Sometimes things you’ve long known break through again in a fresh and powerful way, and what you know becomes new again. “Man needs less to be instructed than reminded,” Dr. Johnson said, but it wasn’t really a reminder I got yesterday, it was a sort of revivifier.
I was at the big annual street fair in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Big turnout, beautiful day, many thousands of people clogging Third Avenue from the 60s through the 80s, what looked like more than a hundred booths. The people filling the avenue were an incredible mix—young and old, infants and grandmas, all colors and nationalities, families, kids in groups, all kinds of garb—young Arab women in headscarves and abayas, Italian kids from the old Bay Ridge, elderly Irish women who go to the local evangelical church, young Latinos, tall blond Nordic-looking girls in black suede leather boots, Filipino families. In the beauty shop on 76th Street where my mother popped in to get her hair done everyone spoke Chinese, including a 5- or 6-year-old Asian girl so proud of her new bangs. One booth looked like a gold souk and sold Arab dress. Another sold Catholic saints’ cards, crucifixes and Rosary beads. At the Obama 2012 booth, some members of “Brooklyn Democrats for Change” teased me, gave me an Obama button, and posed for pictures. (No Romney booth, alas.) At another, evangelicals offered a free New Testament, and when I said I already had one, they asked if they could pray for a specific intention. I said yes, my back’s bothering me, and a white-haired woman put her hands on my neck and back, said a prayer and asked for a healing in Jesus Christ’s name. A Mexican woman across the way had a headset on and was telling everyone how to make the best salad ever with her Super-Hyper-Veg-O-Matic. She had a big crowd. Young Asian kids with iPhones were tweeting what they were seeing as they walked behind their grandparents. Two teenage Arab girls were sitting on storage boxes and laughing, and as I walked by I saw they were breezing through pictures on an iPhone and posting them on Facebook.
I’m walking along with my niece and her baby and fiancé, Dominic, and suddenly in some new way it hits me. “The entire political future of America is on this street,” I said.
Everyone different, everyone getting along, everyone feeling free to be who they are but everyone also—you could just kind of see it—feeling free to be different from who they are, too. Everyone selling their wares, not just material ones but spiritual ones. There was a really loud kind of rap group, and I asked who it was because I didn’t get its composition—young black and Hispanic men, a middle-aged white woman. Singers from a local church, I was told. The Knights of Columbus were giving out flyers: Come to the October dinner dance. The Gateway City Church was inviting you to an “Overcomers Meeting . . . a fellowship of men and women who are dealing with alcohol, drugs, nicotine, depression and anxiety, fears, anger, gambling, lust, family problems. . . . All are welcome regardless of religious and spiritual beliefs and persuasions.” An Albanian sect of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was there, too.
Later at a Mexican restaurant, Dominic asked what I meant about the political future being right there on the street. I said we’d walked through the big mix, the big jumble, and if we get it right it will be the big blend. You see the people and the booths and who’s doing business and who’s walking together, and you know what is important to them. Family is important, so is faith, variety is a given, it’s baked in the cake. They want peacefulness, education for their kids, they want to rise, they don’t want crime. They don’t want a dangerous culture, one they have to protect their kids from. They’re like every other immigrant that’s ever been, they don’t want to have government bother them, overregulate them or squish them down, they want everyone to get help if they need it, they want to get good jobs and be free to be who they are and also become who they want to be.
And they are politically up for grabs.
They are not Democrats and Republicans, they are citizens. And who wins them, wins the future. They haven’t inhaled a political persuasion, they’re getting a sense of both parties, they’re meeting them.
And the first thing you do is you don’t slice and dice them: we are one nation, one country, one people. That way the big mix becomes the big blend, as it always has.
And something else: Everything I saw—the good humor, the engagement, the acceptance—kind of suggested we’re getting it righter than we know.
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Only as I write do I realize I saw all this just a few miles from Williamsburg, where a little girl named Betty Smith lived at the turn of the last century. She went on to write a great classic, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” about the new immigrants of her day, the Irish and Italians and Germans and Slavs who became: the American people.