Two years ago, driving back to the city from a vacation in Memphis, I stopped by Joker Joe’s Fireworks in Sweetwater, Tenn., and bought a bushel of jumbo-sized bottle rockets. This year, I decided to turn them in.
On June 30, D.C. Fire Chief Adrian Thompson issued a plea for all residents to hand over their illegal fireworks. As the department press release read:
The DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is offering an amnesty program for residents of the District who have illegal fireworks. Citizens with illegal fireworks may call (202) 462-1762 to participate in the amnesty. A representative of the Fire Marshal’s office will pick-up illegal fireworks from Citizens who participate in the amnesty and dispose of them safely.
At 4:27 p.m., I dial the Illegal Fireworks Amnesty Program hot line. D.C. may have gotten the idea for this program from similar ones in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County, or, most recently, Montgomery County. There, firefighters kicked off the June 18 commencement of amnesty by staging a news event where they blew up pieces of fruit with illegal crackers. It was quite a spectacle: A chunk of watermelon hit NBC reporter Danielle McDavit in the head from 50 yards away.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who’ve come forward” since the melon massacre, says Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesperson Pete Piringer. More than 30 people have called the hot line, listened to the friendly female voice on its answering machine, and left their contact information for investigators to copy down.
“We’ve recovered about 5,000 pieces of fireworks,” says Piringer.
The D.C. Fire Department is hoping for a similar turnout. In August, at its training facility in Blue Plains, firefighters will combine the contraband they’ve confiscated from fireworks stands with whatever comes in via the amnesty program, pitch it all into a dumpster, and set it off.
The dumpster display could be grand. Unlike Montgomery’s program, which expires July 9, D.C.’s amnesty is valid every day of the year. Then again, it might be a dud. Also unlike Montgomery’s program, which swaps fireworks in exchange for free passes to the Six Flags America amusement park in Largo, Md., D.C.’s will not pay off capitulators. “No reward,” says department spokesperson Alan Etter. “Just, if they catch you with them, there’s a penalty.”
But a more serious shortcoming is that two-and-a-half minutes after I’ve called 462-1762 to report my stash, someone has yet to pick up the phone.
“You have to call during work hours,” Etter later explains.
Around 2:30 p.m., I try the hot line again. This time a sergeant immediately answers the phone.
Is this the Illegal Fireworks Amnesty Program?
“What? No.” It’s a nonemergency fire line. “Maybe you want Fire Prevention?”
He connects me to Fire Prevention. An Inspector Matthews takes the call. “Amnesty? Heh. No, there isn’t,” she says. “You want to report something?”
Hearing that I’d like to report myself, she sends me to the voice mail of Lt. Tony Fallwell. I confess my will to disarm and leave a phone number.
Perhaps nobody is buying illegal fireworks this year. That would explain the call-takers’ unprimed responses. I drive to Columbia Heights to see if this is the case.
Rickety red-white-and-blue outposts have sprouted all over Georgia Avenue. Some stand proud in the face of danger next to gas stations. Others are built into crevices in building façades like wasp nests. And some squat on street corners, such as one at the intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues.
“How ya doing?” asks an elderly woman huddled under the plywood shack’s blue-tarp roof. She’s surrounded by all sorts of munitions: Morning Glory sparklers, Shogun Multicolor cones, Whistling Dixie and Killer Bees fountains, and the perennial low point of legal fireworks: the stinky expanding pellets known as “snakes.”
There’s certainly nothing here that matches the fire department’s definition of illegal fireworks: “Any firework that explodes, like cherry bombs or roman candles. Any fireworks that move after placed and fired, like bottle rockets. Sparklers longer than 20 inches.”
As I begin to walk away from the stand, somebody calls out. It’s Richard Mullen-El, 43-year-old entrepreneur. “Are you looking for something?”
How about some of those “fireworks that move after placed and fired”?
“We got those,” says Mullen-El, rising from his seat behind the shack. He walks halfway down the block and pulls a black bag from a garbage can. “Two dollars for a 12-pack of bottle rockets,” he says. “Twenty dollars for 144.”
Mullen-El drives in the goods from outlet stores in Pennsylvania—not because he likes them, but because of the profit. “I can’t stand fireworks,” he says, citing painful war memories doing “covert stuff in South America.” He says he now lives at the nearby U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home and confines his covert operations to street corners.
“On any given day, we make over $2,000. Most of that’s illegal stuff,” he says. The most popular item is the Sky Force cannon, $50 for a box of 24. “It’s like a shotgun. It goes up: Boooom! Three different balls burst at once.”
Mullen-El hasn’t heard of the reigning amnesty. He says he’s an honest businessman, though, and asks for time to think it through.
