Fireworks are loud, scary, dangerous, artistic, beautiful. They are also illegal to have in New York except for those licensed to display them. If they are illegal why is it that I have been bombarded by 4th of July Fireworks all of my life? I really don’t like all that heart pounding noise.
In Manhattan thousands of dollars worth of rockets, firecrackers, ash cans, M80s and so forth were set off by local gangsters. When they got tired of lighting up mats and individual firecrackers, which they routinely threw at each other, (boys will be boys), they would stop crosstown traffic to set a metal trash can in the middle of 116th Street. Into this can all the left over explosive devices were deposited. This wasn’t a few explosives. Sometimes the can was more than half full. Once that was done, some brave or stupid (I haven’t decided which) individual would run up to the can and throw in a lit mat of firecrackers. The mat is the smallest of the explosives that they played with and lighting the fuse would give you about ten seconds to throw it in and get away.
Sometimes a minute would pass and nothing would happen. That’s when the guys would begin their animated discussions regarding the advisability of walking up to the can to throw in another sizzling mat. A very dangerous proposition! The can could be smouldering and getting ready to explode, or the first igniter could have fizzled out before beginning the chain reaction. Usually, just as the appointed fire starter was about half way back to the bomb (because that is what it was essentially) the can would begin spewing fireworks in every direction.
It would dance around the street exploding, whistling, banging, with rockets shooting out. The firecracker mats machine gunning in a continuous rat tat tat. M80s, the most powerful of the explosives, exploding and shaking the windows of the old tenements. Every year some teenager got his hand burned or his eyebrows singed and sometimes more permanent damage. One time a rocket shot into someone’s bedroom window and set her mattress on fire. I was not a big fan of this celebratory tradition of Independence Day.
Some years later we, Jim and I, lived on Bay 14th in Brooklyn. Our Brownstone was located across from an elementary school. The mobsters in this neighborhood were more cognizant of property values and the damage exploding garbage cans could do. They owned houses in the neighborhood. They were going to be more careful. Therefore,they set up their pyrotechnic display in the school yard. I cannot even imagine the cost of their hour-long show. Here along with noisy mats they also set off high-flying rockets that would burst up in the summer sky. Blues, Reds, Greens, Golds would spread out in star patterns, growing out from the center of each starburst. Homeowners on the block would hose down the front of buildings before this event began. Then take to their front stoops giving them the best seats to watch from. Friends from other blocks would be invited to share the stoop.
I remember one extraordinarily hot, Brooklyn, July; the over head electrical wires were melting, sagging, and falling onto the sidewalks and streets. This was after a series of record-breaking temperatures. My good friend, Barbara, had been out grocery shopping and she was walking home when wires finally reached their limit and transformers started to spark. People, from their windows, were screaming at her to get off the street as these were live electrical wires. In a panic, she ran into the first store she could.
Her belief that she had found temporary shelter from the danger was short-lived. The men in the store yelled at her to get out. It seemed this was where the gentleman were hiding about $30,000. worth of Fireworks. What was happening outside might just cause the entire building to go up in flames. But she couldn’t leave. The live wires were now snaking and slithering right in front of the store. There was no reasonable choice. After a moment and some coaxing, I guess the entrepreneurs thought the better of pushing her out the front. One of the younger men escorted her through the shop, out the back, up a ladder, across a couple of attached roofs, and down through another building which was located passed the danger. All this was accomplished by her in a form-fitting summer dress, flip-flops and holding a bag of groceries. Fortunately, she came through it safely with a great story to tell for years to come. Now I’ve related that story to you.
4th of July to be continued……..