I have a thing for fireworks! I always have. I don’t remember ever going as a child… my dad probably thought it was just as good watching them on the television. Once my friends and I had our drivers’ licenses it was a different story. Every year on the 4th of July we headed over to the nearby suburb of Morton Grove to sit on their version of Central Park’s Great Lawn.
It always seemed like an awesome display made better while surrounded by my best friends. I had the same high school girlfriend during those years; googled at by my boy friends and not like much by my girl friends. Lori and I cuddled on a blanket in the grass watching the blasts and booms overhead. After my first years of college I realized those girl friends were right and I left Lori. It never would have worked out anyway. I became a photographer and she ended up marrying the doctor I was supposed to be. Years later I learned Lori had died of leukemia, leaving behind a husband and three sons. There is now a scar in my heart where she once lived.
I don’t remember seeing fireworks in New York City until New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1979. Jack, my neighbor and a friend I had known since high school, had heard about midnight fireworks in Central Park. The two of us headed out on the cold night to see what we could see.
The whole thing was quite spectacular. We drank Kriter champagne from the bottle as the fireworks exploded directly about our heads. We were so close to the display we could see the workmen bending over, setting off each of the individual rockets. I was in heaven! Fireworks had always been a far away thing; to be seen from a distance. Now the trails of light surrounded us, bits of ash and fire raining over our heads. It was spectacular and never like that again. I’m sure the city realized we were having a bit too much fun standing that close. A few burned heads would have been an insurance nightmare.
There was a small crowd during those early years. Only a few hundred people watching a fireworks display meant for thousands. I felt like we had our own private show. Strange, but this could only have happened in 1970s New York City. Central Park. Midnight. Who would go there except for a few crazy people!
After the fireworks, fifty to sixty of us retired to the plaza around Bethesda Fountain. It wasn’t like the park of today, renovated and clean with new park lights. At night it was a place one could only find the homeless and druggies. But this night it was our playground. We drank and probably smoked pot. I’m sure others were on much more potent stuff. In the dark we could have been confused for a group of ghostly pagan druids come back to life for a New Year’s Eve ritual. We shared our champagne with Poeto. Poeto was a local wino. A “bum.” That’s what we called the homeless people in those days. Most times when we ran into Poeto on the upper west side streets he was begging for a quarter, reciting poetry in exchange for some spare change. Poeto was not young like today’s street people. Few of the bums were. They were mostly older well educated men who were down on their luck, or like Poeto, not completely in control over their mental faculties. That night Poeto recited poetry in return for swigs of our champagne. For those few hours until sunrise we were all one family. The next year Jack’s roommate Elizabeth joined us for the festivities and over time our gathering grew and became a tradition.
I believe I’ve only missed the New Year’s fireworks twice since 1979. Both times it was a mistake. I hate parties full of angry drunks. After Elizabeth disappeared and Jack went away for holiday vacations, I went most years with Ben and Laura, until their divorce. Afterwards I went with Ben alone. During some of those years the fireworks moved farther north in the park. near the tennis courts. While it was still fun watching the colorful bursts reflected off the water in the reservoir, it never had the comradery of the 72nd street event. I’m not sure I ever took a photograph during those years. Sometimes the best picture is one’s own memory. I mostly stood and enjoyed the show.
I’m not sure when I stopped seeing the fireworks with Ben. He began spending the holidays with his family in Florida. The years are blurred. At some point we all went together as a group, returning to my apartment for more champagne and lemon squares. Jack reappeared, now with wife Anne and children in tow. The importance of holidays change when you have a family. Ben slipped away completely. Others began to join us. By this time the New Year’s Eve fireworks had become a big city event. There’s a four mile run beginning exactly at midnight with the fireworks bursting overhead, made up mostly of costumed runners enjoying a winter night’s run, no doubt warmed by a few glasses of champagne.
As much as I dislike the ever growing commercialism of the event it’s still the best show in town. We are so close I can still see the fireworks exploding off the ground and when the wind is right a few burst right over our heads. The viewers must now number well over 20,000, many there to cheer on the thousands of runners. Somehow it still has that intimate feel; everyone sharing cookies and champagne with nearby strangers. I’ve continued to go with the Deutsch family for many years and hope the transition continues well into the lives of their future grandchildren.
While the 4th of July fireworks are a bigger display, I feel the crowds and canned music have ruined the show. I want to hear the rockets streaming into the sky, not Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. Some years, when the fireworks take place on the west side of the city, along the Hudson River, I can watch from the 70th Street Pier in Riverside Park. It has a great view down the river and while still crowded, it is far enough away from the crazy masses of people. I’ve been going with Emily on and off for years.
In 2012, the fireworks were farther downtown and Emily suggested finding a place near 14th Street. After drinks at the Standard we headed over to the river.
Everywhere we were blocked by police barricades. It seemed that there was no access to the river at all. I should have known better. Since 9/11, during all the big events New York City becomes a police state. They’ve totally ruined the Halloween Parade. Streets are closed. People are barricaded into pens, each block separated like livestock at a slaughter house. Once you’re in there is no escape.
