The Road Revisited

Follow Me Around The United States!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coeur d'Alene's Macy's-Worthy Parade and Keystone Kops.

The morning after my Wal-Mart Walk of Shame (which out of context sounds much, much worse than it actually was), was the Fourth of July. I ambled into town at about 7:30 just in time to see people staking claim with lawn chairs up and down Sherman Avenue. A parade was coming, a parade was coming! I hadn't seen an Independence Day parade in years, always too busy working lunch shifts that cater to the post-parade crowd! I parked in a lot behind Cricket's Seafood and Grill and grabbed my camp chair, my camera, my notebook, laptop and a pen. There was going to be a parade, god-dammit, and I was going to capture every last piece of glitter and spangle in it.

But the parade didn't start until 10 o'clock, which gave me ample writing time at the little coffee shop from the night before. This time I got to sit inside, watching Gen-X parents in fleece vests and Columbia cargos sip lattes and try out new behavior remedies with toddlers behaving badly. "Brighton, please stop that. I said please stop tha-- Brighton, are you listening to me? Daddy is trying to read this paper. Now go play over there with the blocks.... Brighton, that's one strike." I managed to drown them out and get a bit of writing done, albeit backlogged. I think I wrote about Yellowstone while I was in Coeur d'Alene.

Marchers and non-marcheres alike crowded the tiny shop, which, I am happy to report, had more business that morning than the local Starbucks. Parents, grandparents, and little girls with American flags stuck in their ponytails. Confused babies in papooses wearing star-spangled onesies, having their hands waved by daddies. There was an old woman in line with a flag sticker stuck to her loose, powdered cheek. A red visor kept her forehead mercifully free of white curls. She smiled at me as I reached across her for a napkin. Everyone smiled that morning. It caught me off-guard. Besides my time with Megan and Lala, I had become so used to fielding wary stares that I had forgotten what it was like to be welcome. Between Josh, Crazed Shirtless Garden Hose Man, Shrek of the RV Park and a bevy of sneering strangers, I had become quite used to rudeness, and niceties were a shock. It was just as when I'd left New York City and gone to Milford, Nebraska. "Why are these people waving at my car? They don't know me...." But it doesn't take long to warm up again, like coming into your mother's glowing kitchen after walking the dog on a rainy night.

Around 9:45 the spoons stopped clinking in glasses and chatter died to whispers. Everyone was excited and started making for their chairs, which had been set up for hours, saving spaces. Mine had stood guard outside Johanne's Jewelers for over two hours at that point. I stashed my laptop underneath, my notebook in the cupholder, the pen behind my ear and my camera at the ready. Children danced curbside, awaiting early-morning candy. Every face was turned up the street, breath bated. Finally, rows of soldiers marched by with rifles and flags and everyone started clapping. Then came a marching band, followed by some soldiers in desert fatigues. They had just returned from Iraq and received a standing ovation. A Marine in dress uniform stood watching the parade about twenty feet away from me. Each BDU'd soldier came up and shook his hand. Next was a yellow schoolbus with a banner on the side. "America's Ex-Prisoners Of War" Old men in thin blue hats waved from inside and got a standing ovation. I cried. What had they seen? Who had they lost? For all the bitching we liberals do, it's only because we really are in awe of this country.

My hometown of Laurel, MD puts on a pretty decent parade. There are the pre-requisite little girls in leotards twirling batons, some bands, the city officials, and maybe even a beauty queen or two. But Coeur d'Alene, I have to admit, put us to shame, probably because it is indeed the fastest growing city in the country. They had floats, real floats like you'd see on television. The butterfly wings moved up and down and everything! There were unions, squadrons, organizations, clubs, Republicans, Democrats (who got more cheers, not that I was paying attention), and Shriners popping wheelies on mini-bikes. Old men on roller-skates. Little girls doing back-handsprings down the asphalt. The Ladies Auxiliary had a theme of "Supporting Local Businesses", so they made costumes and hats out of groceries, like cracker boxes and fruit, and did dance routines with shopping carts. There was another group of senior ladies, The Usta-Bees, and they dressed up in the most cliched Old Lady attire, like muumuus and pearls, and danced around with walkers to Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It!" I nearly died laughing trying to capture the whole thing on video. And there were more beauty queens than you could shake a scepter at. My jaw dropped because one was even black! Which, for a state as culturally indiverse as Idaho, was amazing.

The Coeur d'Alene Buddhists had a float and the theme was "Meditation". It was gorgeous, covered in lotus flowers and people in bright satin robes sitting cross-legged, lost in trance, their hands folded at their hearts. Unfortunately, the float directly behind that one was for the local feed store, and it was blaring, "Cotton-Eye Joe" at aurally-assaulting volumes. Kids marching alongside the float cooled off the crowd with squirt guns, which would have been fine with me were it not for the thousand dollars worth of electronics I had stashed about me. A journalist with an incredible SLR camera braced just as I did, covering his equipment like a child during a 1950's bomb drill.

