Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Time We Burned Down the Used Car Lot

When I was in grade school, we used to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July.  We’d all carry our stashes around in big brown paper bags.  One year, not really by accident, we burned down a used car lot with them.  

We’d get the fireworks from this creepy middle-aged guy named Pete.  Pete had a beard and a pot-belly and glasses, like some kind of firework-selling Allen Ginsberg.  Pete didn’t write poems that I know of.  

Instead, he would drive his old beat-up van to South Carolina or Pennsylvania, or someplace, buy up a lot of fireworks cheap, then come back and sell them to us kids for a mark-up.  That’s against the law.  Eventually they put Pete in jail.

But not yet. 

First, he sold us all these Roman candles and bottle-rockets and bricks of fire-crackers, and M-80s and Cherry Bombs, and various exploding, whirring, flying what-nots.  We used to shoot them at each other.  I've seen flaming balls of Roman candle fire bounce right off people's chests.  Good stuff.  Also, we used to climb up fire escapes to the tops of buildings and shoot them into the night sky.

There was a used car lot a few blocks from my house.  It was owned by an old guy named Gilberti, who liked to have teenage girls around his office.  I don’t know what the arrangement was – why these sexy 17, 18, 19-year-old girls hung out with this white-haired old man.  

I think I can guess at what it was, but I’m not sure.  Maybe he was funny.  Maybe he had that old-time chivalry, and held the door open for them.  A nice personality does go a long way.  

He sold shitty cars, though.  Everybody knew that much.  You could barely get them off the lot before they broke down.  No warranty stated or implied.  We’d watch these poor slobs drive Gilberti’s lemons away from the lot and down the street, and we’d say, “There goes another one.”  

The cars would have messages written in white on their windshields.  Cream Puff, they would say, or Dream Boat.  Yeah, Gilberti had climbed right out of the time capsule from 1958.  

One night, a few days before the Fourth, we took our fireworks and climbed onto the roof of Gilberti’s office.  It was a snap.  The building was only one-story high.  We slipped between the various clunkers and junkers on the lot, up to a bread truck that was parked behind the building.  We shimmied up the bread truck, and from there, we could practically step onto the roof.

What good was the roof?  We weren’t exactly high up.  But we were there, and the building faced the street, so we started launching our wares out onto the street.  With all the zig-zagging rockets and the explosions going off, I figured it was just a matter of time before someone called the cops.  That was another great pastime in those days – running away from cops.  

There were five of us, all boys.  The only one that mattered was Timmy McHugh.  Timmy was a few years older than the rest of us, but hung out with us little kids.  His growth was fine, but his mind was delayed.  He was wired wrong.  He poked me with his elbow at one point, got my attention.  

“Patty, watch this,” he said.  

There was a kid on the other side of him from me.  Some kid.  Any kid.  That kid was busy lighting off fireworks into the street.  He wasn’t paying attention to anything else.  His big paper bag filled with fireworks lay at his feet.  He had a lot of fireworks in there.  So many, in fact, that maybe it made Timmy a little envious.  

Then again, maybe Timmy just had a lust for nihilistic chaos.  You know, the same lust The Joker had – the one from the Batman movie where they say the actor Heath Ledger died from a drug overdose because the character he played was so dark that he, Heath Ledger, couldn’t sleep anymore. 


Either way, Timmy took a book of matches and lit the whole pack all at once.  Then he tossed the burning matchbook into the kid’s bag.  I stood, transfixed, as the various firework packaging inside the bag began to catch fire.  In just a few seconds, half the bag was burning.  

The other kids were still absorbed with what they were doing.  I reached down and picked up my bag of fireworks.  

“Oh, man,” Timmy said.  “Oh, man!”


Something flew out of the kid’s bag and whizzed past my face.  Another something hit me in the chest.  Then another.  And another.  Things started to explode out of the bag.  Things started to explode inside the bag.  Somebody shouted.  

Then we were all running.  I jumped off the roof and onto the bread truck, took one step and leaped off the bread truck.  We ran through the car lot, then out into the streets, five kids, all going in different directions.  I ran along one alley, turned down another, and came out onto the street a couple blocks away.  From there, I walked to the playground.  I had a dozen burn holes in my T-shirt. 

We all turned up at the playground, and we sat in the dark under the jungle gym while the fire engines raced past.  

"What happened back there?" the kid who had lost his bag of fireworks said.  

I glanced at Timmy.

"I don't know," he said.

"I don't know, either," I said.

Nobody knew.  One of the bags had just gone up in flames.  All by itself.  In the rush to get off the roof, a couple of the other guys had forgotten to grab their bags, too.  A lot of fireworks had been wasted.  We were better off not knowing how it happened.

After a while, we decided to walk back to the car lot.  A bunch of young kids, the firemen would never think it was us.  When we got there, a small crowd of people had gathered, watching the firemen water the place down.  A couple of fire engines were there, and a police car.  The lights were still spinning, bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings, but no sirens sounded.    

Gilberti’s office was a total loss.  The roof was gone.  Half the walls were burned away.  Inside, you could see charred furniture where earlier that day, teenage girls had lounged around.  In some vague way, I thought it served Gilberti right.  He did sell shitty cars, after all.                

No one in the crowd seemed to notice us.  Nobody said anything. 

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