I run up to the roof
On the terrace of the apartment building's top floor, I knew I would be able to see where they were coming from. That's a good thing about central Los Angeles—it’s so vast, and so flat
Whenever I hear dull distant bangs and I know that there must be fireworks going off somewhere, or that the world is ending. Usually, my first thought
Then it's followed by quick, rational assurance
Which is way more logical and likely. I don't know why this is, as I am lucky in that I have never been near exploding bombs
I suppose that’s a post-9/11 thing
In reality, I don’t think I’ve ever had to worry about much. Never about being profiled or targeted, or being forced to flee my home, or needing to take cover under my kitchen table.
I suppose that’s a post-9/11 thing
I hate that phrase
I used to hate the whole production of fireworks
I remember seeing them as a kid and being scared, even though I knew better. It was like thunder and lightning. So there was always that sort of fascination there too—it wasn't complete fear because no one else seemed worried; it sounded catastrophic, but was totally fine.
I remember thinking it was acceptable and maybe even endearing to be frightened of fireworks when you were really little; the basis of this being that my Nannie’s dog Abby would hide behind the couch every 4th of July, and she was so sweet.
I just came across a photograph of her while going through an old box of pictures with my Nannie. She was small and auburn with a block of golden sunlight cast across her face as she sat in the kitchen, facing the camera, quiet and beautiful, as if she knew exactly what was going on.
The human ear can hear noises with a frequency range of 20 to 20,000 Hz. A dog’s ear can hear between 40 and 60,000 Hz.
I read recently that there is a town in Italy which requires residents to use only custom-made silent fireworks for any celebration as to avoid frightening the local animals.
Firework displays are the only kinds of shows that people talk the entire way through. Could you imagine if that was the case in movie theaters? Obviously, a lot of people are screaming their fucking faces off during concerts, and sports are sort of a separate category.
Firework displays are sort of the only thing we watch in shared conversation, with enthusiastic noises of approval in unison
I feel like it’s so saccharine that most Americans would disavow such behavior if they were self-aware enough to realize how innocent it makes them seem.
My mom’s side of the family in particular is really into fireworks. I remember how exciting it was when my aunt would down to Pennsylvania, where it was legal to purchase fireworks, and return with her trunk completely loaded.
She was always the cool aunt. Still is. She let us watch PG-13 movies way early.
Her youngest son is three years older than me, and now has a wife and a house and a dog and a baby. He was very much a demonic and hilarious surrogate older brother. He was always climbing trees and on top of roofs and jumping from one things to another, doing flips from the trampoline into the pool, completely fearless. Again, still is.
He loved getting really cheap smoke bombs and firecrackers at convenience stores and putting them down holes in mole hills in the backyard, in mailboxes, sort of near cats, and like, really close to toads.
I remember a classmate putting a firecracker in his sneaker laces and lighting it as he started to run. As it exploded, he jumped through the bushes that lined the rectory yard at school, and we all collapsed in laughter, as it was the funniest, coolest, bravest thing we’d ever seen. And then we all ran because it really damaged the bushes.
Heading up the stairwell, I realize it’s possible that the show could end before I get to the roof, and I won’t be able to figure out where it’s coming from. I also realize it’s possible that I could show up and the exact wrong time and take a hit right to the face.
I remember my uncle doing crazy shit—a hypomanic daredevil who would love to blow money on stupid stuff just to see the looks on our faces. I remember my him lighting off a huge round of fireworks in their driveway. At the end of the ameatur show, there was a huge cannister; I remember watching in equal parts fear and amazement—he suddenly gathered a running start and jumped over the whole thing as it spit yellow and green and red and gold sparkling streams towards the treeline.
He timed it perfectly—the container ran out of gunpowder the exact second he lept across it—the color evaporated, the light dissolved, and he was on the other side, but we couldn’t see him; it was almost like he disappeared into thin air.
Angola is a small, semi-rural beach community right on Lake Erie, about 45 minutes south of Buffalo. Part of my mom’s side of the family has owned a popular hotdog stand there for 75 years. It’s more or less an institution—a summer isn’t a summer until I visit home and drive up to Connors’ Hot Dog Stand for a cheeseburger, hand-cut fries, a sundae. I think that honestly goes for a lot of people in Western New York.
My dad’s mom met her husband at one of the waterfront beach bars right across the street from the Stand” in the early 50s. She mentions this every summer, as if she hadn’t the summer before. She is getting old, and it makes me so sad. She just wants to get in a car and drive to the beach. Instead, she sits in her living room, drinking Pepsi and watching CNN as loud as her television will let her.
