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Monday, July 5, 2010

Fireworks Barge into the Big Apple: Macy’s Annual Display a Thriller

Fireworks Barge into the Big Apple:
Macy’s Annual Display a Thriller
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

New York, NY – Almost every year for the past 14, I’ve watched the impressive July 4th fireworks display in my own Fairfield, CT beach area. This year, on the occasion of America’s 234th birthday, I wanted to do something different… and a magazine ad in New York magazine planted a seed: “Macy’s Fireworks Show: See It Live on the Hudson River.”

The last time I’d witnessed this world renown event, now in its 34th year, I was on a Jet Blue flight from Florida, and as the plane made its LaGuardia Airport approach, I looked out the window at, first, all the fireworks shows along the New Jersey shore, then the grand show itself. The most amazing thing was simultaneously seeing the scene through the window and on the little TV screen on the seatback in front of me. It was truly a beautiful sight.

So the plan as I’d hatched it was to go down on the train around midday, shuttle or backpack over to the West Side, lay out or walk around all afternoon on the banks of the Hudson and then stay on for the fireworks, returning home in the evening.

My kitchen became the staging area for assembling all my gear and an important decision needed to be made about the type of carrier I would use. A soft-sided duffle bag? I could fit a lot of stuff in and then loop the carrying handles over my shoulders, carrying it vertical. A standard school-type backpack? I’d be able to get dry goods in but not any food or drinks I’d want to keep cold… and carrying a separate cooler would be a pain.

I settled on a cooler/backpack type carrier that had been stowed with my camping gear. It had straps for carrying it on one’s back and wheels and a tug-along handle that allowed it to be towed if one wanted that option.

In its bottom, zippered and insulated compartment, I placed six bottles of Kennebunkport beer (a micro brand I’d discovered at Trader Joe’s), a bottle of pinot grigio wine, two bottles of water and cups. In the smaller zippered compartment on top of it, I placed a kit containing bug spray, sun lotion, a citronella candle, matches, a bottle opener and utensils. In side pockets, I placed beach towels. To the top of the pack, I bungee secured a newspaper and rolled-up pullover. Finally, I bungee’d a small, fold-up beach chair to the backside of the pack.

To pull the pack on, I set it on a counter. I suddenly knew what it must feel like to be in the army and carry around a pack. It certainly had some heft, but was manageable.

And so I set off, padding along the road and the few long blocks to the Fairfield Train Station. Amongst the people gathered on the south-going side of the platform, no one had more substantial gear than I did and several had Yankee hats on and were headed to today’s game in the Bronx.

“Who’s your favorite player?” I asked of a little boy with a pinstripe jersey on and black mitt. He turned around and showed me the name on the back: JETER, #2.

I remarked that it would be exciting to be there and that the day – blue skies and temperate – was perfect for baseball.

“I hope I catch a ball today!” the boy added.

“My company is hosting a bunch of us,” chimed in the boy’s dad. “If we’d gotten up earlier, we could have met Jeter and gotten a tour of the dugout and Memorial Park.”

Another group, of Brazilians, was headed into the city, just to browse around. When I mentioned the fireworks, they said they’d consider it. I also spoke of Brazil’s recent loss to the Netherlands in World Cup Soccer action, which eliminated the team from championship contention. None of us could believe that this Yankees-caliber team would not be in the finals.

The 11am NY-bound Local train pulled up. It was crowded but there was a seat open and I plopped down, standing my gear in the aisle.

I struck up a conversation with two women directly across from me. The one was a Hartford resident and recent transplant from D.C. The other was a friend visiting her from out of state. They were going in to have lunch together. I mentioned the event and the reason for my gear and they said, “We wondered where you were going. You’re very prepared. All we did was brush our teeth and grab a latte!”

