Most people would consider it a plum assignment: shooting the Annual Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks over New York City. And, it is. But, it's not an easy one.
As a photographer for CBS News, I had shot it many times in the past. However, those had always been on the West side of Manhattan and in the few years since I've worked the gig, it has been moved to the East. What I remembered of the routine was how spectacular the fireworks were but, also, how challenging it was to capture them. The crowds are enormous, the security tight, the weather hot, the day long.
I actually drew the assignment a few days before. And, there was some confusion right from the beginning. The instructions from Macy's indicated that the press was to be marshaled on Long Island City in Queens. But, I was instructed by CBS to go to E26th St. and use my credentials to gain access to the East River. Since the NYPD strictly controls access (and, by the way, does a SPECTACULAR job), I knew that it would not be easy to go where I was not really supposed to be. However, I've worked the streets for years and felt that I could talk my in - eventually.
My schedule called for me to get in at 4pm. The plan was to assemble my gear and head out via taxi from the CBS Broadcast center at W57th St. ASAP to get to the location. I knew that even with 5 plus hours before the actual event, there were bound to be police closures and crowds beginning to assemble.
I was right.
As soon as I exited the cab at 26th St., I ran into a roadblock - literally. An NYPD patrol car had the entrance to the river blocked. I approached the patrolman manning the vehicle, flashing my press badge as I did. He was very courteous when I asked him where I might go to set up to record the fireworks. He said that he didn't know but, if I gave him a few minutes, he would try to find out. I thanked him eargerly. He made a few calls but got no answer. He asked me to wait and that he would keep trying. I had no other options and, at least, he was trying. As I waited on the sidewalk near his patrol car, a sergeant walked by. The officer approached him and started a conversation with him while pointing to me. The sergeant nodded and waved me over. He told me I could get access at 23rd St. I thanked them both and began rolling my gear (I had a cart) south.
I arrived to a mob scene at E23rd! Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were being stonewalled at a heavily guarded police barricade. Some were residents of the waterside apartment buildings. Others were ticket holders trying to get to their excursion boats for the show. All were confused and waiting. Having worked the streets so much, I knew exactly who to ask for access. Passing the patrol officers (the ones in dark blue), I went directly to one of the men in a white shirt - an officer. The first one I saw, a captain, was too busy and brushed me off. No matter. It happens. Persistence always pays off in these situations. I set my sights slightly lower and saw another white shirt with just one gold bar on his lapels - a lieutenant:
Lieutenant, I'm with CBS News. Can you please tell me where I can go to get river access? I yelled.
He responded, wait there. Give me a few minutes and I'll find out.
I followed his instructions. Much to my astonishment, after I few minutes, I heard him yell, hey, CBS, get in the line to your left. They'll pass you through.
I thanked him vigorously.
I got in the massive line and, step by step, inch by inch, I made my way to the entrance. Avoiding peoples' toes with my cart, after about another 20 minutes, I eventually made my way through security.
Little did I know my trials were just beginning.
When I finally got to the river, I found another security barricade manned by the erstwhile NYPD. I followed the same routine by asking another white-shirted officer where I might go to gain access. The first one sent me over to 26th St. I rolled north. At 26th St., two white shirts approached me and asked what I was doing there. I explained - again. They told me I couldn't stay there, but they heard that there might be access at 34th St. I rolled north - again. At 34th St. I ran into the same opposition. It was beginning to prove hopeless. Finally, I asked a patrolmen if he knew if anyone from DCPI was on -site. He thought that I might find someone from that division at 35th St.
DCPI stands for the Department of Community and Public Information. The NYPD is so gigantic that they have a whole division devoted to just handling the press. As the media capital of the world, someone has to keep the horde of information seekers under control. That entity is the DCPI. And, even they wear a different type of shirt to distinquish THEM - a light blue polo with their own logo.
At 35th St. I did find a command center and someone who actually had a clue as how to deal with me. He asked me to wait while he called someone from DCPI. Eureka!!
I waited about 15 minutes when someone from DCPI (wearing a light blue polo shirt) arrived and I explained my dilemma. He was young and sympathetic. But, he was also firm in telling me that they had told all the press that access was across the river in Queens. They had made no plans for someone like me. I implored him to see my predicament and asked if there was ANYTHING he could do. At that very moment, his boss, a Lieutenant Witte, approached. I have known the lieutenant from our years together on the street. He is the man in charge of dealing with the press directly. I have always known him to be tough but fair.
Lieutenant, can you help me out, I begged?
Well, Frank, I know that it's not your fault but all of the press are supposed to be over at Long Island City. We have no room to accommodate you here, he replied.
I pressed him further - PLEASE, lieutenant, can't you spare me just a few square feet -ANYWHERE?
He finally relented and said, well, try the gas station down at 23rd St. Maybe you can squeeze in there.
I again thanked him profusely and started walking south. So, now, I had spent nearly 3 hours only to wind up back where I had started.
The location was far from perfect - I had no direct access to the river. But, there was a gap between 2 buildings on the waterside that I felt I might be able to record at least the highest bursts. It would have to do. So, I began to set up my gear. Just after I set my camera on the tripod, I was approached by one of the deckhands who were herding passengers onto the nearby excursion boats that were charging them a small fortune for a river cruise to witness the fireworks up close.
He asked, Whaz up?
I'm with CBS News and just looking for a decent spot to record the fireworks, I responded.
What's it worth to you to come and do it on my dock? he asked.
I said, I have $30 in my pocket. It's yours.
Deal, he said. Just wait for all of the passengers to board and I'll bring you in.
I waited about another half hour for the last passenger to board when the deckhand, true to his word, fetched me and brought me down to the end of his dock. The exchange of $$ was done with a quick hand shake so that no one would notice.
It was perfect! I was right in the middle of where the three barges discharging the fireworks were located. I would be right in the middle of the action. By the time I finished setting up my gear it was about 7:30 pm. So, I spent nearly 3.5 hours just to get into position. But, I had the best seat in the house. Now, all I had to do was wait another 2 hours for the whole thing to happen.
I was not alone in waiting. The owner of 3 of the excursion boats and many of the other dock workers had invited family and friends to join them for the festivities. They had food, beer, and other refreshments that they were more than willing to share. Two women visiting from Tennessee were next to me and just incredibly excited to be part of this quintessential New York experience. Two college kids, half buzzed and smoking cigars, began a conversation with the 2 ladies. Eventually, a group speaking Arabic arrived and also joined in the festivities. After an hour or so, a full blown celebration was happening on the pier.
At about 9:30 pm, the actual pyrotechnics began. And, in the grandest of New York fashion, they certainly were worth the wait. The cries of delight that rose from the dock were evidence of this. The college boys were "high-fiving" everyone and the Tennesseans hugged and cried. It became the ultimate New York experience.
After approximately 20 minutes, it was all over. I packed my gear and thanked my hosts. I rolled my gear back through the crowds in an effort to get to the west side and find a taxi. I eventually caught one at E30th and 3rd Avenue. It then took us nearly another hour to get to the CBS Boradcast Center at W57th St.
So, it took me almost 6 hours to acquire about 20 minutes of footage. All in a days work for a New York City cameraman.