An old friend who is a FDNY fireman just posted this story about 9/11 and his relationship with David Bowie. Very cool and touching story.
Growing up on Staten Island, I was fairly sure I’d become the next Lawrence Taylor or Carl Banks. If my football career didn’t pan out, I had basketball. I was sure I’d be the next great white hope. A new version of Larry Bird or Chris Mullin. If option two didn’t pan out, I had baseball as my backup plan. Don Mattingly was my hero and I was surely destined to be just as good as him. When reality set in, I graduated from Monsignor Farrell and matriculated at SUNY Plattsburgh where I was the star of my fraternity touch football team.
My father was fireman, and I wanted badly to follow in his footsteps. I passed the test after graduation and tended bar and worked as a personal trainer for a period of time. When my number was called, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I showed up for work n a sweltering July day at the house day one in TriBeca and was told by the veterans to head to the kitchen and start washing dishes. So I did as I was told.
I get to the kitchen, and a blonde guy in a white tank top and a red bandanna is cooking and listening to Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” very loudly. He is tall and very skinny. He has a tall glass of white wine in pint glass with ice cubes. I saw the bottle of wine. It still had a price tag on it. 175 bucks for whatever wine this guy was drinking. He turns around, sees me, and turns down the music.
“Ahh the new guy. Welcome mate,” he said with a deep voice in a British accent. He was striking looking. His right eye was blue and his left eye was brown. “I’m the cook here on Monday and Thursday nights. Don’t let these @#$%& give you too much of a hard time,” he said as he took a drag of his Marlboro Red.
I was talking to David Bowie.
That night he was making a spaghetti dish with lobster. He had a huge bag of live lobsters that was sitting on the counter. He boiled a huge pot of water and began dropping the lobsters in after he carefully killed each one with a big knife. He asked me to help him and I did. Here I was on my first day as a member of the FDNY, my lifelong dream…and what am I doing? I’m dropping lobsters into boiling water with David Bowie. A senior fireman passed through and saw us. His name was Flanagan.
“Davey is at it again. Hitting on the new guy. Kid – just give in and let him have his way with you. It won’t be that bad. Ask him about Wilt Chamberlain’s dick,” Flanagan said. David responded without looking at Flanagan.
“The last time Flanagan had intercourse Carter was president. And surely he paid for it. Probably in Coney Island or Atlantic City if I recall correctly,” David said as he dropped a lobster into the pot. Flanagan left the room, and we went back to the task at hand.
And so began my "friendship" with David Bowie. He lived in the neighborhood with his supermodel wife, Iman, and their daughter. The loved the banter, camaraderie and ball busting the house provided. I can tell you one thing…he was a hell of a cook. No expense was spared. A bag of 24 live lobsters is a good example. I recall watching him cook. The guy took his time and each detail was measured and calculated. It was also a performance for him, as was everything he did. Before each meal was served, he made us all hold hands. He would say a Buddhist style prayer where he’d say random stuff and thank the food and weird crap like that, and then he would lead all of us in the lord’s prayer. “Our father. Who art in heaven…”
To say the least, David was an interesting dude. He had alter egos (Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke), was bisexual, had battled severe cocaine addiction and won, had an art collection that dwarfed most museums, in the 1970’s he was an freaking outspoken supporter of fascism…and survived it. He invented reinvention and was a master of social media and before such a thing existed. He showed up at my wedding in Rockaway and sang “Let’s Dance”, “Modern Love” and “Young Americans” with the band. That’s how cool he was. The man was nothing short of a genius and without a doubt the most fascinating person I’d ever met. And soon to be a hero of mine…
On 9/11, many members of my ladder were killed. I was on vacation that week. It was before we had kids and my wife and I had rented a house on LBI. I rushed back home and made my way to work. In those days and weeks that followed, David was around all the time. Cooking. Mopping floors. Doing laundry. Attending funerals. He slept right there in the house with us, and when he was awake, he was working. Doing whatever he thought needed to be done.
Those few weeks were a blur. People were scared. No one knew if another shoe was going to fall. David was a constant supporter and was encouraging all of us, and it really helped. He was asked to be the opening act for the concert for “The Concert for 9/11” which was being held at Madison Square Garden. David agreed to the gig.
“If you chaps can be such brave heroes each and every day, I can surely display some courage and do what I do best in honor and admiration of each of you,” David told us.
There were scary rumors at the time about the concert. Like it was going to be bombed. The first performer was going to be shot by a sniper. Stuff like that. David didn’t care.
“There is no way I’d rather go gents. I’ve battled extremism, hatred and prejudice my hole life. And I didn’t always win those battles. This battle I shall win and I can tell you I have no fear. How could I when I share your company?”
When David was cooking, he would sometimes sing instead of listen to music. One of our favorites to hear was “America” by Simon & Garfunkel. Hearing him sing it could make the toughest fireman cry. He told us he loved the song because it made him think about “all the unique souls who come to New York from their small towns to chase their dreams. Often you see them sitting on the ground at the dreaded Port Authority or Penn Station. A backpack behind them and journal in front of them, wondering what they next move will be. To me its nothing short of brilliant.”
When he was planning his act for the show, he sought our advice and we gave it to him. He told us he wanted the first song to be like an opening prayer. He wanted the angry, nervous air of tension and violence to be put aside. He would then say some brief words and launch into a song “for us”. He wanted to send a message to the world that nothing will stop us, there is no way we will lose, and we will beat our haters for ever and ever.
That night in Madison Square Garden changed my life forever. In uniform surrounded by my brothers and sisters…I think about it now and the experience was otherworldly. This might sound ridiculous but sometimes I wonder if it actually happened, if that makes any sense. During his opening version of “America”, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was crying as David sang his song about the city he loved and the country he had come to call home. He said his few words, mentioned us from the house, and then went into his song about us…“Heroes”. He built the tension, spirit and boldness with each verse. When that song was over, there was no stopping us. Ever. We were a like pack of 20 thousand wild dogs. He galvanized us. It was awesome. I haven’t been the same since. Neither has anyone who was there for it. After what we’d been through, it was just what the doctor ordered….and only one doctor could provide it…David F’ing Bowie. We were ready to go forward.
****Tade's note: Here is a link to Bowie's performance mentioned above as it originally appeared on TV I beg you all to watch it. Please take the time. His speech is at 4:20, at 6:49 i got chills and started crying and between the 7 and 8 minute mark our author can be seen flashing the peace sign.****
David kept coming to cook until his health began to fail him. Several months after his death, a lawyer for David and Iman contacted me and arranged to come to our home on Staten Island. She told us that David had left us a very valuable piece of art from his famous collection. She told us that her client thought we could use it to “help pay for college” which nearly made my wife pass the hell out. The painting was worth well over a million dollars. We’d just had our 3rd kid. Enough said. He did the same thing for each guy (8 of us) from the house who had survived 9/11 with the promise that we not tell the press about it.
And that, boys and girls, is my story. Was I “friends” with David Bowie? No. At least not more so than anyone else who knew him like I did. But he was by far the most interesting soul I’ve met, he changed my life, and I thought you’d like the story.
Some nights I can’t sleep. Memories from what I saw that day rear their ugly head. But I can make them go away when I hear David’s voice putting me at ease…
Let us be lovers…we’ll marry our fortunes together…
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…
They’ve all come to look for America…
All come to look for America…
All come to look for America…
Tade Reen | New York, New York, NY 10169