Friday, July 5, 2013

Story Time: The Best Fireworks Show Ever

Honoring America
In the mid 1990s, I lived in Fishtown, a lower lower lower working class 'hood just north and east of Center City Philly. It was a safe place to live if you were white, kept your head down, never made eye contact, and looked like you had absolutely no money. It was close enough to downtown where I could commute to work without a car (subway or bike did the trick). I needed to be in the area to get gigs and crowds for my rock band, and you could even own a car there, as I had to for a future job, because, well, it wasn't that dense and parking was manageable. My final rent payments there were $675 a month, split three ways. It worked, so long as you didn't think too much about it, or dared to raise a child. (Why not? Um, schools were terrible, there were homeless and crack addicts everywhere, and if you had non-white friends over, you were pretty much asking for a fight. Bad place. Not going back. And yes, I've heard it's gentrified since then. Maybe for others, but not for me.)

Anyway, Fishtown had its odd moments of win, as poverty does. And I'm reminded of this when July 4 comes around and fireworks shows rule the land.

Now, Fishtown is literally across the street from the wildly violent areas of North Philadelphia. Cops did not come unless they had back up and Damn Good Reasons. Among that list of reasons was not the use of illegal fireworks. So for the week before July 4, you'd hear people setting stuff off all the time, and the occasional gunshot answer from North Philly, and you'd pretty much stay down and wait for the season to change.

The reason you lived in Fishtown in the first place was that you had no money. So open windows are going to happen. Let me set the scene for you...

It's the week of July 4, a hot and listless weekend night. I'm sitting in my window in my second floor sniper's view Fishtown bedroom, trying not to pass out in the heat. It's a 3-story row home with housemates on the first and third floor. I'm doing what I did back in those days; trying to write songs on my guitar, and/or flipping through channels on my TV set without cable. (Channel 48 for ECW becomes more understandable now, right?) And that's when I see them.

Two of the drunkest people on the planet. And by drunk, I don't mean tipsy or inebriated; I mean medically and thoroughly poisoned by decades of punitive alcohol, and then set off by days of binging for the holiday, to the point where locomotion in a straight line is impossible, and they are just listing and careening from port to starboard, on dry land with no wind. They've got torches, and a metal stand, and a cache of, well, breathtakingly powerful, borderline professional, fireworks. In an area with buildings, and overhead wires, and an elevated subway line, along with an abandoned lot of overgrown weeds and crack vials.

For the better part of the next two hours, I watch them, and Dear Reader, it was RIVETING.

Would they set themselves on fire? Hit a building or the wires? Would the fireworks work? How much more could they drink (answer: an astounding amount), and would their breath end the show, and perhaps the neighborhood? How did they get the fireworks in the first place? Would the cops come? Did one of them know what they were doing, at least prior to the life-changing drunk, and set things out to build to a climax? Would they get into an argument and aim at each other? Everything, and I do mean everything, was in play. (They fired off stuff for hours, then passed out. The torches went out. I went to bed. For all I know, they are still lying on the ground.)

Every fireworks show you've ever seen has been, I would argue, bereft of Drama. In Fishtown, for one night only, it had all of the drama, comedy and pathos of an episode of "Breaking Bad."

So you will excuse me if every other fireworks show doesn't quite do it for me, really.

I've already seen the best.

And have no desire to see it again...

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