Friday, July 04, 2008

Sparks of Light

It's Friday the 4th here in the land of legalized fireworks. I'm still getting used to that. People start setting them off a full two weeks before the holiday, in their backyards, on the street. Yesterday evening I wandered over to my colleague's house to say hello and her husband nonchalantly gathered about six or seven (on sale at Walmart!) and lit them in the street. If she hadn't objected, he would have lit them all at once. We sat on the terrace and watched, her four-year-old son rapt.

Tonight the 4th conincided with a local gallery hop, which happens once a month. It's not much- about three blocks of galleries and shops that stay open late with free food and sometimes wine. But I'm very glad it exists. It's nice to see the sub-culture here (aka liberals) getting a chance to strut its stuff.

Going to the gallery night and watching fireworks reminded me of the city where I attended graduate school. It's a place I will always associate with a combination of joy, melancholy and irony. Probably because that's what it feels like to be a graduate student, more than anything else.

I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this before, but it's become the story I tote out once a year on the 4th of July. Like on my birthday when my father tells me the story of the Great Ice Storm of '7_, and how while I snuggled under my mother's arm in the hospital as she slept off the anesthetic, he had to stay at home without power, grading papers in the bathtub surrounded by shabbos candles with the cat on the toilet and the dog on the bathmat.

Anyway, one summer, towards the end of our careers as doctoral students, my friends and I hovered in a liminal state of not-being-quite-done, not knowing where any of us would be in two years time, and I think I was heading to Oxford in a few months.

My dear friend e__ had been volunteering as a docent at a crumbling, dilapidated 19th century former prison- a Panopticon -on the top of a small hill in the city. At the time, the place was applying for historical landmark status, though it was in such a state of ruin that everyone who visited had to wear a hard hat. It was great fun, though- in addition to tours of the cells there were ongoing art installations during the year and film screenings in the summer. Anyway, this friend of mine had keys to the place, and since the lookout tower of the prison was very near the location of the city's main firework display, she contrived to sneak us into the prison and up into the lookout tower. We had brought picnic food, wine and beer too, I think. Since we had to sneak in, we used flashlights. It was still very dark.

It was deliciously thrilling, in that somewhat illicit way that makes you feel like a teenager breaking curfew or a kid playing "ghost in the graveyard" at dusk, near a real graveyard. [Edit: I have since learned that this place is featured on a documentary about real ghost hunters. Apparently the electromagnetic reverberation thingies or whatever they call them are off the charts]. Once we got to the top of the lookout tower, we waited for it to get darker and for the fireworks to start. We saw far-off ones bursting over one of the rivers, little pocks of light. Suddenly they were right overhead. I mean, literally over our heads and larger than any of us had imagined. If it weren't so beautiful, I might have compared it to what I imagine a psychedelic alien abduction might feel like, with lights as big as spaceships reaching their fingers down toward our heads.

This city also had a monthly gallery night, to which I and my friends duly repaired. And I remember for the first time (in early September) wandering into one that was unlike the others. For one, it was completely dark. There were black velvet curtains in the window blocking out all the light. A small card rested on the window sill stating that the gallery's hours were "By chance or appointment." There were velvet curtains in the vestibule (dark purple, I think). It was hushed inside, but there might have been faint, ambient chords struck now and then. At least that is how I remember it.

When I got inside, it was still dark, with black walls illuminated softly by chandeliers, pendant lamps, and sconces constructed out of collected ceramic and metal objects. These lights seemed magical, iconic in a sort-of Jungian way. And funny. A ceramic rabbit standing on two legs dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella made out of a sieve through which tiny points of light sparked. A chandelier like a medusa's head of twisted copper pipes, with tiny flame-shaped bulbs flickering at the end of each snake. And my favorite, a chandelier made entirely from teapots, their spouts pointing down and out away from the center, ending in bulbs the shape of little jets of water.

I know it's still there. But I checked the website and couldn't find the teapot or the rabbit lamps.


plam said...

I was shocked to see tons of private fireworks here at Waterloo around Canada Day. Some of them were so large that I didn't think they could not be part of a city-run show.

Of course I'm spoiled by the Montreal fireworks competition, so I didn't bother seeing the official fireworks.

Pamphilia said...

Ah yes, I remember the Montreal fireworks competition! Twice a week all summer, until they choose a winner in August. But still, could you imagine if Montrealers were allowed to set off their own, in the streets? Of course, if you're talking Plateau, then there still aren't any streets to speak of.

Emily said...

In South Florida, we get the wonderful combination of bottle rockets and fire crackers (which my neighbors set off for hours and hours).

I've almost always lived places where fireworks were legal -- or at least fairly easy to obtain. It distresses me so much, anyway.

I jumped every. single. time. the fire crackers went off.