Urban Bonfire

by John Delach

“C’mon, c’mon, grab a tree, don’t be slow and show some hustle.”

It is January 2nd, a Friday, eight days after Christmas. It is also a pick-up day for the NYC garbage men to collect discarded Christmas trees from the gated disposal areas in front of our four and six-story railroad flats in Ridgewood, Queens. Several gated areas are full of discarded Christmas trees.

 “C’mon, c’mon,” the older boys shout, “Grab a tree.”

Joey and I do as we are told. Being nine years old, both of us are excited and want to stay on the big boys’ good side. We claim a tree from the gate in front of 1821 Himrod Street. “Charlie, you take the back and I’ll take the front.” Joey orders.

I carefully pick-up the tree by its thick, lower branches so I don’t get sap on my hands and clothes. As we lift the tree, a forgotten glass ornament detaches and shatters as it hits the sidewalk. Hearing it break, I look at the tree. The branches are stiff and dry, but the tree retains its abandoned decorations. Tinsel, pink and white popcorn, a string of multi-colored lights and three or four other ornaments still adorn it.

Joey breaks into a run pulling me with him. Boys, carrying discarded trees,  are running to the vacant lot from several different directions, some from the other side of Senaca Avenue. When we reach the pile of trees, it is already three feet high. “Throw it on top,” Christie, the meanest of the big boys, shouts.

Joey and I look at each other. We count to three and let it go. It is a good throw, but before our tree reaches the top, it snags the branch of another tree and falls back bouncing off lower ones until it hits the ground. An angry Christie shouts, “Get out of here you babies.”

Admonished and shamed, Joey and I re-cross Senaca Avenue so we can watch the pile grow from a safe distance. The pile must reach 30 to 40 trees before the big boys stop building it. Then they stuff newspaper between the branches of the bottom trees and light them with wooden kitchen matches. The flame flares, but quickly goes out merely turning newspaper to ash. The trees fail to ignite even though they try two or three more times as they still contain enough sap to defeat the boys.

Christie yells, “Put more paper in and get away from the pile. I’ll take care of this.”

After the boys follow his order, Christie pulls a can of Ronson lighter fluid from his pocket and uses it to saturate the paper. “Watch what happens now,” he commands as he strikes a match and holds it to the paper.

The newspaper burns hotter and longer. Finally, the tree closest to his artificially set conflation catches. In seconds, flames engulf more and more trees. Then it seems like the whole pile explodes. Flames shoot high toward near-by buildings as the air crackles with the sound of the trees being destroyed in a fire storm. Shouts erupt from the building closest to the out-of-control bonfire. Boys begin running. Joey and I retreat further away as the sound of sirens begins to fill the air.

From multiple directions, police squad cars, fire engines and two fire chief cars reach the scene. But in the short time it takes the police and firemen to  arrive, the blaze has already consumed its fuel and has subsided. All that remains are black sticks and an awful stench.

The authorities are angry. They fan out grabbing as many kids as they can. Many rat out Christie right away telling the cops where he is hiding. The cops find him in an alley hiding behind garbage cans. He starts to cry.

As I watch him being hauled away, I sense that somehow, he saw me watching his humiliation. This is not good, as I know the beating, he will receive from his father will only make him meaner and sooner or later, it will be my turn.

The great 1954 post-Christmas season urban bonfire is over, the only one I recall having been a participant.

Ironically, that same year, my friend, Joey, and his family were burned out of their apartment when a neighbor’s water heater short-circuited. His family all escaped except for their cocker spaniel, Honey, who was a nice dog.

I never saw Joey again.