Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

In the land of the free...

You know it's time to head back to the city when the toddler stacks one of his drinking cups on top of the other and proclaims "Like a water tower!" Even so, it was a wrench to return from the land of swimming pools, woods, and back lawns, to the city of fire escapes, garbage trucks, water towers, and grimy humidity. Our week in the country was not quite as restful as planned, since Busytot managed to come down with what was either chickenpox or (pronounce this one carefully) coxsackie virus, rendering him contagious and covered in spots, although mercifully none of them on his coxsackie as such. He was diagnosed by the splendidly named Dr. Darling on our second day in Ithaca, and remained spotty, miserable, and as clingy as a barnacle until shortly before we left. Still, I can't think of a happier place for a child to be quarantined, what with a vast and peaceful back lawn at his disposal, complete with swing-set, and two willing henchdogs at his beck and call.

We arrived back in the city just in time to wish America a happy birthday against a soundtrack of shock-and-awe-inspiring crashes and booms. My sister ventured downtown to watch the legendary Macy's Fourth of July fireworks from the top of an apartment building with a fabulous view. I watched them on the telly and listened to them through the window. It was quite a disjunctive experience. Thousands of pounds of explosives thundered away outside like a virtual Baghdad, while on our minuscule television screen, deftly choreographed bursts of gorgeous stars (not so many stripes), flowers, butterflies, and the odd (very odd) smiley face lit up the sky over the East River. Deeply spooky were the smaller flares of white light that shot up into the sky, paused, then zipped up again further as a second stage rocket kicked in. It was a very clever pyrotechnic technique, but the uncanny wisps of light resembled several hundred little ghosts -- not the friendly Caspar kind, but unquiet revenants of September 11.

Most disturbing of all, though, was the official soundtrack for the show. It spliced the usual classical suspects together with a didactic narration, patriotic soundbites from famous Americans (JFK, MLK, RR – yes, Reagan) and some god-awful "music" that appeared to have been commissioned expressly for the event. "Behold! The light! Of Free-duhmmmmm!" trumpeted the chorus of one particularly nauseating piece of sub-Stryper tinsel-rock. Meanwhile the cameras panned the crowd, much of which looked underwhelmed by the lights of freedom, in particular one toddler who had had quite enough freedom for the evening, thank you (making me glad I hadn't braved the crowds with Busytot).

It was all a bit North Korean, albeit without the ribbon dances and marching soldiers and the starving populace (quite the opposite in this country). "All across the nation, dreams are coming true," warbled the jingoistic elevator music as everyone kept their eyes fixed firmly on the heavens and tried not to think about the record unemployment figures, the gloomy reports about the weather, and steadily increasing grumbles about the underpaid, overtaxed and underinformed soldiers under fire in Iraq (see for example this sympathetic account of the unhappy home front).

Instead, this was a night for hyperbole, not hypercriticism. "Welcome to the greatest birthday celebration in the world!" urged the female narrator, her mechanical voice taking on the hypnotically reassuring tone of the talking traffic lights in Bladerunner ("keep walking….keep walking"). You wouldn't have thought this had been a bit of a bad year for America, one of those years where you might choose to have a quiet night at home with a shop-bought cake, instead of going all out and inviting the whole neighbourhood. Or maybe that was the point: bread and circuses, whip up some apple pie, wave the synthetic flag that was probably made in China. Yeah, there's nothing like having a fuck-off big birthday party to let everyone know that things are A-OK, hunky-dory, just fine thank you ma'am, and the fact that elder statesman Nelson Mandela is not interested in meeting your president on his first African tour is of no consequence whatsoever...

Anyway, as the fireworks continued, a male voice read a snippet from a 1941 speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlining the four freedoms that make America great. For the record, they are:

  • freedom of speech (tragically and unforgivably wasted on lyrics like "Behold! The light! Of Free-duhmmmmm!")
  • freedom for each to "worship God in his own way" (good news for atheists)
  • freedom from want (tell that to the so-called "working poor", who will be delighted to know that the current administration is considering major changes to the laws covering the overtime pay that helps to keep them alive)
  • and freedom from fear anywhere in the world (no comment).

The whole thing wrapped up with a chorus of "The Star Spangled Banner" and of course "God Bless America", after which the television coverage cut to another of the various musical events sprinkled round the city to fill up a couple of hours of primetime. We'd had Sheryl Crow out front of the Public Library, and John Mellencamp on a barge somewhere. Now it was the turn of Beyoncé, shaking her impressively upholstered booty against the backdrop of, good lord, Grant's Tomb. It was a particularly surreal moment, as Grant's Tomb is literally around the corner from us. Thankfully, the performance was vastly superior to the official programme, musically speaking, although I thought I detected a whirring sound underneath the thumping bass. That was probably Ulysses S. Grant and his missus Julia spinning in their sarcophagi at the thought of saucy songstresses saluting the Fourth with scantily clad gusto atop an august presidential mausoleum.

