The Fourth of July. Man, I loved the 4th when I was a kid. Somebody always had a cache of illegal fireworks
, and you were actually encouraged to light explosives. And then there's the food: hot dogs, BBQ chicken, potato salad, chips, watermelon, all washed down with cup after cup of icy Coca Cola. Then you were trundled off in the station wagon to some grassy field (or to Disney World) to see the real fireworks. The visceral thrill of being that close to exploding, sparkling, fizzing light, and the sonic kick to the gut from the percussions high above.... well, it was definitely a highlight of summers that seemed to last forever.
I still look forward to the 4th now. I like to fire up my smallish grill, flaunting the fire codes and grilling
on my balcony, though after a run in with my landlord regarding an uncontrollably smoking batch of chicken which sent plumes of smoke into my upstairs neighbors windows I limit myself to hot dogs. Wash it down with Corona
, then up to the roof to watch the fireworks.
So, 2003 found me doing exactly that, grilling hot dogs, drinking beer, and listening to the Dodgers lose yet again
. C and I sat out on the balcony enjoying the weather until the sky darkened and the first reports from firecrackers heralded the beginning of the show. Up to the roof we went, a cold one in hand.
, unlike other cities I've lived, has no central gathering place for it's citizens to go for the fireworks. This city, famously without a center, is all about the street level, the cross street, the neighborhood you stick around in to avoid the traffic
. And so it is on the 4th.
The first red blossoms of fire appeared in the haze to the right of downtown, South LA kicking the whole thing off. Then Rampart, then Koreatown, then Hollywood. Far off to the west Culver City chimed in, then Century City, the the Fairfax District cut loose. In Los Feliz someone cut loose on Catalina, then Vermont, then, intermittantly, rockets began hissing and popping behind us on Ambrose.
The dying light of the sun and the yellow glow of city lights revealed the silhouettes of people on the roofs around us. The building across the street was having a party and everyone had migrated to the roof. Occasionally, a drunk over there would give out a sarcastic "oooh, awww". A couple squatted on their roof across the street from the Sikh
temple, drinking beer, pointing out at the city.
We sat down as well. I thought I saw a rat in the shadows, and C and I spent a few minutes poking around up there looking for it, then turned back to the fireworks. It seemed like every other street was launching it's own volley of roman candles, screaming meemies, and firecrackers. An LAFD truck drove the streets, ineffectually announcing that fireworks are illegal. This quieted the large family on Vermont who had been continually lighting firecrackers for the past twenty minutes just long enough for the truck to turn the corner. Soon the firecrackers began popping again, and a yellowish haze of gunpowder smoke rose over the street.
I started to think about all the people out there, millions of them, just within sight of my apartment roof. Neighborhoods I would never (let's face it) think of going into at night were celebrating the 4th. I wondered what it meant to them, to people new to this country. I wondered what it meant to me, anymore. I remember the feeling, so palpable, almost a physical presence, lodged somewhere in the gut and the throat, of being an American, of all of us being in this thing together, the thing that sprang into existence after 9/11. The streets then were lined with flags. Grown men weeped during the National Anthem. George Bush was an avenging angel, his arm draped around a firefighter on the rubble of ground zero, announcing through his megaphone that "they" would pay for this.
A year and half of the "war on terror" had produced, not Osama Bin Laden's head on a platter (which I would gladly go retrieve myself if I knew where he was), but Ashcroft and Bush happily whittling away at that feeling of justified outrage, that pride that we felt that we could pull this thing together and win, honorably, and then return to peaceful consumerism. Instead we are deluged with amorphous "threats" that justify another little nip from the Constitution, another tuck from the Bill of Rights
So it was with some ambivalence that I watched the fireworks this year. But something occured to me as I looked out at my city. This impossible polyglot was the future. So fragmented, so at odds with itself, almost ungovernable, pointed to an unavoidably democratic future. There was no other way to run it. It could not be contained, it could not be stripped of it's dignity, John Ashcroft
could not legislate it's impulses towards individualism. Maybe we would be okay, after all. Maybe we would awaken from this dark dream, someday, after all.