I’m working really hard on saying “Independence Day” without smirking. To me, it’s not a holiday; it’s the name of a movie that started the whole cynical tradition of opening big, dumb, “Oooooh, explosions!” gazillion-dollar summer blockbusters. (Okay, so “Independence Day” is the first action flick to feature Judd Hirsch and the word “schlemiel,” so it’s probably good for the Jews, but it’s still bad for art.) More important, the phrase “Independence Day” carries baggage. “The Fourth of July” just says where and when; there’s no value judgment. (Kinda like the 17th of Tammuz, my other fave summer holiday.) I believe that people who say “Independence Day” all vote Republican, believe that questioning our government shows a lack of patriotism and bounce basketballs off their sons’ heads like The Great Santini.
I used to hate the commercialism of all those Star-Spangled Banners on shirts, plates and tablecloths. As a geeky well-read child, I knew that one is actually not supposed to wear the flag on clothing, because it’s disrespectful. And I hated the commotion of the Fourth. I grew up in Rhode Island, which claims to feature the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration in the country (so does Indiana, but hey). At the Bristol Independence Day Parade, the line down the middle of the street is painted red, white and blue. I loved the vintage fire engines and the tiny JonBenet Ramsey-like beauty queens, but I hated the masses of jostling, sweaty bodies, the drunkenness, the fat, shirtless guys chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I always fear such behavior is going to culminate in a gay bashing or perhaps the beating of a dark-skinned guy who owns a 7-Eleven.
It’s just not my favorite holiday. I’ve spent it on the Mall in Washington, where the crush was terrifying and the traffic exhausting. I’ve done San Francisco, where every year people get excited about the fireworks, and every year the fog rolls in. (My friend Daryl-Lynn refers to the pyrotechnics display as “pink fog, green fog.”) I’ve done Milwaukee, where the annual Summerfest offers horrific and deafening country-western music, a sea of baseball hats with attached beer holders and hoses, and more mullets than a Florida tidal pool.
But now I live in New York. And it’s after September 11. And we have a baby. All these things make it somewhat harder to be detached and ironic about this holiday. I spent most of last year rocketing between ambivalence about my national government and pride in being a New Yorker. The Hells Angels, whose clubhouse is across from my apartment, hung a giant flag over the street. About 15 feet tall, it was suspended on a rope that stretched from our building to theirs. Trucks often whacked into the bottom as they passed. (I knew this also counted as desecrating the flag, but I decided not to bring it up with the Angels.) Periodically a truck or the wind would toss the flag above the rope, where it would get tangled around itself. Ladder No. 9, from our local firehouse on Great Jones Street, would sometimes come by. The firefighters would raise the ladder and unfurl the flag, and everyone watching from tenement windows and stoops and sidewalks would clap.
I’m not sure why fire trucks are such an integral part of Independence Day celebrations, but they are. And my daughter, like many toddlers, is thrilled. After she saw the firefighters douse a recent blaze across from Tompkins Square Park, she suddenly had a new religion: Firetruckism. One day we were walking past the Great Jones firehouse. The doors were open. I pointed inside. “Look, Jojo! Two fire engines!” Just then, a woman in blue shirtsleeves came out and introduced herself as Anna. When I told Josie that “Anna is a woman firefighter!” Josie just looked at me uncomprehendingly. She clearly had no idea what the word “firefighter” meant. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt terrible for my past sins with gender-biased language. (“Sesame Street” was right! From now on, I promise I’m saying “firefighter” instead of “fireman” and “mail carrier” instead of “mailman.”) I tried again, saying, “Anna is a ‘lady fireman’!” Josie’s face lit up.
Anna invited us in and demonstrated how she jumped into her boots and pants, which were puddled on the floor. She let Josie ring the bell on the front of Engine No. 33 and sat her in the front seat. She showed us how the hoses were folded. She turned on the flashing lights of Ladder No. 9. Josie kept gasping, “’Mazing! ’Mazing!” Other firefighters came by and smiled at Josie. “She’s how old?” “She’s so smart!” Anna told Josie that girls can grow up to be whatever they want, including firefighters. I kept trying not to cry, thinking about this company’s sacrifices and losses (10 of its 40 firefighters died on September 11, 2001), and how they were still taking the time to be nice to a little girl. And I was indeed proud to live in a country where Josie could be a lady fireman. (Though because I’m a Jewish mother, I still hope she’ll become an astrophysicist.)
This Fourth of July, we’ll do what we did last year. We’ll have a barbecue for lots of friends and their kids. I hope someone makes a flag cake with strawberry and cream stripes and blueberry stars. Here in New York, flag imagery seems more sweet and inclusive than it does in the rest of the world. Here, flags still seem to say, “I love the freedoms of my country,” not “My country can beat up your country.” When it’s time for the fireworks, some of us will watch the babies (many of whom will probably be wearing red-white-and-blue outfits, because even unpatriotic cynics who’d never dream of wearing those colors themselves often find that babies look really adorable in them) while others go up to the roof and look past the giant Hells Angels flag (and past the Angels, some of whom spent last Independence Day atmospherically hurling bottles and broken furniture off their roof) to watch the fireworks explode over the East River.
I do love fireworks. But I have to feel safe to enjoy them. On my roof, surrounded by friends and by other rooftops with other East Villagers looking skyward, I feel at home. I like being around fellow freaks. And that makes me feel secure enough to admit to all the things I love about America: I love our Bill of Rights, our tripartite system of government, ice cream, John Hughes movies, “Hairspray,” the public library and free concerts in the parks. I love my city, and I love my firefighters.
I do take issue with my country’s current government. That prevents my patriotism from coming to full flower. As a parent, I don’t want to infantilize my child the way George Bush infantilizes the American people. (“There are weapons of mass destruction and an immediate threat because I said so, that’s why!”) I don’t want to bend truth to my will the way the current administration seems to. But you know what? He’s one guy. The system will survive him. The firefighters will still be there. And I’m still happy to be an American.