Years ago, when I lived in Inwood, I walked to the public pier at Dyckman Street on the Hudson River to see fireworks on the Fourth of July. The sightings were disappointing. Through clouds in the distance I could see the faint glow of a few shows over New Jersey and could see none of the official Macy’s fireworks happening farther downtown.
I returned to my apartment disappointed but was soon treated to shows of illegal fireworks that more than compensated. The barrage of ordnance that filled the northern Manhattan sky was a welcome sight that took me back to my childhood in Yonkers. I would emerge from our apartment in Yonkers on July 5th to a scene that resembled a war zone. The curbs and corners were filled with the spent paper from reams of firecrackers, and one time I saw a metal garbage can that had been exploded and overturned, looking like a giant metallic banana peel.
When I first returned to the city to live as an adult, I lived in Ozone Park, once the home to professional-grade illegal fireworks shows and street festivals paid for by the Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti. Gotti had been in prison several years at that point, and the authorities worked hard to prevent the return of a large-scale illegal fireworks display. Police were all over 101st Ave. and the surrounding streets, but it made little difference. Managing to get on the roof of my building, I could see the official fireworks far away in Manhattan, but the cat-and-mouse game of cops and illicit fireworks was more entertaining.
Illegal fireworks have been a New York City staple for decades. When I was in fifth grade in the New York suburbs, I went to a neighbor’s yard where a friend’s father let me light sparklers off some candles set on the ground. I felt like the greatest outlaw on Earth. Kids waved around sparklers while adults set off bottle rockets and M-80s. When we heard police sirens in the distance, adults blew the candles out and we ran to the backyard until the danger had passed.
More recently, we have enjoyed the sights of fireworks over Whitestone and College Point. Early morning jogs through Flushing Memorial Field has found launch sites of the previous evenings fireworks displays, the tubes still smelling of gunpowder in the cool dawn, like a mortar position of a recently passed battle.
The allure of illicit explosives dates to the birth of the American nation. The first battles of the American Revolution were fought over the British Army’s attempt to seize illegal weapons.
New York, which was under the yoke of British rule for the bulk of the Revolution, was no less fervent in its commitment to the cause. One of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought in Brooklyn; the Battle of Long Island almost ended the Revolution—Washington barely escaped to regroup. The first woman known to take up arms for the United States did so in Manhattan at the Battle of Fort Washington; Americans lost that battle too and Fort Tryon park still bears the name of the British governor of New York at the time.
Our founding fathers would have been hanged as traitors to the crown had we not won. No matter our heritage, Americans are proudly descended from outlaws and outcasts. People setting off fireworks today are not would-be revolutionaries, but they are tapping into the same antiauthoritarian sentiment that is alive in spades in America today.
The city has seen an increase in setting off illegal fireworks. We hear them in every neighborhood and in some cases too late (true fireworks enthusiasts know to stop between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., July Fourth excepted). There is a need now for people to celebrate and sending exploding stars into the night sky is best done while remaining safely distant from fellow citizens. Many bars and restaurants remain closed, large parts of the city are effectively locked down by massive protests. Fireworks are a needed respite, a needed release of our energies to celebrate something, whether that be the birth pangs of a better America or a fiery exegesis of an abiding patriotism.
Illegal fireworks are a proud New York tradition, a proud American tradition. Let it never die.
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.