The Romance of Mayhem and High Explosive

by James McGirk

Hot, smoke-fouled air is a powerful mnemonic. As the sun set over New York City on the 4th of July, my fiancée, Amy, and I took a break from comforting our shell-shocked cats, to stroll through our neighborhood. We live in a decaying industrial area perched on a scarp between the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens. By peering down one of the avenues we could just make out the puffs of incandescent orange exploding over the East River. We climbed the hill into Ridgewood. It was dark. New York had had one of its wettest summers yet, and a dank hot fug lingered beneath the foliage. All around us explosions rocked the city as families fired bootleg fireworks off their balconies, and the air reeked of sulfur and smoke.

Amy and I had met ten years before, almost to the day, and spent our first night together sitting side by side on a bench beside a power plant in Astoria, Queens, bathing in the ozone-saturated air, swapping stories about our adolescent pyromania, as fire trucks raced past us, to douse the flames from a blown transformer. She grew up as a pale redhead in Florida; so sensitive to sunlight she was forced to live most of her existence at night. She ran with a wild bunch, fled her home at fourteen and stopped going to school. They fired guns in the Florida Everglades and scorched colonies of sea oats and in retaliation for the pastel-hued scorn of their elders – who truly believed they belonged to an adolescent death cult – pelted churches with paint-dipped sanitary napkins and smashed stained glass windows.

My own pyro-maniacal peak came by accident. I grew up in India, and between the ages of ten and fifteen, belonged to an American Boy Scout troop stationed out of New Delhi. We would take short trips out of the city on weekends, go white-water rafting on the banks of the Ganges River (near Rishikesh, above the corpses) or trekking in the Himalayas or, in this case, rappelling down a cliff face near an artificial lake in Haryana. The trip had been a disaster from the get-go, word had gotten out that Americans were in the area, and we became a spectacle and were constantly chased by amused villagers, and were forced to bivouac on the grounds of a government rest house with high walls. Morale was suffering too. There were two patrols in our troop and one patrol had provisions from the American commissary and the other did not and this caused enormous resentment and a lackadaisical ugly attitude unbecoming of Boy Scouts and the sons of diplomats and the agents of multinational corporations.

On our last day in Haryana we were challenged to a game of kabaddi by a local scout troop. They were the beefy sons of local landowners. Kabaddi is a game that involves perimeter defense and dashing across enemy lines to touch a goal line while the other team tries to tackle you, all the while chanting “kabaddi, kabaddi” to prevent oneself from breathing. We were absolutely stomped by the older, bigger and frankly far more unscrupulous other team. So anyway, after taking down our tents, a friend and I were limping back to the bus through a field, filled with hay stacks, and he jokingly picked up a piece of hay, lit one end and stuck it into the dew-damp hay. It snuffed out immediately. I noticed there was a thin layer of cotton clinging to the top of the pile. I borrowed my friend’s Bic lighter and touched the flame to it, thinking the cotton would simply burn off the wet hay. It did not. The cotton ignited instantly and acted as kindling and I guess the center of the stack was tinder-dry because in less than ten seconds the fire was a roaring conflagration too hot to approach. In twenty, it was enormous pillar of fire and black smoke, swirling into the air, and the village gave chase, not for fun this time but with righteous anger, hurling rocks at us. We hastily paid them off and fled, stones ricocheting off the roof of our bus.

After that I went through several stages of attempting to live a better life through chemistry. My school chums and I discovered India’s unregulated firework industry and bought fist-sized chunks of flash-powder sold as “Nazis,” and Chinese crackers that came stamped with the number of birthday-candle sized squibs contained within – from strings of five that crackled for a fraction of a second up to radial-tired sized rolls of 10,000 that sounded like anti-aircraft fire and left the streets billowing with clouds of smoke and strewn with litter. Later I prowled the city’s medico-pharmacological district, buying scalpels and oxygen tanks and distillation apparatus and syrettes of a hallucinogenic veterinary anesthetic called ketamine.

We walked through Ridgewood, which was lit by the largest harvest moon I had ever seen and we dodged sputtering catherine wheels and bottle rockets on wobbling trajectories and she was more beautiful than the day I met her. And as we settled down on a park bench to rest and watch the last of the rockets streak into the sky, I could suddenly understand why, viscerally we wanted to burn and blow things up. Though Amy and I grew up on distant continents, in radically different social classes, we had both been aliens and, in our weakest moments, felt the same urge to reconfigure the environment around us. We were eventually drawn to the arts, she is a painter and I write essays, and to New York City, and to deep gloomy New Wave music and the black, silver and red aesthetic it generated (and its predecessors stretching as far back as German Expressionism or Goya). Setting off explosives, watching the wick streak toward the explosive within, is a life lived in miniature, and the ten years we had spent together were difficult but never boring and slid by at an incredible rate. We wanted that to keep going. Forever.

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