Monday, May 7, 2007

fourth of july reverie

Hundreds of cars lined Boston Post Road as I biked into town to pick up a video. The Concert on the Green was still in swing. I saw ice cream trucks and people in lawn chairs and bottles of wine and balloons and felt the tug of a real happening. I got on the phone and dad said he would come down, so I sat to wait in front of the old town hall on my bike, a second-hand girl’s Schwinn.

At intermission the high school musicians in black pants and white shirts came down off the band shell and stood around the city hall steps saying Guess what just happened, you know that cord in the back row? . . .The orchestra seemed to be a refuge for every minority student in town. The few Asian- and African-American students stood out from the white faces of the crowd.

On a bench sat an old Korean couple, grandparents, weathered, as if transported from winter on the Manchurian steppe to this summery bench in Madison – to the only big event in town not related to high school sports. Perhaps they were waiting for a granddaughter who played bassoon. Next to them sat a young white man. He wore his hair long under a baseball cap, and had on a Jack Daniels T-shirt. Before long a friend came by, more muscled, baggy pants hanging low. As they walked down the path in the heart of the crowd they stood out too. The bigger one walked as I have some urban black men walk, one stiff leg taking a step, the other leg swinging loosely forward. Lift and swing, lift and swing.

A group of middle school girls walked about, all eyes on the lookout and a circuit of talk humming low amongst themselves. They are locked into each other, a huddled transistor, in tune and uneasy; I could see the flittings of eyes passing over irrelevant figures, weeding out those of us who posed no threat of challenge or opportunity for mockery. Two girls walked by, one a little larger in the jeans, and I thought their group hum stilled a little, and I thought their eyes were tracking the vulnerable rear end for a moment.

I have kept my ears on edge all my life, especially where I am a stranger to the language – as I am here with these girls wired so tightly into each other. I am tuned to social vibrations in the air. It is defensive, protective, even paranoid. My radar came to me in high school. Just as I was then I felt invisible, watching, monitoring, even though I am not involved in their game. The habit remains. My antenna sniff the air defensively, automatically protective of those two girls walking away, vulnerable to whispers. There is a pause of the transistor’s activity, a question not mentioned, not mouthed: did you see her butt? For a moment they are silent. I am right. They have transmitted a thought. The spell passes. One of them makes a suggestion, and I know who the leaders are. Both girls are dressed in shorts and white tank tops, two pillars to which the rest cling for support. The whole group moves with the two. All the girls are barefoot, a visible code of conformity, of loyalty. A girlhood mafia. There is safety in numbers.

The light goes down. As they leave, a young couple walks their little girl along, grasping each arm to swing her in giant steps. She lifts both legs each time, emphatically. She squeals, mouth wide open, picture of a delight emphatic. The parents smile down at her and I melt too, my eyes following her. There is a small bust of James Madison, recently installed beside the road. The bricks around the bust are inscribed with the names of donors. Small children take to running around the pedestal. Soon the little walker joins in, and all is light-hearted until she bumps, forehead to forehead, with a munchkin only bigger by a matter of months. The difference matters. She is the one hurt, she the one in a mother’s arms, she, cradled. Even her pain is a tableau to be adored by those of us lucky enough to have flitted into the light of that moment.

Next to the bust of Madison is another recent addition, a small block with a plaque stating the woman named was a stewardess aboard one of the planes on September 11. I wonder why her loss should be commemorated more than that of any other lost son or daughter. Were her parents more grief-stricken than other parents? Or is it that she was unlucky enough to have died in a terrorist telecast? Her memory, empty to all like me who never knew her, is replaced by a public store of images drawn from CNN. We did not know her, but we can locate exactly where and when she died, which plugs into a moment in our individual lives, and that moment plugs us into a circuit of collective memory around this name, this empty name. She – or rather her death – stands in a connective moment. In that moment, re-imagined as we see the memorial, her figure edited into our imagination, we are connected to others. We are connected through her. She is our medium.

