Once upon a time the Fourth of July was the noisiest of days. When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx during the undeniably freer, very much more colorful, if not-always-safe 1970s, it was. In fact, firecrackers and their more dangerous and ear-splitting cousins—M-80s and Ash Cans to name a couple—exploded weeks before Independence Day. A handful of locals even established reputations for being “fireworks impresarios” and put on annual shows for their appreciative neighbors.
Bruce was one such fellow—a young guy but not a little kid like me—from a generation that came of age in the late sixties and early seventies, when girls and boys both wore their hair long, smoked things that smelled a wee bit funny, and made a concerted effort to dress not to kill. They dressed to the ones, twos, and maybe the threes—tops.
Bruce sported long, shoulder-length blond hair and was renowned in the neighborhood environs for his roller-skating prowess. In those days of yore, a person could roller skate with reckless abandon up and down the area’s back streets with minimal traffic to ward off—and that’s what our “Cousin Brucie” did. But Brucie, the nimbly adept roller skater, was simultaneously a fireworks “Man of the People,” which is why I invariably think of him on the Fourth of July.
Forty years ago, firecrackers, Bottle Rockets, Roman Candles, Ground Chasers, Cherry Bombs, etc. were all illegal on the streets of New York, but nonetheless readily available—ubiquitous in the hands of men, women, and children alike. “You can get them in Chinatown” was something I remember hearing. The bottom line was that New York’s Finest weren’t overly concerned with confiscating fireworks in the 1970s. They more or less turned a blind eye and let Brucie and company do their Fourth of July things. And why not? They were once-a-year affairs. No harm done. Well, that was then and this is now. I may have heard a stray firecracker or two over this weekend, but for the most part the fireworks I do hear nowadays are the legally sanctioned ones—at the exhibitions in area parks and elsewhere.
In other words, there are no more neighborhood “Cousin Brucies” plying their trades in the big city. They are no longer roller skating up and down the streets—in their distinctive roller-derby crouches—and they are definitely not putting on Independence Day “Night to Remember” extravaganzas for their friends and neighbors. There are no more mornings after the Fourth, either, when the local streets would be awash in spent firecrackers and such, including a smattering that didn’t detonate, which were prized keepsakes for those lucky enough to find them.
Granted, it’s a whole lot safer now on the Fourth of July in these parts, and at my age I appreciate the general quietude compared with yesteryear. Unsolicited firecrackers are very, very annoying. Still, I can’t help but feel that kids today are missing out on something that was at once really fun and something to look forward to every year. Having a “Cousin Brucie” of our own was sort of special, which I guess is why I associate him with the Fourth of July all these years later.