As winter cold yields to warmer weeks, America becomes obsessively patriotic beginning with Memorial Day and peaking with July 4. Between them, Flag Week surrounds Flag Day on June 14, also Donald Trump’s birthday. He presidentially acknowledged the two flag holidays, but purposely ignored Stonewall and Pride celebrations.
Define a patriot at your peril. In today’s whacky, knee-jerk America, I’d be at odds with millions of patriots, each of us screaming “Traitor!” Still, there’s no place like home, and that Judy Garland cue may be the rare riff that can still unify America.
My partner Neil and I recently travelled to Washington, D.C. and New York City, two metropolitan jackpots of patriotic symbols. We landed at Reagan National Airport, named for the president who ignored the AIDS crisis we laid at his feet—78 million infected, 35 million dead.
We learned recently that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop. No doubt the baker felt it was his patriotic duty to refuse baking a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds.
NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is a neighbor of our hosts, dear friends Sally and Wayne. Over beers on their porch, in a diverse neighborhood, we talked politics. Invented accusations of “fake news”—a charge attacking the core of reporters’ integrity—has taken its toll. He and his colleagues suffer from battle fatigue.
“All we’re doing,” he said, “is reporting what actually happens.”
We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant, its rainbow flag reminded us the city was ramping up for Capital Pride Festival. Half of a same-sex couple held a newborn baby of color. A table of six gay revelers raucously entertained each other. According to Sally, our gorgeous waiter with an Italian accent and long eyelashes that would melt mozzarella could barely speak English six years ago.
Walking in D.C. you can smell the power and wealth of America, the irony on display as a homeless veteran begged near the Department of Treasury.
Approaching the Lincoln Memorial with trepidation, I wondered if the gorilla-like Lincoln from Planet of the Apes would greet me. When the words “Trump” and “Nobel Peace Prize” can be written in the same sentence, you know you’re living in Bizarro World. Simian features were absent; Lincoln’s weary, reverent gaze bowed toward the mass of tourists.
The Vietnam Memorial reminded me of a buddy I met in New York in the eighties, a vet who would wake me sobbing from nightmares. Sandblasted photos at the Korean War memorial looked like ghosts in granite. The World War II memorial was quiet, respectful, contemplative.
Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue is a pedestrian mall now. Passing the White House, I hailed our Commander in Chief with a double-handed, single-fingered salute.
At the Smithsonian, we saw the chairs Archie and Edith Bunker occupied in All in the Family. Imagine a reboot of that series. Archie would make Roseanne look like a Bernie bro.
The National Portrait Gallery displays a painting of each president with a short history of their tenure, scandal, and ineptitude staining each. Andrew Jackson stands change to: full-length with a flowing, red-lined cape like Superman. This president is no hero to history. Jackson sponsored the forced relocation of Native American peoples, death marches known as the Trail of Tears. Trump has often expressed his admiration for Jackson. He emulates his hero by committing his own crime of forced relocation: the separation of families, someday to be known as Kids in Cages.
Stanchions marked lines of tourists taking photos in front of President Obama’s portrait like a stained glass window in day-glow colors. His hands are enormous.
Travelling by train to New York City, we exited Penn Station, and a kindly but insistent woman offered me peace for two bucks, a fitting one-woman welcome wagon in the world’s capital of capitalism. I flashed back to an American idiom etched by the pool of the Korean Memorial: Freedom isn’t free. Apparently, neither is peace.
We wheeled our luggage by the Empire State Building—at night lit in red, white, and blue—the soaring symbol of America’s can-do attitude during the Great Depression. On the corner of Fifth Avenue, a young man lay blissed out on heroin (or dead—it was hard to tell), a sad symbol of America’s won’t-do attitude toward those living through homelessness and addiciton. A souvenir shop displayed a black crewneck with “NEW YORK FUCKIN’ T-SHIRT” emblazoned on it. Some cosmic triangle seemed complete.
We watched the Tony Awards with Robert De Niro’s silent standing ovation, learning why later. He had exploded f-bombs followed by the president’s name, twice. Maybe he felt it his patriotic duty.
If you want to climb the Statue of Liberty, make reservations six months in advance. Pictures don’t do Torch Girl justice. On her island, oblivious to the Mother of Exiles, a southern mama wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt told her two teenage daughters they needed more makeup. They dutifully obliged. In the gift shop, Made in China stickers stuck to tens of thousands of objects. I checked a few and jumped to that conclusion—with the exception of a tiny area of souvenirs labeled Made in America.
Everywhere we visited, English was the minority language and diverse faces surrounded us by the thousands. What’s exciting is how the symbols of American freedom resonate with millions of the world’s citizens, patriots regardless of their country of origin. But for how much longer?
Do I wish to sit around a gargantuan campfire with all of my fellow American patriots and sing Kumbaya? Not really; I hate camping. I may disagree with many of them, but in the end, there’s no place like America.