Last night we went to a fourth of July party at our friend Jennifer’s place in Sunset Park. The emailed invitations promised “good food” (some Mexican) and a fireworks display on the street in front of her home.
I ended up having to help cook the “Mexican” food; Jennifer was trying her hand at making “gorditas.” When I was a kid gorditas were home made tortillas my mom made which came out fat, because we didn’t have the roller machine they use in tortilla factories. They were just fat tortillas that came out with a hollow center like a pita, and you stuffed them with whatever, meat, beans, cheese, onions.
What Jennifer had on the table were more akin to Venezuelan arepas, which are pre stuffed with queso blanco or meat. Or beans. She had big hunks of stuffed cornmeal ready to deep fry. She asked me if I knew how to make them, and I do, so I helped out. I showed her how to flatten them out a little better (they cook faster flatter) and just ended up taking over the gordita production, stuffing some with beans and others with Polly-O cheese.
There were salads and beans and other stuff; Jennifer is a vegetarian, so I had to content myself with the smells of burgers on grills in adjoining front and back yards.
Years ago Sunset Park was a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, with a smattering of Irish and Italian families. The composition is really mixed now; I saw an Indian family, the women in saris munching on burgers as we walked down 40th Street to Jen’s house. There are a lot of Hispanics from all over Latin America, Ecuadorians, Salvadorians, and Mexicans. And still a good amount of Orthodox Jewish families remain.
Last night we were all Americans, celebrating the 4th with food, and of course fireworks.
When I was a kid growing up in the Lafayette Gardens Housing Projects in Bed-Sty the 4th of July was a night you did not sleep.
For some reason known only to the developers, there was a 20-foot strip of tarmac between the curb and the beginning of the sidewalk in front of our buildings on the Lafayette Avenue side of the projects. And on the night of the 4th, this strip served as the launching pad for most of the fireworks discharged that night. I could sit by my window on the 7th floor and watch as they reached height and exploded almost outside my window. It was exciting and scary at the same time.
At Jen’s party last night two guests had brought their dogs, and Jennifer has a Jack Russell mix mutt, Marvin. Every time the fireworks would start up, the three dogs would run to the closest window to bark at the noise, as if the fireworks were not enough.
There was a police scooter parked just outside on the street, amid the crowd of revelers eating burgers and hot dogs and blowing on the occasional vuvuplaza horn. The residents were waiting for the cops to leave to get the party started.
The sight of the police car brought to mind the 1996 confrontation in Ozone Park Queens between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the remains of John Gotti’s Bergin Fish and Hunt Club’s annual 4th of July party, complete with elaborate fireworks good enough to rival the Gucci family’s fireworks for the city on the East River. It was a party Gotti had done for 25 years, and now Mayor Rudy was going to put a stop to it.
It wasn’t just in Ozone Park, for the first time the mayor insisted anyone caught with fireworks in the city should be arrested instead of just being issued a summons. Giuliani takes his personal grudges to extremes.
It began a new era in the city, a quieter one for many years. I remember the morning of the 5th in my neighborhood in the projects how the streets were littered with the detritus of thousands of exploded fireworks; you can bet that hasn’t been the case in many years.
It’s hard to explain the human fascination with explosions and fireworks; I mean I love the excitement of the exploding colors and light, of the beautiful starburst patterns. I’m not so big a fan of the noise. I think part of it is the danger, the knowledge that the explosion can hurt you if you are close enough. I myself was never one of those kids who bought illegal fireworks and set them off. My experience with explosives is limited to my army service, throwing a few hand grenades and setting off Claymore mines. We had to learn how to fell two trees into an ‘X” in the middle of a road, as a tank barrier. That consisted of tying a brick of C-4 explosive to the proper side of the tree at the base and pulling on the inserted detonator. You had 20 seconds to run to the ditch and take cover. I remember running like a maniac and laughing hysterically as I did so, and jumping into the ditch to wait the very long remaining 19 seconds for the thing to blow. I almost looked to see if maybe it was a dud when the explosion went off. My tree fell in the proper direction.
I also knew a guy who blew his fingers off making homemade bombs in his room in the barracks. He was filling empty metal CO2 cartridges with gunpowder taken from stolen live rounds (a favorite thing for enlisted men to do in the army, steal ammo) and then inserting stolen det cord into the open end. Gary smoked, and he was foolishly smoking a cigarette as he did so, at the cost of his right thumb and part of his right index finger. I found the dried up thumb in a piece of ceiling tile a day or so later after being ordered to clean up the room as punishment for something unrelated I had done.
I’m even more leery of explosives now than I’d been as a child.
The police eventually left, we heard the crowd cheering happily as the scooter drove up 40th Street. Then the fireworks began in earnest.
All evening there would be the occasional burst of skyrockets from someone’s back yard, but now young men started dragging elaborate pyrotechnics bought in Pennsylvania or some other state where fireworks are legal out into the middle of the street and setting them off. The roar was deafening, and Jennifer’s apartment quickly filled with the smell and smoke of the burnt powder.
Danusia and I were leaving, so we walked down the block to the D train to the accompaniment of the light and explosions of hundreds of fireworks. There were crowds of people, mostly young adults but also lots of families with children watching excitedly as the rockets burst in the air above 40th Street. When we reached to corner there were a few police cars, one of them thoughtfully blocking the entrance to 40th Street. No arrests were being made, and I thought, times sure have changed, but the people have not.