|Saluting my country on July 4th, early 1980's|
In 1979, if you were an unskilled, unemployed pyromaniac, you were always assured of employment at one of the many Red Devil Fireworks stands that sprung up around LA County in the weeks before Independence Day. The only job qualifications necessary were a moron’s grasp of arithmetic and being crazy- or desperate- enough to work twelve hour shifts at the height of summer in a screened-in, corrugated aluminum shack surrounded by roughly three tons of explosives.
I didn’t have to fill out a job application. At the beginning of every summer, my roommates and I threw wild all-night punk rock parties that went on non-stop for days on end. When one of the drunken revelers asked me how I could possibly manage to do this and still hold down a job, I explained that I was unemployed. Back then it was tough to get work if you had pink hair. This guy said he could help me out, scrawling an address on the side of a Coor’s carton. I reported to the location the next morning, bleary eyed and hung over, along with five other guests who’d spent the night and were in the same condition.
We were hired on the spot.
The firework stand was located on a vacant lot at the intersection of Venice Boulevard and Robertson in Culver City. Though we were a motley crew with our unevenly cropped and dyed hair, Blondie and Clash T-shirts, stiletto heels and motorcycle boots, our co-workers all appeared to be fresh from the LA county correctional facilities. There was a cholo who showed up every day-no matter how hot it was- in corduroy house slippers and a plaid wool Pendleton buttoned all the way up. He had his girlfriend’s initials in gold pierced into his ears, an 18th street tattoo on his neck, a jailhouse tear in the corner of his left eye, and a crude cross with C/S for “Con Safos” inked into the web of skin between his thumb and index finger. There was a trailer trash woman of indeterminate age who was never without bubblegum pink rollers in her hair. She must’ve weighed an easy two hundred and seventy-five pounds, and complained constantly in a whiny South Carolina accent about how her feet hurt. And then there was Roger, a genial senior citizen who did nothing but guzzle beer all day in the corner while he pulled apart dozens of Piccolo Petes and Sonic Screamers. He’d add new fuses and with the precision of a skilled surgeon, join all the smaller fireworks together to make bootleg Roman Candles. He turned out to be the boss of the operation.
The six of us- underage punks, artists and alcoholics -fit in perfectly. We soon learned the difference between Ground Bloom Flowers and a Cave Of Pearls, Serpent Charmers or Witch’s Cauldron fountains, Smoke Pots and Magic Rainbow Snakes. It took me under two days to get on a beer-sharing basis with Roger, and soon there was an industrial sized cooler full of booze on ice, available to anyone who wanted to imbibe. We knew from the many posted signs that it was illegal to smoke within three hundred feet of the stand, so cigarette breaks became a frequent group affair, and we took them even more often once we discovered that Julio, the 18th Street guy, was never without killer buds.
One of the girls I brought in made long, lovelorn calls on the stand’s payphone to her rock star boyfriend in England, charging them on a hot credit card. She shared the number with me and I got in on the action too, also calling the UK to talk to my English Teddy Boy flame plus the famous British punk star I was having a simultaneous affair with. I shared the bogus credit card with Julio, who gave the number to a homie who was incarcerated. Since nobody else but us ever used the payphone, after a half pint of Jack Daniels, Roger just looked the other way.
The day I decided to show up for work in a skimpy halter top, Roger singled me out as a protégée, carefully teaching me his secret to crafting Bottle Rockets. Occasionally a sleek, ominous- looking black sedan would pull up to the side of the stand. A swarthy man in a crisp white shirt and Rayban Wayfarers would step out of the car, open the trunk, and all the employees and most of the customers would cluster around, waving money.
Naively, I asked Roger what was going on.
“Oh,” he said, taking a long swig of his beer and wiping his mouth on his sleeve,
“He goes down to Mexico and gets real fireworks…none of this candy ass shit we sell!”
You could buy a quarter stick of dynamite from the guy for thirty cents. Next time the sedan showed up, I was there, cash in hand.
We’d come home every night drunk out of our minds, exhausted, blackened from head to toe in gunpowder, flash powder, sawdust and shredded strips of Asian newspaper, our under-the-table pay stuffed into our pockets in big gangster rolls. By the end of the first week, I knew that while Chinese fireworks had the most amazing colors, American fireworks were much louder. I also learned that a Boilermaker was bourbon and beer mixed together, how many strategically placed M80’s it took to blow up a two-story house, and whom the 18th Street gang was going to hit next. I discovered that a Cherry Bomb wasn’t just a Runaways song, but a highly potent illegal explosive that had been banned in the USA under the 1966 Child Safety Act. My bootleg Bottle Rockets were starting to look pretty damn professional, too.
One of the guys I’d brought in found out how to fudge the inventory and was bringing home a case each of Ground Bloom Flowers and Sparklers every day. He told Roger he was moving and needed the boxes. I’d sit bored at the cash register, my hands coated with a thick, scaly, shiny mixture of dried Elmer’s Glue mixed with Bonne Bell lip gloss in grotesque peeling layers. When an innocent customer would ask if the fireworks were safe, I’d reply, “Safe And Sane!” before pushing the change through the cashiers grate with my mangled looking paw, delighting at the look of shock and horror registering on their faces.
Inside the stand, my friends and I would bend down over stacks of Family Pack Displays and whistle a series of descending notes long and low through our teeth, watching the rest of the staff frantically scramble on top of one another trying to get through the lone exit before the place blew sky high. As Independence Day approached, we pulled a string of all nighters, blasting The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, which almost- but not quite- drowned out the Southern woman’s bitching about her aching feet.
The Fourth of July was an anticlimax.
We spent it on the beach in Santa Monica, but now, being insiders, we just couldn’t really get into the city-sanctioned display…we wanted volume, we wanted fire power, we wanted Total Destruction. Besides, Roger had passed out inside the stand, and we were all a little too chicken to blow up all the gigantic illegal Roman Candles and Bottle Rockets he’d so lovingly prepared. Instead, we dropped a trail of lit up stolen Ground Bloom Flowers out the back window of our battered Honda, all the way from the beach to Hollywood. We stayed up all night drinking at my place Disgraceland, lighting fireworks in the bathtub and on our porch, throwing them out the windows at random to startle the late night revelers passing by.
The next morning, we returned to the firework stand, but like Brigadoon, it had vanished. The site had been returned to its original state: an abandoned lot. It was completely desolate and sad, with nothing left but a few shreds of red, white and blue bunting blowing in the wind, empty beer bottles and a couple of dud Lady Fingers scattered among the weeds in the sandy dirt.
Later that week, I received a final check for overtime and a handwritten note asking if I’d like to work at a Christmas tree lot in December.
The story you’ve just read is from my forthcoming book, Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere, slated for publication on Punk Hostage Press in 2016.
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