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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 10 1996
Van Ness teems with humanity as folks in all their various guises make their way toward the waterfront. Buses packed to the gills careen down the avenue past motorcycle cops who diligently try to make order of the hundreds of motorists who have mistakenly figured that driving on the Fourth of July is a viable option. Gleeful hordes of roaming pedestrians whoop and holler, adding to their number as they close in on the bay. They spread out over Aquatic Park, covering it like ants at a picnic. Fold-out chairs and checkered blankets are produced from unlikely places; children move toward the parking lots, laden down with illegal noisemakers; lovers cuddle in the cooling breeze as the cries of scrap-anxious gulls fill the air.

"I've never done the fireworks thing before," admits Chris Ray, a sunburned gal with a flower in her hair. "But last year, I was trying to cross the [Golden Gate] bridge and everyone just stopped and got out of their cars to watch. It was neat -- even though I was really late for my appointment."

Ray and her friend pass a bottle of cheap wine back and forth as they move off toward the free stage, where a piped-in orchestrated version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is promised. At Fort Mason's Herbst Pavilion, a small number of club types have gathered to see Super Diamond and Bud E. Luv, but as one guy-who-knows points out, "The acoustics really suck!"

A few die-hards sit through a heroic set by Curveball while munching on limp turkey-bologna sandwiches and drinking beer out of plastic cups, but for the most part, the crowd opts for standing out back on the pier-cum-fireworks-viewing-pad, throwing bread to winged seaside scavengers and watching as the view of Alcatraz fades into the evening. The tepid salt air and the sound of water slapping against the pilings set the people gathered in a reflective mood, a high contrast to the rest of the waterfront revelers, who seem barely able to contain their patriotic pride.

"It's funny," says a crusty clubby with a serene smile, "all year round, you live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and you just forget to look."

On cue, the sun slips lazily out of view, wrapping the waterfront in a lucid light that makes the city shimmer. It's what film folk might call the "magic hour"; what Stephen Yerkey describes as "the first thing that most of us recall." It's perfect for fireworks-watching.

"You know," offers a small man with dark, leathery skin, "this isn't the best place to watch. You wanna go back along the waterfront toward Pier 5. There, you can see Oakland's works and ours, with Coit staring down at it all." Having dispensed this tidbit, the man turns to walk in the direction from which he came, waving a little streamer in the air and chuckling to himself. "Don't go tellin' the world, now," he tosses over his shoulder.

At Pier 5, dozens of children swarm around the hot dog and ice cream vendors as Rollerbladers speed down the middle of Herb Caen Way .... The pier is packed with families laughing, shouting, and setting off warm-up pyrotechnics. A toddler bundled up like a little Eskimo sits in a child seat wedged on top of her parents' ski rack while her older brother rejoices in big noisemaking. Nearby, a father, disgusted that a nearby apartment building has turned on its sprinklers, attempts to blow up one of the units before a couple of girls take to playing in the downpour. At Pier 23, merrymakers bask beneath heat lamps set up on the deck or push their way out of the bar to dance in the streets while the Jules Broussard Band performs a Patsy Cline tune.

"It's better than a barbecue," shouts a red-faced gent as he dances around a parked Harley-Davidson. "Give me a bar and a bay any day."

The first real-deal fireworks explosion stops the kids -- little and big alike -- dead in their tracks. Craning their heads to look at the stars, they forget, for a time, their beer, their food, the diminutive poppers they clutch in their tight fists. A thunderous clap of explosions ricochets against the surrounding structures, leaving the crowd wrapped in a trembling wall of sound while the face of every apartment building glistens in a kaleidoscope of exploding light.

"It's like being in a valley of fireworks," says a gape-mouthed Jonathan Dale, who has clearly gotten more than he expected. "Even that looks extra all-lit-up," he says pointing to Coit Tower, which stands like a calm, ruddy-faced sentry overseeing the community below.

Andrew, a jolly, blond man who has undertaken to travel from New Zealand to Canada with his piano in tow, ends his fireworks break and sets up shop on a strip of clear sidewalk that is lit dramatically from below. He slides onto his piano bench, his tuxedo tails flapping in the breeze that has come in off the bay.

"Isn't it romantic?" sighs a 14-year-old girl who has been waiting for him to start playing again. She leans on the back of the piano with several other girls while Andrew plays his soul out and the city releases one final appreciative holler for the fireworks display.

"Sometimes you just need a good excuse to shout out loud," laughs a large man. On his shoulders, his baby daughter clutches at his hair with a sticky, toothless, ice cream grin.

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By Silke Tudor

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