This past Fourth of July, at about 7:30pm Pacific time, I was moving at a snail’s pace through a churning mass of people on bikes and scooters and longboards and on foot, wearing variations on the classic combination of jean cutoff shorts and the American flag-emblazoned wifebeater. A biker several yards away sporting the flag on his top hat seemed to be making some progress through the crowd, but he lost control and face-planted after a kid ran in front of him shouting to all the passersby “Happy Independence Day to you, sir! And to you and your family!” I stared bewildered at the wannabe Tiny Tim as he ran off to spread his patriotic good cheer elsewhere, and then I continued to press forward in a general westerly direction. This was Main Street, Huntington Beach, California on Independence Day, and I was just trying to make my way to the beach before the fireworks show started.
The Pacific Coast Highway was completely shut down for blocks so that the red white and blue horde could reach the coast, but even without cars in the equation the crossing proved perilous due to the presence of countless other wheeled contraptions. With bikes zipping past in either direction, a high-stakes game of Frogger ensued as I haltingly made my way towards the opposite sidewalk: five running steps forward, full stop, jump back, jump left, 12 running steps forward, etcetera… Several harrowing minutes later, I made it to the sand and ran to the nearest open space to set up camp – as far as the eye could see in either direction there were beach towels and tents and canopies and volleyball nets and glow sticks and sparklers and PEOPLE.
The fireworks show was adequate: rockets were shot off the end of the pier so that they burst over the ocean, their explosions semi-rhythmically coordinated with the obligatory Beach Boys and “God Bless the USA” songs. Unfortunately, the wind picked up about halfway through the show and began blowing all the smoke towards the spectators, so that by the finale all one could see were ominously large smoke clouds that would intermittently glow red or blue or gold as the fireworks behind them desperately tried to make their presence known. But no matter, because the real show took place after the finale, when the horde of patriots covering the beach stood up to head home.
Some scenes from the evening:
-Two teen bikers sit in the left turn lane of an empty intersection on the shut-down PCH, leaning lazily on their handlebars. Masquerading as drivers stuck in traffic, one of them hollers “Hey, can we get a green light?” while smirking at the passersby and the amused police officers on the corner.
-A long-haired dude is sitting next to an amp in an apartment balcony. He screams to anyone who is listening: “Are you folks ready for this?!” Greeted by cheers and whoops, he whips out an electric guitar and begins to perform the national anthem – it is Jimi Hendrix reincarnated.
-You think you’re walking down a quiet neighborhood street, but you’re actually in a warzone: fireworks pop off from every side and produce deafening explosions overhead. People are diving behind cars and bushes and zig-zagging across the street, trying to avoid lit Roman Candles that have been strategically placed on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road. Some may not make it out alive.
-Everyone seems to believe the correct response in any situation is to yell “‘Merica!” You successfully cross a street: “‘Merica!” A kid bangs a stick on a telephone pole: “‘Merica!” A firework almost takes out the same telephone pole: “‘Merica!”
This is Independence Day in Surf City, USA. It is utter chaos, an overwhelming display of American insanity, and yet strangely nothing endears me to this country more.
(Originally posted 9/14/13)