Chapter ten: Welcome to Secaucus
Even before the Great Dundee Island fire of 1985, I was no stranger to Secaucus. I had come to the center of town from time to time in my perpectual role as a relief sales person for Fotomat. I dreded the name Secaucus, not because of the legends of smoldering dumps and an unbearable stench that had made the town a curse word in the time of my parents, but because the stream of customers never ended, and a shift in sales there could have qualified as an olympic sport, me twisting this way and than to deal with customers rolling up to each side of the booth. In those times of need, seeking the library toilet amounted to a fourty yard dash, though no one questioned what I was doing when I rushed into the library and immediately down the basement stairs to toilet. In those days, I hardly noticed that one of the town's fire companies was joined at the hip to the Library. Although I knew the names and faces of many residents who did business at my booth, they had little or no other significance.
A few years later -- while riding home from a baking job in Garfield -- I picked up a female hitch hiker who needed a ride to Secaucus, telling me she had to meet a male friend, and though I was weary, I drove her to her destination, and was shocked when she had me drop her off at one of the fire houses. I refused to believe this was her destination and watched her march up to the fire house doors, she dressed as if going to a night club, and watched as several fire fighters greeted her with shouts of joy as they pulled her in.
Still later, I returned to Secaucus to purchase my first IBM computer, making the break from the now out-of-date Atari unit I had used for almost a decade. I remember seeing the fire fighters gear stacked in a corner when I tried out the used machine, and remember him hurrying us to complete the sale as a horn sounded from the nearby fire house on Centre Avenue.
Not until 1990 when I started a part time job at the Secaucus Dunkin Donuts did I take note of the fire fighters here, poking my head out the back door to the sound of sirens as the engines made their way up Paterson Plank Road in response to a car fire on Route 3 or some other highway disaster. Firefighters often stumbled in wearily seeking coffee, some still dressed in their gear after a long night. Only then, did I realize they were not the paid variety I knew from my days living in Passaic, but a group of volunteers who had other lives, other jobs, and did duty in the fire department for some deeper civic reason I didn't completely understand.
Yet even then, these souls remained as much strangers to me as the people pulling up to the booth, nodding at me in a rather gruff fashion before marching off with their cup of coffee and bag of donuts. Not until I started working the Secaucus beat as a reporter did these men become real, climbing out of the shadowy past and taking up names and ranks, revealing other sides of their lives. Many of these men worked for the local Department of Public Works -- which gave them time off whenever the local alarm rang.
As a reporter, I started off on the wrong foot with the Secaucus Fire Department. I had come to town at a particularly down moment for the town and for the fire department. The recession of 1990 had left the town in a fit of tax appeals, and budget woes that threatened to balloon taxes to local home owners. At the same time, the fire department's fleet of vehicles had aged to a point where they might not be trusted to operate efficiently in a disaster. During one of the first meetings between fire officials and the town council, I reported mockingly of their seeking a million dollars for a single truck. Inspired by one of the reporters covering a more urban beat, I adopted a tone that offended nearly every fire fighter who picked up my paper: "What we got here is one big engine -- fire engine that is, a 95-foot (including the ladder) chucnk of steel complete with platform, pumper and hose and all for the price tag of $650,000."
Unfortunately, in the same issue, I took a swipe at the town's fire boat as well:
Don't rock the town's fire boat, it's likely to sink.
"The boat's so bad we can't rely on it for rescues," said Chief George Schoenrock. "It carries three people, but if we wanted to get someone in, two firemen would have to get out first."
The 11-year old boat (in 1992) has been leaking water for some time, a condition firemen long adjusted to, two men bailing as one steered. Each fire fighter wears life preservers, and any trip might be the one in which the return without a boat. Fully loaded with men and needed equipment, the water comes up within an inch of the top, more than enough to make a grown man sueasy in deper water.
Last month (Nov. 1992) -- when the fire department recovered the body of a Jersey City man who'd leaded from the Route 3 bridge -- they could not bring him onto the boat. They simply hooked the collar and dragged the boy to shore, fearful even then that the boat might sink.
The slight did not sting them long, and I quickly realized I could not take the same tone in Secaucus (with its small town mentality) as other reporters on my chain of weeklies did in more urban settings. I began to take them seriously, and began to learn more about their problems. It was a lesson that would take the rest of the decade, and then, I still remained largely and outsider, someone peeping through key hole at a culture to which I could never belong.
In January, 1993, I reported on the swearing-in of Gus Mangin, the new fire chief, who achieved the distinction as part of the two-year rotation. He said upgrading the fleet would be his priority, though joked about the politics behind the acquistion.
"Rumors say I may have broken the mayor's leg because he wouldn't vote for our new fire truck," Mangin joked.
The mayor had broken his leg slipping on ice in the town hall parking lot the previous week.
Shoenrock, the outgoing chief, did a little ribbing of his own, teasing the local police above making them lay out hose during a recent fire.