I was in Westchester (NY) with family friends for the 4th of July weekend this year. I was expecting my grandma to sigh when I told her my plans, since she’s under the impression that seizing all these opportunities for weekend escape can only mean one thing: I’m not fond of DC. If anything, DC is one of the best places to spend the 4th of July. In the first two years I lived here, I wound up at separate spots along the Potomac, once while sitting with friends right on the Key Bridge, the other at a rooftop party in Rosslyn to watch the Grand Fireworks Show (and smaller fireworks shows in the distance).
Anyways, I wound up in New York this time around. By sheer luck, the tickets to the fireworks show my friend’s mother had gotten from her friend who does radio permission turned out to be passes to the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks. I didn’t know that Macy’s capitalized on the Fourth of July holiday too (this was the celebration’s 34th year), already having established a tradition for many New Yorkers with their Thanksgiving Day Parade. Not doing any homework on the matter (seeing fireworks anywhere was good enough for me), it took me a while to put two and two together that we’d be boarding the Norwegian Epic, a giant cruise ship docked in Manhattan that my aunt and I had laughed at when we saw the news coverage the night before. Among some of the highlights were the only tube and bowl water slide on a cruise ship, and, even more glamorously, a bar entirely made out of ice, right down to the molded ice to hold your drinks. The obscene decadence reminded me of the scene in Roger & Me where rich people shelled out money to spend the night in a state prison, which was decorated for a 1920’s themed party.
It was viciously hot out. The NYPD swarmed about, charged with closing the streets and providing security for the evening as thousands of people made their way down to claim a space along the highway on the water and watch the fireworks. I don’t think they really had any serious incidents to deal with, with the exception of the common heat stroke victim. Near Pier 88, people lazily lied around in whatever shade they could find while kids happily splashed about in the fountains. We arrived a little early and found a parking space somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, which, as many times as I’ve been to NYC, I don’t think I’ve ever passed through. They just shut down St. Vincent’s Hospital, something else I saw on the news the night before. The director said he was confident his staff wouldn’t have a problem finding other opportunities. Next door to the vacant hospital, a man hidden underneath a blanket and possibly sleeping on a bike laying flat on the ground (we could only see the tire under the blanket) slept in the door way of a run down apartment. And two doors down, a very young black couple sat with a baby stroller on the steps of another apartment building. We turned the corner and several men in front of a store were holding on to another guy. I couldn’t figure out if they were going to hold his arms and punch him, if they were trying to restrain him for shoplifting or something until the cops arrived, or if he was drunk and they were trying to get him to calm down. I can see why I’ve never made it to Hell’s Kitchen before.
Fireworks shows on a battleship: blowing up shit all year long!
We wandered down to Chelsea, which looked a lot emptier and more ordinary than the other part of that section where the famous Chelsea Hotel — now a yuppie apartment building — stands. Coming into view of the pier, the bright white Norwegian Epic was docked next to a cold gray naval battleship that looked like it might have had patrons preparing to watch the fireworks, too. According to the volunteers in red Macy’s polos, the celebration was free and guests were required to reserve the limited number of tickets in advance. Because it was part of a televised broadcast on NBC, I think spectators did pay for VIP access to the top deck party and music stage. We couldn’t figure out how they’d pay for all this otherwise.
Strangers pose in front of the skyline view. Taken later that afternoon.
I didn’t know that it was a functioning ship. I assumed this was just a gigantic boat docked in Manhattan in between tours to somewhere, and it would just serve as another platform to see the fireworks. But actually, it was a limited version of the cruise ship, which of course, doubled as kick-the-tires styled advertising. After we went through airport-like security, the staff handed us “goodie” bags that contained a Levi’s brand bandanna, a small American flag for waving, a tablet for instant Kool-Aid, and a brochure for the cruise. We were handed a map as we boarded and the group split up for some self-guided touring. The parents wanted to see the rooms, and Eric says they were probably shown the best to entice them to book on the cruise. The friend’s daughter and boyfriend disappeared to find the Sports Complex, and we wandered off with Jen to find some snacking food since she’s eating for two for a few more months.
We stuffed ourselves into a crowded elevator and headed up to the top floor where a huge, elegant buffet wrapped around both sides of a room and on to the outside. We had been there less than 10 minutes and it was already flooded with people. We filled small desert plates with fresh fruits, having promised the parents that we’d meet them there in an hour anyways to have dinner with them. Outside on the deck near the pool (where people were actually swimming) and the waterslides, the open bar served imported beers and glasses of wine to spectators who already got started drinking. I ordered a Red Stripe. The waiter gave me a Corona. I shrugged and we went on our way to investigate the rest of the floors.
