The United States is a big place, and I am often reminded of this on 4 July, when communities across the country explode in a fever of nationalism and everything turns red, white, and blue overnight. You can find out a lot about what this country means to other people on 4 July, and sometimes it seems like a very alienating holiday for me, even as it is also a reminder that this is my home. This is my place. These are my people. This is what we do.
If you think that US culture is a monolith, 4 July might do a lot to dispel that, if you dig beneath the surface and really see what communities do, and don’t do, by way of celebration. In this very white, very liberal corner of Northern California with an aging population of people who consider themselves counterculture iconoclasts and bohemians, the annual 4 July parade in Mendocino has been a tradition for 35 years. We use it, sometimes, as a litmus test for new people; if you can make it through the parade, if you can get it, then you’ll probably be all right. When the new arrivals wrinkle their noses or spend the parade in a state of confusion, we know they’re probably not for us, and this place is probably not for them.
It is your opportunity to see people you will not see again for a year, everyone stinking of sunscreen, some people wearing brimmed hats while others give up and let their scalps roast crispy red over the course of the day. Teeming crowds mill around in the streets, punctuated with an occasional shriek of recognition while soap bubbles and marijuana smoke drift overhead and firefighters teetering on bicycles try valiantly to maintain some sense of order. Periodically they push along the crowded streets and order us back against the buildings, reminding us to stay out of the road while they turn their heads the other way and pretend they don’t see us drinking straight from the bottle, bold as brass. There is a temporary suspension of The Rules in the interest of preventing mass chaos.
We have all the things you could expect from a parade, the array of fire trucks and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the local radio personalities waving genially from the back of a convertible. The bands on floats dripping with streamers and people tossing candy into the crowd and local businesses with odd, woeful contributions sandwiched between bands and the Democratic Club. But we also have political commentary and half-naked women draped in seaweed and medical marijuana cooperatives and random livestock and a few floats that make absolutely no sense at all, but everyone cheers anyway. Hey, it’s sunny, the Fire Department is pouring beer and grilling chicken and selling five dollar burgers, and maybe for a day it seems like this place just might turn out all right if we work together on this.
The parade stops and starts, with gaps so long that everyone turns to everyone else to ask ‘is that over? Was that the parade? It was short this year’ and then the sound of tinkling, badly amplified music stretches around the corner and everyone settles down for the next round of floats, and the next, until eventually the parade really does end, and you know because there’s a small white fire department vehicle struggling valiantly up the hill, followed by a sea of people shoving their way to Friendship Park for more food and more beer and more music. They will gyrate in the heat until they collapse onto picnic blankets, dripping with sweat, while small children dart around and the student exchange program sells sushi out of a tent.
There is so much broken in this country right now, so much wrongness, so much entangled with a national identity that feels increasingly heavy to wear as a global citizen. The world looks to us today as it does every day, because it is forced to, because we occupy so much of the collective consciousness, and I wonder what it sees. People lining the streets of so many towns and cities large and small to wave flags and drink beer, some of them not entirely sure what we are celebrating; who we’re independent from and why. Rodeo queens and small town mayors and everything between. Thoughtless nationalism or critical patriotism?
Here’s a selection of images from Mendocino’s parade; there are many more at my Flickr. This is my place. These are my people. This is what we do.