Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flag day

The other day we had an interesting talk with John and Anna -- who seem to have acquired a lot of wisdom lately, like some collateral grace of new parenthood -- and they remarked that in order to live happily in this city, you have to really love other people. Not just the people who are easy to love, like your friends and relatives, but other, crazier people: unruly youths, drunken professionals, midnight dogwalkers who blather on about Mets tickets while their dog barks wildly, just outside your window.

I thought about this observation yesterday, when I spent the whole day battling crowds to find my own little piece of quiet. I got up early to do a 10K in Central Park. As soon as the race began, the rain did too. Small, occasional droplets gave way to a pelting, determined rain, drenching everyone and making my shirt slap against my skin. All the water in my shoes bogged down in my toes, adding a degree of suction to each step. I thought about just pulling off or seeking refuge at a friend's near the Park -- I mean, why bother. Ultimately the rain stopped after three miles, but the misery endured. I finished the race somewhat respectably, although I felt like I was passed by successive waves of people as I kept on my dogged old pace. It felt like a new cloud of people would overcome me every few minutes, and I would be dodging people coming up on either side -- was I really going that slowly? After the race people milled around, wet and relieved. As I walked back to the train I watched other people approach the finish line -- older people, heavier people who were trying so hard and doing so well. I felt proud of them. Three spectactors eruped in joyous screams as their friend ran past and I couldn't help but smile. So encouraging.

All I really wanted was to go home and take a nap and read my awesome new book, Nixonland, a big fat history of the 1960s. I felt so exhausted and wet and beaten. But Saturday was the day of our annual neighborhood fair: streets lined with tents and kiosks selling all kinds of jewelry, art, artisanal soaps, and ironic t-shirts, all of it seemingly designed for cynical college girls; hundreds of people milling about directly in front of our building, sitting at folding tables and dancing to the succession of bands on the main stage, blasting music towards our home; a magnificent 30-foot American flag fluttering between the buildings; a fat trailer of Bud parked by our front door. They had some jazz sets, a few warbly olden-time lady singers, and some funk bands, all of them relentlessly hammering their music through our windows. I tried to read and couldn't concentrate. I tried to nap but couldn't fall asleep through their public announcements about throwing away garbage and locating temporarily missing children. We watched TV at top volume but it was useless. The constant hum of the crowd was not a problem, but the music was just so damn aggravating. At L's suggestion, we took a walk and made our way to Abingdon Square. "I just wanted to take a nap and read my book," I kept repeating. I was so tired from the run and general sleep deprivation. "I am being literally tortured," I said, even though this was not true.

That night we escaped the bands and the crowds and the beer smell around our house to go celebrate Ashesh's birthday. On our way back we encountered one of our wacky neighbors as the festival wound down; the stage was already gone, the people had dispersed and only a few empty cups lined our front steps. "Were you here for the dancing in the streets?" she asked us. She seemed happy and drunk. We explained that we had been at a birthday dinner and had unfortunately missed it. "Well, where else can you dance in the streets?" she said lightly. "Nowhere but here, not with all these bloody-hell regulations...We can only do it because we were grandfathered it. Now did you see the firemen putting up the flag today? It took them two hours! I don't know how they did it. We used to leave the flag up 'til Flag Day, or at least the Fourth of July, but this one is so big it has to go down tomorrow. It's a real shame."

We commiserated over the flag, which waved lightly over the street from a rope strung between buildings. It was so bold and brash; even in the dark the bright swathes of color were beautiful. Over the emptying street it felt like community, like country. After a few minutes we headed inside and finally fell into a long-awaited deep and grateful sleep.

And sure enough, by mid-day today the flag was gone.

No comments: