A fireman approaches Tom Snyder.
''It's a pleasure to meet you, sir,'' he says to the veteran TV broadcaster, star of CNBC's Tom Snyder, and recently rumored David Letterman follow-up act on CBS.
''Hey, cut that 'sir' s---. I'm Tom!'' bellows Snyder, 58, who reaches out and pumps the startled fireman's hand. Earlier, three firefighters had been guests on a typically loose edition of Tom Snyder; they showed off two vintage fire trucks, then served as judges for a chili recipe contest. For surreal eclecticism, Snyder booked a barbershop quartet and had them harmonize in front of a bubbling pot of chili. It's the kind of thing that has brought the veteran Tomorrow host (1973-82) a new following, and new career prospects.
About the CBS rumor, Snyder says, ''I don't know what the hell's been going on here the past three months. I just do a little goddamn cable show and all of a sudden people are saying I should go to CBS. I had a wonderful conversation with [CBS broadcasting president] Howard Stringer recently, and I said that whoever does a show for CBS at 12:30 a.m. should be a broadcaster, should be someone who can do chili cookouts, and interview, you know, Suzanne Somers. But if Jackie Kennedy dies at a quarter to one in the morning, it should also be someone who can do an interview with William Manchester or Edward Kennedy, and can convey the gravity of the death of a great person. Maybe it'll be me, because I'm that kind of broadcaster. Besides, I told Mr. Stringer, why put someone funny on after David Letterman you're all laughed out by then! His show is a tour de force, for chrissakes! I'm not knocking Leno and Letterman, but isn't there room for something else? Does it all have to be goofiness? I don't think so.''
And if he does go to CBS, will his show be similar to his current CNBC effort? ''I'd do exactly the same show,'' he says vehemently. ''Hey, this isn't just a good cable show, it's good television, period. But whatever happens, I'm riding high right now. I don't know why, but a lot of people like me again.''
Later, after the show, the grateful, chili-stuffed firemen give engine rides around an NBC parking lot to anyone who wants to climb aboard. The children of various staffers clamber up, and they give the fire-bell chord a yank as the truck whizzes round and round the lot, nearly grazing the bumpers of scores of Mercedes and Land Rovers. Snyder sits alone on the stone steps of an NBC office. In one hand is a big, lit cigar exactly the same size and color of his long, tanned-brown fingers. It looks as if he has six digits and one of them is on fire.
He watches the fire trucks flashing their lights in the Burbank dusk and listens to the giggling kids. ''Isn't this the greatest?'' Snyder murmurs to absolutely no one. ''Man, am I happy.''