Wednesday, December 22, 2010

balloon deathmarch

Knock – it’ll be opened for you.

-- Matthew 7:7 (ASV)

I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member.

-- Groucho Marx

“Keep it light.”

“Keep moving.”

“Have a good time, folks.”

“Happy Holidays.”

So say the cops as we trudge, in the track prepared for us, around the Museum of Natural History. Not that I’m gong anywhere. On my left is the museum’s fence, and on the right are the barricades that keep us from the street. I can’t take an honest step. It will take about an hour to make our way around the museum and back to the subway. But neither can I stand still: I am carried along in a human ooze. Here in the open air, my claustrophobia is activated.

Tomorrow is the big parade. That’s why we’re here.

At the museum’s backside, where it interrupts W. 79th St., the cops direct us across Columbus Ave., then across 79th St. and back across to the museum side of Columbus Ave., just below the point where we left it. Here in this tango of maximum mutual interference, interrupting traffic and interrupted by it, the police exhort us to keep it light, and to have a good time.

On my right, over the heads of the masses, I see twisted limbs of gargantuan balloons, bound against their growing buoyancy. They are the purpose of this pilgrimage. On the backs and shoulders, and in the arms of marchers, are the children for whose joy the pilgrimage was undertaken. Some of the children are crying, some asleep. Some are asking when we can go home. That is what I am asking. Not for a while yet – there’s no easy escape.

Once upon a time this must have been a good idea. The first ones who long ago wandered backstage before the show, watching the gassy figures glacially quicken and rise, ready to take to the air for the morrow’s procession – they got a look at the parade without the travel and the jostling for position and the fatigue, and without the long, taxing escape. Why go to all that trouble, when you can get there first, see the stars of the procession before the vulgar masses do, at your own pace and in an order of your own choosing? It was an insider’s way to the festival. Then the word got out. Then all these other people showed up. I’m one of those other people. It’s not what it used to be.

Television. That’s the ticket. It’ll be on two networks tomorrow morning. Why didn’t I think of that? I can see all the balloons, if I want to, from the couch in my den. I can see them very much as I would from the barricade; but I won’t have to camp out overnight to claim my view.

There are a lot of balloon deathmarches in the world. Things that must have once been a good idea, but now everybody does it and it’s not what it used to be at all. But nobody lets the air out of the balloon. Nobody exposes the fraud. Or if they do, no one believes them. People still pile on, because as far as they know it’s still The Thing. They want it still to be The Thing.

If you’re now hearing about a miraculous opportunity, it’s gone already. People buy the stock after its price goes up. Or take out mortgages on overpriced houses they can’t pay for. Or choose a college based on its reputation of two decades ago.

We bought big into automobiles because of a dream of mobility. We all wanted freedom, which to us meant going exactly where we wanted to go, exactly when we wanted to go there. It’s now obvious, and yet we haven’t learned it, that when everybody tries to go where they want when they want, nobody gets to go where and when they want. We get instead to breathe each other’s exhaust fumes, idling in a parking lot like the California 405.

The Great Lakes are lined with the shacks of people who dreamed of a country house on the lake.

Everybody in the social set I grew up in wanted their kids to go to Harvard. But if everybody went to Harvard, it wouldn’t be any more what makes people want to go to Harvard. That’s why we have land grant universities. That’s why, here in New York, we have City College.

But how can I say a thing like that? I’m a liberal. I’m supposed to say everybody can have the dream.

Well, everybody can dream. That’s their right. That’s the American Way. Everybody gets to wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, and so we owe to everybody the infrastructure of dreaming. But everybody can’t realize the same dream. When they try, it becomes a very bad dream indeed.

There’s no short cut. You can’t just pile on to someone else’s dream, no matter how well promoted. You have to discover a particular dream, the one that awaits you. It doesn’t have to be an original dream, or a fancy one. It might speak from a very humble thing, like a bush in the desert, burning and not consumed by fire. But if it’s your dream, it won’t leave you alone.

1 comment:

Vivian said...

Help help! Who is WE? (or are you Royalty?) Why were you-all there a full day before the children who wanted to go home? Did you stay there for 24 hours? What were the police doing? Why did it take so long? Which is to say, readers who live farther away from NYC might need a bit more context to understand this piece.... but still reading, still interested....