Or not. One might imagine that Bill Clinton, for example, may well write in a clause not just permitting but requiring an annual booty-fest in the grounds of his memorial, when it comes to be built. Amazingly, it's six years since that well-known liberal and paragon of marital fidelity signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law, bravely protecting right-thinking heterosexuals and of course the omnipresent "American family" from the homosexual agenda. That would be the sinister agenda that goes "pick up groceries, drop off dry-cleaning, mow lawn, set up house with person I love, and expect that I might be able to visit them in the ER if I ever need to, file joint tax returns, and raise our children in peace, and a zillion other random freedoms taken for granted by everyone else." It's not (just) about the dress and the cake and the silverware: this article in the Village Voice notes that there are at least 1049 distinct advantages enjoyed by those who can legally marry.

In other words, "Behold! The light! Of Free-dummmm!" -- unless you’re gay, in which case behold the klieg-lights of the local cops blazing into your bedroom, so everyone else can allegedly sleep that much more soundly in the arms of a partner with the appropriately opposite genitalia. That's quite a public service on behalf of a whole lot of people who didn't ask for it. (Side note to conspiracy theorists and anagrammatists: the letters in "Defense of Marriage Act" can be rearranged to spell "I fear act of same-gender.") But wait! Here comes the Supreme Court to the rescue, ruling that it is (gasp) not illegal to touch the one you love (in a nice way) if you happen to both be of the same gender! Just in time for Gay Pride Week, and just as those notoriously nice Canadians to the north have decided that it would be dandy if anyone could marry someone they love. Thus proving that there is a god, and she's fabulous.

Predictably, arch-conservative Justice Scalia (who prefers his name be pronounced Scah-LEE-ah, rather than "scalier") hyperventilated himself into a tizzy about the aforementioned homosexual agenda, gasping that the court's ruling might allow -- or let in the back door, as it were -- all sorts of morale-sapping and un-American, precious-bodily-fluids-polluting tomfoolery in the nation's bedrooms (and on, in, and around the nation's shagpile carpet, kitchen tables, elevators paused between floors, etc). On Scalia's scandalized agenda of what will come tumbling out of the cupboard: bestiality, adultery, adult incest, prostitution (you're going straight to hell, New Zealand), obscenity (bugger!) and masturbation. He failed to specify which states currently ban self-pleasuring, but clearly being a wanker is not a felony in the federal district of Washington, D.C.

I particularly liked the New Yorker's take on the whole thing, which describes how those fearing the end of civilization are sneaking nervous glances northwards. Canadians are wedding in throngs, and it seems that more Americans are dashing north to freedom than at any time since the days of the Underground Railroad. Which reminds me, last week while we were up in Ithaca, we made a day-trip to the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, New York. The brave conductor of the Underground Railroad – the "Moses of her people" -- made dozens of journeys back and forth to bring slaves to freedom, stopping in at safe houses along the way. The museum to her memory is woefully underfunded, but tended and promoted with religious fervour as a tribute to a time in American history when it was illegal for a huge chunk of the population to be free. I'd happily throw a birthday party to celebrate the ballsy subversiveness of the hundreds of citizens, white or black, who built hidey-holes into their homes and donated money and food and clothes to people they'd never met before and might never see again. If only more of that history made it into the official Fourth of July razzle-dazzle, I might enjoy the fireworks a bit more.


By the way, if you are trying to get a handle on the USA at this timely point in the year, you must see the film Spellbound. It follows eight children from vastly different backgrounds as they prepare for the national Spelling Bee, and manages to be knuckle-gnawingly riveting from start to finish. It's impossible not to be engaged by the film, whether you're snorting in disbelief at the alternate guilelessness and ruthlessness of the families, cringing on behalf of the disarmingly geeky kids at the centre of it all, or almost barfing from tension as the competition nears its fateful end. It's a truly American story in every possible sense, and can be read as either an endorsement or an indictment of everything that makes this country what, for better or worse, it is. And best of all, it sneaks up on you, unlike the film that beat it for the Oscar, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Where Moore spells things out, first-time director Jeffrey Blitz leaves the spelling to the kids and leaves the rest up to you. Unmissable.