Reflections on Independence Day

When Meg and I arrived at Lake Union Park for the Fourth of July the sun had set and the park was teeming. People poured in from neighboring streets, and each new streetcar creeping from downtown was packed with would-be spectators. For all that, the place wasn’t genuinely packed, and I was happy to see plenty of spaces on the grass affording great views across the lake to Gas Works Park, where the fireworks display would actually be held.

“They have vendors here,” I exclaimed, surprised somehow. “They have ice cream!”
“If you want to wait in line,” Meg replied. It was true, the line snaked back for a long ways.
“We’re not in a hurry. I need to get money first, though.”
I withdrew forty dollars from a little ATM placed right there by the walkway, sheltered by its own ATM-sized tent. Then we stood in line for ten minutes, listening to a nearby musician tapping out Bob Marley tunes on a steel drum, adding to the festal air. Once I’d obtained my cone, we ambled happily away across the grounds toward the clean white edifice of MOHAI, whose acronym I couldn’t quite puzzle out.
People were congregated more densely closer to the water, with families staking out little domains with blankets, towels and lawn chairs. We kept to the concrete walkway, skirting MOHAI’s cafe patio, which was cordoned off with velvet ropes, until we reached the railing by the water. Several yachts were moored there, clearly the properties of the fabulously rich and profligate, whose preposterously small number of friends and hangers-on were flaunting their access by standing on the decks drinking champagne and laughing at the huddled masses behind them. We lingered in a spot close to the building with the patio behind us, breathing the summer air and watching the play of light on the water.
After a while I wished to move on, but Meg, ensconced in her corner away from the crowds, refused to go. “We won’t be able to see the fireworks,” I said, pointing out the obstructing hulks of the yachts.

