The term “fireworks” meant something entirely different in Brooklyn. Out here it describes the ritualistic displays in the skies on holidays. It’s not just during the summer either — we just had fireworks during HarborFrost.
In the city, fireworks are a commodity, like pork bellies — things you buy and sell.
The practice of celebrating patriotic events with fireworks harkens back to the lines, “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” from The Star-Spangled Banner (These are the kinds of useful factoids you learn from reading this column.)
Apparently, Americans feel the need to blow up thousands of dollars worth of explosives to prove our independence. Once upon a time, you’d just throw some tea bags overboard.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, the older kids trafficked in fireworks much like the mob trafficked in narcotics. Firecrackers, bottle missiles, ashcans, 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.
A mat of firecrackers could be had for four bucks. That’s 80 packs, and each could be sold for 20 cents. That means you could quadruple your money.
The teenagers in our neighborhood would dress up in their most menacing gear — pointy black shoes, tight pants, and tight white t-shirts — with their hair in a big pompadour, and a Lucky Strike dangling from their lips. Some would carry knives, often switchblades. They would hide their money in their socks, as if the gang members from Chinatown 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.
They’d all hop on the subway and head to Chinatown, with the little kids trailing a safe distance behind, so Tony didn’t eff us in the effin eff.
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.
People started realizing those fireworks were quite powerful when their kids came home with mangled hands that were missing fingers. The ads on TV made them sound like atomic bombs — the net result was, of course, that everyone wanted to buy them. The more we were warned to stay away, the more intrigued we became.
It reminded me of the years when I was a hippie and they had all the anti-drug commercials on TV. My favorite was when the guy with an onerous voice held up a single egg: “This is your brain,” he would say. Then he would crack open the egg into a sizzling hot skillet. “This is your brain on drugs,” he would intone.
The idea, I guess, was to discourage us from smoking pot. But I wanted my brain to look like a fried egg. In fact, I wanted my brain to be on drugs, with buttered rye toast and home fries.
A few years later, I got into the 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 every now and then?
When I used to go to church at St. Andrews in Sag Harbor, the city kids would skip Mass and go across the street to Korsak’s, where there was a candy display right by the front door.
We would just help ourselves, much to the shock of the locals, who never dreamt 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 the middleman. I was to mark up each pack a dime and bring the difference back to Tony. If I didn’t, he vowed to eff the effin eff out of me. Things went smoothly for a while, 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. My Mom — and Tony — beat the effin eff out of me, and my dealing days were over, at least until I got into the phony draft card business a few years later. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say the card got you a free drink at the Black Buoy Tavern on your birthday, regardless of how many birthdays you had.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.