Editor’s Note: Fireworks are illegal for public use in my home state of Massachusetts, both currently and also at the time of this story. I would like to emphasize that I’m not saying, “It’s cool to break the law”. I’m just saying, “Look how cool it is to break the law”.
I remember it as being a really hot summer. One of those summers that you look back on in a historical context in order to let your children know how easy they have it.
“You’re lucky they don’t make summers like that anymore. We had no air conditioning, just pails of lukewarm water tied around our necks with twine. We would have to use that water sparingly as it was our monthly allotment and if we used it up too soon we would get no more, and there was no lid on the pail to keep the water in or keep shit out. Not like today when you kids can get all of the shit-free, lukewarm water your little hearts desire. Ungrateful pricks.”
The idea of going into Boston to purchase fireworks seemed like a good one at the time. But sometimes the worst ideas seem like the best ideas when idiots think them up. We were sitting around and someone said something about something and someone agreed with them. Or maybe someone said something about something and someone disagreed with them. The details are pretty fuzzy by now. It’s been thirty years man, give me a break. Either way, it was always exciting to take the buses and trains without an adult there to harsh my mellow. We would take the #222 T bus from Jackson Square in East Weymouth to Quincy Center and then hop a train into Boston from there. Descending into the cool dark subway station was always a nice respite from the muggy summer air. I remember watching all of the cars sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the Southeast Expressway as our train cruised by on its way into town. It provided a taste of freedom for a boy still a few years shy of a driver’s license. I believe that someone had mentioned that their cousin’s brother’s friends sister’s boyfriend got a brick of firecrackers for the incredibly low price of three American dollars in Boston. Being teenage boys with a natural love of blowing shit up who also understood the value of a dollar, we decided that we were going to travel into the big city the next day and get in on the savings.
It was getting close to the end of summer, nearing the return of the school year that all stupid little children inevitably dread because they don’t yet understand the importance of a good education. They’ll figure it out eventually, hopefully not too late in the game. I needed to get some “Back To School” clothes, so my father gave me an assortment of folding monies to accomplish the task with. I took my clothing allowance and thought about how many jumping jacks I could buy for that much money.
I feel I should take a minute to declare my love for the jumping jacks. It’s my all-time favorite firework. For those of you who don’t know what a jumping jack is, first off let me say how sorry I am that you grew up so unloved that your parent or legal guardian never took the time to teach you about the prettiest of all the fireworks. Jumping jacks are the little balls of flame that fly around in a completely unpredictable pattern whilst making a whizzing sound. Set a pack of those things off and you have twenty potential wildfires right there. Half the fun of lighting them off was having to do the, “Oh shit, that thing’s coming right at my face” dance. But the absolute best thing about jumping jacks is that when you throw them in water they don’t go out. They stay lit and continue to do an underwater ballet. A ballet set to Metallica’s Ride The Lightning (at least in my head). You could totally destroy Aquaman with these things.
At the tender age of fourteen, nothing was more enjoyable than getting a brick of Jumping Jacks, going four-ways on a twelve-pack of Haffenreffer Private Stock and chain-smoking Marlboro reds down Elias Pond, as far as I was concerned. First off, three Headwreckers are more than enough malt liquor for any growing boy to have to throw up all by himself in one night. Plus Haffenreffer’s had a rebus printed on the inside of the caps. So that’s why I drank them. My natural love of puzzles and problem solving, and alcohol. We would drink and smoke and throw lit packs of Jumping Jacks into the pond, and listen to the fish scream. Then we would scream. Then the neighbors would scream. Then we would run from the cops.
The following day arrived and we made our way to Quincy on the 222 bus. When we got there we made a pit stop to the top of the parking garage to smoke cigarettes and spit off the roof like big boys. After getting our smokes and spits on, we made our way down into Quincy Center Station and boarded the train. We had a couple of empty duffle bags with us that we planned on stuffing full of veritable cornucopia of fireworks that we would then sell at an inflated price to some younger boys somewhere down the line. We were entrepeneurs.
There’s very few things in life more exciting to a teenage boy than going into the big city with his friends. No adult figure around to keep you in check. No buffer zone between you and the big bad world. No safety net. Any moment could end with an ether soaked rag pressed to your face and BOOM, you’re sold into sexual slavery. Or maybe you just get sold into regular slavery. Or maybe you just get stabbed in the face by a gang of thugs for looking at them the wrong way. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened to someone within arms reach of a gang of thugs. I mean they call them thugs for a reason, and they’re in a gang. What did you think was going to happen? You’re kind of lucky they only stabbed you in the face once. It could have been worse. You shouldn’t have looked at them like that. You might want to apologize to them, once your face heals and you can talk again.
That never happened to us. But the mere fact that it could have made the entire experience exponentially more exciting. We had to go to the Haymarket (an open air fruit and vegetable market) for the fireworks. It was one of those deals where you would walk down this alley and come to a basketball court. You would sit down on a bench and this guy would come over and ask you if you were looking for “The Goods”. When you said yes, he would get all excited and start touching himself in the style of Michael Jackson, but in cut-off sweatpants. It’s a good look for a man. When you explained you weren’t looking for those kind of “goods”, he would get mad, call you a tease, and then storm off down the alley. But then the guy who actually sold fireworks would come over and ask you what you wanted.
