Downtown Dancing and Fireworks
by Ken Smith Friday, July 8, 2016

(This week's audio and earlier episodes.)

It was just the two of us this time, more or less empty-nesters, with beach chairs slung over our shoulders walking toward downtown, heading for the fireworks. We can see them in miniature from our front yard, but once in a while we go see them up close, the full sound and fury. In Howard Park, people were setting out blankets and lawn chairs on the grassy slope down to the river, but we craved the maximum experience, as close as we could get.

The Jefferson Street bridge was blocked by police cars at both ends—in the dusky light, its pavement was dotted with boxes, the machinery for launching fireworks. And the crowds were still streaming over the footbridge onto the island at Seitz Park. Big bulked-up police officers circulated in the crowd. With the dull roar of water sliding over the broad low-water dam as backdrop, up on the bandstand a rhythm and blues band gave one of the classics a very respectable workout. A drum solo commenced, and I recognized the grand old man of our area’s musical heritage, drummer Billy “Stix” Nix, in his early eighties, cutting time sharply into segments and pulses, working across the drum kit and across the air so that we could all feel it pounding in the sternum, as if he played the whole crowd with those two sticks.

Next came a song made famous by Aretha Franklin. The crowd was young and old, every shade of skin color, every style of dance. Over to the side, a brittle gray-haired couple marked out a little square of sidewalk, fox-trotting almost in place, so slowly and elegantly that I couldn’t tell if they heard the rhythm of the drums or not. Most everyone else was dancing a modern, personal dance that they taught themselves in their bedrooms and on the school dance floors of their youth, each one a little different, each one a cousin. Some knew the words and sang along. Chain of fools—who hasn’t been there sometime?

We were having too nice a time to talk or to think much, but I couldn’t help but ponder the diversity. It’s the hope of America, this very diversity, getting it right someday. Billy Nix granted us an encore and then the fireworks commenced, right across the little stretch of mirrored water atop the white arches of the grand old bridge. Booming and rushing skyward and breaking open above us, light in arcs and sparks and curves, punctuated by hisses and explosions. A little boy sitting behind us couldn’t help himself, he commented aloud on every single moment of the display. His parents must find him exhausting sometimes. Up in the sky, even grander colors and curves presented themselves. We in the crowd were deeply satisfied. We seemed to like each other pretty well, too.

It went on for so long, I found myself wondering how it could be sustained. Not just the pricey fireworks, but all of us, young and old, every walk of life, every shade of humanity, all turned toward the same celebratory dome of sky. Well, you don’t do deep thinking at a fireworks display, but here’s the answer I came up with. Get everybody a fair chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Good schools, safe streets, enough jobs to go around, a blue sky and green planet, a country at peace, and health care so both our young people and elders can keep coming downtown to dance. It sounds simple, until you open up the morning paper. But you know what they say: Many hands make light work.