The train arrived at Grand Central just after noon and I disembarked with the pack on my back, footing it out onto 42nd Street heading west. The city was hot but not humid and already crowds were amassing. There were lines for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, people popping in and out of Dave and Buster’s Entertainment Center, queuing for a B.B. King performance, clustering in Times Square. People passed wearing t-shirts bearing American flags, Lady Liberty tiaras and showy streamers. Bars and restaurants displayed flags and red, white and blue banners.

I made a quick detour into a corner MEAT MARKET and picked up some crackers, cheese, chicken and a container of pasta, which would be more than enough sustenance for the balance of the day.

Reaching 12th Avenue and the Hudson, from where the Circle Line tour boats depart, I made an easy right, towing my rolling convenience store behind me now. I joined the bike path for a while then zigged closer to the water, passing under the stern of the Intrepid aircraft carrier, permanently moored and serving as a floating museum.

The U.S.S. Growler submarine was in the following bay, her long smooth gray body half submerged in the sparkling Hudson.

Looming even longer and ten times as big was the Cruise Liner “Norwegian Dawn”. Its white hull featured a bright red, blue, green and gray ribbon-like design that rollercoastered along from stern to bow.

“Where is there a grassy spot where I can lay out a towel?” I asked a cop on patrol there.

“There’s no grass along the water until you get up to the 90s,” he said. This was discouraging and I thought my plans were dashed but, then, further along and in line with the bow of the Dawn, was a shaded, breezy cement alcove with several long butcher block style benches. “Perfect,” I thought settling onto one that faced the sub, Intrepid and the likely patch of sky where the fireworks would go up.

I think I set a good example as, when I first moved in, there were just three or four people gathered. But as I settled back in the small folding chair I’d brought, more and more gathered, looking, lunching, lounging and laughing. They were awed by the Dawn, snapped photos or just took a load off for a while.

The Dawn’s sister cruise ship, the Norwegian Epic, one more bay over, was even more impressive.

“You’d never guess that it’s 19 stories high,” said a Hispanic man who sat on a nearby bench. “I think it’s the biggest ship that ever docked in New York… it beat the Titanic,” he added.

Today, the Epic was a star attraction, with live performances scheduled on board by pop star Justin Bieber, the New York Pops and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. NBC would be broadcasting it live. At the same time, radio station 1010 WINS would be airing a music track called American Harmony.

As the scheduled time of the fireworks launch (9pm) approached, police presence was gradually increasing. Many many blue shirts and bomb squad members were amassed alongside Mobile Command Centers lining the curb.

“There are over 2,000 officers just in this vicinity,” informed a sergeant who was kind enough to escort me up to the main entry area of the Epic, to snap some photos and pick up ship specs and info on the evening entertainment.

Security here was airtight. All persons going on board and registered passengers both were screened, searched, identified and recorded. Officers carried radiation testing equipment. Air quality monitors were in constant use. This was the safest place to be in New York today, no doubt.

Back in the cement alcove under what the officer termed “The Helix” because of its pretzel shape, the sun was penetrating spots that were once shady. The breeze was still keeping it cool though, so in effect it had become a cement beach.

Camped behind a pillar was a Trinidadian family from Queens. When I mentioned to the younger member of the group, a girl about 12 or 13, that Justin Bieber was on board the Epic, she exclaimed to her mother, “I told you!” as a smile of delight spread across her brown face.

At that moment, a loud alarm was sounded and a pre-recorded voice boomed from a loud speaker. “Attention approaching vessel. You have entered a U.S. Coast Guard Security Zone and are in violation of U.S. Coast Guard regulations prohibiting boats from coming within 100 yards of the New York Cruise Terminal. You must leave the area immediately. The N.Y. Coast Guard has been notified.”

Whatever offending craft had stepped over the line was soon gone. But then the horn of the Dawn sounded, signaling its impending departure. It backed out of its mooring slot with amazing agility, and set off going south on the Hudson toward Battery Park. Its decks were loaded with people looking out at the sights and city skyline.

