A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 


Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 



The Greatest American Hero

3cc7b7ce27e9afd3a92df0889df83d9fThere was a time not that long ago when stories about America were stories of discovery, of  exploration, of destiny. There was a time when stories about America were of the land: the rich, fertile soil of the Great Plains, the snow-capped peaks of mountain ranges in the west, the sun-kissed steel of skyscraper girders rising in the East. There was a time when stories about America were filled with characters who tilled and toiled, not just the land, but the ideals that grew alongside those amber waves of grain. There was a time when stories about America were filled with great American heroes: heroes who nurtured those ideals, who watched over them, let them lay fallow when they needed time to replenish, recognized when they were ripe for harvesting.

What stories do we tell now?

Yesterday the story was of a high school near Portland, Oregon. A few days before the story was of a Wal-Mart in Las Vegas. Two weeks ago the story was about a university in Santa Barbara. The stories are of shopping malls, of office buildings, of schools. The stories are of the dead, of the injured, of the scarred. The stories are of communities devastated, yet divided. The stories have the same refrain: it is inevitable, it is the norm, it is the new way of life.

We, the people. We, Americans. We have been duped. We have been lulled and shushed and lied to. We have been bamboozled into believing in the impenetrability of a long ago written sentence. By forgoing all else in order to perpetuate that sentence, we have been systematically and quietly tricked into surrendering the keystone of the American Dream. We have been swindled into giving up hope.

Blame who you like. The gun lobby, the NRA, the Christian right, the Tea Party. Blame homosexuals, or Muslims or aliens. The time is long past for blame. When schools are being shot up on a regular basis, it is too late for blame. The truth is, no lobby, no association, no one fraction of a political party or percentage of religious group is that strong. We have been made to think they are. We have been made to think there is nothing to be done, no compromise to be reached. We have been made to give up hope, accept things as they are, adjust to the new status quo. We have stopped seeking a solution because it is too hard, too improbable, too impossible. But the truth is, there is nothing strong enough to stand up to the sound of 365 million voices. But only if they want to be heard.

We are a country at war. Not with another country, not even with each other. We are not at war with terrorists or drugs or the economy. We are not at war over a health care system or gay rights or a welfare state. We are at war with our own ideals; our ideals of a bucolic American life where it is possible for each and every citizen to achieve the American Dream if only they work hard enough.We have been tricked into protecting that ideal at any cost, even if that cost is the lives of our children, our fathers, our mothers, our teachers. We have been led astray, told that those ideals are worth dying for, worth watching our children die for.

They are wrong.

If school children in a country across the globe were being routinely slaughtered, if the citizens of that country looked on in helplessness and said “it is inevitable”, we would demand action. Yet it is happening on our doorstep, time and time again. In our schools, in our shops, in our places of business, on our streets and in our homes.

Guns don’t kill people. It’s not guns that are the problem, it’s mental illness. The only way to protect yourself from gun violence is to arm yourself with a gun. Arm your teacher, arm your principal. Arm your guards. Bullet proof blankets for school children. And yet we do not see ourselves as a country at war?

This is not a way of life to be protected. This is a way of death: death of a dream, of that great ideal. It is the death of hope.

Every man, woman and child needs to stand up and shout. Every mother and father and teacher and social worker needs to stand up and shout. Every, single citizen who believes that this lie, this lie that we need to sacrifice our citizens to an outdated and misconstrued ideal must stand up and shout.

We can sleep at night because it won’t happen to us. It won’t happen in our town, in our school, in our shopping mall or church or mosque. Perhaps they thought that in Oregon a few days ago, or in Sandy Hook eighteen months ago. Do not be placated, patted on the head and sent to bed. Stand up. Scream. Shout. Demand a change.

Gun control, gun regulations, the banning of assault weapons is not the magic answer. But it is a start. It is a tourniquet to staunch the flow of blood until you find and fix the wound.

The time has come for stories about America to once again be about dreams, about destiny, about hope. The time has come for a Great American heroes. You do not need a cape to be a hero, or a letter on your chest. You only need to make sure you are loud enough to be are heard. The greatest American hero is you.

And you.

And you.

But only if you stand up for what is right.