The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday, because even more than Christmas—despite its four weeks of Advent and the presents slowly gathering under the tree and the immediate family opening theirs on the 23rd and the four-hour drive to Ellsworth, Kansas, on the 24th, and dinner and more presents and midnight mass that evening at one grandparents’ house and Santa gifts and more presents the next morning at the other grandparents’ house, which was more about envelopes with crisp $20 bills fresh from the bank with the serial numbers still in order so the five of us could match them up than about the opening of gifts per se, followed by a trip to Great Bend, Kansas, for more food and sitting around the fireplace in the basement until we thought we would catch fire before being put back in the car back to Ellsworth, where we would sleep before the morning-after gluttony hangover of quiet, satiated remorse—it was about the Big Wait.
Until I was 11 or so, dad would buy a family pack of fireworks at the Boy Scout stand on the Belt Highway, just across the street from where we first lived in St. Joseph and from where the house Jesse James had been shot in stood as a tourist attraction. For days the plastic-wrapped, red-white-and-blue box from the fireworks stand would sit on the kitchen counter, and we would stare at the explosives inside, wrapped like colored candy. We lived for the words “DANGER-FLAMMABLE-DO NOT USE NEAR FACE” and all those exotic Chinese characters. Meanwhile, as we drooled over our family friendly fireworks, the Cawley boys and the Scott boys and the Webb boys had the fireworks we really wanted—the firecrackers and bottle rockets they would carelessly lob at each other, the cherry bombs that would trail red smoke as they found their way into the gutter in front of our house, and of course the legendary, elusive M-80, rumored to be essentially a quarter stick of dynamite that would take your fingers off if it exploded in your hand.
The morning of the 4th we would finally crack the box open and take to the driveway with the daytime stuff—smoke bombs and snakes. We watched as the soot and burn marks stained the concrete, our parents watching nervously from the porch. The acrid colored smoke billowed and black foam “snakes” of ash curled menacingly up from the sidewalk.
Then, the rest of the day was the Big Wait for the fireworks show on the Moila Temple’s golf course. The Moila Temple, which still exists, was a fraternal order, like the Freemasons—a living artefact of the mid-century habit business men had of organizing themselves into secret sects with mysterious rites and initiations and ceremonies and civic service. I didn’t understand that; I just knew they were fat old men in fezzes who drove around on little motor cycles during the annual Apple Blossom parade downtown, and on the 4th of July they had a fireworks show, and it was the night we lived for.
The day itself, though, was endless after the early morning kiddie stuff, at least until the year dad finally gave in to our begging, skipped the family pack, and just got us a package of 1,000 firecrackers and two gross of bottle rockets. That kept us busy all day, blowing up beer cans and tin cans and piles of dirt and old toys. Still, between the puffs of smoke and temporary hearing loss and ringing ears and flashes of light, it seemed night would never come; then there was the parking forever away, and the long walk across the close-cut, dewy grass of the golf course, until we finally found a spot where we would put the blanket down and wait for the show.
But there was never much of a show. A firework would go up, do its thing—spread out like a red spider against the sky, skitter off like a barrel of worms let loose in the darkness amid shrieks and whistles, or just throw out a single brilliant flash as we waited for the sound waves to catch up with the light waves with a gut-crunching boom—then we would wait for the next one. Sometimes, so much time would pass between fireworks that people would get up and start to leave, thinking the show was over, and then here would come another one. Sometimes we would see a flurry of flares on the ground where the fireworks were lit, and we would speculate that something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. Sometimes there would be lights of fire trucks, which would make us suspect even more that something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. Then, finally, there would be a pause that was longer than all the others, and people would start packing up their blankets and folding chairs and coolers and start walking back to their cars and the workday that lay ahead, and the show was over.
I thought all fireworks shows were like that until July 4, 1985, the first summer I spent away from St. Joseph after vowing in the fall of 1984 to never return. I had found a full-time job between semesters at Menorah Medical Center, across Cherry Street from where I was going to school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. One block further east, on the other side of the hospital complex, was Troost, Kansas City’s own Delmar divide. Troost was a semipermeable membrane, with separate organisms living on either side, each with its own set of mitochondria and DNA and RNA and Golgi apparatuses and all the rest of it—on one side, the university, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Country Club Plaza, and on the other . . . well, I didn’t understand that.
The job was in the hospital’s coffee shop. It was me, a white college kid; an older white guy who looked like he may have served time but was a very nice guy. He wore a chef’s hat and smock and helped me set up a sandwich cart every day, which we dutifully wheeled onto the patio and tended in the sun as we sold pre-made sandwiches to people who were passing by; a black kid, about my age, responsible for filling the vending machines throughout the hospital; another black kid, Brian, who was the dishwasher; two older black women, Josie and Mary, who were the cooks; Angela and Beverly, two black waitresses; and the manager, Robert, a white man who had gone to seminary school. He was replaced later in the summer by Ray, another white man, who I think had gone to business school. A Vietnamese waitress named Tam joined us later, too; she spoke a whispered, broken English and seemed embarrassed of her own existence. Josie and Mary, for their part, were completely focused on work, bustling intently around the kitchen as they talked to each other without words. Josie was always humming to herself, and the busier she got, the louder she hummed.