Emily knew of a party at an art gallery on 22nd Street. She hoped we could convince the police blocking the street that we were invited to that rooftop party. Emily can be very persuasive. The police moved the guard rails and let us enter the street.
We did try to get into the gallery party but no one answered the doorbell. It was almost 9:00pm and the guests were probably already up on the rooftop. I was getting nervous. There are only two things I hate being late for… dress rehearsals and fireworks! We headed towards the Westside Highway and came upon dozens of police officers along with a firetruck and it’s crew. We had a perfect view of the river. I was sure the police would see us standing there and kick us out before the show began. A few locals from the block joined our small but merry band and the fireworks began. The police never noticed us. They were having too much fun!
Of all the years I have seen the 4th of July fireworks, this was by far the best view I’ve ever had. I felt like we had our own private viewing area with a security force for our protection. The police seemed to enjoy the show as much as we did. Only Emily could have pulled this off!
I didn’t begin shooting the fireworks again until recently. The digital cameras make it simple. I no longer have to think while taking the photographs. I can enjoy the festivities and get some great images at the same time. This wasn’t possible with film and one can either shoot or see the show. I take pictures almost every day. Sometimes the mind needs a rest.
I began this essay planning to write about the Coney Island Fireworks. Every Friday night during the summer months, Coney Island sets off a fireworks show on the beach near the amusement park. I began going with Jennifer Sears in 2012. Over time we’ve established our routine. We take the subway to Brighton Beach and wander the Russian grocery stores, buying supplies for a picnic on the beach. I particularly love the shredded beet salad and the olivie salad, similar to American potato salad but with peas and chopped pickles; sometimes with added cubed chicken or ham.
It’s Jennifer’s fault this essay became about more than the Coney Island fireworks. Jennifer is a writer and her expression of ideas is often more coherent than us regular people. While walking along the boardwalk earlier this month, we were discussing why we love coming here to watch the fireworks. Jennifer talked about the possibility of moving to this area. Taking sunset walks and quick evening swims in the ocean. Jennifer said the experience of watching the Coney Island fireworks felt like watching a local display back home (the Midwest). The people are calm, with families enjoying picnics, friendship and of course the night’s pyrotechnic display. It is so not New York! Then and there I realized this essay had to start from my beginning. Writing about the Coney Island fireworks was not enough.
I think Jennifer and I first went to see the fireworks at Coney Island on August 26, 2011. During the summer months, Coney Island sets up fireworks on the beach every Friday night. Jennifer and I quickly learned the beach at night can be a lot colder than the city and thankfully we brought along our jackets. If you ignore the short stretch of boardwalk adjacent to the amusement park, Brighton Beach and Coney Island seem like a world far away from Manhattan and the “trendy” sections of Brooklyn and Queens. It’s always been that way.
My first walk on the boardwalk was with Charlie Seton and Jason Braunstein in 1977. Charlie was a close friend from college who worked with me on Northwestern University’s yearbook, The Syllabus. Jay Braunstein was our editor during my sophomore year and gave me my first chance to be a real photographer. Brighton Beach was still a old Jewish enclave in the late 70s. After many decades and several generations, the Russians who lived there were now fully American. The language people used if not speaking in english was Yiddish. I just read that most of the Holocaust survivors in America live in Brighton Beach; over 55,000 in 2011.
Many of the side streets were lined with bungalows, built when Brighton Beach and Coney Island were popular summer resort areas; before the BMT subway line reached the beach. My college roommate’s (Mitch) father owned a pharmacy on Brighton Beach Avenue named Rabinowitz Pharmacy. It’s stands there to this day, with many signs in Russian catering to the new immigrant community. I think Mitch’s brother runs the place now. I walked in a few years ago when Jennifer needed to pick up some aspirin; or something like that. The old man behind the counter looked like he could have been related to Mitch. It was almost 40 years ago when I met him. I didn’t say anything when Jennifer made her purchase. Sometimes the past needs to remain the past.
The next time I remember walking on the Brighton Beach boardwalk was with my friend Julia Kovar during the late fall in 1988. Julia was a female bodybuilder from Hungary. If memory serves me right, her mom was Hungarian and her father some kind of Russian diplomat from Moscow. I never asked Julia how her parents had met. It felt like it should be a secret. By this time I had made my first trips to the Soviet Union, photographing mostly with the Kirov Ballet. Walking along the boardwalk with Julia and her two massive dogs of some expensive breed had a similar feel to strolling along the Neva River in Leningrad with my Russian friends.
Old “Babushkas” filled the benches lining the boardwalk, looking as if they had just stepped off the streets of Leningrad or Moscow. With the new relationship between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, the doors to the United States had opened to Russian Jews. Tens of thousands immigrated to the US during those years and many settled where their ancestors had settled almost 100 years before; in Brighton Beach. At that time, the boardwalk began to feel the same as it does today.
