America on the Fourth of July

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Photo: JH.

The Fourth of July is one of those holidays that got away from us. It was a celebration of our confirmed independence from England and the European way. We were now Americans. When I was a kid — in first, second, third, fourth grades, we got a good dose of that dose of independence and the heroic Founding Fathers.

We were brought up with a sense of the Goodness of these Founders. George Washington, the man who “could not tell a lie.” All children were brought up with the iconic story of American integrity.  I’m not making this up.  It’s not a bad idea to present those (potential if even occasional) virtues and behavior. As long as we bear in mind the complexity of the human mind.

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

By the time I was an adult, and we’d been in the Second World War, the Korean War and then in the Vietnam War, the business of American independence had become encumbered by a lot of others businesses — foreign and domestic — and discoveries, namely techno.

The most memorable Fourth of July in my adult life was 1976, the year of the U.S. Bicentennial. Our “awareness” of ourselves was on the upswing. The War in Vietnam was over and we were living in the land of prosperity. I invited a group of friends to dinner to celebrate that night and after the desserts, still at table each of us talked about this country, his and her country; our country, our feelings, our “illusions.” There was a sense of stability in the air that July night in perfect fair weather. 47 years later, that sense of stability has been challenged divisively.

When I was a boy growing up in New England, the Fourth of July was a great holiday for flags and picnics of hotdogs, hamburgers, soda (which could be rare in many households — except for special occasions), fireworks, flags and celebrations. In metropolitan life in the early 21st century, it is less apparent, and you could even miss it if you wanted. Here and now it’s still a time for some peaceful hours, some reflection, some consideration about what the Founders had in mind when chose the Day and the Occasion for us. Lest we forget …

Summer in the City. Quite a few years ago, after we’d started the NYSD, I got into the habit of staying in town on summer weekends, just to take a break. In the last two summers, I never crossed a bridge but dwelt entirely in Manhattan.

I live in a perfect neighborhood for someone who wants to get away and stay home at the same time. It’s basically a “quiet” neighborhood for Manhattan because the Avenue is not a through street.

On the Upper West Side: Overlooking the Hudson River. 8:00 PM.

After dark, traffic slows to almost nothing. Out of the silence expressed in the soft and distant whirr of the city, you hear dogs, you hear children’s voices, you hear young people later at night, friends from the neighborhood meeting. You see people chatting on the sidewalks, on the corners, meeting departing. And then it’s quiet again. It has a smalltown-ness to it that is a relief.

On holiday weekends in the daytime lots of young families pass by on their way to the playgrounds in Carl Schurz. I have a terrace which I like not so much for its use but its accessibility. It’s my own private outdoors in the middle of the metropolis, my little garnish of LA living.

The view from my terrace.

I like flowers and plants but my horticultural choices are dull; I know how little time I’m going to give it. Except the looking time. I just like to, every now and then, go stand in the doorway and look at the plants, trying to see if I can watch them grow.

The green leaves are beautiful. These are sweet potato plants and they are very popular in the city. They grow into soft and graceful vines that transform my sixty year old weatherbeaten terrace into a lovely little garden. At the end of the season, when it’s over I will pull four or five large sweet potatoes from the dirt.

About six-thirty I went down to the Promenade to watch the boats. I love this. I like to imagine how wonderful it is to be aboard, because I know it is. I chose that hour in the day because it is when many are returning to their berths and moorings after a day out on the water.

You can see the most amazing boats and ships in this channel, from tugboats to oil tankers to mega yachts to jet skis.

I stationed myself in one spot against the railing, across the Promenade from 10 Gracie Square with the intention of recording it with images.

My idea of the-answer-to-my-dreams luxury is a yacht, and down by the river I’m always on the lookout. This Sunday afternoon, however, I had a brief disappointment, just from looking north and south, that I wasn’t going to see anything to knock my socks off. It doesn’t matter; it’s Father Neptune’s passing parade no matter what, and it’s all interesting under the circumstances. What you see is the pure pleasure of being out there, no matter the transport.

Although the tugboats always remind me of that scene in Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate” where the mobster’s legs are being planted in a tub of cement preparing him for his last swim. It was in this same river.

It was a beautiful evening, with the sunset on the other side of town, You can see by people on the various boats that the air is warm, although not humid. The Promenade itself had lots of people out for a stroll or a bike ride or walking the dogs or the babies. The whole family is present in one place or another. And, of course, lots of beautiful, loving dawgs. There are moments that are ideals. This was one of them.

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