I can’t remember the last time I was perfectly happy on the Fourth of July – it was probably back in the days when I would reach for the Sunday paper and open straight to the comics.
I’m not that much of a curmudgeon. It’s not some fear of lights and loud noises. It’s not that I have submerged anti-American sentiments: I’m fairly vocal about the things I dislike in this country, but put me in front of a World Cup match and I’ll go hoarse shouting for America’s Capitalist-Imperialist Domination in an essentially foreign sport. And while I do think that Lance Diamond should retire, it’s not like his performances at Buffalo’s Canalside throw me into a funk. (First of all, that poor man doesn’t have any funk left.)
But it might have something to do with the fact that while watching the fireworks with family and friends, a cop could come up and give me a ticket for an open container violation.
I see it at Christmas too: any time that we gather to celebrate what we have, we feel acutely all that we’ve recently lost – or what we’re reminded was never ours in the first place. So on the Fourth of July, when every radio station, billboard, car dealership mega-sale, hot dog bun, and pair of star-spangled pants screams Democracy and Freedom, I can’t help but think about how far we are from all our ideals. So I find myself blue – not so much red or white. It’s just a Fourth of July thing.
I won’t dwell on this – Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom says it all so well (clip below) – but it’s worth mentioning that our two-party system represses creative solutions and creative candidates; that only two states in our union have instituted proportional allotment of presidential delegates; that our political dialogue is for the most part either shrill and misguided or jaded and impotent; that government on the federal, state, and local levels is government of self-perpetuating and self-justifying bloat; that our bureaucracy strives against the threat of meritocracy; that our universities are filled with students who cannot articulate themselves in writing or in conversation and who furthermore cannot think critically; that populists on both the right and left continue to push extremist or ill-advised moral legislation, in imitation of the Puritans, their intellectual forebears; and that (most dangerous of all) we no longer have a consensus on the definition of personal liberties – we don’t even know how to talk about it.
So, ‘Merica, eh?
This Fourth of July I spent with my family at Canalside – and around 7 p.m., with the sun still high, kites flying, and happy kids all around me, I felt my Independence Day Blues. “Blues” perhaps suggests something that this feeling is not – beause I’m not talking about a nice rich melancholy, something you can luxuriate in, and enjoy. This is closer to a combination of having your parents deeply disappoint you and being ostracized at a ten year old’s birthday party.
Driven away by the aforementioned relic of Buffalo’s chintzy disco past, however, we left the decks and found a cooler, quieter berth just past the naval park. This soon filled up, too, though – and somehow, my Blues started to fade. It might have been the water, which always has a calming effect – or it might have been my Peanut Delight sundae from the Hatch.
Russell Salvatore was behind the fireworks at the Harbor this year, just like the old days in Delaware Park. And once they started, I was struck by a strange heart-feeling not exactly patriotic but still somehow American. There were Pakistani women standing and talking behind us, sometimes resting their hands on our chairs; their children chattered and bumped into our backs. A veteran sold CDs of Mozart and the Beastie Boys. A white man yelled at a black man for standing during the entire show to take photographs. They eventually calmed down.
Rather like Salvatore’s eponymous restaurant, perhaps more thought should have been put into the flow, the dynamics and progression, the parts as they related to the whole; but again, as with the restaurant, one couldn’t be anything but struck by the verve and the expense and the joy. My favorite, the weeping willows, were abundant, and I particularly enjoyed a new variety that seemed to drip sparkling red plastic fire. Of course the finale was top notch, big and loud and bright, a cannonade of flashbombs and a white gold rain, all mirrored in expressionist blossoms on the harbor’s stained glass surface. I felt then and still feel that there is no other way to enjoy Fourth of July fireworks than in a crowded place, over water, with foreign voices all around.
I wondered then: do our soldiers overseas put on displays as large as these? A quick search suggests turns up nothing. In fact, this article from June of 2013 reports that stateside military celebrations went without fireworks that year, victim to government furloughs. As the would-be caliphate ISIS howls at the gates of Baghdad, poised to undo a decade of ware and nation-building and the gains of the so-called Arab Spring, I wonder where our billions went – I wonder if they might have been better spent.
What if Russell Salvatore paid for their fireworks? What if we took a billion dollars – just one billion – and spent it all on these bombs without targets? What if we put on a half-hour light and noise show for all our enemies? Lit up the skies from Beirut to Kashmir in red and gold and neon green and sapphire? They wouldn’t thrown down their weapons just then. But their children would see, and remember.
So this is what I thought about, as my Independence Day Blues slowly gave way under the barrage of Salvatore’s bright bombs, mulling all the ways this country fails to live up to our most cherished buzzwords, all the ways we could be better. Maybe it was the old patriotism stirring in me. A Fourth of July thing.