Flying Over the Fourth: A Lesson in American Community

When I got up on the morning of the Fourth of July this year, I was in Ely, Minnesota.

I might as well have been in another country, if you compare it to my home in Beverly Hills, California.

Except for the language, the flags, and the fact that my Sprint coverage is crappy in both places, I could well have been in another nation.

Canada, or some even more polite and friendly version of Canada. Where people you don’t know wave at you on the lake and invariably wish you good luck catching a few fish.

You know you’ll get all the help you need if your car breaks down, your boat springs a leak, or you’re stuck for what the best brand of cheese curd there is to buy at the local market.

(If that sounds like a glib diss of a dairyland staple, it’s not. I love cheese curds. Years on the Left Coast notwithstanding.)

We loaded up the rental, gave the forest and the lake a wistful last look, and headed home.

On the main drag of Ely, at 8:00 A.M., folks were already claiming their spots at the curb for the town parade. Folding chairs and tables, tents, a lemonade stand where little girls were already stirring up the day’s inventory, cars and trucks bedecked with bunting.

It was the same in the next town over, and the one after that. In most of the towns we passed as we drove toward Minneapolis.

I could have been easily convinced to stop the car anywhere along the way, plop down a chair of my own, and not budge till dinnertime, flight time be damned, just to share the joy and commonality all those folks felt for at least one day.

I could have sat there and waved my little flag and joined in without an ounce of concern for the the differences in opinion or politics I might have with the person next to me. I wouldn’t care, for a few hours, about his or her opinions on abortion rights or gay marriage or Obamacare.

But. As we passed through those little towns, it occurred to me that this sense of community might come from a position of privilege.

It’s a lot easier when you’re a white male, for whom the flag has represented a guarantee of a status quo that enables me to be blase about our differences. Another person wouldn’t have that luxury. Not when their America seems to run mostly uphill.

Ferguson and Baltimore and other object lessons of late have shown how far we have to go to create honest and real equality. To level the playing field for everyone.

Maybe, we’re tempted to think, we’re better off drawing a shroud on the American Dream. Maybe it’s past its sell-by date. Maybe we should do a better job of getting our shit together as neighbors and communities and as a nation before we make hollow promises.

That’s a thought that can flip you into a somber cynicism about the Fourth. That’s what it did to me.

We got to the airport, boarded the plane and flew home, into West Coast twilight.

If you’ve never seen a Fourth of July from an L.A. rooftop, from an L.A. hillside, you should. There aren’t the tall buildings to block your view. There’s an undulance to the landscape that lifts whole faraway neighborhoods into view. And there are fireworks everywhere.

This time, though, gliding in over the mountains, it was spectacular.

There’s a pretty amazing video below that gives a taste of it, but it’s not even close to what we saw. In every eyeblink, there were thousands of starry bursts, from every neighborhood, park, block and (seemingly) backyard in the city, from East L.A. to Santa Monica, from the O.C. on up into the Valley.

So many of them, a layer of smoke formed over the entire city that glowed red and gold and green as we descended through it.

It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, anywhere. Everyone in Los Angeles seemed like they were part of this celebration.

As I watched, a couple reasons for this ran through my head:

That people like to shoot off fireworks. That you’re supposed to do that on the Fourth of July.

But another thought hit me: that they might actually feel they’ve got something to celebrate.

It might not be the actuality of their lives. Or maybe it is, if you’ve come from other places where a backyard, or any roof over your head, were a tenuous hope. Where an exploding rocket happens in a different context.

There’s your America for you: the land of hopes and dreams, and when you let that sink in, when you realize there are millions of people who, without cynicism, stillembrace their possibilities here, whether it’s a blue-collar guy on a streetside in Minnesota or an Ethiopian mother working a family bodega in West L.A., you understand the unifying power of that dream.

It’s a dream that works for people everywhere. That’s why they’re here. It’s why my grandparents stepped off their respective boats in New York harbor.

You can get dour and pessimistic about what America has left to offer if you pay too much heed to the people who want to enforce divisions. Who say the American dream is somehow bound to their definitions, to their inclusions and exclusions.

But the community they’re trying to repress can’t be held down by gated enclaves, biased electoral laws, by the incessant cant of us-versus-them.

It’s a community that truly lives in too many souls, I freely and sentimentally admit. In aspiration, in the potential of dreams that spiral up from a million places, like the fireworks that painted the sky that night.

It’s the community we owe it to ourselves, to our predecessors and the generations who aren’t here yet, to preserve and make better for everybody.

So everybody gets their own glittering shot at the stars.

Look! Look at that one!

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