Between the relief and lethargy that follow filing a brief and the anxious anticipation of being disrupted by a Wednesday holiday, I have concentrated on work less than 10 minutes today. Having solidified my fourth of July plans, I am ready to push responsibility aside and welcome the opportunity to eat recklessly, get overheated in the sun and be a little lazy all in the name of celebrating this great country's birth.
Similar to Pavlov's dogs, 4th of July has conditioned me to crave fried chicken at the mere mention of a sparkler, due more to childhood 4th of July picnics than to an actual love of KFC. For many, many years my dad played in a community orchestra that performed a patriotic concert outdoors that ended with the William Tell Overture, cannons and fireworks. My family would take blankets and cards and support my dad. I guess we would get fried chicken sometimes but my more recent memories of those outings were my mom going early and then one or two of us strolling in at the last minute to lie in the grass and wait for the fireworks. Last year I enjoyed one of my favorite 4th of July celebrations from a rooftop overlooking the East River. This year I am planning on attending a Yankees game and possibly repeating the roof party.
The 4th of July that is standing out in my memory the most this year is my first 4th in New York. It was the summer of OpSail 2000 when all the tall ships came from their home ports to the harbors of New York. The City was teeming with an extra dose of tourists and thousands of sailors from around the world in all their varied costumes. My favorite were the French whose sailor hats included a red pom pom on top. My sister had been staying with me for a couple of days and my brother arrived late the night before with $100 and strict instructions from our uncle on where we should eat lunch and precisely what my brother must order. When I tell you that my apartment that summer was small, cramped and dark the only readers I expect to truly appreciate just how small, cramped and dark it really was are those who came to visit me while I was there. Not a lot of room for entertaining. It was a ground floor apartment at the end of the building entry hall past a wall of mirrors I was always afraid was two-way with some creep lurking behind. Our pink front door opened directly into the hall that served as our kitchen. Despite mine and my roommates diligent attempts to scrub, it was never really clean. At the end of the three feet of kitchen lies the living space, filled with a hide-a-bed couch, a piano and a tv, no room for anything else. There weren't any windows except the skylight that was always so filthy I thought it was raining every morning until I turned on the tv and saw Al Roker beaming in a white suit. The soundtrack of the neighbor's video game of choice seeping through the thin walls was nearly constant. To the left was a small staircase leading down to a my room with a storage area filled with teetering boxes someone once attempted to cover with some homemade drapes precariously perched above. The very small, tight stairway ends quickly at another make-shft curtain serving as the door. When I arrived the Sunday before Memorial Day, jet-lagged after a 12 hour flight from Tokyo, I didn't question or even notice. I simply dropped my suitcases in the small space in the middle of the floor and fell on top of the slim twin bed and slept - no sheet or covering needed or desired in the summer air conditionless heat. The dark and narrow room also contained a free standing clothes rack mostly filled with the permanent occupant's clothing and a cramped desk. Although the room lacked a door, there were three doors in the room, one led to a small bathroom with only a toilet, one opened into the smallest closet ever made and the third, a half-covered pink door matching the one upstairs led to the basement laundry room. I often reached up to double check that it was deadbolted whenever I heard someone doing their laundry late at night while I was trying to drift off to sleep. My room was lovingly called "the cave" or "La Cave" when we were feeling a bit more sophisticated. My roommates each had their own rooms on the main floor - one was termed the closet and was only as wide as a twin bed and the doorway. The closet contained a loft bed (a bunk bed without a bottom bunk) with a small dresser and desk underneath, no closet. When she was up on her bed she could peer into the living room from the oddly placed windows across the top of her wall. The third room was the only one worth having. It actually fit a full size bed, had a closet, some shelves and a door leading out onto a patio that was usually swampy and infested with mosquitos who occasionally found a way into the bedroom. We did not have air conditioning. But we had non-stop guests that summer who were piled onto the pull-out couch. It was really a good thing I got along so well with those roommates or we might have killed each other. But I am a bit off track.
