I love the Fourth of July. It's a holiday with something for everyone — good food, beer, a day off, and explosives. And I love the rituals — heading across the bridge to buy sparklers and bottle rockets, grilling hamburgers, swimming, and watching fireworks against a starry sky.
My family and I did all those things last weekend, capped by a trip downtown to see the city's display of pyrotechnics. We arrived around 8 o'clock and set up chairs and blankets on the bluff in front of the McMansions on Tennessee Street. The kids — and some brave adults — amused themselves by sliding down the bluff on plastic sleds.
A sliver of crescent moon emerged over Arkansas. Boats became lights on the dark river as evening fell. We were part of a large throng of Memphians of all ages, and ethnicities, joined in communal celebration. Conversations flowed, and the people-watching was stellar. It was urban life at its best.
About 9:45, the first shooting streak of light arched skyward and blossomed into a giant sparkling dandelion over our heads. Twenty noisy and glorious minutes later, it was over and the crowd headed to their cars — and to a slice of urban hell.
I was expecting traffic. I wasn't expecting chaos and intimidation. As we sat in a line of traffic waiting to pull onto Front Street, cars and SUVs began jumping out of line, pulling onto the sidewalk, nosing their vehicles in front of those already waiting. The vilest rap music lyrics I've ever heard boomed from an SUV that pulled within inches of my car. The two 11-year-olds in our back seat sat bug-eyed.
Cars forced their way into the line of traffic at intersections, trying to get to the other side. It was frontier rush hour — no rules, no courtesy. The result was classic gridlock. Cars were soon stuck like jackstraws at every angle, immobilized. After 15 minutes, people started getting out of their cars, drinking, partying in the street, and lighting fireworks.
If someone's Roman candle had ignited a rooftop, there would have been no way for a fire truck to get to the scene. The streets were utterly jammed. If someone had decided to rob someone and run, no police car could have gotten close.
It took us 45 minutes to escape. We kept wondering why the police department hadn't anticipated this situation and assigned cops to direct traffic out of downtown. Traffic planning isn't rocket science. It's not even bottle-rocket science.