Brooklyn used to rock on the Fourth of July.
In the days of blissful ignorance about the dangers of pretty explosives, every neighborhood had its own display. Some even gave the Macy’s ones a run for their money.
A few years back, I stumbled across one as I tried to cross 16th Avenue at 70th Street in Bensonhurst.
I suddenly found myself pressing flesh with what seemed to be flocks of giddy revelers spilling onto the sidewalks. An elderly gent plopped on a beach chair told me to stick around because the “real deal” would, shortly, transform the skies above into a box of exploding jewels.
The man told me that for the past 18 years, on Independence Day, he packed a cooler and abandoned his fancy Long Island home for the seedier comforts of the sidewalk in front of his former apartment house to see the “real deal” unfold across the street in Satellite Park — mere yards away from us.
The sun set, twilight dawned, and I sat down on a beach chair beside the man, who gave me a hero sandwich and a soda, and told me to hold onto my hat.
The heavens opened with a thunderous explosion, spitting out the first drizzle of shimmers, and drawing the first “oohs” and “aahs” from an audience completely undaunted by the proximity of the fusillade.
“The boys usually start off with a couple of aerial bombs and mortars to let the people know they’ve arrived,” explained my silver-haired tour guide, who had no problem telling me — a total stranger — his life story. He was particularly open about the illegal parts.
In between the erupting skies and my own astonishment, the man informed me that he was a former fireworks dealer, who began dabbling in the lucrative trade when he was 7-years-old, sometimes making more than a grand a day.
The senior watched with pride as another of the “boys” let off a rocket stuffed into a soda bottle. He told me that by age 12, he was staging free displays on the same street corner which now held me spellbound.
I wondered out loud about the stark absence of cops, even though a couple of patrol cars had whizzed through the charbroiled streets, carpeted with spent fireworks.
“Why should cops bother themselves? There’s never any trouble here,” snarled a woman, none too pleased with my inquiry.
With that, I got up, thanked my host and made my way through the throngs to 18th Avenue, where I saw a child scamper up a traffic light and place on top of it a pack of lit firecrackers. He was already racing halfway down the street when the first sounds of shattering glass splintered the smoke-filled air. Passing him by was a group of gleeful kids, expertly dodging a hail of bandoliers pop-pop-popping in the middle of the uncensored avenue — to the tune of “The Exorcist” blaring from a loudspeaker.
It wasn’t until the stroke of midnight that the neighborhood showed its true colors. Men, women and children descended upon the debris-choked roadways with brooms for what was known in the nabe as the Big Sweep — an event almost as zealous as the fireworks that preceded it.
“In Bensonhurst, we don’t s—t where we eat,” said a woman, wielding a broom and a smile — and capping a day which had been a most eye-poppingly memorable one for a passing Brit.
©2010 Community News Group
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