A few weeks ago we were at Murray's Cheese in the West Village, picking up a few chunks for a soiree. That's when we met Michael. Decked out in a clown nose and devil horns, he walked us through samples of cheeses, chocolates and olives while belting tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, making Rocky Horror jokes and regaling us with tales of his adventures as a Fire Patrolman before his rebirth as a cheesemonger. From growing up in Queens to learning about cheese to walking through the ashes of Ground Zero during his previous job, you can read it all below... or go visit him at the store yourself.

And you never thought about leaving? [Laughs] It's paid for. I work in retail so I can't afford a huge mortgage.

So before you were a cheesemonger, you were a firefighter. A fire patrolman.

What's the difference? A firefighter works with the FDNY, they do extinguishing and rescuing. A fire patrolman was concerned with fire insurance and salvage. Buildings that were on fire in our home districts, we would respond to, and minimize the insurance losses. We were around beginning at the turn of the 19th century and we ceased to exist the 15th of October, 2006, at 8 o'clock in the morning.

How did you get into that? Insanity. Yeah. Like every red-blooded American little boy you played a cop because that was the family business for 30 some-odd years, or you play a fireman and I had a little plastic toy fire helmet, chasing police cars and fire trucks around the neighborhood. I started emergency work with a volunteer ambulance corps in my neighborhood, I got bit by the fire bug. By the time I figured out I wanted to be a fireman I was too old for FDNY but there was no age cutoff for fire patrol.

So this helmet you brought in. You mentioned 9/11... Yep that's the helmet I wore the one time I was down at the Trade Center when I was a patrolman on the 15th of September '01. That was the only time I was down there as a fire patrolman, and then I was a food volunteer. And I remember, our firehouse was in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, but even coming out of the subway in Brooklyn, you could smell it in the air—and you knew what you were smelling.

I used to finish work 7:30/8 o'clock in the morning, and I'd walk from Brooklyn to Chinatown over the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge, get brunch, take a spin on the ferry to clear my head. One morning the entirety of both main buildings, the two towers, were totally obscured by the fog. All you could see was the Woolworth building, which I loved so I just clicked the shot. Little did I know a couple of years later, I wouldn't need the fog. So that was one of the first things that was like, it's just like, deja vu.

You see the pile for the first time, and you smell it, you taste...like how many of my friends are dead? And your brain wheels just start flying and it's just like, Mommy! You know? Then we start walking south and you see an almost blocked road of fire trucks, some double-stacked. At that point I didn't know if they met their fate in the building. I hate the cliche, but they went with their boots on, they were in the building when they met their fate.

I saw a friend pushing this cart full of helmets. You personalize [the helmets] in ways that reflect your personality. I love Marilyn Monroe so I got her commemorative button from the post office from when they issued her commemorative stamp on the back. I've got a quote from Woody Allen on the other side. Ironically, it's, "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." You look at the front piece on a fireman's helmet: the big number is the guy's unit, the little number is his badge number, that's the guy's identity there. Next best thing to his life there. It's a very personal thing. And you see...you think, "Jesus Christ, these guys are all dead." We didn't get to the pile that day. The first thing we were called upon to do was move a row of cabinets that was once part of a firetruck, and reposition, so that it became a barrier around the fire department command post. Then what happened was, when all the buildings came down and the ground got tore up, you lost water supply inland, so the only primary water supply was...on the North River, which most people would call the Hudson, but I like to use North River. So they had firemen on a hose pumping inland.

After our shift the rest of the fire patrol company came down and said, "Take up guys," and we started heading back north and east to the river. During that time frame, we didn't have to cook for damn near ten days. Everyone was bringing us tons of food. People want to do something. And it was like, just tons...there was no place in the kitchen to put everything. I mean, and I as the cook in the group...I felt kind of out of sorts because I wasn't doing anything. We just went back and ate like...until you couldn't shovel another forkful. It was literally just comfort food with just stuffing your gut. I wasn't going to wait until like twelve o'clock midnight to go back, and so...I went to the Long Island Railroad terminal, and I guess I went to Brooklyn, I was going straight home. And I was like, "What the hell am I going to do with myself?" I was dreading being alone.

