JULY 6, 1998: As if shooting off the fireworks wasnt bad enough, I had to shoot off my mouth.
Tell me your name and badge number.
It was a line I had heard on TV a million times, and thusly presumed it to be a reasonable request especially when an officer of the law brought the possibility of deadly force into play; when it was obvious to anyone with but a single functioning brain cell that none was required.
The blow the officer delivered was sudden and forceful. I had no reason to suspect it. My shirtsleeve ripped loudly and all the way to the shoulder as he twisted back my right arm and my cheek laid a sloppy kiss on the cold stone wall.
Rip. Snap. Crack. Click. The handcuffs bit deep into my wrists. He was a young cop, and cocky, obviously bored and looking for some action. He was shouting but I couldnt understand a damn thing he said. Its hard to understand anything when hes screaming so close to the back of your head. You can only hear the vowels.
You cant do this! I said.
We can do whatever we want, he answered, tightening the cuffs another click. We had been respectful to the officers; in fact we had been downright cordial, volunteering information before they even asked for it. Then one of them, quite unexpectedly, pulled his gun. The acrid smell of spent pyrotechnics filled my nostrils, and the only thing holding me upright was my face against the wall.
How did I end up here? I wondered. The answer was trite and obvious I played with fire.
The celebration had been pretty low-key until the fireworks came out. All my friends are artists, and like many artists they experiment from time to time with fireworks. They know where to get good ones, too, so there are always plenty around especially at a party. This time it was different. I had never seen so many fireworks in one room. There were thousands of Black Cats, every conceivable kind of rocket, festival balls you name it. The kitchen table was a never-ending buffet piled high with black powder and bad judgment.
Things had gone from calm to out-of-control in the flick of a Bic, but nothing bad would have ever come of it (okay, maybe a fire) had someone not begun a conspiratorial whispering campaign, Lets go outside and shoot off the rockets. That was when the neighbors complained that was when the police came ... that was when the party ended just the way The Man intended.
Anyone who has trouble grasping the concept of eternity should spend an hour in the back of a police car. Seconds stretch to their breaking point and everything you have ever done wrong and forgotten bubbles out from its hiding place to haunt you.
At least I wasnt alone. My friend Ray was in the car with me. It was Ray who had the gun pulled on him earlier while attempting to comply with the officers request to see his drivers license.
The shorter the fuse, the bigger the thrill, was Rays motto. In lean times he manufactured his own fireworks, fully aware of the dangers involved. When you first start out making fireworks, Ray joked, youre going to make a few bombs but then there is nothing wrong with a good bomb and gunpowder is cheap, too.
Once, after a friend had given Ray the gift of tequila, Ray in turn presented his friend with a bomb made from the empty bottle. The card read, You gave me Two Fingers [the tequila brand] so now Im gonna leave you with two fingers.
Rays friend loved the bomb. It blew up real good.
I cant go to jail again, Ray repeated his mantra, rocking back and forth, as if he could somehow rock himself to freedom. Outside, the two cops were going through monumental tomes to determine what to charge Phil with. Phil owned the house, as well as most of the fireworks that had been used. They werent going to take Phil to jail, but they were sure going to charge him with something providing they could find something to charge him with.
What do you do? one of the officers asked.
Im an artist, Phil replied.
Yeah, but what do you do for money?
I told you Im an artist, Phil said again.
I think we have a conspiracy, the cop finally said, his face glowing with the light of discovery. It was then that the cop began to question Phil about Marcus.
This is a part of some kind of artists conspiracy to annoy the police with fireworks, the officer suggested. Phil just shrugged and shook his head.
Marcus had lived and worked in the same warehouse apartment, hidden away in a narrow alley, for a dozen years. He is a sober Christian man; dedicated and hard-working but he would on occasion buy fireworks. When Marcus stumbled upon an all-but-forgotten bag of M-80s (powerful firecrackers) he had stashed away in his workshop, he figured, why not take a couple up to his rooftop deck and shoot them.
You know I was standing there feeling ripped off, Marcus told me, because M-80s are supposed to be loud, and these werent loud at all just, Fizz Pop. Then I see this police helicopter fly by. He knew they were looking for somebody because the chopper was circling low. He had no idea they were coming for him.
A police car crept up his alley and from behind the car came eight cops with guns. They had pistols, shotguns, you name it, Marcus said. The Memphis SWAT team had been called in and sharpshooters quickly assembled on the roof next door. Marcus heard guns cock behind him. He tried to see what was going on but the cops below shouted, Dont you look away, motherfucker! You look at us.
