James’ America

It’s the morning after the 4th of July, and I’m surveying the wreckage. My back yard is spilling over with the aftermath of an all-day party featuring 20 bands, a root beer keg, plenty of “real” beer too, a kiddie pool located dangerously close to a power line that got knocked down by that vicious storm the other day, and a whole lotta people actin’ ignorant (we tried to get a Chuck E. Cheese-style ball pit too, but it was just a little bit out of our budget). Needless to say, a good time was had by all. I barely slept for a few hours afterwards before it was time to pry myself out of bed and get to work telling you all about what America means to me.

I took a walk to the nearest CVS to get a 5-Hour Energy. 10 minutes each way up and down DC’s notorious Georgia Avenue reveals that the whole neighborhood had just as much fun as me, if the unending trail of broken beer bottles and spent fireworks casings is any indication.

On the way back, just a few blocks from home, I pass by the same liquor store/check-cashing place I walk past every day, and I take in the same scene I take in every day: the crew of weary and sickly-looking people just standing around doing nothing in particular, including the one dude who always sits dejectedly on a milk crate wearing jeans and a thick hoodie even in 100-degree heat. The smell of urine is inescapable for about half a block. Meanwhile, white-collared gentrifiers walking towards the Metro try their best to look composed, knowing deep down that this commute would have ended in the ICU just a few years ago.

For the first time, it occurs to me that this might be a twisted scene to someone who’s not used to it. The juxtaposition of privilege and poverty, of celebration and stagnation, is downright dissonant. But this is what I know. This is what I’ve been conditioned to think of as normal. And as sick as it may sound, this is comforting to me. This is my America.

That’s not to say that I approve of the inequities and injustices of this scenario. It’s to say that it speaks volumes about what it means to be an American when this scenario elicits a gut response of calming familiarity. Complete and utter imbalance is my idea of balance.

I promise it’s not as strange as it sounds. You barely need to scratch the surface to see that America has a logic all its own. It all started with this bad-ass mission statement commanding each and every one of us to live life to the fullest, the truest, the most fearlessly free that we could. Yet nowhere in the fine print did it mention that the men behind this cry of liberation were genocidal, slave-driving, raping-and-pillaging, syphilitic, alcoholic imperialists who reserved the right to redefine morality at their leisure.

With a back story like that, how couldn’t my beloved United Stated be a mess?  It’s a moral labyrinth overgrown with spider-webs of contradiction too thick for a double-edged sword to slice through. It’s 3000 miles of nonsense. But somehow, in spite of itself, it’s awesome. It’s the land of reservations and plantations, Section 8 and soulless pre-planned suburbs, neo-fascist witch-hunts dressed up as “Homeland Security,” etc etc etc. But it’s given the world punk rock, sweaty basement shows, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Marvel comics, cartoons that let us cherish the humor in bodily functions, fireworks kiosks and vegan soul food a block from my house, the freedom to get injected with experimental pharmaceuticals instead of getting a job, the freedom to shoot my mouth off in a public forum whether anybody gives a shit or not, and so many other things that have given my life meaning in the midst of meaninglessness. I feel in the depths of my soul that nowhere else in the world could such meaning ever be found.

One loves America the way one loves poorly behaved family members/best friend/life partner /etc. They annoy you, upset you, embarrass you, make you wonder why you even bother, but at the end of the day, you know you could never live without them.

And you wouldn’t have it any other way.


Leave a comment and tell me what America means to you.



Image: Richard Suter Photography