Last Friday, at a sprawling bar and event space in Astoria, a line of buzzing men and women spilled out of the entryway and into the cool night air. They weren’t there for happy hour, they weren’t there to dance, and they weren’t even there to watch the New York Rangers’ playoff game against Tampa Bay, which blared on the dozen-plus flat-screen TVs inside. The men were firefighters, the women were not firefighters, and both sides had come for a chance at love — or something like it, perhaps — with each other.
The occasion was “Rescue Me,” a singles mixer for New York women and, as they say, New York’s bravest. (For their heroism, retired firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, policemen, and Marines are also allowed to attend.) The brainchild of Amber Soletti — the founder of an events company that hosts themed parties and singles mixers — “Rescue Me” parties have been going strong since 2008 and in recent months have started to find their footing after being paused when the pandemic hit. But the appetite for them endures: According to Soletti, since the parties resumed, attendance has been climbing steadily.
By the time I arrived, about an hour into the party, the room was already more than half-full but was largely segregated by gender. The odds were clearly stacked in the men’s favor; according to Soletti, 40 men and 100 women had paid an attendance fee and registered ahead of the event. They congregated around high tables drinking beer, freshly showered and laughing, some of them making a beeline for the bar. Women tended to stand on the periphery of the room, speaking furtively to one another, scoping out their prospects.
I first approached a group of three firefighters, two of whom were brothers who had both been regulars at Soletti’s parties for years. Why did they keep coming? To meet “cool new people,” they said. The third firefighter — who had wide eyes, a tan complexion, and a skintight T-shirt — asked me where I normally go to meet men. “I’m actually gay,” I said. He regarded me, then said, without skipping a beat, “Well, where do you meet women? Do you meet them at the gym?” I turned the question back on him. (Gleefully, he replied that, yes, he met his former long-term girlfriend at the gym.)
Standing at the bar, I met a Yonkers firefighter. He had an angular jawline with stubble and wore a bright button-down shirt patterned with flowers and tigers baring their teeth. He exuded confidence without seeming overeager. As we waited for a drink, he helped me complete a trivia card with firefighter-related questions (“Which of the following companies carry hose lines?” “Which isn’t a legit movie about firefighters?”) that the hosts had given all guests as an icebreaker. He told me about this work, like the time he held a man’s fractured skull in his hands — how disturbing, how life-altering it was to feel the bones move beneath his fingertips.
We considered the night ahead. The Yonkers firefighter said he had been to one “Rescue Me” party several years ago but that this was his first since the pandemic. I asked him if he had heard about the last party, which was held in April. According to Soletti, there was a fire during the festivities, and some of the men left to report to their firehouses. “There’s no way that happened,” the firefighter, who was not there, quipped. “The guys just didn’t see any girls they liked and then left.”
At around 9 p.m., with the women and men just beginning to mix with one another inside, I visited the massive back patio to see who had come out for air. I approached a picnic table where a group of three 30-something women sat talking. One, who had long black hair and wore blood-red matte lipstick, told me she had attended one of Soletti’s parties before the pandemic and didn’t have any luck but wanted to give it another shot. (The woman’s two friends were there to support her quest. One of them — Diane, a surgeon’s coordinator at a Manhattan hospital — matter-of-factly told me she would never date a man in uniform again after ending a tumultuous seven-year relationship with an NYPD cop.)
A round of shots and an order of sweet-potato fries arrived at the table. So why did the idea of dating a firefighter appeal to her? “Daddy issues,” she said. “If you want to be rescued and taken care of by a man because your dad left.” I laughed.
“Any girl who says otherwise is full of shit,” she added with a cocked eyebrow.
As a techno beat thumped in the background, Carla, woman of color in a dusty-rose minidress and open-toed suede heels, eagerly whipped out her smartphone and showed me WhatsApp messages and photos with past and present lovers who were firefighters. She was one of the evening’s regulars. But, she warned, although firefighters are “a lot of fun,” women looking for a relationship should proceed with caution: “That doesn’t always come with, ‘I’m looking for Wifey. I’m looking to be your one and only,’” she said. “But if a woman wants to have a good time — have fun, dance, be around sexy men and just have a one-day fantasy — definitely go to one of these parties.”
A bald retired firefighter with meticulously groomed facial hair standing next to us tried to refute the stereotype that firefighters can be players. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, apropos of nothing, that although he’s married now, he has always “treated his women like queens.”
The hours stretched on toward the morning. Pairs gyrated on the dance floor. Women chatted in line for the bathroom. Carla perched on a bar stool next to another firefighter in a blue plaid shirt. Had the evening successfully produced any lasting sparks beyond that initial attraction and beyond the cultural narrative that somehow, in 2022, persists: that men need to rescue women because women need to be rescued? It was late, but still too early to tell.
Though it’s happened before. Soletti said that she’s personally aware of at least five marriages and several long-term relationships — not to mention, she added, “countless” hookups. (Soletti is also something of a success story: She met her husband at another party she threw, “Size Matters,” a mixer for women and tall men.)
In the days following the event, I spoke to one such couple: Elyse and Dave, a Staten Island firefighter. The two got married in 2016 after meeting at a party back in 2015; they have two kids. “I like a man in uniform,” Elyse told me. “I’m from New York, born and raised. I feel like I’ve seen cute firemen my whole life growing up in the city, so the prospect of dating one seemed like something cool and interesting to do.” Still, initially, Elyse was skeptical. Years earlier, she had attended a different firefighter speed-dating event and met a long-term boyfriend there — the relationship was a “complete nightmare.”
“He cheated on me,” she said. “It was a terrible, toxic relationship … when he was hanging out with guys in the firehouse and going out drinking, something would happen.” Each time, she said, his infidelity would cause a major rift between them until it became unbearable. “Once I got out of that relationship, I was like, That’s it. No firemen, no cops — none of that.”
But meeting Dave shifted her outlook yet again. “He was easy to talk to,” she said. “And he didn’t come off as a typical fireman.”
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