Friday, July 04, 2008

Boomtown USA

I'm not sure why I find the Fourth of July to be such a melancholy holiday. It just seems as if the Independence Days of my childhood were much more exciting (and thrillingly fraught with danger). The running joke in Seattle is that summer starts annually on July 5, and true to form it is humid and murkily overcast today, teasing at rain. But in my memory the day seems always blazing hot and sunny, full of wading pools and one-piece bathing suits with the elastic gone nappy and frayed in the seat. Fried chicken and Grammy's potato salad with hardboiled eggs sliced into it. Smells: of lighter fluid and Bain de Soleil (SPF factor: 0.005) and, dusk come on AT LAST, of gunpowder and slowly smoldering punk...and the melting cheap rubber sole of your dime-store sneaker if you mistakenly tried to stomp out a sparkler gone awry.

Personal fireworks aren't legal within the city limits any more, and for the most part I say good riddance, now that I'm a homeowner and want to turn the hose on the kids across the alley with their damn bottle rockets. The law does not, of course, deter the diehards in every neighborhood from heading out to the rez and amassing enough ordnance to make like Armageddon, every night for a week. I'm thinking of my dad a lot, too, this year; he loved this holiday, and when there used to be fireworks stands in town, like right in front of the Safeway, he'd always pick out the Amazing Colossal Double-Deluxe Detonator kit or whatever, a dusty cardboard box crammed with 64 different ways in which to blow your hand off. He'd supplement this with a handful of illegal M-80s, blowing up soda cans and plastic drink bottles in the street (the word that comes to mind now is "shrapnel"), and with Whistling Petes, those eardrum-tearing shriekers that he loved, loved, LOVED to set off somewhere behind you just when you weren't looking. I can remember being a kid, when Dad still lived in West Seattle; we'd work our way around the strange little cul-de-sac he lived on, LeDroit Court, going house to house around the block to check out what everyone else had to fire off...but Dad's array of fireworks was always biggest and best. If slightly terrifying. (When we were with our mother? The only fireworks that met her safety bar were snakes, those sad, sad little charcoal blots that emitted a slow, smoky coil of ash like a little black turd. Good times.)

I haven't been to one of the big municipal displays in years; I can't stand the crowds, and the freezing half to death, and the way that, 15 minutes before the big show, 100 people turn up and stand directly in front of the blanket you've staked out all day. I can watch the show on t.v., and then turn immediately to the traditional post-Fourth 11:00 news: traffic jams and house fires! All part of the ritual. For whatever reason, I tend to think of the big shows as either family-oriented (for people with kids), or couple-oriented; what dolt would sit out in a camp chair for seven hours all alone? No fun without a date.

I do have fond memories of having a date, though, and of spending one Fourth with grad-school friends who had an apartment down on Lake Union, where one of the two competing Seattle displays is held. It actually was warm, that year; we walked down the alley with our not-at-all-carefully concealed plastic cups of warm beer or vodka-and-cranberry, milled around with our heads craned back to the sky, bathed in lurid colors, feeling the concussions in our feet.

When things wrapped up our host Jim offered to drive me and the boy back to wherever we were living at the time. He hadn't counted on the traffic, though; huge ridiculous mobs of people poured into the winding one-lane streets all around the lake, an impenetrable logjam. We sat in the car, sweating and motionless, and eventually the dude in the car next to ours, facing the opposite direction, decided to honk. Because that always does the trick! He leaned on the horn, muttering and gesticulating, his open driver's-side window inches from Jim's. And Jim, in a laconic drawl I can't hope to properly convey in writing, leaned a bit out of his own window and mildly intoned, directly in Honky McRoadRage's face, "Aw, fffuuuuuuuuuuuuucck yoooouuu."

And then...we sat. Traffic still wasn't moving, and there we were, cheek to jowl with the enraged recipient of this retort, for what was probably five minutes but seemed like thirty. The cars were packed so tightly that the guy couldn't open his door and pull Jim from his vehicle by the face, and thank God. Jim calmly, but wisely, rolled up his window and we all stared busily at the floor, or at nothing, while inches away the other driver gibbered and snarled against the glass like the creature on the wing in that Twilight Zone episode. Man. I still think of that every year, like clockwork; I wonder if he does too? Wherever you are, Jim, I hope your holiday is just as mellow.

Happy Fourth, everybody, and a drawn-out sprawling expletive to anyone who might deserve it. I need a beer, methinks.

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