There were 15, maybe 20 guns pointed at me, Marcus said. And they were all young cops, and I just knew the wind was going to blow my hat off or a bird was going to fly by and they were goi7ng to shoot me.
How did you get up there, motherfucker? they were screaming, and when I said, I live here they said, Dont lie to us, motherfucker, well blow your fucking head off.
Marcus tried to tell the police how to get up to his deck but they couldnt understand him. Eventually a group of officers made their way across neighboring rooftops.
They cuffed me and got me down on my knees, he said. They frisked me and felt my genitals. They kept asking me where the gun was, and I told them I didnt have a gun on me.
Someone entering a bar in Marcus neighborhood had seen him on his roof with the fireworks, and reported to the police that they had spotted a sniper. I told them about shooting the fireworks, and told them that I had more downstairs. Eventually the police found a gun in Marcus bedroom. It was a pistol that he kept for protection, and it was clear that it had not been fired in some time.
When they got me outside, it was incredible, Marcus said. They [the police] had blocked the street off at Union and there were cops everywhere. There must have been 50 police cars. They threw me in the back of one of the cars, and felt my genitals again, and I was thinking, Cant someone please tell them Im not a sniper, and I dont have any fireworks hidden between my balls and my butthole?
The police asked Marcus if he knew who the president was. Well, I think its Bill Clinton, he answered. Repeatedly they asked the names of the mental institutions Marcus had been in, and he told them, None.
They asked him the name of the mayor, and the congressmen. During the course of the interrogation the police miraculously produced the remains of two exploded M-80s in the neighboring lot. Marcus story checked out, but the SWAT team had been called in, so they couldnt just cite him for fireworks and be done with it. Marcus was taken to jail and booked. The charge disorderly conduct. Fifteen hours in jail, three court appearances, and a thousand dollars later, it was expunged from his records.
I told Ray as much as I knew about Marcus situation while we waited in the back of the police car. It passed the time. Ray was quiet, and I could tell he was rethinking his life.
Not long after I started making my own [fireworks], he said at length, I woke up on the floor one afternoon, and there was nothing but gunpowder, whiskey bottles, and fuses everywhere. I said to myself right then, This has got to stop.
Then things got quiet in the squad car. Hypnotized by the reflection of flashing blue lights, forgotten wrongdoings bubbled up from their hiding places to haunt me.
When I was a kid I built sand- castles with my friends. The sandcastles became sand forts, and we would take our army men and dinosaurs and Star Wars action figures and play out huge battles between good and evil. It was only a matter of time before fireworks came into the picture.
We blew up our forts with Black Cats, M-80s, whatever we could get our hands on. My cousin brought his sisters Malibu Barbie to be the nurse for all the army men who got arms and legs blown off, but being kids (kids being cruel) we called him a fag and he quit bringing her. It rained a lot that summer and there were frogs everywhere, so we started blowing them up too. We would put them down in the forts with a firecracker in their mouth, then GET BACK OR GET WARTS.
My cousin who brought the Barbie made little hats for the frogs out of paper. We were the Continental Army; the frogs were the Lobsterbacks. We were the cowboys; the frogs were the redskins. We were winners; the frogs were dead meat. It was all very patriotic. We were heroes that summer all summer long.
I deserved to be in handcuffs. In the silence of the squad car I thought about Marcus, who had never meant to harm anyone not even a frog.
I recalled the story of some friends who play in a well-known rock band, and how they once set their neighbors house on fire with a stray bottle rocket during a Fourth of July celebration. They had to take up a collection at their next gig to help pay for it. I looked at Ray as he rocked back and forth. His fiery addictions had lead him down a deadly road, past Snap-N-Pops, beyond Cherry Bombs, straight to the hard stuff setting the lockers on fire at school, igniting a car wash as an adolescent.
I was no better than he was not really. Nobody made me put that match to the fuse; I did it because it felt good. I began to see how easy it was for our time-honored celebration of patriotism to become an all-out rehearsal for revolution. Whenever a child claps at the explosion of color ripping apart the night sky or claps in wonder at the rockets report, imagine that same precious child with a Molotov cocktail in his or her back pocket and an AK-47 pressed tightly against his or her sweet baby shoulder.
Perhaps you will cry, Hyperbole! My child could never be a terrorist! My baby is nobodys revolutionary! Ive never heard such utter rot.
Well dont take my word for it, ask the British and remember: setting off fireworks in the city of Memphis, and many of its surrounding areas, is a crime.
The Unabomber was somebodys baby once too, you know.
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