A Kind of Independence Day

Did I mention this was my first Fourth of July away from my family?

I guess revealing that won’t fetch the same sympathies as other holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. But in my home, or in my head at least, the Fourth of July is like a Norman Rockwell painting. We eat too much and drink too much in the country-like backyard of my Uncle Gregory’s home. Murphy the Golden Retriever spends the night prancing in and out of the kitchen and sniffing under the food tables. We laze around for a few hours in the hammock under a big oak tree before the fireworks. All the uncles and a few of the young, thrill-seeking cousins march into the twilight holding the best of Ed’s Roadside, legal or otherwise, trekking deeper out into the field until hardly visible. And then the show begins.

Fourth of July, 1995

We lay in the grass and eat watermelon. Every year my father says something to the effect that he loves the Fourth of July best because all that is done is simply beer and barbecue in a backyard. It is like Christmas or Thanksgiving without the stress and expectation. So I have come to romanticize the day like a Norman Rockwell painting.

This year working in New York, I found myself determined to uphold Americana. I wasn’t pressed for planning; New York isn’t exactly holiday chump change. It was more the lack of family that seemed to rattle me, so I made damn sure to create an experience I couldn’t have had with family. This one I did all for myself and I think I’ll always remember July 4, 2010 because of it.

9 a.m.

I woke up and rallied, grabbed a camera and little else in retrospect and took the F train to Coney Island. Nearing Stillwell Avenue, the stoic-faced New Yorkers in front of me started pointing and wriggling in their orange subway seats. It was the first of many unusual sights that day. Mind you, subway rides are typically no more jovial than a funeral procession. I turned around and caught a glimpse of a traditional fair ground set-up, ferris wheel and roller coaster, but then I saw the anomaly: the only hot dog stand in the world that could rally 40,000 people around it in a competitive eating contest, Nathan’s Famous.

11 a.m.

I skipped off the train, feeling eight again, and purchased a flag for $1, so far the cheapest purchase I’ve made in the city. They were hot commodities in the crowd so large I could hardly see the stage where Joey Chestnut set the record eating 67 hot dogs three years ago. But for all the waving flags, there were twice as many Pepto-Bismol inflatable noisemakers. I intuitively assumed the flapping pink sticks were hot dogs; I thought wrong. The sight of hundreds of fist-pumping Pepto-Bismols – well – that is something I’ll probably never see again.

I had accepted my lot in the crowd behind a tall man in a Panama hat all of three minutes before venturing off believing I would find some secret nook to view the spectacle. I was delusional. After 5 more minutes maneuvering through a patriotic mosh pit, two hours before Nathan’s 10 minute battle royale was to take place, I caught sight of an opportunity: 2 hipsters sitting on a U.S. post box raised above the center of the crowd, smoking cigarettes and hiding their wan faces beneath a newspaper. Maybe the hot dog rally wasn’t there scene because they bolted, leaving the best seat in the house open.

“Push me up, Michael!” A man who resembled Hulk Hogan, bandana and all, helped his lady up to the postal perch. Pushing 60, her scuttling was not a graceful sight. By the time she made it up there, I believe she had earned her spot. Just as I was considering public defeat – everyone somehow looked miserable, sweating around me amidst the celebration – I heard a voice from the heavens call out: “Help her up too, Michael.” She was pointing at me! I didn’t hesitate. After an awkward scramble with the Hulk who God-bless him, had even agreed to hold my cheetah-print purse while I hopped up there, I could see nearly everything.

11 a.m.

The seating space was minimal. We were sharing the equivalent of that middle seat in the back of a compact car. Even so, she would ask me to slide over and already dangling on the edge (literally, Michael got used to saving me from falling), I ended up using the adjacent plastic newsletter bin for added support. And yet, I felt lucky. All that mattered was the sight of 40,000 faces and 80,000 arms clapping their Pepto noisemakers and chanting USA, USA, USA!

I never got my post box neighbor’s official name, but she looked close enough to Linda Hogan, so Linda and I held on to each other in the middle of Coney Island mayhem on the Fourth of July for 2 hours solid. Eventually, the competitive hot dog eating contenders were presented, one-by-one, in wrestle-mania fashion. They slogged through the crowd, each with his or her own personal bests echoed by ESPN announcers.

