Fourth of July, Out by Circle | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Fourth of July, Out by Circle 

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I had a feeling the neighborhood Fourth of July celebration would be a little, shall we say, exuberant. The people in our area are not shy, retiring types. But nothing prepared me for the reality.

We moved into our town house about two months ago. Its biggest attraction, to be honest, was a rooftop deck with a spectacular view of downtown Chicago. But another big advantage was the community, one of the classic Chicago working-class neighborhoods.

We are still not quite sure what to call it. The local community group has been plumping for University Village, which reeks of yuppification and middle-class morality. Little Italy, on the other hand, sounds dated. So we've been lamely resorting to "out, by Circle," "around Taylor street," or "down the way from Tufano's" (Tufano's being a popular local restaurant).

But you know the area I'm talking about. The one that fought the coming of Circle campus. The one where Carm's, Fontano's, the original Al's Italian beef, and Mario's Italian lemonade are. The one where, on any summer weekend, you can't walk three blocks in any direction without finding at least one guy in a dago T washing his Trans Am or equivalent out by an open fire hydrant.

We don't know many of the old-time residents yet. Mostly we've been concentrating on meeting the other people in the development, which consists of about 50 newly constructed town houses on what was formerly a vacant lot across the street from the Circle library. Our immediate neighbors are good folk, but not radically different from what you would find in Lincoln Park. The majority are young, everybody's urban, and just about everybody's professional. We all have Levolor blinds. At least one couple owns a boat. No one, so far as we have been able to observe, wears a dago T or drives a Trans Am.

We were thus lulled into a false sense of security.

The early part of the Fourth of July did nothing to dispel this. We engaged in your typical yuppie recreational activities. We went up to the Wilmette park district with some friends to rent sailboats. We had a picnic on the grass. We went running in Lincoln Park. We stopped at the Treasure Island on Clybourn to buy charcoal. We drank banana-nectarine daiquiris and barbecued pork chops up on the deck. We admired the reflection of the setting sun off the windows of the downtown office buildings.

It was about then that the shelling began.

There had been a persistent rattle of firecrackers all day, with an occasional booming thump, which we supposed was either an M-80 dropped in a trash can or, this being Chicago, somebody taking a slug in the chest. We paid little attention. It was more or less what you would expect to hear in any Chicago neighborhood and probably many suburban neighborhoods on the Fourth of July. The really heavy artillery didnt start until late in the day.

To the best of my recollection it was about 7 PM when the first aerial bomb exploded over Polk Street, about 150 yards to the south. There was a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a fraction of a second later a deafening boom. We almost fell out of our chairs.

"Holy shit," I said.

A few minutes later there was another explosion over Aberdeen Street to the west. Not long afterward, a giant skyrocket went off, creating a display of incandescent streamers maybe 100 feet in diameter.

"They're using professional stuff," my wife said.

In between the big blasts the volume of small-arms fire gradually increased to the point that there seemed to be, if not a war, at least a prolonged police action in progress. We could see flares, skyrockets, and shooting stars as it grew darker. Most of the rockets were of the simple starburst variety, but once in a while somebody would ignite one of those Gatling gun arrangements that on the Russian front they called Stalin organs. Fusillades of flaming debris hurtled off in all directions, occasionally bouncing off trees and buildings, accompanied by God's own nightmare of noise.

We watched in amazement. Down the way we could see some of our neighbors on their decks doing the same.

"Jeez," I said. "This is really something.

Eventually we went downstairs. By the time it was fully dark the barrage of aerial bombs was a steady roar.

I went out for a look around. Down Vernon Park at Aberdeen I could see that the trees and parked cars were illuminated by a flickering magnesium-white light. As I headed toward it I could make out the sound of heavy-duty rock 'n' roll amid the thunderstorm of noise.

I turned the corner at Aberdeen, which dead-ends in a cul-de-sac about 150 feet square. There was a crowd of maybe 200 people, ranging in age from infancy to inestimable antiquity. They were watching what I took to be a fair representation of the Second Coming of Christ.

At center stage someone had lit a collection of giant Roman candles that shot great clouds of sparks and flame into the air, looking like a cross between a lightning storm and Mount Vesuvius. On the sidelines kids were lighting off bottle rockets, flying pinwheels, and firecrackers of all sizes. The effect was totally crazed, like having the Grucci brothers on drugs in your living room.

In the back a deejay in a screened-in tent was blasting tunes out of two eight-foot columns of speakers. At a row of card tables on the sidewalk women were selling beer and food. Three-year-olds walked around waving sparklers. Dozens of people were out on their front porches and stoops in lawn chairs surveying the action. It was the Fourth of July, west-side style.

In the middle of the paved area someone had set up a row of wooden rocket launchers like the ones the experts use down at the lakefront. To one side was a mortar, which consisted of a four-inch pipe stuck into a five-gallon bucket filled with sand.

After the Roman candles had died down several guys ran out and loaded the rocket launchers with what looked like swimming pool buoys tied together with rope. Their work done, they ignited one end of the rope and ran back toward the crowd. Huge gouts of flame erupted out of the launchers, followed seconds later by immense starbursts overhead. The noise was deafening.