Now, that’s our Fourth of July tradition—to go up to the Connors’ annual party with family and hug all the people we haven’t seen since the year prior. The Stand is always slammed, so my mom’s cousins take turns in the kitchen or directing traffic in the parking lot.
Everyone who isn’t already there heads to the packed beach around sunset. Owners of lakeside cottages stack wooden shipping pallets and broken doors in three-story piles and set them ablaze with a heavy dose of lighter fluid. Amateurs break out their ammo procured from Pennsylvania. The beach looks like a psychedelic warzone—babies waving sparklers, kids throwing firecrackers, drunk dads with professional grade shit, overly eager people lighting the end of the line and running like hell. The fireworks pop up and expand, directly overhead. We tilt our heads back at the sparkling insanity.
Angola seems like a great place to grow up—a huge beach-going community that can only go to the beach about three months out of the year. A relative recently called it the “Redneck Riviera,” which feels overwhelmingly accurate. There’s a luxury to the place that is only relative to what surrounds it.
Lake Erie used to be disgusting. It’s not that it’s immaculate by now, but it used to catch on fire because of all the pollutants that had been drained into its waters. All it took was one strike of lightning.
I like to think that people in the Great Lakes region—the people who say “pop” instead of “soda”—are the only people who truly appreciate the summer.
My aunt’s cottage was not much further south from the Connors’ Hot Dog Stand. She lived there with her husband when they first got married, I think. I remember her growing radishes in her garden, grilling sweet corn-on-the-cob with the husks still on. You’d grab a charred ear, shuck it with quick fingers, and roll it in butter and salt.
We’d drag lawn chairs down half a mile of gravel and asphalt to get to the overcrowded beaches on the Fourth. I remember watching golden fireworks that look like sea anemones, and how their sparks stretched out in limbs which scattered and glistened, mirroring an overgrown willow tree that grew just beyond the sand. I remember sitting in my mom’s lap on a blanket, thinking that it was the biggest thing I had ever seen. I recalled this to her recently, and she remarked that she thought the same thing.
I love to look at other people's' faces during a firework display; the awe on the faces, the colors shining on their sweat-slicked skin. I love how happy and full of wonder everyone looks, just a big bunch of babies, amazed by simple, ancient, synchronized chemical reactions.
One year, when I was about 12 or 13, I went to my mom’s friend’s house for the Fourth of July—she had a house in the suburbs with an inground pool, a big yard. I remember looking over the back fence once it got dark—a bunch of the dads who had probably been drinking from their coolers for a good part of the day had started lighting off fireworks in the undeveloped land beyond the property. I looked down at a huge bottle rocket as it was being lit.
Rather than shooting off as it was supposed to, the rocket stayed put on its launchpad, stuck on the rough slivered wood of the stake. All the sparks meant to propel it into the air only ricocheted off the ground and up into my face.
I had a small archipelago of third-degree burns around my right eye, and even littler second-degree burns on the palm with which I tried to wipe the embers away.
We didn’t go to the hospital. I think I just laid on the couch with a wet washcloth over my eye and cried for the rest of the party with my mom wiping my hair out of my face. The next day, my dad took a photo of me on our back porch to document the sort of miraculous wound, sort of in the shape of a curled cocoon, red and yellow and blistered, positioned almost as if it was meant to miss my actual eye. Somehow, I don’t have a scar; only a vague memory of knowing that I would.
In my Sophomore year of college, I wound up getting an under-the-table job as a babysitter and personal assistant of sorts. He lived in an apartment building in TriBeCa, right across the street from his youngest son’s school near the Westside Highway, a few blocks north of Ground Zero. His younger son floored me with his oblivious nonchalance as he mentioned his asthma being a result of his mother living in the area after the attack while she was pregnant with him.
I ended up also working for my boss’s girlfriend as an office assistant in her apartment uptown. She was a musician, and I sat in her cold converted bedroom/office space, scanning pages of her old fake book from when she was a kid, and digitally organizing the files while listening to the Beatles. Songs in the book included “Ring Around The Rosey” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag.”
It was early on in a dark night just after Halloween. She wrote me a check for $39 as I put on my coat and scarf. Suddenly, we heard a gigantic noise
We looked to one another quizzically, each waiting to be reassured. Then
We went to the window, but her apartment faced an inner courtyard, and we couldn’t crane our necks enough to look up and beyond the top of her building
I felt a numbness drain from my face and into my fingertips. The woman kind of laughed, but then turned on her tv to see if something was happening. She assured me that it just to be on the safe side with an uncomfortable laught, and then grasped at her house phone. First she tried to call her boyfriend, and then a friend in her building. Neither of them answered. Our eyes widened and glistened slightly. She asked me to wait a moment before I head off.