For a moment I felt as though I were infringing on Coeur d'Alene's parade, like the Parade Police would come and say, "You're from Baltimore, you can't set your chair up on the sidewalk! The sidewalk is only for Idahoans! No Baltimorians allowed!" Honestly, since leaving Utah the trip had taken on a sort of childhood boys-versus-girls motif, except it was America-versus-Jessica R. Johnson. There seemed to be signs on every lawn, at the city limits of every town -- "No Jessicas Allowed!" But that day, there was no Idahoans versus Baltimorians, no Locals versus Single Traveler. It made me misty, but we were all Americans and we were all waving the same flag and even I got smiled at by strangers. For one day, the No Jessica Allowed signs were taken down. "Could this be... actual... contentedness? A feeling of welcome?.... or was the welcome there all along and it just took old men on rollerskates to make me realize that sometimes I get too caught up in the details of survival and miffed by the drama of rude people to see it?" Perhaps, dear readers, perhaps....

One thing I always love about the Fourth of July, everyone is allowed to be patriotic without it being construed as sophistry or fundamentalism. Liberals and Conservatives, the pious and the atheists, we all get reminded that yeah, we do live in one of the best countries on this planet and we're damn lucky to do so. It was a lovely day. I felt honestly happy. "This is why I wanted to live like this," I thought. "So I can see old ladies dance to Twisted Sister and horses with glitter spray-painted on them." It's true.

After the parade, I put my things away and went to Crickets for some lunch. The sun was shining and it seemed such a perfect day to go to a baseball game, or at least watch one on TV with your buddies while consuming pitchers of beer and buffalo wings (I'm kind of a dude sometimes.) But I traded buddies, pitchers and wings for a notebook, a Hefeweizen and a plate of salmon with wild rice because I was close to the Pacific and the salmon was good and cheap.

After lunch I went back to the little coffee shop and set up camp. Seriously. I can't believe they didn't charge me rent, I was there so long. The owner came over and said, "You're working pretty hard over there, don't you know it's a holiday?"
"I'm sorry, am I taking up the table too long? Do you need it? I can leave."
"No, no, take all the time you need." He even looked as though he meant it, which doesn't always happen.
So I did. I took about six hours worth. A tall, thin guy in a ripped flannel shirt came over to empty the trash. He worked behind the counter. "Are you a writer?" he asked.
"Sort of. I write for one magazine on a regular basis."
His name was Steve. We got to chatting about Idaho, jobs, traveling, and the like. "Are you going to watch the fireworks tonight?" I asked.
"No, I'll be working still. But I think I'm meeting up with some friends at the brewery later. If you're not doing anything you should come by. You'll see it, it's got a big neon mug of beer for a sign."
"I might, I just might. Thanks for the invite."
"No problem."

When dusk hit, I packed up my laptop and hid it in the car, then popped the cork on a bottle of red wine I'd bought for four dollars at a gas station back in Montana and poured as much as would fit into my super-cool Steve Austin Six Million Dollar Man Thermos. Oh, yeah, I was class-ay! Nothing says "I love America" like drinking cheap merlot in the plastic cup atop a child's thermos while watching fireworks.

I had no idea where the fireworks would be shot from, so I didn't know where to sit. I ended up on a hill overlooking Coeur d'Alene Lake, surrounded by families, many with small children. I watched the babies babble and crawl and wondered what the triplets were up to. Most everyone knew each other, they had planned accordingly to sit together, made sure to bring enough blankets, enough snacks. I was the oddball, and it was odd how I minded, but for once didn't try to do anything to change it, to meet people or immerse myself in the local culture. I decided that the owner of the coffee shop was right, it was a holiday and I shouldn't work too hard. What's funny is, on the road, my main job is selling myself, not in a lascivious sense, but in a Hey-I'm-Cool-You-Should-Talk-To-Me-And-Tell-Me-Things-About-Yourself sense. It can be exhausting. It can be draining, always having to make a good first impression. Always having to start at square one and earn people's trust, earn their respect and friendship. I have to always be "ON". No one knows my name and most of the time I have to impress them enough to start caring. It's like being a Customer Service Representative twenty-four hours a day and the product I'm selling is me. And that night, I gave myself a night off. It was more relaxing and fun just to eavesdrop.
"Did you hear Margie had to put her cat down? Yeah, that's so sad. But that cat was old. Now, the Bakers, their cat was attacked by a coyote, did you hear that?"
"Oh, yes, that's too bad. But they live so far up the mountain."
"Yes, the schoolbus doesn't even come to get their son."
"No, that's because it's not considered this district, they drive him because they wanted him in the city system."
"Oh, is that right, Debbie?"
"Yeah, I was just talking to Sheila the other day and she was telling me how Christopher spends a lot of time at home on the weekends because it's such a long drive to get him anywhere, like the movies and stuff. I think she said it's about half-hour up and down those roads just to get to the mall."
"Oh, that is a long time..."
I just listened quietly, reveling in the mediocrity of it all, yet wondering if and when, since Coeur d'Alene is such a fast-growing city, the mountaintop would have it's own mall and movie theater.