I ran back to get my wife and our two houseguests. I paused near a knot of my town-house neighbors, who were sitting on their front steps. They couldn't see the festivities because of the intervening buildings, but they could hear the noise and see light reflected against the trees. "You ought to see what's going on over there," I said. 'They must have hundreds of people. It's like a giant party."

I was interrupted by an explosion. One of the women gazed warily toward the heavens. "This neighborhood is really crazy," she said.

I arrived home. "You have got to see this," I said. "It's absolutely wild."

The four of us headed back toward Aberdeen. "Watch out," said one of the women in lawn chairs as we drew near. "You'll be in the line of fire."

"Don't worry, well be OK" I said. I turned the corner. A rocket whizzed by my right ear. I leaped back. "Jesus Christ!"

We waited until things died down a bit, and worked our way back into the crowd. Dozens of people were dancing in front of the deejay's tent. Fathers walked by with toddlers sitting on their shoulders. Mothers showed their children how to wave sparklers for maximum pyrotechnic effect. Kids walked around with pockets full of bottle rockets. An eight-year-old displayed an M-80, a giant firecracker an inch in diameter and three inches long, reputed to be the equivalent of a quarter stick of dynamite.

The explosions never let up for more than a few moments. Every time there was a lull a different set of guys would run out with fresh ammunition. Our favorites, apart from the starbursts, were the Gatling gun rockets, which rose about 50 feet in the air and then appeared to spin around in little circles, raining glowing embers all over creation. The ground was littered with shredded cardboard casings.

"They must have spent thousands of dollars on this stuff," my wife said.

"Hard to believe the Italians lost World War II," I replied.

"I feel like I should apply for VA benefits," said one of our houseguests.

We checked out the crowd

Numerous examples of Italian beef on the hoof, so to speak, could be seen with their honeys leaning on parked cars or clustered in small groups in the street. My wife and our houseguests, Linda and Diane, immediately zeroed in on one Sylvester Stallone look-alike with tight brown curls and maybe a 50-inch chest. A smaller version stood nearby. My beloved and her friends immediately dubbed these TS and SS, for Tall Stud and Short Stud.

Linda, who was going through a divorce, gazed longingly at the brothers S. "Can I come live here?" she asked. "I'll be your slave for life."

In profile TS displayed a straight line from his brow to the tip of the nose, such as you see in Roman statues of the gods. I regarded this as a sure sign of imbecility, and said so. The women did not care. I also pointed out that TS had legs that by comparison to his massive chest were, well, sort of spindly. This made no impression either.

I looked elsewhere. Not far away a teenage girl with awesome, gravity-defying breasts in a tight-fitting blouse was dancing with one of her girlfriends. "Cheezis, will you get a load of the chest on that babe," I said.

"They'll be dusting her kneecaps by the time she's 20," my wife replied. I just smiled.

Suddenly all conversation was drowned out by an enormous stuttering roar, accompanied by lurid flashes of light. I ran to the front of the crowd. You've probably seen ladyfingers, those little strings of firecrackers that all shoot off in sequence. This was the thermonuclear version. A 50-foot rope of firecrackers--there must have been thousands of them, each an inch across by two inches long--had been hauled to the top of a light pole and set afire.

With every explosion the rope twisted and bucked like a fire hose out of control. Flame and debris filled the air. The noise was like hell's answer to Jiffy Pop as performed by the Strategic Air Command. I was transfixed; it was like the end of the world. It must have gone on for five minutes.

I went back to my wife and our friends with a dazed expression. "I've never seen anything like this in my life," I said. I went over to inspect the wreckage. Little loops of fire ate away at the paper remnants of the firecracker rope, which covered the ground for yards around to a depth of three inches.

There were occasional pops as unexploded firecrackers detonated. A few feet away a man was tossing a string with a weight tied to it over the light pole. "What's that for?" I asked. "Another string," he said.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to see this twice in one lifetime, let alone one evening, but we decided to stick around for a little while anyway. Behind us a chunky young woman was pleading tearfully with one of the bronze gods leaning against the wall. We couldn't quite make out the details, but Linda's interpretation was that the woman was asking the BG to get his buddy to return to her and be a father to his children. Under the circumstances, the melodramatic character of their discussion seemed only appropriate.

After 20 minutes and no string, we decided to head back home. I went out into the backyard to watch the rockets some more. Suddenly a throbbing, prolonged gurgle erupted in the distance. "The string!" I shouted, and ran back toward Aberdeen Street in my bare feet. I arrived in time for the last 300 firecrackers, the last 50 of which went off simultaneously, providing a suitably symphonic climax.

I trudged home again. "I saw you running to see that," said a grandmotherly woman sitting on a porch. "That last one was in honor of my brother. He died five years ago tonight."

"On the Fourth of July?" I said.

"Yes," she said. "They do the last big one for him every year." (I swear to God, I am not making any of this up.)

"Wow," I said. "They do this every year?"

"Oh, sure," she said. "Usually it's a bigger crowd than this. You new around here?"

"We just moved in down the block," I said.

"One of those new places? How do you like it around here?"

"It's great," I said. "I gotta tell you, this is the most amazing thing I ever saw."

"Oh, most of the time it's pretty quiet. You'll like it around here. People are real nice."

"Well, let me introduce myself", I said, reaching up my hand. "I'm Ed."

"I'm Rose," she said, giving me a firm shake. "Welcome to the neighborhood."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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