“Sure we will,” she argued cheerfully. “They’ll be up there, in the sky! Boom!” She was, by this point, more than a little tipsy.
And she would not be moved, however I argued. The truth, I suspected, was that she just didn’t like crowds, but wasn’t willing to say so. In any case, I had a desire to empty my bladder before the show started, so I set off to find a bathroom alone, leaving her there.
The Porta Potties were set up in several long ranks at the edge of the park, easily visible by their bright blue plastic exteriors. In front of them, naturally enough, a queue had formed, as so often happened with crowds. I stood there, waiting patiently, texting Mark and Crystal, until I heard someone nearby talking. “You don’t have to wait,” this person claimed. “There’s all kinds of entrances to the Porta Potties. I don’t even know why there’s a line.”
And on second examination, I realized how strange the line was. There were maybe fifty people queued up, but … there were also at least thirty or forty blue units. Investigating, I got out of line and joined another, smaller line by the second rank of Porta Potties.
As I waited again for my turn, I noticed that the people in front would wait for a door to open, and then head to that vacated unit. But I also noticed that there were a lot of units – at least ten in this little corridor. I began to suspect that most of these units were not in use, at all. When I got to the front of the line, I took a risk and didn’t wait for a door to open. Instead, I walked immediately up to a door I hadn’t seen open, and yanked on it. Sure enough, it was unoccupied.
See, most of the units were unoccupied. It’s just that the lines fulfilled people’s expectation that there would be a line, and we were all apparently perfectly willing to stand there holding our bladders rather than test the validity of what we thoughtwas true. What we risked by such a test was rudeness: being perceived by the crowd as a transgressor of the social compact, one willing to step in front of their fellows out of sheer self-interest.
Pressure relieved, I met up with Mark and Crystal and together we walked back over to Meg’s corner. Again she resisted leaving, but this time was overcome by the pressure of the majority. We found a spot somewhere in the middle of the park and sat down on a patch of surprisingly dry grass, with a great vista of the lake and Gas Works before us. After a while even Meg seemed to relax, despite the proximity of our many neighbors.
The last light was leeching out of the sky when suddenly it seemed half the crowd was standing up. Our great view disappeared, blocked by hundreds of bodies. “Why is everyone standing up?” I asked. “Are the fireworks starting?”
Mark Bell, not one to be caught sitting down, was peering off in the distance. “I think there’s a fire.”
“What?”
“There’s definitely a fire. You can see it. It’s huge.”
Sure enough, once I got to my feet I saw a big plume of thick dark smoke pouring into the sky from somewhere across the water. At its base was the bright orange spark of open flames. “Wow! I hope that’s not the fireworks.”
“It could be. It’s a big fire.”
“So are there even going to be fireworks, then?” Crystal asked.
You could feel the uncertainty in the crowd. From amused and patient spectators we’d been transformed into concerned and anxious citizens. What was happening across the water? Mark tried to access the news on his phone, only to find that he couldn’t connect with thousands of other people in our immediate area trying to do the same. “I want to get a better view,” he said. “Let’s move up to the front.”
“What for?” asked Meg. “We already have a good spot here.”
“We’ll be able to see better up front.”
People were packed three and four and four deep by the railing. There wasn’t much more visible from our new vantage, just that black smoke roiling away into the dusk. Everyone was talking and speculating. We shuffled this way and that, jockeying for a better view through the forest of heads. The smoke diminished. Night fell. Suddenly a panoply of light blossomed in the sky: the fireworks had started. Whatever had happened with the fire, Seattle was going on with the show. We cheered.
Not everyone was happy, though. Right behind us, on the grass, a family of three had set up camp to watch the fireworks, a father, pregnant mother, and young daughter. When the crowd had swarmed to the walkway to see the fire, however, these unfortunates had lost the view they’d coveted. Now the father, who I thought maybe was Thai, was yelling politely enough, “Sit down, please! Everyone, please sit down! The fireworks are starting!”
Heads turned curiously toward him, and then turned back to the fireworks. No one sat.
“Sit down, please! Guys, can everyone please sit down? My daughter wants to see.” His voice was plaintive, chiding, but when he saw that no one was sitting as requested, it became increasingly aggrieved. “Some people have been waiting here for a long time to watch the fireworks. Can everyone please just sit down?”
He went on and on. Still no one sat. His wife joined him in his harangue, less pleasantly: “Doesn’t anyone carethat we’ve been waiting here for five hoursto see the fireworks? Don’t you care that our daughter can’t see?”
This, finally, elicited a response from someone standing right up by the rail. “Some of us have been waiting here for quite a while too,” he ventured.
“If everyone just sat down,we could all see,” she snapped back.
As for us, we just looked at them, puzzled. We weren’t directly in their way, after all, standing off to their left, but it was immediately obvious to us that theirs was a Quixotic struggle. There were at least a dozen people directly in front of them, and if that dozen had sat down, the railing would have blocked theirview, and the people on the edges of the sit-down would have to contend with those still standing. Meanwhile, they were just a few of the thousands of the people in the park, most of whom were standing. It was fighting the tide. Who would even try?
These two, apparently. In a angry, offended huff that stopped just short of swearing (no doubt to protect their daughter’s tender ears), they packed up their blanket with broad aggressive gestures, put their daughter in her stroller, and began forcibly pushing their way to the front of the crowd, determined to obtain the pleasures due their patience.
The really funny thing, of course, is that they weren’t wrong. Hadn’t I made the same comment, back when we were sitting on the grass? If everyone sat down, everyone would be able to see. It was that simple. Instead we all stood, and had to contend with the heads of those in front of us.
The fireworks went on, filling that little low portion of the sky with their familiar spectacle, flowers and fireflies, comets and Saturns. People cheered, several twenty-something men next to us being the loudest. “‘Merica!” they yelled. “Pretty lights!” Or my favorite this year: “Hodor!”
And all the cheers were tinged with irony, I noticed, as I’d noticed at every July 4 celebration I’d ever attended. Even if someone were to yell “Right on, America!” or something, I have to imagine it would be colored by that same self-conscious, semi-sarcastic tone. A crowd will sing the national anthem and place their hands over their hearts, but when watching fireworks they feel forced to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it. They don’t yell “America,” they yell “‘Merica!” Because let’s face it: Shooting colored explosives into the air, as an expression of national unity, is about the lowest common denominator. We may not agree about much else – we may rant and rage about our cousins’ posts on Facebook – but who doesn’t enjoy fireworks? (Okay, probably some people don’t.) It’s a flashy distraction for the masses, candy thrown from a parade float, coins flung from a royal balcony.
As if to prove the point, the fireworks suddenly ended. We waited, but that was it. “That wasn’t much a finale,” I observed.
“I know,” said Meg. “It seemed really short this year.”
It was short: shorter than last year, shorter than the year before. Each year seems to suffer a diminishment. Apparently the city has stopped funding the fireworks, its budget prioritized for more vital needs. It wasn’t clear there even would be a fireworks display this year.
But at the last minute, or so I understand, some private parties stepped in as sponsors: the executives at Amazon, I imagined, and Microsoft, Boeing, Seattle’s corporate titans. I have a theory the reason it was last-minute was because everyone was hoping someone else would foot the bill, playing charity chicken. Finally someone blinked, and threw some coins from their balcony.
There’s a deep ambivalence here, toward crowds, toward our fellow citizens, toward the society we live in. On the one hand, we’re so intent being polite that we’ll wait needlessly for the bathroom for twenty minutes, because we’re afraid that even investigating the situation might upset someone. On the other hand, we’ll all stand up, fighting each other for a view and blocking those with a better claim, even when it’s clearly against our common interest. We all want a celebration, but no one wants to pay for it. We”ll sympathize with someone who gets their house (or boat) burned down, but we won’t actually stop using fireworks to prevent it.

And I wonder, are there countries where everyone stays sitting down? What would that be like? And what would we give up for it?

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