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Working and Free on the 4th of July

I went to the grocery store to buy ice this morning. I wasn't sure if the store would be open, but it was holiday commerce as usual. The cashier said she always ends up working on the 4th of July and New Year's Eve. She doesn't care, she says: she hates fireworks and working lets her feel free to skip them.

I think I've only worked on two 4th of July holidays. The first time was epic. The summer of 1982 I worked underneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Steps lead to a large underground visitors' center and the Museum of Westward Expansion, or at least they did then.  I answered questions to the best of my teen-aged ability for tourists, helped nervous claustrophobes decide if they could stand the capsule ride to the top of the Arch, made change for the vending machines, and gave corrupt restaurant recommendations on special maps that later in the day yielded the staff free happy hour beverages at the few riverfront establishments we favored.

The city had planned a festival for the 4th called the V.P. Fair. I was scheduled to work most of it, but would be off in time to make my way to the stage to hear my hero, Elton John, so I was psyched. But the V.P. Fair became a multi-day crisis. The draw of Elton John, Bob Hope, the Beach Boys and others drew massive crowds, hundreds of thousands more than expected. The planners had completely underestimated almost every resource, including parking, transportation, bathrooms (awful!), first aid relief for the sweltering heat, cover for the intermittent rain, trash receptacles and removal, security, food, water and the transportation needed to replenish booths--nearly everything except beer. (St. Louis being the homebase for Anheuser-Busch meant that beer supplies were never, ever in jeopardy.)

But the lack of resources didn't deter the crowds. Trash piled up, urinals were improvised in the trenches created by traffic, people sold food from their coolers, and the lovely reflecting pools designed to offset the Arch were destroyed as impromptu swimming holes. Smack dab in the middle of all of this was our gorgeous Eero Saarinen-designed underground sanctuary. Heat-crazed people packed into the visitors' center seeking shade and bathrooms. Tube tops were rolling up and down, babies were crying, and people kept Mad Maxing their way in even though there wasn't an inch left for another human, until the park rangers eventually evacuated and closed the building. All sorts of insane things I didn't hear about until later were happening during the fair. A woman gave birth on the courthouse stair waiting for an ambulance, fights broke out in many places, and a man died after gunfire in the riverfront McDonalds.

Elton John apparently soldiered on and played to the wild teeming masses--he is said to have been secreted on to the fair grounds in the costume of a police officer. I wish I could have seen that, or have heard his concert. The staff watched the chaos from viewing windows at the top of the Arch. We couldn't hear the music, just watched the wicked tilt-shift Matchbox scene unravel beneath us like dark, dud fireworks that fizzled before crashing, not knowing when or how we could get home, floating up there, both trapped and free.

Years later I worked on the 4th again, this time the midnight shift at a domestic violence shelter. Holidays tend to be busy at DV shelters. Drunks and anger junkies are mega-fueled, and dysfunction explodes under the pressure of comparisons to what families are "supposed to be like" on holidays. That year I did an intake on a woman who arrived at the shelter after having a head X-ray at the hospital. Her eyes were bleeding, and welts on the face and arms were starting to turn from red to purplish blue. I talked with her, recorded her information in our case notes and forms, made her an ice pack and gave her a bed right before my shift ended.

I drove through downtown on my way from the shelter to my house. Tallahassee's downtown doesn't compare at all to St. Louis. And the Arch, nothing is like the Arch, though if someone had been on the observation deck of the tower of the Capitol Building they could have seen my little Matchbox car. The streets were desolate, the complete opposite of the Arch grounds during that wrecked festival. Fireworks everywhere had been extinguished; people were by and large sleeping. In the early morning hours after working all night I liked to speed through the empty street in front of the Capitol and then slide my car out of gear to coast down the hill towards home, and that 5th of July was no different. I hoped the new shelter's resident could sleep despite the red, white and blue flag her body had become, the unfair stars and stripes that, hopefully, when the time was right for her, would give way to her independence. I hoped she felt what I felt: popped out of gear, windows down, trapped in some ways, but at the moment, incredibly free.

Reader Comments (3)

what a lovely and vivid piece of writing. Felt like I was there.

July 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCecily

...under the pressure of comparisons to what families are “supposed to be like” on holidays.

I feel this pressure often on holidays, and never thought about what a trigger it could be.

This is a beautiful patriotic tribute to real America.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

i am very much interested with your info,thanks a lot!

September 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhow to cook a steak

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