Independence Day, Cape Cod style. I sit on the steps of the Albert Merola gallery on Commercial Street, Provincetown, to watch the passing parade in the blazing heat. Fire engines stuck over with ribbons and rosettes and the legend “Proud to be an American!” Drag queens perched on children’s trikes. A marching pipe-and-drum band of girls and boys in colonial frockcoats and tricornes. The local congress representative glad-hands the crowd.
And from an orange convertible, an Edna Everage impersonator (impersonating a female impersonator) waves her gladioli. Add to this to a shower of candy chucked to the applauding crowd. John Waters – writer and director and summertime resident of the town – happens to be standing next to me, and quips: “They’re throwing it offensively.”
Like Waters’s films, there’s barely an ounce of good taste to be seen. Tawdry glitter and cross-dressing is the order of the day. It’s virtually mandatory, legally enforced by the cops on bikes who patrol the outer edges of this decorative, contained madness.
Later, out on the beach, families play while the thud-thud-thud of the gay tea dance disco drifts across the bay at four o’clock in the afternoon. Over there, topless men are gyrating and, doubtless, taking drugs. Over here, children are digging for sandcastles. A beach volleyball match is in progress, fuelled by margaritas and bouncing, well-filled bikinis. In the distance, the hoot of a big boat announces the departure of another whale watch, out into the distant Atlantic, where humpback whales cavort and breach.
This is not the America we assume, but another America; just as, a couple of days before, I sat on a village green in Truro, down the cape from Provincetown, to hear a fiddler band surrounded by liberal families and dancing children in the evening sun under willow trees – a reminder of American utopia, rather heartening in its inclusive way. One could have a conversation with each of them and hear the kind of views it is rare to hear in England, which considers itself so advanced.
This is small-town America, with all its good and bad. And this tawdriness, which old Europe may sneer at, is in fact extraordinarily reassuring. Even in its instability and campness and outre quality, it seems to refer a paradoxical permanence. An anarchic sense of theatre – just as everyone riding a New York subway is a performer.
People may be sleeping in their cars, their houses foreclosed like their businesses, standing in line for handouts. When I found myself counting out loose change in the local garage the other day, the Catholic priest, who happened to be behind me, offered to “help out”. These days, you don’t have to look down-and-out to be so, it seems. Amazingly, the proprietor just asked me to bring the two dollars I owed him next time I was passing.
This is a country of communities. It cares about itself and its people, as sentimental as that may sound to world-weary English ears. It’s that quality that founded this brave republic. And here in Cape Cod – a sandy spit where Thoreau boasted that “a man may stand and put all America behind him”, yet in whose harbour the Mayflower Compact, the real founding document of America, was signed – here, as much as anywhere else, that sensibility speaks of a tantalising yet tangible stability.
Politics and politicians come and go, thousands of gallons of oil may pump out into the Gulf of Mexico, and the front page of the New York Times may feature the first surviving quadruple amputee from Afghanistan, but this place, like thousands of others in America, will remain American, no matter what happens to the rest of the world. Or, indeed, to itself.
In the evening, fireworks lit up the sky. Some people got drunk. There may have been an incident or two downtown, where incomers without foreknowledge of the liberality of this little, open and inclusive town might take offence at one too many same-sex couples strolling hand-in-hand down the street. But generally, here America is at peace with itself. It’s only the rest of the world, it seems, with which it has issues.
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