Our moment of seeing is coordinated with that fiery moment and through it, to this stranger’s death. It is to be meaningful because she and we shared a town of residence. She is the opposite, then, of the child who died on September 10th of diarrhea, in Eritrea: not American, not white, not even blessed with the reflected terror of the eleventh, not part of out “national tragedy” which drapes around our burly shoulders the righteous mantle of victimhood. Three thousand deaths have never had so much political mileage on the road to national myth. Three thousand deaths from diarrhea have moved not one army, not one congress, not one American tear. Three million deaths in the Congo matter far less than Paris Hilton, merely because the perpetrators of that war -- Rwanda, mainly -- are American allies. The Rwanda massacre was eclisped in the eyes of Big Media by O.J. Simpson. The death of this Eritrean girl, as anonymous as this fellow Madisonite is to me, does nothing to help me imagine we are a group, called Americans, that is essentially different from all others. Her death provides us with no service.

The eleventh was a gift to a violent clique within the state apparatus, a justification magically malleable to any end. The eleventh was a license for them to carry out fantasies kept under wraps since the Soviet Union disappeared, even including a renewed nuclear arms race. And so the eleventh became an honor – of sorts – to this woman, who died publicly, at the intersection of every TV eye on the planet.

I ride around the green. Groups of boys mix it up, a gruff intimacy acceptable for boys only because it is mediated by skateboards, bikes with shiny parts, and glow sticks (for the younger boys). Boys not yet ten say with authority Dude, this one goes the highest; they will be the go-getters selling jet engines or missiles to third worlders one day, cultured technocrats around tables will be blown back for a moment by the force of this American’s confident steeliness – which seems welded into and strengthened by the power of the corporation he represents. For now he trains his self-confidence by the act of possessing, which magically endows him with the qualities of the thing owned. For now he bounces the tires of his miniature bike, another city export to the hinterlands, an artifact whose Puerto Rican creators could never follow their bikes past the city limits. It was they who first fetishized the grease-free gleaming chains, every link crystal clear. The frame is so tightly made and the tires so tightly pumped that the whole thing is silent, not a rattle or clack when dropped to the pavement. It is a metaphor of the perfect man, impermeable, so efficient all humanity is expunged.

Another boy wears a sun visor in his hair, taking on the aura of careless MTV athleticism, of sporty but coolly indifferent college boys on spring break. This kind of performance, resting on the props of fashionable objects, is the root of America’s cult of success. The key to such performance is to weld the object-symbol into your being as if it, in itself, were your being, or came from your being. The aim is to convince others of this magical truth. These objects, then, whether fetishes of discipline like the bike or fetishes of laxness like the visor, become talismans, keys to the soul that cannot be dismissed so lightly as mere fashion.

The successful fashion performance is one that believes in itself, and so convinces; it wows, dazzles, draws, lures, conquers. It is a performance that makes concrete gains, transactions. The culture of success-as-performance is perfected as much in schools by boys afraid of looking weak – afraid of being mistaken for mere boys – as it is in corporate boardrooms. The performance of success is not success per se. Immigrant kids and women have more of that real-life success, but they still lack the symbolic power, that social talisman, which is the aura of the white male who possesses wealth convincingly – as if he really deserves it. The performance of course requires recognition, convinced as it already is of its own rightness. This self-conviction is the privilege of the white male. Not every white male succeeds in living up to the symbolic power of his category. But this one convinces. Well done. At 15, this MTV boy has already perfected college. You would never know he was ever a boy at all. He is a guy.

