My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up. As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’ grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it. But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.
I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends. My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays. So when my cousins extended their invitation, I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic. Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.
But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it. Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.
Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot. This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.
From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point. Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week. Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.
Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color. Our little party all ‘oohed’ together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse. Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky. Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants. I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.
For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been. I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.
I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings. When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed. This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of my most memorable. For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?