In this city you know July 4 is approaching at least a month before it arrives. The first tell-tale signs are the nerve-shattering booms, then the squawking of every car alarm in the vicinity, as kids begin to check out what is available beneath the corner of their local candy store (fireworks are illegal here, even sparklers.)
The second tell-tale sign is the news story—as perennial as the first cuckoo of spring—of the busting of an illegal beneath-the-counter firework-dispensing candy store. Last year it was particularly dramatic. William Bratton, head of the NYPD and under heavy flack for some dismal PR, was able momentarily to divert press attention from his woes with several lorry loads of illegal fireworks being carted away from an uptown bodega. A spokesman for the police claimed that they had seized the equivalent of several hundred pounds of high explosive (‘enough to blow up the whole building’), but that what was really dangerous was the way the fireworks were being displayed in large glass jars like candy: ‘It might confuse the kids,’ he said.
One thing’s for sure, if any kid had mistaken them for candy, he would have been in for a rude awakening. These fireworks weren’t crackers or Catherine wheels, but M-50s and M-80s—military-style explosives used in training exercises, and each as powerful as a quarter stick of dynamite. One teenage girl, although she didn’t mistake them for candy, did mistake one for a candle and blew her left hand off, a tragedy that duly appeared in the newspapers as another portent that the holiday spirit was upon us.
Until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to believe the intensity and fervour with which America celebrates itself on this day. If you’re lucky enough to have a rooftop vantage point on the night, the feeling is akin to being in some virtual-reality war game, say Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. There’s the same sinister buzz of chopper blades overhead (filming for the TV networks), the same panorama of exploding shells, the same machine-gun-like chatter of garbage bins full of Chinese crackers. The spirit of defiance is unmistakable. This is a war as much as a celebration, and the defiance is aimed not just against the Brits, but against any rules and regulations that might infringe upon the expression of personal liberty. Each year, in open disregard of the law, New York’s various neighborhoods throw their own firework displays, and some of them, like the legendary shows laid on by mobster John Gotti, are almost a match for the official Macy’s show.
Last year, my own neighborhood’s bash was so spectacular I would have gladly paid to have seen it. As the last sparks of the official display winked out over Manhattan’s twin towers, a van sped into the playground opposite my apartment building and, with clockwork precision, unloaded what looked like (and probably was) a bodega-full of serious fireworks, including the piéce de résistance, a commercial rocket-launcher that looked like it could have fired a sputnik. This wasn’t like the stuff Macy’s used, this was the stuff Macy’s used. The ensuing display was awe-inspiring, both in its ferocity and unpredictability. Being 40 feet away from these massive shells as they detonated over our heads was like being on Ground Zero at Bikini atoll. Which was the perfect metaphor for the spirit of America, I thought, as the sparks rained down on our wooden roof and eardrums vibrated with the shock. Happy Independence Day, fellas.