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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Everyone's a Fireman

Nov. 14, 2001--Two weeks ago, a man named Jerome Brandl was arrested near Pittsburgh and charged with, among other things, grand theft auto and several counts of fraud. It all began on Aug. 23, when Brandl stole a Mercedes that belonged to a member of the Governor of Wisconsin’s cabinet. He then set off on a cross-country spree.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, he showed up in New York, posing as a volunteer firefighter from Wisconsin. He spent several days hanging around Engine Co. 39, where he helped himself to some of the cash donations dropped off by local residents.

Working his shtick (now as an "injured" firefighter), he was also able to swindle himself free hotel rooms, nice meals and who knows what else. He even got an honorary seat at a Monday Night Football game, where he attempted to string along a (real) fire inspector and several real firefighters who had been on the scene when the hijacked plane went down in Pennsylvania. His act must not have gone over real well, because he was arrested shortly thereafter.

Firefighters here in town who had contact with Brandl said later that, while they grew suspicious of him after a couple days, they simply didn’t have the time right then to investigate him any further–which I think is understandable.

Brandl is now facing charges in Wisconsin, and is being investigated in New York as well as in six other states.

All of which got me to thinking. Since the attacks, there has been an explosion in the demand for NYPD- and FDNY-related merchandise. Not just here, but across the country as well. Here, though, the city’s FDNY merchandise stores have seen people lined up around the block for a chance to pick up baseball caps, t-shirts, jackets, toy firetrucks with official insignias, anything they can get their hands on. These stores have never seen business like this before, although they admit there’s a bittersweet quality to it.

While, sure, an overwhelming percentage of the people buying this merchandise are doing so for the best possible reasons–to show their support for our city’s firefighters and policemen–I was curious about that other small percentage. I mean, it’s been discussed by several other people in this paper and elsewhere–these days, firefighters have carte blanche in New York. Go where you like, get into any club or restaurant, people buy you drinks and meals, women throw themselves at you left and right. How hard could it be to get yourself an official-looking black and white FDNY t-shirt and, in a matter of seconds, get in on a little piece of the action?

Most people who wear the t-shirts are immediately recognizable as frauds. (I’m concentrating on the shirts, because I seriously doubt you’re gonna get any free drinks or poon by carrying a toy firetruck–no matter how officially licensed it may be–into a bar.) Most of them look like they’ve probably never skinned a knee, let alone pulled a body out from beneath a smoldering pile of rubble. But what about some of the others? How hard can it be, right? Don’t shave or shower for a day, work on that thousand-yard stare, walk into a new bar looking like you came straight from the scene and whammo.

The FDNY Fire Zone up on 51st St. is at heart a community outreach and fire safety learning center run by the FDNY’s Fire Safety Education Fund. They also operate a store in which they sell, among other things, mountains of official FDNY apparel. The website proclaims, "Look like a member of the FDNY with official clothing"–which, if you ask me, sounds almost like an invitation to various monkeyshines.

I spoke with Fire Zone’s Mary Weitzman and asked if they had heard anything about the misuse of their merchandise.

"I haven’t heard any of that, no," she said. "I’ve got two basic kinds of customers. I have lots of firefighters, because all the firefighters and rescue workers who have come in from all around the country want FDNY merchandise. In the firefighting community, the FDNY is it, so they’re proud to get it. And the other kind of customers are people who want to show their support for their fallen brothers."

But what about those few baddies?

"The merchandise that we sell is not uniform," she explained. "It’s slightly different. We use the same manufacturers, but the designs are different."

As a result, she doesn’t believe that the Fire Zone’s merchandise has been a tool for any firefighter impersonation. "Not that I’ve heard. But you’ve got to understand there are also a lot of vendors out there selling counterfeit merchandise. What they sell, we don’t have any control over."

Despite what sort of shenanigans people may or may not have pulled these past few weeks, no matter how many free drinks and easy dates were or weren’t made available through the month of October, I’m afraid that as our attention drifts further and further away from the cleanup efforts, and in the aftermath of that unfortunate, frustrated rumble with the cops down at Ground Zero, some of that sheen might be wearing thin. Before long it might be difficult to count on the firefighter impersonation scam getting you what it once might have.