When I was 22 and visiting my parents in Grafton, Massachusetts, I trotted down the stairs the Friday before Fourth of July and announced, “I’m only going to wear red, white, and blue all weekend!”
“OK, dork,” my cousin replied.
She was right; it was a totally geeky thing to say. But it was the first Fourth of July I was going to spend in the US in years, since my new job was only letting me go to Greece for a few weeks, and those were in August. Even now, over a decade later, while I acknowledge my inner dorkiness, I support my sartorial patriotism. The truth is, I love a theme, or even just a dress code–not the school-uniform kind, but black and white balls, say, not that I’ve ever been invited to one. I think it’s because I feel I can be more creative within set boundaries. If I have unlimited choices, it doesn’t feel like the world is my oyster, but rather that it’s the huge jaw of Job’s whale, waiting to trap me if I make the wrong choice. Say “what do you want for dinner?” and I freeze; ask me, “Chinese, Italian, or Mexican?” and I immediately know I want shrimp tacos from that place on third avenue, or none of the above, only tapas will do. (Does this ever happen to you: whenever I tell my mother I went to a tapas bar, she says, “a topless bar???” I can’t tell if she’s joking or just deviant…)
Anyway, I know that 4th of July is more than a theme party, or an excuse to wear an American flag bikini (no, I’ve never owned one); it is a commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place on July 4, 1776. As a writer, I appreciate the celebration of a document and its power to change the world. But as a folklorist, I just love an excuse for everyone to get together and party as a group. Plus fireworks. I mean, it doesn’t get any better.
In Grafton and our surrounding New England villages, the Fourth was celebrated with fireworks displays staggered by town so that you could attend one every night of the long weekend, and a concert on the common complete with men dressed as Revolutionary War soldiers who set off cannons at the climax of the 1812 Overture. The year I wore only red white and blue all weekend, my then-roommate, who is from Louisiana, came home with me that Fourth of July weekend and said, “this makes me feel like I didn’t grow up in America.”
I wasn’t aware of it then, but I realize now that growing up in New England did make me fairly American Revolution-focused. Whenever my husband describes Granada, Nicaragua; Cartagena, Colombia; or Corfu, Greece as lovely “colonial towns” I’m always confused until I realize that he’s referring to the fact that they were built by Spanish or Venetian occupiers as the case may be; to me colonial means British colonial, i.e., the house I grew up in.
Living in Miami Beach, which, as far as I can tell, didn’t really exist before 1920, I now know what my friend meant. This past weekend wasn’t the Americana fest of my youth, and I have so few clothes that fit me anymore that dressing in red white and blue was out of the question.
But I did celebrate with family–since I couldn’t get to Greece, two cousins from Corfu came to visit, bringing Greece to us, and my sister and another cousin joined in–and I ate more hamburgers than I have all year. We took a catamaran out into Biscayne Bay and saw dolphins and people hanging out in what was once their family home in Stiltsville, which is now just the remnants of a once much larger community of homes on pilings in the middle of the ocean. Ostensibly built by rumrunners during Prohibition, the neighborhood was party central through the mid-60s when Hurricane Betsy destroyed most of the houses. We counted about 8 remaining homes, and sailed close enough to one that the people on it handed us a beer, explained that they weren’t allowed to rebuild the homes for safety reasons, and said they were planning on staying all weekend, “through the fireworks.”
My husband and I thought a Stiltsville house would be a great setting for a horror story–that maybe the people were trying to lure us onto their home because they were trapped and couldn’t leave until a baby was born there so they needed to snare a pregnant woman. But our cousins from Corfu were more optimistic, delighted by the friendliness of the inhabitants. “Americans are so nice!” one of them said. Not always, but on the fourth of July, one does like to be neighborly.
The actual day of the fourth, my sister, cousin and I hung out at the Standard Spa, painting ourselves in green, pink, and yellow mud (the only color options and, I like to think, a subtle nod to red white and blue). Photos confirm that I look like an alien. An alien who swallowed another alien.
That night, we went to watch the fireworks from the roof of the Dream South Beach, a new hotel on 11th and Collins, putting it promptly in the heart of the part of South Beach that looks like Jersey Shore collided with a hip hop video. As we stood waiting for the fireworks, a DJ played songs whose anatomically correct lyrics made me wish I could block Amalia’s ears in utero. The fireworks started and we were dismayed that they were so far away. But we quickly realized that what we had been watching were the Coconut Grove, and then the Miami fireworks; the Miami Beach round started soon after and were so close to us that I worried about my hair getting singed. (Apparently, here in Miami, the Gateway to Latin America, the neighboring towns don’t stagger their fireworks but prefer to have a one-night-only competition.)
We left the rooftop right after the fireworks–since the ladies in our group had on neither bikinis, booty shorts, nor sequined tank tops, we stood out as interlopers. But in the elevator on the way down, I saw a girl in navy high-waisted shorts, a white tank top and red espadrilles.
“Nice outfit!” I said.
She smiled and replied, “Well, you know, sometimes you have to make an effort.”
Oh, I know, my fellow American. Don’t let the hot pink muu muu I’m wearing fool you.