Next came Vinnie’s rig – from Ladder Company 105, his house – laden with flowers. Day-glo shamrocks made of dyed green carnations, giant wreaths, huge sprays of gladioli dripping yards of ivy, but no coffin. No body. Two guys rode on the back of the rig, full dress uniform, white hats and gloves blinding against the gleaming red enamel. They stood as rigid as dolls, unflinching and impassive, and I soon divined Rule Number One at a firefighter’s funeral: No Eye Contact.

I scanned the faces closest to me. One by one, the men stared ahead, speaking little. I tried to engage their eyes, tried to connect and thank them with my eyes. Nothing doing. They remained in the middle distance, their focus inward despite wide-open eyes. No contact at all; the blue wall intact, unbreachable. Maybe it is simply more than they can bear, this assault of the emotions from a well-intentioned but clumsy public. Maybe they just want to get out, be done with the memorials and burials and body counts. Whatever the case, they are present but remote, cocooned in their silence and unwavering gaze.

The hook and ladder rig is followed by an antique fire truck, cherry red, chrome shined a blinding silver. Covered in more flowers and draped in purple and black bunting, it rolls past on fat rubber tires. Two rows of men walk in formation behind it, empty-handed pallbearers. They are followed by a battalion of firefighters, hundreds of men from units across the city and beyond. I count eleven rows of twelve men each, but lose track in the sea of uniforms and staring eyes. Still, they march under the flags and on the way to the church, in lock step, each staring out, private in this public setting.

From the first, we’ve heard the sighing of the bagpipes and the throb of the drum corps, and as they approach, I steal a sideways glance at the Chief from Malverne. Even he won’t look at me as I stand there sniffling, digging in my pockets for tissues. It’s as if they can’t, anymore – can’t give any more to total strangers, even strangers standing right next to them, sobbing in the street. They have to bury their brothers, honor the memories, and move forward. No more time for tears. None that they let the street see, anyway.

The pipe and drum corps get closer now, and as they approach the flag on Windsor Place, they stop their music. The sudden absence of sound stabs the air out of my lungs like a jab in the gut. After the shrill piping, the yearning, the music – quiet, except for the steady tattoo of the snare drums, all draped in black and purple. The drummers drum through the fabric. The sound is much less muted than you’d expect. Their faces look worn. How many funerals, memorials, masses, prayer services? How much can a man stand? The drummers mark time, long enough to see the lines in their faces, the tracery of burst capillaries on one man’s purplish nose, the rheumy eyes. To a man, they stare forward, stone cold eyes admitting no one, revealing nothing.

Vinnie’s family follow the drummers, walking 10 across, arms linked. In the center of the first row of family is Vinnie’s wife, now his widow, flanked by a son as tall as a man but with the soft face of boyhood, and by a half-dozen other kids with what looks to be the same face, stamped from kid to kid in varying scales. Two high-school age boys walk on the perimeter, each in ROTC regalia, nametags lettered "Brunton" above their hearts. Throngs of cousins follow, arms wrapped around shoulders, waists, trailing kids. There’s even a Brunton drag queen, easily 6'3" in his stocking feet, towering over the elderly relatives. Resplendent in all black and sling-back pumps, with chestnut tresses to his hips, he reaches far down to cradle the elbow of the aged lady on his left, supporting her progress on the asphalt roadbed. No one in the family looks down. No one looks away, and they don’t make eye contact, either. Row after row, the extended family file under the flag, among neighborhood people who came out to honor the memory, to honor the men, or simply to stand up for someone lost.

The family passes, slowly, approaching the block where the firefighters have been waiting in silence. Down the street, a long block away from where I stand, a shout goes up: "Salute!" Suddenly, like the sound of a thousand wings beating, all the firemen across the road snap to a salute. The firemen next to me salute, too. So does the cop minding the barricade, the school crossing guard, the retired guys on the corner. A lone bagpipe starts the opening measures of Amazing Grace. I break down, bawling into my gloves. The nun next to me, chattering away, tries to console me, "Ah, darlin’, haven’t you come to some of these before? I was at Timmy’s last week, and his brother’s the week before. Didja know this one? He used to barbeque the hot dogs every year, this one. Ten years now, he’d barbeque the dogs for me," but rude, I turn away, I can’t hear about how many she’s gone to. This moment, the moment of remembering Vinnie, remembering the ideal (for I did not know the man) pulls me like a giant vortex, and I don’t want to get free. It is epic, heroic, blinding. Overwhelming, and inspiring. I love this town – I love the heart of the place, the people, the life, the piss-and-vinegar vitality. I look through the men, searching their faces, and see a sea of New York – whiter than most of NY, to be sure, but still a sea of ages, tempers, lives.

Who am I? I’m a nobody New Yorker, but I’m everybody, part of the same sea. Working Mom, three kids in public schools, an émigré to New York whose youthful rapture for the city has matured, over the intervening decades, into the ripeness of real love, scars and all. At a moment like this, when the pipers stop playing, when the fire trucks pass – when the people stand up and rally, heart first, in a city sick with sadness and overfull with pride – I love this town. I want to sing out, Look at these guys! I want to kiss them all, thank them for their sacrifice, for being my city’s spine.

Shortly after Amazing Grace, the fireman stand down, and the street quickly becomes a river of men, roaring with the sounds of their voices, the rough guffaws of forced laughter, the percussive back-slap and shoulder-clap of men who are having way too many of this particular brand of reunion. The old guys geeze by, shaking hands with the younger uniformed guys. The ranks break into knots of conversation, and the firemen soon drift away, to the next fire, the next call, the next day of memorial and death.

Farrell’s stays closed all day; the firefighters drink instead at the VFW post around the corner, or at another local bar, Rhythm ‘n’ Booze, with tables and a decent jukebox. The next morning, Farrell’s opens for business. The lettered sign is gone, replaced by a photo of Vinnie, grinning in a sharp dress uniform. The day bartender sweeps sawdust over the threshold onto the sidewalk as a crony gives him free pointers.

"How ‘bout that Vinnie?" the day man says, leaning on his broom.

"He was somethin’ else, that kid. Somethin’ else."


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