East L.A. Fourth of July

     Many Fourth of Julys ago, I was at a backyard kegger in Pasadena where we had these little fireworks that buzzed and snaked around on the concrete driveway, like neon-colored, purple and green rats.
     They were the most pathetic fireworks. But a couple Pasadena policemen walked into the back and told us we had to stop.
     This year, I went down to Montebello to barbecue with my buddy Kleber and his family, his parents and his brother’s family. What a difference a neighborhood makes.
     As it became dusk, we went out front on the cul-de-sac of modest homes in the Latino neighborhood where they live, and set off fireworks for the kids. The biggest one created a small fountain of sputter and sparkle about ten feet high. The kids, one to eight years old, were very excited.
     By then, a good number of the neighbors had brought folding chairs out front and were setting off their own, similarly tame fireworks.
     But the neighbors on the other side of the driveway are two local policemen who naturally had the biggest explosives on the street. They set up two launchers, anchored with bricks, and began setting off rockets in tandem.
     The fuses burn like a tiny, sizzling prologue, then a big boom as the rockets ignite and go singing straight up, exploding in mass sprays, one after another, of red and white, directly overhead.
     The oldest boy on our side of the driveway keeps running excitedly into the house as they light the fuses, shouting, “It’s the big one.”
     The street has become shrouded in smoke.
     Finally, the neighbors bring out a package a little bigger than a case of beer and put it on the tarmac. This is the big one, the promised 60-shot grand finale.
     The fuse is lit, and the fireworks start in series, first straight up and then sideways, over the cars that line the street, then straight up again, in blue and white overhead and streams of fluorescent green going sideways.
     But the 60-pack fizzles while there is still a flame burning and smoking underneath it, causing the neighbors to approach with great care. But it is done. We and the neighbors then set about cleaning up the casings and charred launchers.
     Meanwhile, explosions are continuing all around us, enormous displays, for me better than any official show. They seem to be coming from particular backyards in the neighboring streets and hills.
     One elaborate set of fireworks I later see repeated is a set of overlapping rows of white, geometric explosions, like a set of enormous, cut diamonds in the sky. The explosions go on for hours, in back of the house, on either side and in the distance out front.
     By now, it is getting late and I head out, a bit concerned that the police will be pulling people over. But it is impossible, the streets of Montebello are full of drivers. I see five police cars lined up on Beverly, lights flashing. But they are supporting a pair of fire trucks inside an apartment complex.
     The police are busy.
     Driving back on the 60 freeway through East Los Angeles is like driving through a war zone. A really loud explosion, probably what they call an M-80, goes off close to the car and I don’t even turn my head with all that is going on.
     I question at one point whether I’m driving by Disneyland, so overwhelming is the dazzling night sky. But this is all locals, and I swear they are competing.
     One enormous display goes up on the south side of the freeway and a moment later, the array of diamonds bursts into the air on the north side.
     Switching onto the 5 freeway going north, the skyscrapers of downtown rise up on the left as though in a heavy fog, but it is all smoke.
     County-USC hospital drifts by on the right, all lit up like a multi-deck cruise ship, caught in the sulphurous vapors.
     And I think how fitting it is that the immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles are the ones lighting up the sky on Independence Day. Those least complacent of all Americans recognize, in the clean and harsh lines of contrast with other nations, the transformative power of opportunity and freedom in our nation when it sticks to the principles of its own revolution.
     And it could also be that they still know how to have a great party, a freedom our fancier neighborhoods have sharply curtailed.
     Driving through the narrow turns of the 110 freeway coursing inside the Arroyo Seco back to Pasadena, the sky becomes dark and silent. No mass party up here.
     And just as I pull onto my little street, I see down the road, the only display left, a single police car turning on its whirling lights to pull over some hapless driver who had just a little further to go.
     America, you have grown older, darker, more complicated, more stretched, not as strong, not as rich, but ever more beautiful.

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