A quartet of women came and sat nearby. “Is this a good spot to see the fireworks?” they asked. “You should be at the center of everything,” I replied. Connie and one daughter, Charley, hailed from Michigan. Her other daughter, Trish, lives in Las Vegas. Connie’s sister Carlene also lives in Michigan. All were enjoying the sun but getting thirsty fast. I offered wine and water but they declined, and were suddenly beset upon by an NBC reporter and cameraman canvassing the area.

Pulling in beside them was a Guyanese family that had trekked in from Rosedale, Queens. The dad braved the sun while his wife and their two children, a boy and girl, retreated to a shady spot.

A guy sitting off to the left and sporting a chrome dome and Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls tank top was glad to have gotten back into the alcove after stepping out of the now barricaded perimeter. “Luckily, the girls remembered me!”

Sidling up and propping herself against a cement pillar was Rachel, an Upper East Side resident who transplanted back in May from San Diego and Santa Barbara, California. Of German, Irish, Argentinean and Greek roots, Rachel was lured by two guy friends who raved about city life. A waitress for the time being, she aspires to land work in fashion or public relations. “I want to come back as a Brazilian supermodel,” she remarked. The 34-year-old admitted to being “very green” when she moved here. “I still look up!”

Besides the police ground forces here, there were bears in the air and on the water, making it feel a little like a scene from Apocalypse Now with chopper blades hacking at the air near our waterfront command post.

The six-foot tall statuesque Rachel had dropped belly down on the cement now and was scrolling through possible groups she could join through social network  “There’s a category in here called ‘Married Men.’” She was visibly amused.

Rachel was also flipping through a copy of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” with a plotline that she could really dig.

A loudspeaker near the Intrepid was playing Katy Perry’s Summer of 2010 anthem with the lyric “…Daisy Dooks and bikinis on top…” At the conclusion of the song, an announcer piped in to say “Welcome to one of the most patriotic places in America” and let us know the timing of the fireworks and other events.

The sun was dropping fast now, down toward New Jersey’s Palisades across the river. Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” was pumping from the sound system.

Now one of six MACY’s fireworks barges moved into place in front of us as well as two fire tugs blowing water out of their valves. The latter was an impressive sight in the now low light setting.

Zipping across the sky then was a formation of four F-15 fighter jets from the 104th Fighter Wing Division, buzzing over the MACY’s barge and headed uptown. Coming the other way, a formation of four helicopters. An NYPD copter and a plane towing a 30-by-60 foot American flag also did flyovers.

The sky was glowing crimson now, the MACY’s barge was all lit up and lights twinkled on both the Intrepid and the Epic, from which Klieg lights also searched the skies.

At about 9:30pm, the show got going, and boy did it go. Suddenly, fireworks erupted all around us – from behind the Intrepid, at the end of the Intrepid’s pier, in front of us. Loud booms, greens, reds, purples, flashes of white, thundering claps echoing across the night sky.

The smoke and gunpowder smell drifted across our private Cement City, and one imagined this is what a battle is like.

The show roared for about twenty minutes, eliciting oohs, aahs and whoops from us watchers. We realized we were an elite group as, on the opposite side of 12th Avenue, thousands of people had amassed behind steel barriers, packed tight, pressed close, no doubt hot and without access to public restrooms. In contrast, there were only about 75 people in our vicinity and we had not only a front row seat but room to walk around and lay about and the ability to use restrooms at the Intrepid center if needed. It was a very choice spot to find.

When the last of some 44,000 shells had launched to heights topping 1,000 feet and final fragments had fallen into the water, there erupted a great collective applause and the Klieg lights began scanning the sky once more.

Just as immediately, a mass exodus began and, in the wake of the quickly departing, a debris field materialized of empty water bottles, fast food containers, cups and other packaging left by revelers. The NY Sanitation Department had a big job to tackle, a task that would no doubt be initiated overnight to ready the streets for tomorrow’s workday.

Thanks Macy’s, for lighting up our night!