Open (Dessert) Bar. Eat Responsibly.
Beyond the gigantic waterslides that weaved about overhead on the opposite side of the deck was a stage where some people had already filled the entrance and lounged above on the staircase watching what I found out later was Enrique Iglesias backup band perform sound check. They played some unrecognizable song and then cut for a dinner break as one of the staff with a clip board led them off the stage and down to the elevators. I could see getting a kick out of this place if you were a little kid. The waterslides were mouth-watering enough. I was tempted to try them out even without my bathing suit before we realized they weren’t running them. A few kids suited up in helmets and straps, waiting their turn for the climbing wall. Others lounged in the air conditioned arcade. Upstairs, there was a stairway leading to a nightclub designed for teenager called Exclusive or Priority or something like that, which seemed like a rather disappointing transition, from happy-go-lucky kid to elitist asshole teenager. Eric heard that there was a place to race stock cars, but we couldn’t find it and later their friend’s daughter’s boyfriend explained the somewhat confusing path to find it. We attempted again later before the fireworks had started, but by then, the galleries were closed.
Sam, playing it again… The better music show of the day.
There was a floor of casinos, which had game tables and rows of penny slots, although nothing was open to play. People waited on line for entry to the comedy club nearby and I was tempted to ask if we could do the same, but Eric had the right idea that we should walk around and see as much as we could before the fireworks started. I stopped to ask one of the attendants where we could find the bar made entirely out of ice, and she clarified: “The Ice Bar,” and said it was upstairs, but that it hadn’t opened yet. There was group after group of thirty or so people waiting on line. One group would be admitted, then they left and the next went in, and so forth, in 30 minute intervals. None of us really wanted to wait. Sadly, they had blocked the small circular windows leading into the bar, so you couldn’t even see what it looked like on the inside without having to actually go in. People came out stupidly complaining about how cold they were.
We found a dark club entrance that had beautiful honey-colored chess tables, but the drawers didn’t have any pieces in them. The walls and the furniture were otherwise black, and we went to try the pool table and Galaga machine, but the coinslots everything were blocked and the swipe cards they gave us as we boarded the boat didn’t yeild any success either. The bar had checkered floors and the furniture and stage were painted black. We saw a circular cage for the dancers and Eric tried to find the door leading to them. He disappeared for a minute and when he came back, said they were locked. The bar took an even seedier turn when we noticed a black velvet queen size bed with a gold canopy right near the seating. No subtlety necessary, I suppose, and suddenly, we imagined Russian gangsters sitting down to chess, facing the pole dancing while their goons lounged on the bed with beautiful, loose women. It was too creepy to stick around, so we left after I found out the Margaritas didn’t have any alcohol, and the only beer options were Miller and Bud.
We tried to track down the shuffleboard courts, a cruise ship standard, and we somehow managed to wander outside near the rooms where a family with several kids were immersed in one game, and a man and young boy were playing on the opposite court. No one seemed to be anywhere done with their game, so we went back inside past the duty free shops to a bar where Jen could sit a minute and I could get another drink. Along the wall, there was a bottle of a purple colored liquor called Pucker, which had a picture of a purple cartoon character on the front puckering his face like he’d just tasted the most sour thing ever. Eric made the same face when he drank from his glass of white wine and decided it went flat. And after tasting mine, decided it was only slightly better. I unwrapped the instant Kool-Aid that came with the grab bag and dropped the tablet in the glass, which fizzled and turned candy red. I took one sip and made a puckered face as well, coughing a bit because it was far too sweet for human consumption and it gave me a headache, something all the beer and hot weather couldn’t even seem to do. Eric and Jen laughed, saying they weren’t surprised, since the tablet was meant to be combined with like two gallons of water and their comment made me wonder how much sugar I just consumed in that one sip of “red” wine.
Kool Aid Brand Red Wine: Drink Responsibly
When Eric’s parents came back with his mother’s friends, the group split up again and his parents came with us upstairs to the buffet for dinner before it closed at 8, which we decided to do instead of pay a $25 cover charge to get into a sushi restaurant. You didn’t have to drop a single dime to eat, drink, and be merry, so we didn’t. I was determined not to stuff myself silly, only looking for the light things that might avoid any heavy buzz from the beer and wine I drank that afternoon combined the pulsating heat we’d on the deck when we went outside to find seats for the fireworks. While everyone else finished eating, I walked back to the large picture front windows overlooking the city and watched the size of the crowd intensify even more now as it got later. The streets were closed up by now, and people piled into the roads and crowded on some rooftops below us.