One little girl, about nine or ten, was stretched out with her father on the grass at my feet. Her father, you could tell, was a super-serious nerdy type, the type that don't joke around or play with their children. He had just gotten finished yelling at this girl's little brother to stop running around, and then turned to his daughter and launched into a droning lecture about how kids these days have no respect for their elders, but back in his day he didn't dare go against his parent's orders. "I was a respectful child. I listened."
"Daddy, that's not what Grandma said."
Her father had nothing to say, quieted by of the mouths of babes.

Boats on the lake would occasionally set off tiny fireworks and everyone on the banks would quiet down, thinking it was time. The fireworks finally began at 10:15 sharp -- behind a tree from where I was sitting. At first I was miffed. I had been sitting in the same spot for over an hour, thinking they would be directly in front of where I was facing, not off to the side and behind foliage. But I made things interesting by taking pictures of them with a 2.5-second exposure time, just to see what would come out. They were beautiful. I got some amazing pictures. The trick was to hit the button as the little spark was still flying upward, before the actual blossom itself exploded. People around me, like the serious father, sneered because I was taking pictures and not looking as much at the fireworks themselves. Or maybe they were just mad because their vantage point wasn't much better than mine.

The fireworks themselves lasted all of ten minutes. I wondered if anyone else was slightly ticked at having perched on the grass for hours to see ten minutes of shiny things in the sky. Then again, everyone else had company. After the finale, there was a mass exodus to the parking lot. Usually I'm the kind who waits around for the traffic to clear, but I wanted to meet Steve and his friends at the brewery, so I rushed a bit. I changed clothes in the driver's seat -- even my bra, which takes some doing without causing a scene but I've managed to nail it down to a science -- and lurched out of the lot. And into the most ridiculous traffic pattern I'd ever been witness to.

For some reason, unbeknownst to anyone ever, living or dead, the Coeur d'Alene police decided it would be a great idea to turn a two-way street into a one-way street and re-route any oncoming traffic up an alley and onto Sherman Avenue. The result was cars facing in opposite directions being boxed in between each other in the same lane. It was the definition of clusterfuck. No one could move. I got out and sat on my hood, daring any cop to tell me to return to the driver's seat. In all, it ended up taking an hour to go around the block. "Steve is totally going to be gone by the time I even find this place," I thought. I was facing another lonely, Wal-Mart, unshowered night.

Or at least I was until, low and behold, a passage opened up in the traffic, like Moses parting the Red Sea, and I rushed onward, crossing Sherman Ave. and ending up on a sidestreet, parked safely and legally and resigned to walking to the brewery, wherever that was. I asked some cops on foot patrol and they pointed silently to another side street. Around the corner, I saw the huge mug of beer and went inside. I didn't see Steve. The place was nearly empty, but still it took almost five minutes to get a beer. "It's in red," I told the bartender as she checked my ID. It's become second nature to point out the birthdate to people unfamiliar with Maryland licenses. She poured me a Blackberry Blonde and I wandered around, unsure of where to sit or where to look. "If he's not here, I'm just going to drink this and leave."

I started to walk to the outdoor patio when Steve opened the door first, coming in. "Oh, hey! I was wondering if you were gonna show! I gotta go to the bathroom, but those are my friends over there" -- he pointed to a table of twenty-something girls smoking cigarettes -- "Just go sit with them and I'll be right back."
"Okay." I was feeling shy but one thing I've learned on the road, loneliness cancels out shyness like Paper beats Rock.

"Hi," I said, setting down my lunchbox. "I'm Jessica, how are you? I'm a friend of Steve's."
They introduced themselves. One was another Jessica.
"How do you know Steve?" she asked me.
"I don't. I just said 'friend' because it sounds better than 'girl he talked to for five minutes earlier today'." I tried to laugh at my own joke and read their faces at the same time.
"Oh. Okay." They went back to their conversation, I think it was about Camels versus Marlboros.

Luckily Steve came out and grabbed a seat next to mine. "So did you see the fireworks?"
"Yeah, sorta. It was kinda dumb though, because it took so long for them to start, then they were over, and it just took me an hour to get here, but the whole time I was less than five blocks away. I want to know who the civil engineering genius was that decided to block off a two-way and make it a one-way, y'know?"
"Eh, at least you're here now."

I told him the bear story and he laughed. "I just had a dream about a bear not too long ago. The bear was trying to get into my car, like, rip the roof off. He kept beating on it."
"Well, actually, I've done some research on bear totems since seeing this one," I said. "And what I've learned is that to see a bear in the wild or in a dream relates to hibernation. Bears are hibernatory, and the stuff I read said maybe you need to go into a period of hibernation, or maybe you need to come out of one."
"Seriously?" he asked. His face softened and became thoughtful. "That's funny. When I had that dream I was fresh out of rehab."


Post a Comment

<< Home