Thursday, June 23, 2011

July 4th, Brooklyn Style

As the Fourth of July approaches, people prepare to attend spectacular fireworks displays sponsored by such business giants as Macy's or the local town government. These shows are carried out by professional pyrotechnists like the Grucci family of New York, a five-generation, family-owned and operated company on Long Island New York who give 300 elaborately programmed, computer-aided fireworks performances annually all around the world. It wasn't always so. Back in 1950s Brooklyn, fireworks for the Fourth were more of a hands-on affair or, if you'll forgive the pun, hands off if you were careless.

The excitement started mounting maybe in mid-June when that first cherry bomb detonation on the block signalled the arrival of a new illegal fireworks season. I was never quite sure where the fireworks came from, but there were "guys" who, year in and year out could be relied upon to sell fireworks out of their hallway or car trunk. All we knew was that they drove "down south" where fireworks were (and still are) legal, bought a supply of the most popular stuff, and then resold it at a profit in the neighborhood. This was Capitalism pure and simple. The transactions were very clandestine, although back then the cops were a lot more tolerant than today, after all, they were kids once too.

My friends and I would take the wrinkled dollar bills we had saved up and search out the shady characters who peddled this stuff. Once you told them who sent you, like in the old speakeasy days, you were accepted. No thought was given by these bums about the dangers of selling explosives to underage customers. If you had the cash, out came the stash. Cherry bombs, ash cans or M-80s, Roman candles, bottle rockets, pinwheels, firecrackers in packs of twenty and, for the feint of heart, ladyfingers and sparklers. When the big day came, we usually waited until dark to set off our explosions. We didn't just blow them up at random either; they were too expensive to squander. No, we staged elaborate scenes for maximum effect.
Maybe an ashcan (equivalent to about one-quarter stick of dynamite) would be inserted into a ripe watermelon stolen off Steve's horse-drawn cart. (Steve was a junk man in winter and changed hats to sell day-old produce at bargain prices in summer. I doubt he ever hosed out the wagon between career changes.) Sometimes we would roll cherry bombs under cars and run like hell when the owners gave chase. Every year one of us, with no hope of ever becoming a Mensa member, would man-up and hold something dangerous in his hand until the fuse had almost burned down to the powder, just like this kid.  Amazingly, no one was ever seriously hurt, although once, during a Roman Candle fight, "Fankie"s hair caught on fire. We called him Fankie because although his name was Frankie, he couldn't pronounce his Rs. One instant nickname, coming up.

Fireworks were a common way to celebrate Independence Day in most New York City neighborhoods. The cops had murderers to catch and weren't very interested in busting kids for illegal fireworks, as long as you kept it sane. At some point that last proviso was forgotten, but it wasn't us kids who screwed it up, but Neanderthal adults. They would light a fire in a big, cast iron garbage pail out in the street and just sit there lobbing in all sorts of fireworks, hour after hour. Some of these would be blown out of the pail and explode on someone's stoop or front yard. The poster boy for dangerous, over-the-top fireworks displays was John Gotti. Every year the Teflon Don would sponsor such an event in the Howard Beach community. At first the cops left it alone, but as Gotti became more notorious, they shut him down on Mayor Rudy Giuliani's orders.

For me fireworks on the Fourth of July were a part of growing up . They are less commonly seen in New York City neighborhoods these days because of a zero-tolerance crackdown by police. I guess that makes some sense, but I'm glad for the thrills we got from setting off fireworks as kids. To us it was mostly harmless fun (Brooklyn style) and I'm happy to report all fingers and toes are intact.


Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

See, someone else you know set their hair in fire...

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I can still see those chasers screaming from curb to curb!

Ravindra Kumar said...

I am waiting for the NYC July 4th Fireworks to see the sky with full of colorful fireworks.
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