Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.
When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.
When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.
Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.
I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.
Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.
On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.
From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.
The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.
The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.
Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.
Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.
Since four out of five New York City boroughs are on Islands, living in New York means dealing with bridges (and subway tunnels) if you want to get anywhere. Since I became a driver in New York a few years ago, I have mostly driven over the Whitestone Bridge, which is closest to my home.
Lately the authorities have gotten into the nasty habit of adding or changing names to some of its bridges. The 59th Street Bridge was officially called the Queensboro Bridge until a few years ago when they decided to also name if after former New York City mayor Ed Koch. It’s now the Ed Koch/Queensboro Bridge. The Triborough Bridge has been renamed the RFK Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy, who was a U.S. Senator from New York when he was gunned down. This has been aggravating. I don’t want to call the Triborough the RFK Bridge. Triborough works better – it connects three boroughs and the name sums that up nicely.
The 59th Street Bridge is a depressing and aggravating bridge for drivers. It has all of the congested traffic of midtown Manhattan with the sooty industrial character of the more neglected parts of Queens. But it is free, so people will stew in hellish traffic to save themselves the $7.50 it now costs to take the Triborough Bridge. (Public policy experts note that the systems of tolls we have on bridges in New York is backward, that we should charge tolls for bridges over the East River that cause more traffic congestion and instead encourage people to use the larger, highway-connected bridges, which now charge tolls).
This past Saturday I was driving home after dropping off some good friends in midtown Manhattan. I made my way east from Times Square and seriously considered taking the Triborough home. No, I thought to myself, I must overcome my apprehension about taking the 59th Street Bridge and make a success of it this evening.
I found myself on First Avenue but did not make the first turnoff I saw for the bridge. I came upon another turn for the bridge and took it, following behind another pickup truck. I saw a sign saying that the outer roadway of the bridge was closed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. I thought nothing of it; I hadn’t planned on taking the outer roadway of the bridge, which I had never heard of anyway, and those signs usually referred to weekday construction.
The truck ahead of mine came to the entrance of the bridge, which was closed. It was blocked off with orange traffic barrels. The man got of his truck and just moved some of the barrels. He looked at me as he got back in his truck and his face wore the expression of someone who just did not give a fuck about closed roads. For all I knew he was an off-duty cop. I paused for a minute, not sure if I should follow this driver to a new illegally-opened section of the bridge. Fuck it, I thought. If the cops stop me then I’ll play dumb and just say I didn’t know the bridge was closed because the roadway wasn’t closed. That was technically true.
I could have been driving into a dangerous construction zone or have been tailgating some kind of undercover police operation or been intruding on some other kind of high crime or misdemeanor taking place over the East River. All of those unfortunate circumstances still sounded a lot more fun than contending with the convoluted traffic that would have been required to stay law abiding. I drove up the closed ramp of the bridge.
The outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge (a.k.a. the Queensboro Bridge a.k.a. the Ed Koch Bridge) is one narrow late separated from the lower roadway by bridgeworks and thick concrete walls. Every once in a while there is a break in the wall and someone driving a smaller vehicle than my pickup truck could probably get away with maneuvering in and out of the lane. I was stuck on the outer roadway until the bitter end.
I drove on the closed outer roadway as quickly as I could while trying to look normal and blend in with the traffic, though there was no other traffic in my lane at all, except the daring barrel-mover, whose tail lights I could dimly make out far ahead of me. I drove on expecting the law to come bearing down on me any minute or to dead end into an impassable construction site. None of those things happened. I drove over the bridge with a paranoid mania until the regular traffic patterns of the bridge shunted me into a lane that didn’t help me get home.
The worse thing about it for someone driving home from Manhattan over it is that it is very tough to find your way when you reach the other side of the bridge. Whether you take the upper or lower roadway and what lane you take on either roadway can quickly determine your options when you reach Queens. Driving eastbound, it transports you from an anger-fueled Byzantine knot of Manhattan streets to a clustered maze of impossible roadways of Queens.
I eventually disentangled myself from whatever unappealing part of Long Island City I was in and found my way to Northern Boulevard and a more pleasant drive home.