But at least they [the firefighters] have the mental comfort of being there the day of. I didn't leave the house, I was online. I was helping people. I basically set myself up as part of a network from a chat room; we were doing notifications for people who couldn't contact loved ones.

That's really cool. Yeah, it was, actually, if I do say so myself.

And the other thing, like, you know how people were down at the site handing out water and underwear and socks and stuff and just cheering us? I hated that. They were calling us heroes. There was nothing to be a hero with. The last live person that came out of that kit on Wednesday, this was Saturday...it was nothing we could do for anybody. Our brains going like, "Oh Christ, life as we know it is over." We're walking around in the dust that used to be people. Our friends, our coworkers, people we've gotten drunk with, people we've worked with. You kind of pull up your coat collar and say, "Leave me alone, I know you're trying to be loving and supportive but please leave me alone. You're making me want to kill myself right now, just leave me alone, please. Go hug a cop. I know you're trying to be supportive and I love you guys, but leave me alone please. I don't need water, I don't need socks, I kind of like my underwear right now, I don't want to change it."

People call me a hero now, but don't do that, please. I went to work, that's all I did. I went to work one day and I had to do like we did all the other times, you know? And...that's an issue. So you want to talk about food now?

Ha, yes. So fast forward to 2006 when the patrol gets shut down. What did you do? I lived on unemployment for six months because had I put down that I had food experience before that, I would be making sandwiches and food at some coffee shop or deli someplace. I had never been unemployed before so I earned it! [Laughs] Then you wake up five months and three weeks later and you're like, "Oh Christ, I need a job. What marketable skills do I have? Oh, I'm a food person." And believe it or not I was really praying for Dean & Deluca because I didn't know how diverse it was at Murray's. I saw that little hole in the wall across the street and I was skeptical, but after about a month or so I'd seen the error of my ways.

Did you know anything about cheese before that? Yeah I did the same gig for three years at Macy's Roosevelt Field while we still had the marketplace departments. Had the Harold's Square not been a union shop, my buyer at Roosevelt Field told me "I'd get you in there but it's a union house." But I also saw what they were like there, and their customers sucked. So it worked out for the best. I even tried to inquire about a butcher shop gig near my firehouse, and it was a early 20th century butcher shop. But the kid I asked at the counter what kind of meats he carried, he didn't know. I looked at him and was like "you dork, you sell this stuff 5 days a week and you don't know where it came from?" I don't think so. See ya. So I was even snobby back then.

So you obviously have sort of a reputation as a character. You know, you've got the costumes, you've got the personality, everything. How do your customers react to that? Do some of them get freaked out? Some do. The low end of the scale is when I had the horns and clown nose on. Once I think a woman with little kids was suspicious.

If she had little kids, it would be so much fun! I think I scared the kids! But if I'm the scariest thing this kid is going to see walking around the streets of New York today, consider it a blessing! I'm an attention whore. But yeah, most people go along with it. I love posing for photos, you know. I'm a tourist attraction.

You should start advertising it like that. Yeah. I've worked with certain chefs who are like, Are you out of your mind? But it's like, part of the fun. I prefer to turn crazy like a fox. Because I still know what the hell I'm doing down there.

Well, our cheese platter was a hit. Yeah! Most people go along with it, but at least...some of them will ask, like, What's the occasion? I'm like, "Well, it's Halloween." But just try it. If you live your life right, everyday can be Halloween. It's life. Unfortunately the Trade Center and some of the younger guys I've lost—it taught me life is too short. Grab it and just have fun. Be crazy. As long as you're not hurting yourself or anybody else, and you have respect for yourself and everybody else, do what you want, and who cares what anyone else thinks? Eat cheese.