What I didn’t know was that Chestnut’s arch nemesis and sole-competition, Kobayashi, couldn’t participate this year for a labor impasse with Major League Eating (yes, there is such a thing). Wearing a “Free Kobi” T-shirt he stormed the stage and was arrested. I never knew this and I think very few people in attendance caught wind of the anarchy as it was never publicized. Though it made national headlines, I got the impression Nathan’s wasn’t a business for scandal. Given the pre-show content, which included the Ringling Brothers and a performance of 99 Red Balloons for a little girl wearing a white linen dress and holding a red balloon on behalf of her sick grandmother, the whole show was a spectacle for sentimental, unadulterated Americana. It was totally my scene.

1 p.m.

The 10-minute contest came and went (as anti-climatic as it sounds in this paragraph); Chestnut never broke the record and I never witnessed the Kobayashi take-down. For me, it was all about witnessing the strangeness from on top of a post box, that made it worth the sunburn.

2 p.m.

After parting ways with the Hogans, I bought two dogs and walked the boardwalk. From the pier, a shield of beach umbrellas looked more like the world’s largest kaleidoscope, rainbows of pinwheels reflecting the sun for a mile down the shoreline. Coney Island was stunning from here, and I’m not a New Yorker, but I know that’s not a common description. People complain about trash and chaos, and there was all of that, but from the distance of the pier in the water, you couldn’t guess the year or decade. So this is Coney Island, I remember thinking.

4 p.m.

I’d trekked back to Morningside Heights crabby like a kid who’d just spent a day in the sun at the carnival or on the beach. I was ridiculous. I fell into my mattress knowing I had to rally. New York Mag suggested people arrive no later than 5 p.m. to get a spot on the Hudson for the largest fireworks show in America, put on by Macy’s, of course. And so I rallied. Lying in bed, I only wondered what my Uncle Gregory was serving at his barbecue. I packed a blanket and my new flag, changed into navy espadrilles and flew out the door, again.

5 p.m.

I was sitting on my blanket (the outdoor one I use for sunbathing on the Great Lawn), waiting for my friends from Brooklyn to join me. Coming from Texas-style drinking, I wasn’t keen on the New York “pubic park policy” banning alcohol. I wasn’t planning on boozing it up, but I was planning on getting a six-pack of beer on the Fourth of July. Call me crazy. I asked the cop towards the entrance of the park if that was kosher and he answered by searching my bag.

6 p.m.

I looked forward to my friends joining me for the show until they called to inform me they couldn’t “get in,” the Hudson was closed off by a virtual no-man’s land with 30 cops between them and myself. I was incredulous. The thought of watching fireworks alone had me playing sad violin songs in my head! Once again, I rallied…

With four cops around him, the sergeant-in-charge looked me dead in the eye and said something to the effect of not no, but hell no. It was a low point, having to collect my things from the lawn and “leave the premises” to join the untouchables over no man’s land who lined the barricade hoping to see the fireworks through trees and buildings. I was cranky and ready for illicit beers when I saw it…

THE SERGEANT! LETTING THREE PEOPLE CROSS THE BARRICADE! I marched up to him, (rallying still!) and spoke these words, quite calmly:

“Do you remember me, sir.”

It wasn’t a question. And he wasn’t going to give in so easy.

“I’ve talked to 8,000 people today, so NO.” He answered.

“We talked three minutes ago. You told me my two friends couldn’t get let in,” I turned to his guilty party of three already unloading a picnic basket in the lawn.

And just like in the movies, he turned to the cop next to me and said, “Alright Tony, shut ‘er up.” The only civilian to walk through no-man’s land unscathed, I kept stoic and walked a straight line to my friends waiting along the barricade. I motioned discreetly and they crept to the side of the park where they were ultimately let inside.

And that is how I fought to see the Macy’s fireworks from the Hudson, just as it was meant to be seen. How American of me.

Afterward, there was apple pie.

It’s funny, most of this story is about the struggle to experience something and I’ve hardly even written about the experiences I struggled for. The man who ate 57 hot dogs and nation’s largest fireworks display were not as surprising as my do-or-die  independence that day. Dammit, I’d sit on that post box with a stranger for two hours and lay on that lawn with my friends for the evening and eat hot dogs, so many hot dogs (that was all they sold on the Hudson) and no sergeant or crowd of 40,000 could dishearten me. I missed my family today more than any other day and so, did I have a choice?