I rolled slowly around the green on my bike. On the lawn in front of the Congregational Church I saw the only person I was to recognize all evening, the middle school orchestra director, Mrs. Clemmons. She had surprised people by marrying a black man way back when. There they were with a lanky daughter. On the green people had set up displays of food and flags inside rope boundaries that had been pegged into the ground early that morning. Tables were draped with quilted stars and stripes, coverings bought for the occasion, with bowls of potato salad, cutting boards, neatly stacked cheese slices, bottles of wine, guttering candles, scenting the air against mosquitoes; around the trophy table sat ranks of old folk and middle aged salary men whose pursuit of the good life had brought them all to Madison. And threading about the margins ran the kids for whom Madison would become seen as a fate once they hit high school – a fate to be subtly lorded over neighboring towns at football towns and in derogatory comments about their girls – but never a choice.

The oddest of trees stood in a back corner of the green. I had noticed it a few weeks before while walking home. It was a tree without much of a background, a Rapunzel, head bowed under the weight of her heavy tresses. When I had first seen it I had thought it a quirk on a picturesque scene, a sadness in nature that someone had let grow. But last week, sitting on the green while antique dealers piled boxes of knick-knacks into vans after a flea market, I had seen it again in its hidden possibilities. A child would find a small world under there. I swung close on my bike and smiled to see that I had been right. A dozen kids larked about under the whispering drapery of leaves. I looked closer. Even inside the space was mysterious, split by hanging bows into fairy rooms. The voices of spectators glimmered distantly through the intimate walls.

My dad found me, sitting in front of the city hall again on my bike, and we strolled into the many-voiced mass. It was dancing with a simmering zest. We found an empty space of grass and sat down on a blanket. The orchestra returned, and struck up a series of patriotic tunes. A small group of people near us were stirred by the music. When “Anchors Aweigh” sounded out several of them stood up, clapping, human erections swelling in pride. I mean that metaphor seriously. Isn’t there an erotic charge to collective demonstrations of transcendent loves, or hates, an excitement at being a hero among heroes? This fervor is not limited to men. One man among them had a brush cut, which I would not have noticed had he not stood clapping.

Dad lay back, his hands clasped behind his neck and the light fell further, leaving the band shell a garish glare over dark heads and flags. A medley of songs from “West Side Story” wafted out, and I hummed along. I could not stop what happened: my analytic eye faded. In its place, the eye of sensations, of sights overlapping with smells and past and present seeping into one another. Partly it was seeing the kids play, and remembering the sensuality of a languid summer night when everything dissolves sweetly into darkness. Every year at this concert, kids are fanatic about glowing light sticks. Girls and boys were alive to the magic of iridescent green or pink or blue. There were simple tubes that could be turned into a loop and whirled around a finger so fast the tube lost distinctness and blurred into one disc of light. Some kids had a safety-conscious version of the sparkler, pulsating with blue light, with long filaments animated by the light. Whipping them slowly through the air was a transfixing illusion, as if a silken sheet were being tossed about.

Where the players were all boys, a restless mania for individual distinction took over, a trickle down effect from their corporate dads, creativity becoming a tool for competitive triumph, Hey didja know it flips better with two fingers? Hey look at this, two fingers is so cool! Someday he will be in high finance, living in Greenwich and buying his kids these toys on the Fourth. The cannon boomed through the 1812 overture and the boy in the back of the band shell hammered at the bells and the noise and the thunderous music coming from the high schoolers in high passion welled up and burst out in clapping, and cheering, people standing, a crescendo of childish fantasy spilling over into the adults too, even me, even this grouchy anti-nationalist.

They played “Its a Grand Old Flag,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,” relics of mannered times and Victorian patriotic fervor, but in the night mood they were contemporary, real and alive, and people kept standing, drinking them in. “These songs could never be written today,” I said to dad as we walked out. “Too quaint. Not angry enough.” But maybe this anger explains peoples’ hunger for something so outdated, like every other hunger for gems from the past, even for the cliches, of picket fences and British royalty. A hunger for an innocent spirit untainted by the angry vengeance lain over our souls by the eleventh like a bill of debt.

When will this bill be considered paid? How many of the innocent will have to die before our masters are satisfied?

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