On the morning of the 4th, my sister and brother and I set off per our uncle's instructions (with his cash) to Carnegie Deli. We thought for sure our uncle was being overly generous with $100 for a deli, I had not yet adjusted to New York prices. Upon arrival, a brusk man led us past the giant pickle in the window, past the overly large deli counter full of mysterious meats and salads, past the glassed-in slowly spinning cake stand full of incredible looking cakes and pies, past wall upon wall of celebrity photos taken in front of one wall or the other full of other celebrities and into the unexpectedly large back room where we were seated at a long table and tossed a few menus. My brother again recited that John had instructed him to get a pastrami sandwich on rye with russian dressing and my sister and I cautiously eyed the overwhelming menu, not noticing the size of the sandwiches being delivered to nearby tables. Our waiter arrived and snapped "are you ready to order?" We did the customary glance around the table to assess the entire parties' prepardness and before we could say a word he barked "YES or NO?" Humbled we decided another few minutes would be wise. When he returned we were quick to order but we weren't on the same page yet. I asked if he had Dr. Pepper and he responded "I have Dr. Brown's." Not wanting to test his patience I agreed to the alternative, expecting an east coast version of Mr. Pibb's. Then he asked "what kind?" . . . confused I asked what was available and he ticked off "root beer, black cherry, cream soda." I agreed to a cream soda and decided Dr. Brown's was probably more like Shasta and my siblings each selected a Dr. Brown's flavor of their own. It turns out Dr. Brown's was not like Shasta, it was much better. By this point our waiter was still a bit testy but also seemed happy to tease us about our out-of-town ignorance and was unwilling to let my brother place the precise order John had made him memorize muttering things we could not fully understand.
All through this stressful ordering process a giant bowl of pickles was sitting in front of us. There are very little things I dislike more than pickles. I detest the smell and an unwanted pickle next to a sandwich can ruin the entire thing with seeping juice that soaks the bread. My siblings don't share my aversion but neither took interest in the pickles. At some point, after a family had been shown to a nearby table we were asked if we were through with our pickles. Before we really had a chance to give them up, the pickle bowl was swept off our table and placed in front of the newcomers. I was horrified! What if I had touched them all? What if I had licked one and deemed it inedible and put it back? I could have done anything with those pickles and now the new family was heartily digging in, eating the pickles. Gross.
We were in for another shock when our food arrived. Nick's pastrami sandwich had to be a full six inches of meat high. Erin and I had each chosen the club sandwich and we definitely should have split it because we could have fed the masses with our four skewered stacks of bread, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, bread, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, etc. Nick is a big guy and a big eater and he was not able to complete his sandwich, a possible first in his lifetime. Gratefully we pressed forward with dessert despite not finishing our sandwiches and discovered the one thing that has kept me going back to Carnegie Deli - the cheesecake. Naively we each selected our own and were rewarded with giant oversized slices which we happily dove into. When the bill arrived, we were surprised - with the tip, we spent all of John's $100.
Without a plan for the day other than several reminders from our mother that it was OpSail 2000 and we needed to go see the tall ships for her, we set out to explore the City. In the blazing July heat, like the pioneer children, we walked and walked and walked. We walked through midtown, we walked through Soho and the West Village, we walked through Chinatown and in the late afternoon we made our way to the South Street Seaport where we expected to finally see the ships and find a spot for fireworks on the FDR, closed for that purpose. As soon as we emerged from Chinatown, we were hit with a throng of people like none that I have encountered before or since. We decided this is what New York would look like if every single person in Manhattan came out of their office, apartment or hotel and crowded into this narrow section of the City. My sister needed to go to the bathroom and I decided I should take the time to go as well. Worst decision I have ever made. We waited no less and possibly more than an hour at a Wendy's to use the most vile restroom I have ever encountered in my life. That includes third-world countries and holes in the ground. Upon emerging we weighed our options. Continue to press forward to try and see these ridiculous tall ships or succumb to fatigue, give up and go home. Realizing we are definitely our parent's children and not willing to endure crowds of people, we gave up and boarded the subway back uptown. Instead of fried chicken and a picnic, we chose a Chinese noodle shop in my neighborhood that later became my favorite. Worn out from the heat, the walking and the terrible encounter with the massive throng of touring humanity, we barely spoke as we slurped our noodles and each of my siblings complained of varying ailments they were suffering. As dusk fell we slowly walked the five blocks down 9th Avenue back to my apartment. The boom of fireworks was starting but none of us even had the energy to raise our heads to look up. Instead, we shuffled into my dark apartment, collapsed on the couch and watched the fireworks on tv.