In the 50s and early 60s, when I was a kid growing up in Council Grove, Kansas the 4th of July meant a backyard barbecue at my grandparents’ house on West Main Street—hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, iced tea, and homemade, hand-cranked ice cream made with whole cream purchased in glass bottles from a local dairy farmer. And then after the feast, we’d gather on the lawn and watch the fireworks that our father bought, year after year, at a little stand, just outside of the city limits. He said he went there because the stand supported veterans; we knew he went there because more powerful fireworks could be found in the county than in the town.
Our experience with family fireworks ended abruptly on the evening that dad held and lit an oversized Roman Candle. It backfired and blew its entire contents—burning white hot—toward him. In less than one second he was transformed from a man wearing a blue and yellow striped seersucker shirt to a guy being completely barechested—shirt and chest hair completely burned off. He wore the smell of singed hair and for days. We moved on, then, to watching municipal fireworks.
In the 70s—when I was in my 20s—I lived in apartment 17F at 304 West 75th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Each July, I’d go across the hall to Joe Manganello’s apartment, 17H, to watch Macy’s fireworks. While Riverside Park was only a half block away, the trees there covered a lot of the July sky. Manganello had a direct view of the Hudson River from his place. And, more importantly, he always had a good word, some clever conversation, and a pitcher of ice-cold sangria at the ready.
In the 80s, I moved—with my partner, Donald MacIntosh Havens—to The Alden at 225 Central Park West. At 17 stories, the building isn’t terribly tall but it has a great roof deck with panoramic views from the Hudson to the East River. At the time, the Alden only hosted one event each year. In June building management took reservations from residents for spaces on the roof for 4th of July Fireworks watching. They provided Sabrett hot dogs and cold sodas.
Folks brought their blankets up to the roof. Some brought the faded—and often, still sandy and salty—folding beach chairs that they’d kept in the back of a closet for most of the previous year. Many brought thermoses of cocktails and plates of hors-d’oeuvres. Some brought buckets of iced wine. You could spot the Alden’s few gay residents—including Don and me—by way of their stemware and cloth napkins and Op corduroy shorts.
Those were festive evenings. Don and I would find ourselves having conversations with neighbors that we wouldn’t talk to until the next summer. (Respecting personal space and privacy has always been a tenet of being a good neighbor in the City.)
After the sun had fully set and the sky darkened, it got quiet. The group hushed, People whispered in anticipation of the first aerial explosion of red and gold pyrotechnic magic. Then came the oohs and ahs. Then, seconds later, came the delayed explosive reports of bangs, cracks, pops, and whistles.
It was 15 or 20 minutes though, before we enjoyed the full impact of those fireworks.
In the summer in Manhattan, the prevailing winds are typically from the southwest and they carry in the unmistakable odor of West Side, Hudson River barge, and New Jersey fireworks. The arriving smell of burned sulfur, black powder, flash powder, and saltpeter—along with the slightly medicinal taste of the micro-flakes of metallic particles in the dispersing smoke—was like experiencing a lifetime of fireworks all over again. That’s when the oohs and ah’s went full voice and people started saying, “Oh my, that reminds me of when I was a kid…”
These days, hot and humid July weather is not a friend of mine. So, if I’m not in Manhattan in a hotel with a river view, watching Macy’s Fireworks has become an experience nicely delivered to Jacob and me via tv or online.
Here’s the scoop, by the numbers, from Macy’s on their 2018 Spectacular.
20 New Shells and Effects: Look for the Neon Pinwheel, Pulsing Hearts, Swirling Water Fountains and sixteen more.
50 Pyrotechnicians: It takes a team to make certain the show works with precision.
8000 Hours: It takes nearly a year to plan, load, and ignite this years Macy’s Fireworks show.
3000 Shells and Effects: That’s the number of pyrotechnics that fire off per minute during the 25-minute show.
25 Colors: From red and amber to titanium and brocade gold, twenty-five different hues will light up the sky.
For more information, visit: Macy’s Fireworks’ official site,
Here’s a look back at 2017. Enjoy.
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