A walk in the park in April
The Column: 04.19.23
It was good to see clips of Joe Biden being welcomed by big happy crowds in Ireland, grinning, shaking hands, posing for pictures, kissing babies, quoting Irish poets, busy being beloved by all who waited to see him. Obama knew a degree of belovedness, thanks to his wife and daughters, and Reagan’s sunny disposition was well-received, but the White House hasn’t seen much outright love in my lifetime, which you could argue is proper in a democracy, for people to be wary of great power, but it strikes me as sad, walking around Central Park on a paradise spring day, the cherry trees in full blossom, a jazz trio playing under the trees, Frisbee players playing pickle in the middle, yoga folks striking poses, softball games, a runner pushing his little daughter in a cart, dog walkers, so much public happiness, to think of the cloud of bitterness over this generous country.
How many of these walkers and runners believe that the Illuminati use vaccines to cause autism, that the government is withholding the cure for cancer as a favor to Big Pharm, that a federal research facility in Alaska is engaged in mind control, that Bigfoot is drinking the blood of small children in Roswell, New Mexico, and that the shots came from the grassy knoll and not the School Book Depository?
Not many, I would guess. The constant social interactions of urban life tend to erode the sharper edges of lunacy. There may be secret QAnon cells in brownstone basements in Brooklyn but the Qs need to ride the B and C trains with the rest of us and the gentle jostling and the respect for each other’s space must give them a sense of being part of a civilized whole. I grew up among fundamentalists who taught us to avoid unbelievers — alienation being necessary to maintain our worldview — but it was not possible to maintain this. We weren’t shepherds, we were shopkeepers and shipping clerks, we needed to exercise good manners and engage in amiable small talk, and these daily details turn out to be as important as overarching ideology.
Progressives portray us as an oppressive racist society, okay, but don’t forget the young Black Chicago pianist Fred Jones who converted to Islam in the early Fifties and changed his name to Ahmad Jamal and became a titan of cool jazz for decades. I’d propose that Jones becoming Jamal, though done for religious reasons, was good for business: America is curious about Otherness, the Unlike, and a white pianist named Arnold Johnson, playing the same notes, might easily go unnoticed.
The paranoia of conspiracy theories strikes a person as perverse when you look back at the Depression my parents went through, or visit the Tenement Museum in New York or Ellis Island and get a glimpse of what immigrants found when they arrived. Farm life in New England in the 19th century was so miserable, men by the thousands flocked to seaports to sign up for whaling expeditions. Dressed in oilskins, they stood aboard the ship in heavy seas and hacked the blubber off the monsters as they were hauled up and threw it in an oven to cook down into whale oil, the deck slippery, blades honed razor sharp, men sliding around as the ship pitched and rolled, and if one slid overboard he was likely eaten by sharks. The smallest man on the crew was lowered into the whale’s mouth to harvest the baleen to make buggy whips and corset stays. It was no work for the faint of heart.
My people were devout Christians who believed that Satan was loose in the world seeking whom he might corrupt but they didn’t see government as being in his employ. They weren’t paranoid; they believed in the power of the Word.
Scripture says to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself, and this is clear as can be walking around Central Park among the cherry blossoms, the runners, the families — you notice how a little kid dashes away from his parents for about twenty feet and then turns to check their whereabouts. They are the center of his world. My sweetie and I hold hands, we’re a part of this enormous tract of goodwill in the middle of Skyscraper National Park. People in South Dakota may imagine New York as a hellhole of violence and corruption, and if this gives them comfort, fine, but we’re here and it’s April and everyone in our sight feels lucky to be here together.