“Get To The Point” – On Network TV, Minneapolis Firefighter Akeela Al-Hameed Proves She’s As Tough As Nails
That distinctive sound marks the distinctive end of distinctive work performed by a distinctive worker: the roughneck whose calloused hands are sheltered by rawhide stained with dinosaur bones; the poor schlub whose squinting eyes are aided by plastic goggles scarred with a dozen near-misses; or the builder whose sweat-drenched skull is abetted by a four-pound hat as hard as her foreman’s heart, who will, two hours after quitting time, put the pee into Happy Hour…
…that distinctive sound is the sound of punching out from a blue-collar job.
This distinctive work performed by this distinctive worker composes the unlikely backbone of Tough As Nails, a CBS reality show which might be best summarized as “workplace-themed Survivor.” This past season, the show’s fifth, hinged on the competitive labors of two teams–Dirty Hands and Savage Crew–made up of twelve dirty, savage, rough-and-ready, salt-of-the-Earth, take-us-as-you-find-us, proud laborers. Each episode featured team, individual, and overtime challenges which whittled down the cast with the morbid finality of a mystery novel.
One of those whittlees was Fridley, Minnesota’s own Akeela Al-Hameed. She came within spittin’ distance of the show’s grand prize—$200,000, a brand-new Ford truck, and a championship belt—but was asked to end her on-screen tenure by punching out with a cartoonishly large card. Whereas such an action usually marks an end to old labors, Al-Hameed considered her stylized departure from the show the beginning of new ones. “The universe has shown me a lot of stuff,” she proclaimed as she left. “I’m gonna get to work.”
That adherence to cosmic guidance recurs and re-recurs in the personal and professional life of Akeela Al-Hameed. “Going into the show, I went in pretty open,” she remembers. “I went into the show telling the universe, ‘I’m ready to learn whatever I get to learn.’” Of course, this sort of education isn’t all Zen koans and nature poetry—quite the opposite, in fact. “I compete a lot,” says Al-Hameed. “Jiu jitsu, basketball, all sorts of things throughout my life…and in competition, you always learn something.” One of the things learned is a meta sort of comprehension about competition itself. “When you compete, you’re not really competing against other people,” Al-hameed confides. “You’re really competing against yourself.”
This hard-knocks scholarship has manifested in all sorts of ways. Before adding the title of Reality TV Star, Akeela Al-Hameed’s résumé included stints as a soldier, a railroad conductor, a correctional officer, and, because every working girl needs a hobby, even a mixed martial artist. On Tough As Nails, however, her television persona was wrapped around her current, archetypal job, that of a firefighter, a profession that found her more than she found it. “I was working at the Ramsey County jail when a friend I train with told me I should take the test for becoming a firefighter,” Al-Hameed says. “I was like, ‘I already have a job, but all right, I guess–it’ll be challenge,’ so I took the test.”
As far as Al-Hameed was concerned, that test was the beginning, middle and end of a diversion, a digression, a distraction…but the firefighters’ test was merely the universe clearing its throat. Al-Hameed continues, “I guess they put me on the list [of acceptable applicants], but I didn’t think too much of it, because I already had a career going.” When the hire honchos at the Minneapolis Fire Department revealed to her the work schedule and benefits that Al-Hameed would receive as a member of the organization, she immediately picked up what the universe was putting down. “That sounded wayyy better than what I had going,” she recalls.
Once the dust of Tough As Nails Season 5 settled, Al-Hameed resumed her Real Job at Station 16 in North Minneapolis where she finds the actual function of the firefighter is often misunderstood. “You never really know until you’re on the job what firefighting is really all about,” she observes. “Most people think we just put out fires, but we do a lot of medical calls—a lot. Most of our work is EMS [Emergency Medical Services].”
The universe has shown Al-Hameed the City of Lakes at its most vulnerable, which has stoked a peculiar flame within its most famous firefighter. “My job is a lot of helping people out there in the community,” she says gently. “I love the job. I love the city. I love Minneapolis.” But, truth be told, these perpendicular loves pale in comparison to the love that greets Al-Hameed once her helmet has been hooked and her ax has been sheathed and the time clock has been properly chu-chunked.
After hours, a more Pointer Sistersly conflagration compels Al-hameed’s willing attention—the love of her life, love of her wife, self-styled performance and mobility coach Grace Witthuhn. “We’ve been together for five years,” Al-Hameed reports with pride and awe and gratitude. “We met at the the gym. We became friends, then more than friends.”
When the subject is Al-Hameed’s wife, the reality TV star gushes like the fangirliest fan. “She is amazing, she really is,” Al-Hameed coos. “None of this would be possible without her. She chills me the <expletive deleted but you can probably guess> out.” The most important lesson that the universe taught Al-Hameed via her appearance on Tough As Nails wasn’t so much the presenting of “new stuff” as it was the italicization of old stuff. “It’s okay to be yourself at all times while also being respectful and considering other people,” she declares. “It’s okay to be who you are in every area in your life and embrace that.”