In the beginning, Jennifer and I didn’t explore Brighton Beach much. We were like summer tourists trying to find food for our picnic before heading to the beach. As our visits increased over the years we began to have our favorite stores, one for tea, another for dried fruit and nuts (where Jennifer gets her coffee fix), another for bread, and finally a salad and meat bar for our picnic selection. We arrive early to enjoy the atmosphere of a beach community, one that now seems more a part of Russia than New York City.
The first year we watched the fireworks from the boardwalk, standing with the crowds also there to enjoy the show. It was pleasant compared to the fireworks in Manhattan but still loud with people yelling into cell phones, boom box music, and the roar of the rides from the Coney Island’s Luna Park.
Jennifer began to write a short story set in Brighton Beach called Anatoly’s Last Sting. She used our visits to Brighton Beach to help her “see” the story.
“I walked to the subway station but, unable to turn home, went to the stop at Brighton Avenue. On the street, kids in Halloween costume cased rows of storefronts for sweets. Along this time, I climbed the stairs to the boardwalk. In daylight, the herringbone pattern in the wood unraveled before me. An elderly couple, arm inside elbow, walked just as I had with Anatoly as exercisers in track suits thudded past. Inside the Winter Garden, waiters moved around the tables, setting the scene for a new evening.” Jennifer Sears
On occasion we’d meet up with my college sweetheart, Marci, and her husband Paul. They live a few subway stops away from Coney Island.
One especially cold night the fireworks were late and while we waited in the sand Jennifer was freezing. Of course Marci was smart enough to bring extra jackets and saved the day. After the fireworks, the four of us found a little café on Beach Avenue, close to the subway station. It’s become our tradition to stop there for a cup of tea after the fireworks. It’s a good way to warm up after sitting in the cold wind and it’s been nice to catch up with Marci after all these years.
Every year I promise I’ll make it to Coney Island and the fireworks show more than once or twice over the summer. Finally, this year I kept my word; four fireworks shows and one trip to photograph the Mermaid Parade. I’ve been to the Parade several times in the past but this time it felt different. Friendlier. More homey! Truly local. That was the start. I needed to be on this beach more often.
The fireworks also felt different this year. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m a different person now. Possibly familiarity breeds comfort. Whether with Jennifer or alone, I always watched from a place close to the water’s edge, as near to the fireworks as possible. I wanted the same joy I had felt during those first nights in Central Park, decades ago.
The sound of crashing waves on my left. The lights of the amusement park to my right. Jennifer and I would talk about life in the hour before the fireworks began, then listening to the surf, disturbed by the occasional laughter of nearby young children running through the sand or screams from riders on the Cyclone.
The last fireworks of the season were on September fourth. Jennifer couldn’t make it so I headed out on the subway alone, taking the B train to Brighton Beach Avenue. The subway let’s out near two of my favorite Russian Grocery stores. Gourmanoff’s (not kidding), has the most amazing breads I have ever tasted in my life. I buy two or three loaves of bread each time and I certainly gained at least five pounds during the month of August because of it. The nearby Brighton Bazaar has an enormous takeout buffet. It’s where we’ve shopped this year for our picnic food.
My picnic for the final trip of the summer was special. It was the start of my 61st birthday weekend. More important, my dad passed ten years ago and each year I have a tribute meal in his honor. The past three years I’ve celebrated with Russian food. This was the first time I had the meal on Brighton Beach. Since all of my ancestors are Russian, the picnic became a memorial to all those who came before me. I enjoyed being alone this one time. I could think. I could take pictures. I’ve begun a portrait series on cigarette butts! Russians smoke a lot. The supply of dead cigarettes in Brighton Beach is endless. After lunch, I spent the remaining daylight hours on the boardwalk and in the surf, working on this project.
The wind gusts were strong. I worried they might cancel the show. I strolled through the surf to my favorite spot. The guard at the water’s edge said the fireworks would go off as planned. I was two hours early. I sat on the boardwalk for an hour, watching the different people walk by. Young Russian teens, Latino families and groups of women in full burkhas, their children skipping and running behind them. Groups of middle-aged black friends in their swimsuits, laughing and swimming in the shallow water. If I believed in god, I’d say almost his entire family was here waiting for the show to begin.
I headed back to the water’s edge, took off my shoes and put on my windbreaker. It was windy and getting cold. The beach was nearly empty. I hung my backpack on the barrier fence, meant to keep us from getting too close to the fireworks, and walked into the surf. The water was warm. The small waves felt good splashing up on to my legs. I heard nothing but the surf. I began to sing Beatles’ songs to pass the time. I started with their early music. All My Lovin’. Please Mr. Postman. I know the words by heart. All the harmonies.
The fireworks were late. I sang Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I can sing the entire album. It has saved sanity during many road trips. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I struggled through the lyrics of Abbey Road. I was now freezing.
“Roll up. Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour.” The fireworks burst overhead.