(Updated for 2023)
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.
Our experience with family fireworks ended abruptly on the evening 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 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 half a block away, the trees covered much 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 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 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.)
It got quiet after the sun had fully set and the sky darkened. The group was 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 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 smoky odor of Fireworks launched from Hudson River barges, followed by the same scent from 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 ahs 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, I’ll be streaming Macy’s Fireworks with a festive cocktail in hand.
Here’s the scoop, by the numbers, from Macy’s on their 2023 Spectacular.
More than 60,000 shells,
shells and numerous effects in 30 colors and shapes,
a mile-wide waving flag created by a combination of red, white, and blue palm and strobing shells,
Ghost pyro that turns from one color to another in an on/off design with four different hues,
2,400 shells and effects per minute!
For more information, visit: Macy’s Fireworks’ official site,
Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks, a two-hour entertainment special, will air live on NBC & Peacock Tuesday, July 4, 2023 from 8pm – 10pm ET/PT, 7pm – 9pm CT/MT. Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks will launch from the East River at approx. 9:25pm ET.