Saturday, June 2, 2012

Jon Kleinman

The Spectacle of a Lifetime
Non-fiction by Jon Kleinman

The procession of chopped hogs thundering down Mayfair Road caught everyone off guard. Bob Goldberg, who’d been preparing for an Independence Day barbecue with the in-laws, dropped a twenty pound bag of charcoal briquettes on his foot. Pete McGowan spilled his margarita and nearly fell out of his hammock. Most of the neighborhood just stood frozen on their manicured lawns, staring in disbelief. Our normally placid street was overrun by customized Harley Davidsons in all their un-muffled, carbon monoxide belching glory. Motorcycles weren’t unheard of in our neighborhood – Doctor Feldman’s rebellious daughter once dated a guy who rode a 500cc Kawasaki and Lou Marino’s brother in law owned a gleaming Honda Goldwing. Those civilized bikes, however, were clearly a different species from the pack of roaring iron steeds that descended on our block one Fourth of July.
My childhood neighborhood was the usual suburban mix of doctors, lawyers and the occasional teacher. Volvos –often emblazoned with Ivy League college stickers– were the motor vehicle of choice. When a nurse and a husky, bearded supermarket manager moved into the Levinson’s old house, they seemed to fit right in. The Ford Econoline with the “Sit on a happy face!” bumper sticker raised a few eyebrows, but the new couple had easily made friends with everyone on the block. The approaching brigade of Harley riders were causing some to have second thoughts. Our new neighbor, case of Budweiser under one arm, rushed out to the yard to greet his pals.
 “Hey, Boo-boo! Longtime, man!”
“Gimme a six pack, bro! Where’s the old lady?”
“When did you get that front-end chromed out?”
“As soon as I can scrape up the dough, I’m gonna get me a 1200 Shovelhead!”
Engines were killed, kickstands shoved down, and the bikers and their girlfriends all converged on our neighbor’s lawn. Beers were passed around and popped open, and the air was filled with the sound of backslaps and raucous laughter. Almost immediately, parents tried to keep their kids distracted.
“Why don’t you help your mother with the corn and potatoes?”
“I could use a hand setting up this grill!”
As it started getting dark, it became clear that our colorful guests planned to do more than just drink beer and talk shop about their Harleys. As soon as the first few skyrockets shrieked into the evening air, kids were drawn like flies to honey. No force on earth could get kids to ignore fireworks on the Fourth of July! In our neighborhood, Independence Day was traditionally honored with sparklers, smoke bombs and maybe a few bottlerockets. My neighbor and his pals, however, were gearing up for a pyrotechnical display whose depth, breadth and sheer destructive power totally outclassed anything we’d ever previously witnessed.           
Groundflowers hissed in the street, throwing up showers of colored sparks. Roman candles spit fireballs into the night sky. Strings of firecrackers filled the air with thundering, skull-rattling explosions. All the neighborhood kids, including me and my pals, applauded wildly as round after round of heavy artillery lit up the night. The bikers swaggered around the dark, smoky street with practiced nonchalance – they were the stars that night, and they knew it.
As far as me and my pals were concerned, the night was shaping up to be the greatest Fourth of July in history. However, we soon found out that not everyone in the neighborhood shared our sentiments. Sometime around 10 PM, the festivities were interrupted by the telltale flashing lights of a police cruiser.
“Some schmuck called the cops!” grunted a pimply teenager in a Van Halen T-shirt. He spat into the street to emphasize his disgust. A few kids started booing as an officer stepped out of the Crown Vic. He had the squared shoulders and puffed out chest of a man who’s certain he’s on the side of law and order. The bikers – no strangers to run-ins with The Man – just rolled their eyes and took it in stride.
“Complaints about the noise….damage to property…..litter in the street….”
That was all I could make out as the cop solemnly lectured our neighbor. The two of them talked for some time. Finally, the policeman walked back to his squad car.
“I don’t want to have to come back here!” he glowered, before pulling away. My neighbor and his pals formed a huddle and pondered their next move. The kids all waited with baited breath, wondering what would happen next. Suddenly, the huddle broke and a ragged cheer went up as my neighbor headed into his garage. The hooting got louder as he emerged with a big 20 gallon metal garbage can. At first I didn’t understand what was happening, but as my neighbor placed the trash can in the middle of the street and began filling it with fireworks, delicious chills of fear and excitement ran up and down my spine.
Motorcycles, explosions, disrespect for authority – in my fourteen-year-old mind I was witnessing the spectacle of a lifetime. The grave-looking throng of adults gathered on the sidewalk seemed to feel differently. People murmured nervously, pulled cars into their garages, and some of the smaller children were dragged – kicking and screaming of course - into the safety of their homes. A sweaty, anxious man dressed in khakis and a golf shirt tried to dissuade the bikers from igniting the garbage can, but his pleas were just met with derisive jeers.
“Stand back!  Move far away!” my father warned.
My pals and I took his advice and ducked behind some bushes in front of my house. More cheers went up as my neighbor dropped a lit match into the garbage pail and ran for cover. My friends and I hunkered down, ready for ecstacy, Armageddon, or whatever came next. At first, the trashcan just sputtered and gave off smoke. Then, without warning, it erupted into an orgy of explosions that strained pacemakers and gave at least one household pet a nervous breakdown. The ground actually seemed to shake as hundreds of firecrackers and bottle rockets flew in every possible direction. After about ten minutes of pyrotechnical mayhem, the barrage began to fizzle out. Thick clouds of smoke hovered over the street as all the kids gave the bikers a standing ovation.
At that point, the parents on the block decided it was time to take back the reins. My pals and I were ushered into our respective homes while our fathers made sure all the nearby lawns were free of smoking debris. Later, I could hear the sinister rumble of V-Twin engines as my neighbor’s buddies roared off into the night, never to be seen on our block again. The next day, my neighbor had morphed back into a suburban homeowner. He spent a few hours cleaning his yard and sweeping up the street. By late afternoon, all evidence of the previous night’s debauchery had been cleansed. My parents and the other adults on the street silently nodded in approval. The street was clean and the bikers had all gone back to their outlaw lairs. Peace and prosperity had returned to Mayfair Road.
Or something like that. The fallout from that spectacular Fourth was swept out of the street, but not out of my mind. For a brief moment, the hermetically sealed bubble that encased our neighborhood had been torn open. I had glimpsed a dangerous, yet exhilarating, new world. Deep down in my psyche, I knew that someday I’d return there–in search of ecstacy, Armageddon or whatever came next.