My friends Anat and Rob were in town from LA this weekend. Anat loves fireworks and insisted on seeing the show over the bay. Rob was once traumatized by burning ash dropped from mismanaged fireworks. A 4th of July tossup, which Anat won. Joining us was one of Anat’s friends from Israel, Nava, whom I’d just met and who was in the country for the first time.
We trudged down to Fisherman’s Wharf along with three zillion other people. Nava had lots of questions about the fireworks tradition, the age of the country, San Francisco. People here, she remarked, seemed so at ease and non-self-conscious. Very un-Israeli, apparently. (And un-East Coast, I told her.)
By the time the fireworks began, I was feeling cold and claustrophobic and wondering not about our nation’s birth but whether I’d ever find an apartment. And then, finally, greens and reds and whites began bursting in short trails. There were loud booms and small white dust explosions that looked like comet tails. Colorful tendrils that appeared to come right at us. Multiple bursts of first white and then red, straight lines and then swirly pinwheels.
I remembered watching fireworks back east. As a kid, setting off roman candles in the P.S. 20 playground. Buying packages of firecrackers in Chinatown, a dragon emblazoned on the label affixed to the red paper sheath. The firecrackers themselves always multicolored, which made them seem harmless, like too-thick birthday candles. Arguing over the strength of an M-80 – a quarter stick of dynamite or a third of a stick? (Probably neither.) Later, when I was older, with my mother and brother and niece, leaning on the hood of my car in a UMass parking lot on a hot, muggy night. Or watching off a pier in Provincetown as the sky exploded over the Atlantic.
I recall most vividly, though, the bicentennial celebration in New York City. Multi-masted schooners sailing around Manhattan and a fireworks display that was awe-inspiring. I had just started high school that year, in Manhattan, and was loving the excitement of the city. I knew on some level it was a dangerous place – crime was on the rise as the city’s population dwindled, bled out to the suburbs. But it was MY dangerous place, which made it not-dangerous in my teen logic. Rather than be frightened by New York, I relished it – the gritty grimy hard-ass and unbowed city that seemed so primed for the anarchy of the nascent punk rock movement,
The bicentennial was the year of the 44-caliber killer, when couples no longer risked sitting and kissing in their cars for fear of meeting up with the Son of Sam. It was also a year when the city was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – just months earlier the Daily News had run its famous headline about the federal government’s decision not to bail us out: Ford to City: Drop Dead. The murder rate in 1976: 1,622. (In 2008: 496.)
All that crime and chaos was forgotten, though, for a moment at least, in the smoky afterglow of that summer’s 4th of July fireworks show.