I grew warm in my winter coat, my scarf, and I stood with my check in my hands, mentally going through my Emergency In NYC plan.
The noises continued long enough us to shake off our instinctual and naive fear. But it was such strange timing of year, of day, to fully count on fireworks, and we still couldn’t see the source of the noise. As with any heightened anxiety in NYC, we listened for and, of course, heard sirens wailing in the near-distance. Neither of us fully knew what was happening, and were unable to admit to one another that we were consumed by the fear of a “terrorist attack” or some insane invasion. It was a genuine fear of doomsday that had descended upon the both of us, but neither were willing to call our bluff of confidence.
The booms continued, and with false casualty, I took the elevator.
When I got out of the building, fire trucks flew past me. I tried calling both my roommates and imagined them already dead.
Then one of them called me back, heard the panic in my voice, asked me what was wrong, did a little Googling; it was the night before the New York City Marathon, and there were fireworks further north along the East River to celebrate the occasion and welcome the runners.
It must be a post-9/11 thing
I hate that phrase
I am lucky
I’ve always been concerned about the waste and debris produced by fireworks as the shells fall down into a lake or river or field. I doubt there’s much of a clean-up effort. But it only just recently occurred to me how bad it can be in terms of air quality. The pollution levels between 9pm and 10pm on the Fourth are up nearly 50%. Not long or intense enough to produce actual damage, but if sustained, it could be harmful.
And such is the privileged position in which I sit.
One summer when I lived in the East Village, I watched the Hudson River firework display from across the island on my friend’s roof in Alphabet City. Like all New York summers, the air was thick and awful and my hair looked like shit. Right off Avenue D, a bunch of the Dominican kids, kids that actually grew up in the neighborhood, were shooting off bottle rockets.
For a while they were shooting them straight up, and they’d whizz past our heads. We laughed as we drank our cheap beers and ironically purchased Slim Jims and took pictures with disposable cameras.
But then the kids began aiming up at a new high-rise condo building. Things on the balconies caught fire, windows smashed, and glass clattered 15 stories above, just like wind chimes.
In retaliation, people in the apartments began throwing down broken homegoods at the kids in the street, yelling for them to knock it off. As we stood on the roof of a five-story building, we watched as houseplants, glass bottles, and fireworks screamed into two very different directions.
It was last year’s 4th of July that I started seeing signs pop up—
A UNITED STATES VETERAN WITH PTSD LIVES HERE
PLEASE BE COURTEOUS WITH YOUR FIREWORK CELEBRATIONS
THIS INDEPENDENCE DAY
What makes me sadest is how polite and courteous the sign is.
Only in the States are we so privileged that we subconsciously recreate so many dangers on one day of the year that others have to face on a regular basis; Only here is it we are thrilled by the smoke and fire, the explosions; Only here do we need to be reckless and indulgent and excessive to celebrate independence; being safe and alive and free isn’t enough.
You know that weird conversation that sometimes comes up?
You know the one, of like—
what do you want to be done with your remains when you die?
I always joke about this, all to find that it’s actually also true. Well, when I die, I wanted to be cremated. I then want my ashes to be put into fireworks and have the fireworks lit into the sky and explode in a show of color and light
so that I can really go out with a bang
After running up five flights of stairs, I felt disoriented trying to situate myself in the suddenly dark outside around me; like one of those cylindrical compasses floating in viscous fluid on the dashboard on my grandfather's Cadillac, or like a room in a funhouse—not the Hall of Mirrors, but the room with the strobe lights where the floors are shifting like tectonic plates. I looked up and out, sort of south, sort of east, or maybe north, kind of west, sort of close but pretty far. I could see a massive yet microscopic show; fireworks of all hues, shapes, sizes, of metal and fire and powder, of willow trees and bonfires, the shimmer of charcoal and embers and dogtags, the sparkles of money and skylines, gemstones and medals and camera flashes, of lava and gunfire. Its pace was artful and surprising and perfect, as if timed to popped waves of carbonated water. All these electric inkblots of nothing too important were so far in the distance, but completely close and all too consuming.
It lasted until it didn’t, so I walked back down each floor through the concrete stairwell, past each emergency exit; and during that small descent, I thought of so much.
Leah is a 23 year-old writer living in Los Angeles and attending CalArts for an MFA in Creative Writing. She is the co-founder and editor of Potluck Mag.