The term "fireworks" meant something entirely different in Brooklyn. Hereabouts, it describes the ritualistic displays in the skies on weekends like this one. This practice harkens back to the lines, "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air," I think from a Bob Dylan song.
Apparently, Americans feel the need to blow up thousands of dollars worth of explosives each year to prove our independence. I personally never enjoyed the "fireworks" here – they give me a headache.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn the older kids trafficked in a different kind of fireworks, much like they did in drugs a decade later. Firecrackers, bottle missiles, ash cans and cherry bombs were scored in bulk and then sold on the streets.
Buying bulk meant a trip to the dreaded Chinatown which had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, even though we, as Italians, fancied ourselves as the toughest ethnic group in the city.
In those days there were actually two countries that went by the name China – there was the big China, the one with Mao and the Great Wall, and the other one, later known as Taiwan. Our government insisted that was the real China, and its leader, Chaing Kai-shek, was the rightful ruler of all China. My sense was that Taiwan was sort of like China Light and probably had a hurricane fence around it instead of a Great Wall.
The distinction didn't matter on the streets of Chinatown, where a mat of firecrackers could be had for four bucks. That's 80 packs, and each could be sold for twenty cents. That means you could quadruple your money.
(A decade later you could do the same thing with marijuana – buy a pound for $200 and sell it for $20 an ounce. The trouble is once you smoked it you could no longer do the math and could never figure out how to break even. Then again, you no longer cared.)
Anyhow, the teenagers in our neighborhood would dress up in their most menacing gear - pointy black shoes, tight pants, leather belt with a buckle that could double as a weapon if need be, tight white t-shirt, big pompadour, and a Lucky Strike dangling from their lips. Some would carry knifes, often a switchblade. They would hide their money in their socks, as if the Chinese gangs would never think to look there.
They would curse profusely: "If that effin eff even looks at me wrong I'll eff the effin eff until that eff drops dead," Tony "Snaggle Tooth" Russo would say – and he'd be talking about his little sister.
The deal would usually go down as planned, with the Chinese kids dressed just like Tony and the gang, all of them gesturing and cursing. Then the guys would come home with "the package," bring it to the schoolyard, and start breaking the stuff down for sale.
Ash cans and cherry bombs went for a quarter each. For a while they passed under the radar until people started realizing they were quite powerful. People started realizing this when their kids came home with mangled hands and missing fingers.
The ads on TV warned us not to use them – they made them sound like atomic bombs – the net result was, of course, that we all wanted to buy them so we could blow something big up. A few years later I got into the firecracker dealing business by popular demand. The kids out on the East End had a terrible time getting fireworks. I don't want to say they were hicks but jeez, they didn't even shoplift. What self-respecting 14 year-old didn't lift a candy bar here and there?
When I used to go to church at St. Andrew's in Sag Harbor the other city kids would cut mass and go across the street to Korsak's, where there was a candy display right by the door. They would just help themselves, much to the shock of the locals, who never dreamed of doing such a thing. I remember Ricky Larsen telling some of the young'uns that if God didn't want them to take the candy he wouldn't have put it right by the door. "It's like getting Holy Communion every Sunday except it tastes better," he told the little ones.
I took a bunch of firecrackers out to Sag Harbor to sell. I was kind of like middleman -- I bought them from "Snaggle Tooth" Russo. I was to mark up each pack a dime and bring the difference back to him. Things went smoothly for an hour or so, until the locals started setting off firecrackers all over the place.
Sure enough, they got busted and quickly did what no Brooklynite would ever do – they squealed on me. There were fireworks at my house that night – thank God my parents didn't beat the effin eff out of me. Snaggle Tooth did though, when pay-up time came and went and he finally caught up with me.
Rick Murphy is a three-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award.