My boyfriend asked me why women think firemen are sexy, so I explained the pole theory: Men love women who slide down poles, and women love men who slide down poles. Subject dropped. — Terri Guillemets
I stood over one of the tables in Rock Bottom Brewery La Jolla’s banquet room, where a clutch of young men sat staring up at me. “Come on, guys, someone has to go first,” I said. Silence. “Fine. Red Hat, you’re first.”
“I’m not going first,” said the guy in the red ball cap.
“But aren’t you a ‘probie’? They’re just going to make you go first anyway,” I said.
“He’s a probie too,” he argued, pointing at the brunette closest to me.
“I can’t go first,” said the brunette. “Captain’s not bringing my bunker gear until later.”
I looked across the room and caught the fearful eye of another probie (probationary firefighter). He was the one who’d called me the day before, all nervous and full of questions, one of which was, “We’re not going to have to take off our clothes, are we?” I decided to be merciful and returned my gaze to the table. I raised a brow in expectation and waited.
The guys had already volunteered to donate themselves to the fundraiser, put on by the Rock Bottom Foundation to commemorate Fire Chief Ale, a specialty brew made in limited quantities each year. Two-thirds of the guys were in their early 20s. They were all firefighters, all single, and all about to be auctioned off, by me, to the highest bidder. Every penny earned in the auction would go to the UCSD Burn Center.
“I’ll do it,” said one, tentatively.
“Thank you,” I said with a mixture of exasperation and appreciation. “It takes balls to go first. I’ll be sure to mention that when you get up there.” He seemed pleased at this. Once the first few slots had been assigned, the remaining firefighters became pliant and I allocated the rest of the numbers.
I then turned my attention toward the second obstacle of the evening — figuring out how to get myself into a standing position on the bar without incident. There was no stage, and I needed to be above the crowd in order to keep track of the bidders. The firefighters would have no problem flying up the ladders provided. For me, getting up there was a bit more complicated — the bar was chest-high, and I was wearing a corset and five-inch platform heeled boots.
When I first arrived, I’d attempted to climb the metal ladder and freaked out when my boot slipped on the second rung. Momentarily traumatized, I told myself I’d try again later. But by the time I made it back downstairs, the San Diego Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe and Drums Band was already front and center, bagpipes blaring and drums resounding. When they finished, the mike would go to me, and all eyes would face forward as I ventured to stand on the narrow, elevated bar.
I could sense the buzz of energy coming from the mezzanine above, where the anxious firefighters were being plied with beer and shots to loosen them up as they waited for their names to be called. At 600-something, the restaurant was over capacity, but with 30 firefighters on hand, no one was worried about safety. Trying to exorcise all thoughts of falling flat on my face, I gingerly climbed the ladder and set foot on the bar, my toes eye-level with the crowd. I adjusted my corset, checked that my plastic fire extinguisher, axe, and walkie-talkie were in place at my hips, and called forth the bold probie I’d pressured into going first.
In the weeks before the big night, it had been stressed to me that the firefighters were apprehensive about being in the spotlight. I had assured both the organizer from Rock Bottom and the liaison to the firefighters (the VP of their union) that I would treat the men as esteemed community-service members and not pieces of meat. But the rambunctious women filling the restaurant had a plan of their own.
As soon as the first specimen was standing beside me on the bar, the screams were so loud that no one could hear me recite his answers to the questionnaire I’d circulated prior to the show — that he had a pet dog, that country was his favorite music genre… I was distressed when I heard someone yell, “Take it off!” as I was sure this would scare away the rest of my volunteers. But the wolf whistles and commands to “Strut your stuff!” had the opposite effect. When I looked to my left, Number One was all smiles. As I was explaining why he decided to become a firefighter, he was turning around and bending over to satisfy a bellowed request for a better look at his rear end in his suspendered yellow turnout pants.
Things remained fairly tame until Number Three hit the bar dancing. The cheers were deafening. The bids climbed higher and higher, and just when it seemed the room had reached the zenith of excitement, Number Three removed his shirt and the crowd went Discovery Channel wild.
As they made their way from the banquet room upstairs to the top of the bar that served as the stage, the firefighters transformed from Taylor Swifts into Lady Gagas. I persisted in relaying points of interest about the men — about poignant puppy rescues and culinary aptitude — but both the auctionees and their frenzied bidders focused all their attention on the show.
One beefcake removed his shirt to reveal that he had written, in bold black ink, “$2 per pound” on his chiseled chest and rock-hard abs. Fiercely competitive by nature, each man strove to attract a higher bid than his firefighting brethren. The ante was continually being upped. One guy dropped to his knees on the bar beside me, stretched out, and did one-armed push-ups; another grabbed a beam in the ceiling, from which he did pull-ups. One of the more memorable performances was that of the firefighter who leapt onto the bar without using the ladder, dumped an iced beverage over his head, rubbed the liquid into his hair and over his bare chest, and then proceeded to breakdance on the makeshift dance floor while I tried not to slip in the puddles he’d created.
By the time the last man had been auctioned off, we had raised over $10,000 for the Burn Center (three times as much as the year before). The room was a happy buzz of women and proud firemen, many of whom were already hooking up with their new dates. The only thing left for me to do was figure out how to get down from the bar.