One day the task of filling the vending machines fell to me, which gave me the chance to see the rest of the hospital. I didn’t understand the job, how to keep track of all the cans of soda and what went where and whatnot, but I did the best I could. The hospital was a microcosm of the city. I watched the doctors on their rounds, crowding into elevators with the patients and me with my metal cart full of cases of soda. Then there were the people in waiting rooms, consulting with the nurses, and the techs and the janitors and the candy stripers. Soon after, I wrote a poem called “I Am a Doctor,” which included the refrain, “I take the stairs / ’cause the elevator moves too slow.”
The doctors seemed glamorous, as did the St. Louis kids who had traveled cross-state for the university’s six-year med program; the fast track to what I considered success. They loved to announce they were from “West County,” which meant nothing to me, but it meant everything to them. The nicely dressed and coiffed auxiliary women who hung out in the coffee shop impressed me, too, as they politely took their coffee from Angela or Beverly. And my friend Ann was glamorous, too. She drove a Pontiac Firebird, and I felt fancy tooling up and down the interstates with her late at night. Where I was from, a Firebird was class. She had white, almost translucent skin, and a cultivated air about her, and she sometimes said things that made me think, “Whuuuh?” But she was sweet to me and put up with my artsy inclinations, my weird music, and my general negativity, none of which was in her nature.
The summer days continued their ascent to the 4th of July. The day before the holiday, Ann offered to take me to the Spirit Festival with some friends of hers. It was held on the grounds of the Liberty Memorial, a World War I memorial, just south of downtown Kansas City. She picked me up from the dorm in her Firebird and off we went.
Earlier in the year I had read James Joyce’s short story “Araby.” I had related to the story’s narrator, growing up on a “blind” street with its empty house at the “blind end,” and I could understand his love for the neighborhood girl, always limned in light, her dress swinging, her hair a rope “tossed from side to side.” But most importantly, the story had introduced the idea of epiphany, the narrator’s sudden realization in the last line of the story that he is only “a creature driven and derided by vanity” as he fails to buy a bauble at Araby, an eastern bazaar, for his beloved. I had experienced an epiphany of my own once before, though I didn’t have the language to call it that then. Finding myself alone in my room after a school trip to Washington, D.C.—my first trip away from home except for trips to Ellsworth and family vacations—I had suddenly realized that I didn’t belong where I was.
Spirit Festival was start of my second epiphany. I had never been in a crowd like that before—thousands of sweaty people packed together in varying levels of dress and undress. Beer, booze, pot, music, noise, nonsense. And the fireworks! Not the waiting and waiting for a single blast or whistle, but what seemed like 40 minutes of nonstop aural and visual assault. The air crackled with a feeling that anything could happen; it was how I imagined the legendary rock concerts that I was born too late for—Woodstock, Monterey, Altamont.
Safely back in my dorm room at 12:06 a.m., I tried to capture it: “Bright lights big city a beautiful skyline 4th of July fucking beautiful 10,000 people jamming in the park fireworks & beer & pretty girls. . . . I wish I were stoned lights lights lights . . . I could smell the smoke smell the booze smell the girls smell the food thousands of people passing and moving it was fucking beautiful lights lights lights fireworks smoking dope cameras firecrackers shot off w/in earshot BOOM just like fucking Beirut. . . .” Then: “I felt special. I felt proud to be in this country. This is a great country. I thank God for being in it.”
But the feeling was fleeting. Just as it always had been after the 4th, the rest of the summer was a long slog downhill toward the work of school and fall and cold and yuck. But this year, unlike when I was a kid, the growing awareness of the others around me—Angela and Beverly, Josie and Mary—made it clearer that the world I inhabited was only a world I had entered as a visitor. The coffee shop and partying on the 4th of July with Ann and her Firebird—it was all light years from their world. For me, it was a lark; for them, it was their life. The feeling took form in a phrase I wrote down in Prince-style shorthand: “EZ 4 US.” As in:
EZ 4 US, then
White college-bound kids
To destroy other people’s property
To fuck up our grades
To work 40 hrs. A week
(all for the love of money)
To get drunk 4 times a week
To lust after girls
To blow off college
To spout smart-ass philosophies
(death is reality—my favorite)
To spit in the face of all that was sacred
To hang out
To bum out
To burn out
To sail to the depths of darkest depression & blame the church for it all
To be white and (relatively) wealthy
In a non-Orwellian 1984 . . .
A lifetime ago.
I had been a punk and an idiot; not as much of a punk or as big of an idiot as some (the line about “destroying property” was nothing I had ever done, but many people I knew had), but still a punk and an idiot. Furthermore, the vision of America and its possibilities I had felt at the Liberty Memorial on July 4, 1985, was a mirage, a trick. Those long minutes between blasts at the Moila Temple golf course reflected life for most people—long expectations of great things to come, only to be followed by disappointment, a momentary thrill, and then their own slog back to work. With the time between blasts collapsed and the sound waves and light waves colliding that night, the show was beautiful but not sustainable, and the people around me at Spirit Fest had really just been punks and idiots, too.
On the other hand, wasn’t it a privileged assumption on my part, the idea that because I would go back to college and who knew what else, that I was better off–or better–than the people in the coffee shop? My life was definitely easier, I have no doubt about that, but as I think about Josie and Mary humming around the kitchen, I realize that I was only seeing a tiny part of their lives. And even if their lives outside the coffee shop were not fulfilling, it didn’t keep them from giving their all to the one part of their lives I saw–so who, really, was the disadvantaged one?
But this last was an epiphany that would come much later. In the summer of 1985, it was all I could do to find my footing after discovering the possibility that I lived amid multiple realities being determined by a wider world beyond my 4th of July American dreams and all the things I did not understand.