“I want fireworks”, was my reply.
“No shit, Sherlock”, he replied. “What kind of fireworks do you want. Firecrackers? Bottle Rockets? Whistlers? Jumping Jacks? Roman Candles? M-80’s? Peruvian Death Monkeys?”
Who knew there were so many kinds of fireworks?
The five of us quickly conferred on the benches and drew up a game-plan.
Listen, you can’t just buy only one type of firework and think your going to be successful long-term in the celebration game. That’s ridiculous. You need the booms, obviously. But you also need the colors, you need the sparkles, you need the whistles, you need to work out all of the senses to enjoy a fireworks show. Well, most of the senses. You really don’t need to be touching them. Especially after they’ve been lit. If you’re using your sense of touch during the fireworks display, something has probably gone horribly wrong. But generally you want to work out most of the senses. It’s nice to have firecrackers. But if all you have are firecrackers, eventually you’re just going to be known as “That dick with the firecrackers”. Loud noises get old real quick. People want to enjoy watching a beautiful display of changing colors and patterns. They don’t want to have to keep an eye out for the drunk asshole lighting off packs of firecrackers and seeing how many little kids he can make cry. That dude sucks.
We decided on a wide assortment of fireworks. Bottle rockets, jumping jacks, firecrackers, roman candles, whistling bottle rockets, more jumping jacks, maybe even some sparklers. I asked what the Peruvian Death Monkeys were and he told me they were a made up firework used to trick younger boys in alleyways who know nothing about fireworks into looking foolish in front of older boys in alleyways who know everything about fireworks. Then he pointed at me and said something that I will remember until the day I die. He looked me right in the eyes and he said, and I quote, “Ha”.
He told us, “Okay, give me the money and then go wait over there”. Over there being a spot farther down the alley. We were reluctant to hand this gentleman our money for a number of reasons, the first being that this gentleman was a dickhead. He didn’t even offer us any refreshments when we sat down on the dirty bench, at the sleazy basketball court, down the filthy alley. That is no gentleman as far as I was concerned. Now I’m supposed to trust him with my fathers hard-earned money? No way, dude.
“There’s no fucking way that I’m giving you my money so you can just take off with it. Do you think I’m stupid? Because I’m not stupid, man. There’s absolutely no way I’m trusting some guy I just met in an alley with the insane amount of money I have in my pocket right now. Just so you can take it and run off and buy a car or something? No way am I giving it to you” I said
“Well then you don’t get any fireworks” He replied.
“Okay, here’s the money.”
Boys love fireworks. It’s always been true. It’s true now. It’ll be true forever.
We walked farther down the alley to our designated rendezvous point, and waited for a really long time. It was actually only about ten minutes. But when the bulk of your estate has been tied up in a very risky investment, you tend to worry about it. It’s Economics 101. Finally the guy comes walking down the alley with these bags, and we take all of our ill-gotten goods and quickly pack the duffel bags full of fireworks. I think we had about $150 worth of fireworks. But that was in 1984 dollars. I believe that’s equivalent to roughly all the money in the world today. Give or take. Give. Or. Take.
We bid scary dude a fare the well and traversed our way back through the alleys towards Faneuil Hall. We were crossing the street when we were surrounded by a group of seven or eight older boys. Now, if you are a regular reader of billmcmorrow.com then you are already aware that I have some serious trust issues regarding older boys. They are always making up stupid unwanted nicknames for people and giving them the business and whatnot, and I think that’s bullshit. I believe that the bulk of my ingrained hatred of older boys comes down to this single encounter on a hot summer day in 1984 in the City of Boston.
Older Boy #1: “Hey, what’s up guys? What’s in the bags?
One of us #1: “Huh?”
Older Boy #2: “What’s in the fucking bags, assholes?”
One of us #2: “What?”
Older Boy #3: “Give us your fucking fireworks, now!”
One of us #3: “But we were going to use them.”
One of the older boys pulled a knife. It wasn’t a particularly large knife, but I wasn’t a particularly tough boy, so it scared the shit out of me. He pressed the knife against my friend Pauly D’s throat and threatened to “mess him up but good” if we didn’t comply with his wishes. Luckily for him, we were very complicit. They took the bags and ran away down another alley, giggling to themselves about how that was as easy as taking explosives from a baby.
It was one of those things that happen so fast that it’s over before you even really realize that it’s happening. But when you look back on it, you think of all the things you coulda, woulda, shoulda done.
“I coulda thrown a cross-face chicken wing on the dude with the knife, maybe even engaged in fisticuffs with him.”
“I woulda thrown a haymaker to his solar plexus if he pulled a knife on me dude, maybe slap a figure four leg-lock on him.”
“I shoulda totally assumed a Karate stance, man. Once they sense that I’m trained in the martial arts, even the oldest of boys will back the fuck off.”
But we did none of these things. We just acquiesced to the demands of the older boys without putting up a fight. Like younger boys have done since the dawn of time. When we got back home I told my father that I had gotten robbed and that they had taken all my “Back To School” money and that I would be needing more of it, post-haste. He said something along the lines of, “Go fuck yourself”.
Of course, I’m paraphrasing.