A sort of heavy set kid with a huge family sitting nearby said that he felt sorry for anyone who couldn’t celebrate on board the ship, and I couldn’t tell if he meant that arrogantly or sincerely. An alarm sounded and the sliding aluminum doors behind the chefs who were serving things at the buffet shut, and I thought that was it was a rather abrupt way to signify that the buffet was shutting down. We figured out later, it was simply a response to a small fire that happened in one of the kitchens, and it wasn’t until we were back up on the deck when a voice came over the loud speaker to actually announce that the bar and restaurants were closing. I wondered what would happen to all the food that people didn’t eat — would it have to be thrown away. I pictured people over in Hell’s Kitchen digging through the garbage bins.
The announcer came over the live speaker again to notify guests that the VIP sections were opened. And then they asked everyone else not to move the chaise lounges that early-comers had started to stake out, which is what we did. Eric got antsy and didn’t feel like sitting 20 minutes for the show start and I went with him to look for whatever was opened, which was almost nothing, so we had no choice but to wait it out. I took a seat next to Eric’s dad who was telling me about the concerts he and Eric’s mom had been to, a lot of old rock bands like the Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash and I thought it was funny how many of them Eric’s mom had slept through. I asked if he had ever heard of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and when he said no, I decided I had to make a list of newer bands to recommend, since he seemed to be just as much of a rabid music fan as the rest of us are.
We held a seat for Eric’s mom’s friends, but no one could find them and didn’t hear from the on the phone, and eventually these two ladies – one, blonde and fish-lipped, and the other a cheerful brunette — asked if they could take one of the chaises, at least until our friends got back.
I swear, there’s a Facebook page with about a thousand of these.
A guy who looked like the singer of a reunited 60’s rock band who worked at the radio station was shown on the jumbotron and tried to rile up a crowd, but no one seemed remotely interested in his list of thank you’s, presumably to industry people that almost no one ever heard of. Somewhere along the way, we’d heard that NBC was broadcasting the event, but I thought that, like The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the broadcast would actually be of the fireworks. Instead, somewhere off at the music stage, beyond where the common folk without VIP passes were permitted, Nick Cannon and the formerly fat blond that hosts the Biggest Loser stood in front of a suspiciously small crowd of less-than-enthusiastic spectators, save the handful of squealing teenage girls who were fawning over suspiciously famous Justin Bieber, and made the obligatory scripted announcements as each of the three musical acts took the stage. The other two being a vaguely ill- or maybe older-looking LeAnn Rimes, and Julio Iglesias, who looked like a stage hand rolled him out of bed just in time for the show. It just all seemed so half-assed.
Iglesias… placed under a spell to perform last.
Less standard pop music, more fireworks!
The ship’s crew, dressed in the standard white uniforms with white and black insignia looking like they stepped off the set of the remake of Love Boat, gathered near the railing in front of us with camera’s in hand, with such child-like anxiousness for the show to start, and I wondered if this was the first July 4th celebration they’d seen in America (New York is certainly a good place to break your celebratory cherry), and whether the Scandinavians had similar, showy celebrations, aside from ringing in the New Year, that hoards of people gather to see. Eventually, the captain, dressed in a black uniform, joined them, along with an older, blond woman in a sun dress, who I assumed to be his wife. They posed for pictures and just seemed genuinely excited. The captain seemed to be more into the music than anyone else, maybe because we Americans had already grown tired of hearing about Justin-mania, and knew Leann Rimes and Enrique Iglesias when they actually were still chart-toppers. He stood behind his wife, sort of dancing with her as the performances on the out-of-sight stage played for us on the Jumbotron.
The piano player and a crew member train their cameras on the fireworks.
As old as I get, and as many fireworks shows as I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ll ever get jaded by them. Here, the theme was something about the evolution of music, and they played several songs, oldies and classical for nearly 30 minutes as synchornized bursts of color blast into the sky and left a tinted haze.
Even Eric’s parents seemed blissfully starry-eyed as they watched, and for a minute, everything seemed humbly peaceful, sharing in that moment with a thousand other people on this ship and in the streets, cutting across a lot of the usual social barriers that we trap ourselves in. Eric’s mom said to me, “this is what it’s all about!” she said, meaning Independence Day. Our making as a country, I suppose. And it suddenly seemed sad how our unified, national pride is so fleeting, unleashed by gorgeous, explosive color for a few hours that evening.
Boom goes the fireworks.