On the 700 block of Park Road NW, behind a town house placarded with a No Loitering sign, stand shadowy figures, loitering. A dude on crutches fingers a fat coil of Wolf Pack firecrackers, unpeeling its packaging for his buyer, the divaesque Katrina.
Katrina expresses faint interest in the amnesty program. “What they offering?” she asks.
Her interest dissipates when she hears what they’re offering. “Nothing for nothing,” she calculates, “leaves nothing.”
Over at 4th and V Streets, four huge explosions shake the sky, one after another. The bursts of magnesium illuminate a block party in progress. A young man on the sidewalk says that, at the moment, he’s not interested in surrendering any fireworks: “This is not the right time.” A fellow in a light-green robe walks up to add: “You’re in the wrong place.”
Back on Georgia Avenue, where flaming rockets soar from the median strip, Mullen-El’s shack, glowing in the beams of portable floodlights, is thronged with customers. The man himself is cramming cardboard boxes into a city trash can.
Mullen-El confesses he’s still mulling over the amnesty program. “We about ready to stop,” he says. “We about sold out. Ha!”
Half a mile away, Andrew Johnson, 9, and his brother Andre Johnson, 16, are tossing firecrackers around in the front yard of their Petworth house. “You wanna buy some?” asks Andre. “We got everything.”
Andre hauls out a mortar tube that reaches to his thighs and plops it in the middle of 7th Street. “Watch this, y’all!” He lights a match and runs to the tube, makes a brief retreat as a car passes by, lights another match, and touches it to the fuse. The evening calm is instantly destroyed. Birds don’t chirp for the next 10 minutes.
“I’d turn mine in, because I don’t like them,” says Andrew. “They’re loud.” But his surrender won’t come cheap. “I want $100. The reward is $100.”
Their mother, Dina Johnson, observes the show from her porch lawn chair. Would she consider disarming her kin?
“I’ll donate his,” she says, indicating Andre, “if he keeps lighting them on the porch.”
North Capitol Hill is torn between two competing fireworks gangs tonight, the first represented by an amateur rocket squad at a block party on 8th and I Streets NE, the second by three young, female mortar technicians in the alley behind 7th and I.
The mortar girls are having difficulty packing a charge into their tube. One starts shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and seconds later, a massive concussion rocks the alley. Crackling sparks rain down on a red Cadillac parked nearby, and farther down the block, an SUV’s car alarm goes off. A slight man comes out of the doors of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, switches off the alarm with his key-chain remote, and goes back into the building.
How about it, ladies? Hand in your stuff?
“Get out of our alley!” shouts Kisha, the mortar loader. “Out! Out!”
After a minute, she reconsiders.
“Tell [the fire department] that 7th and I ain’t gonna turn in their fireworks,” she says. “’Cause we ain’t got any.”
At the block party, a woman with braids and glasses who refuses to give her name (“Make something up,” she says) scoffs at the idea of amnesty. “I’ve been living here 33 years,” she says, as a police car crawls up 8th Street under a rainbow of roman-candle fire. “It’s tradition. Just like they have on the Mall.”
Speaking of the Mall, rumbling drumbeats signal that the city’s fireworks show has begun. It’s sort of hard to see from here. The entire neighborhood is filled with volumes of throat-stinging smoke, dyed pink and gold by the streetlights. Squinting at the splotchy aerial bursts downtown is Melvin Williams, 45-year-old “responsible adult and Christian church member.”
Williams, in his flying-eyeball Von Dutch T-shirt, lights a cigarette and hands it to a pint-sized boy next to him. The boy runs out into I Street and touches it to the fuse of a Black Cat mortar. The impact of the skyrocketing bombshell knocks the tube over.
Would Williams consider calling 462-1762?
A puzzled look crosses his face. “No,” he says. Then, with more conviction: “No. Why would you do that?”
Meaning why would you buy them in the first place if you were just going to give them away, Williams explains. “I’d make a conscious decision not to use them,” he says. “As opposed to purchasing them and calling the fire department to pick them up.”
The fire department, of course, is hoping the threat of $1,000 fines might overpower such a relaxed take on the law. But although 2003 was rife with illegal-fireworks prosecutions—one in April, another in September, and both cases settled for under $51—it’s been clear sailing for lovers of junior-grade ordnance since then.
The relative immunity is not lost on the folks clumped around Mullen-El’s shack. They’re extending the Mall’s fireworks show in Northwest, employing the Georgia Avenue Metro Station across the street as a launch pad.
Mullen-El seems to have received a new shipment. Four cars idle at the curb while he runs around, sweating, smiling, and making deals. He’s made up his mind about the amnesty. “I’m turning myself in,” he says. “Tomorrow.”
But by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, says Etter, “zero people” had requested amnesty. My own call seeking to relinquish the Sweetwater bottle rockets was somehow overlooked, he says.
So tonight I’m drinking some beer and destroying the evidence. CP