I got a call from a friend about five weeks after I had stopped covering the Secaucus beat as a reporter.
“The gay network is looking for you,” this friend said.
The gay network, I soon learned was a loose coalition of activists and others that shared information over the Internet. In this case, two gays in Secaucus were seeking my help because of some event had taken place there just after I had left the beat.
Fire fighters from the already notorious North End fire house had tried to attack the men in an early morning confrontation on April 25, 2004 – the apparent conclusion of harassment that had gone on for almost two years.
I had no doubt about the reports having been involved with some of the same people accused in this case, particularly Doug Snyder and his son, who formed the core of one of the most rebellious groups of reactionaries I had encountered since my trip west to places like Arizona.
Snyder and his son were at the heart of firehouse drinking binges I had reported on in 2001, but public officials had failed to stop because of the political clout the fire department wielded in their town.
The North End firehouse had an evil reputation for wild parties and wet t-shirt contests with underage girls, but the gay bashing accusations seemed to show a much more hateful attitude than even I had suspected.
While the local and county police were investigating the incident that would eventually lead to a successful lawsuit against the city, the two gay men sought me out because I was one of the few people who had taken on the Secaucus fire department prior to this.
Even local politicians were shy to take on a group of volunteers who helped keep the city fire free and minimally taxed, since the force was manned by volunteers.
Tim Carter, one of the two men living near the firehouse, told me later that some of the firefighters had harassed them for years, but the head on confrontation occurred only when Carter had tried to put a halt to the frenzy of howling coming from in front of the fire house after firefighters had returned from a party elsewhere.
The complaint unleashed a fury of pent up rage as firefighters went berserk, pounding on the gay men’s fence and house while threatening to kill them. Some threw rocks at the side of the house. One witness later claimed that a fire fighter – perhaps Snyder, Jr. who had a gun rack in the back of his truck – even show at the house, although attorneys defending the city and fire fighters claimed what the witnesses heard were fire crackers.
Both Snyders and another fire fighter sued in the case, plead their 5th amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The incident came three years after the city unsuccessfully tried to halt routine drinking in the fire houses, largely due to my reporting on the fact that one of the fire chiefs had been removed from a fire scene after heavy drinking and that some fire fighters drank in firehouse bars routinely, even responding to fires afterwards.
Carter and his partner, Peter deVries, moved to Secaucus shortly after the alcohol conflict. One of them had been transferred in his job, and they liked the town and a neighborhood that was very close to New York.
They believed they would be safe here, instead they moved into a scene from the 1970s movie, “Animal House.”
Once the firefighters realized that a gay couple had moved into the house next to the fire house, the harassment started, although neither Carter nor DeVries understood the motivation behind it.
Eventually they did file complaints with the police about the heavy drinking, since a significant amount of the harassment came at times when the fire fighters drank heavily.
The city, of course, had put new regulations in place after my reporting about the drinking in 2001. Most fire houses complied. But not the North End fire house.
Some fire fighters, particularly the Snyders believed they did not have to comply with rules, and went as far as to hold a toga party on the very night the new regulations went into effect.
Perhaps the city would have taken stronger action against the firehouse in answer to this defiance, but ran into one very large road block on September 11, 2001, when Arab terrorists flew jets into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers killing almost three thousand people.
Public sentiment inspired by the heroic efforts of the New York City police and fire departments made instant heroes of all uniformed services, even people like the Snyders who clearly did not deserve the distinction.
In some ways, the situation got worse after 9/11 as the parties at the northend fire house got more and more wild.
One long time Secaucus resident and once a firm supporter of the fire department lost faith with these firefighters after she found out that they were bringing underage girls into the firehouse and holding wet t-shirt contests under the very nose of the mayor and two councilmen who lived within blocks of the fire house.
Sex was apparently a regular feature of the parties, leaving some neighbors the unenviable task of shoveling up used condoms the day after these parties.
One woman, who dated one of the firefighters, was so appalled by the behavior she witnessed during one party that she refused to go back and eventually broke up with her fireman boyfriend when he insisted on going to the parties without her.
In some ways, public officials were helpless to stop the firefighters since public opinion could easily drive them from office – and indeed, played a part in future elections as firefighters from the Northend fire house took refuge behind alternative candidates. Some public officials perhaps hoped time and a changing demographic in Secaucus would eventually turn public opinion against the fire fighters. This was a false hope since the firefighters resided in a part of town that was likely to change last, a haven of old Secaucus families as well as old Secaucus prejudices. Even the local newspaper took the side of the firefighters. The city also feared that cracking down too soon on the fire fighters would be seen as an admission of guilt and leave the taxpayers vulnerable to a hefty lawsuit. The lawsuit came anyway, and the city was ordered to pay nearly $5 million to the gay couple.
Eventually, when the two gay men won their suit against the city, the city promised to remove the three fire fighters from the fire department, but made no move to remove them from their jobs at the Department of Public Works.
Soon after the 2004 incident, the two gay men moved to Jersey City hoping to put distance between them at the bigoted fire fighters, where they began the process that would lead to their suit.
The move proved futile.
A few weeks later, a local resident spotted a Secaucus DPW truck driving in the Jersey City neighborhood where the gay men lived. The men found their car had been broken into, and they came home to find blood – perhaps that of some poor animal killed at the Secaucus Animal shelter controlled by the DPW – spilled across their apartment door and hall.
No one was charged in the incident. But the message was clear.
Not all terrorists few jets, some drove fire engines.
Even after their victory in court, the gay couple can hardly feel as if justice has been served or that police authorities will protect them.
On the night after the newspapers reported their victory, someone spread cherry syrup across their door and left a device that looked remarkably life a bomb.
A few days later, one of the gay men was reading the county park near his home in Jersey City when officers from the county sheriff’s officers demanded to know what he was doing there, and frisked him for drugs. At some point during their interrogation they asked if he was the gay man that had sued the Secaucus police department and then warned the gay man not to come back to the park.
Although he might have tried to explain that it was the fire department not the police department he had sued, the truth was in the message the sheriff’s department gave: don’t count of them for protection. So now, these gay men live in constant fear, looking over their shoulders wondering if and when the terrorists will strike again.