Saturday in the Park

Reflections on fear and faith at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Click image to see signs from the rally
Click image to see signs from the rally

For Melina Hudson

Sitting on a packed Greyhound bus on Friday night, somewhere between Port Authority and Union Station, I panicked. I couldn’t breathe; my cell phone was about to die. I was even thankful that the guy next to me was asleep and drooling; that was better than him witnessing the unmedicated panic attack of the person sitting beside him — a bipartisan, underemployed thirtysomething who had never been to a rally before. I’m claustrophobic and anxious about crowds, germs and public transportation. I’m as leery of the concept of Port-O-Potties as I am about attending events that require them. Why attend the “Rally to Restore Sanity” if it meant forsaking my own?

The thing is, I had waited such a long time for Saturday.

Those of us with panic disorder generally like to know what we’re in for beforehand. On the way to D.C., no one knew. Was this undefined and/or unprecedented rally going to be political or sarcastic?

Every possible scenario came to mind. I envisioned being screamed at by officers on horseback or trampled upon by angry hipsters wearing ironic Halloween costumes (the guy stapling Lipton Tea bags to his pea coat comes to mind). I imagined holistic hippies selling vegan muffins and self-published copies of Eat, Pray, Shop. I pictured people screaming at each other, being handcuffed and thrown against police cars, and a media circus capturing it all on camera. Cops meets Saturday Night Live meets C-SPAN.

Guess what? None of these fears were realized.

“I grew up during Columbine and September 11th,” said Kevin, a 23-year old recent college graduate. “All that the Y generation knows is fear.”

As I looked around the National Mall on Saturday, the mid-morning sun was shining and the crowd was composed. People marched toward our nation’s capital armed with weapons of self-destruction: large cups of coffee; their dogs and kids; bags of bagels and donuts; cell phones and cameras; hand sanitizer. The panic started to subside when I realized I might actually be among kindred spirits. A collective feeling of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” settled in. Here we were, the Comedy Central party; the quiet masses, united by the radical perspective of “live and let live.”

Saturday at the National Mall may have foreshadowed November 4th, but it certainly felt more like the 4th of July. The atmosphere at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear reflected the lyrics of the old Chicago song “Saturday in the Park.”

“People talking, really smiling
People reaching, people touching
a real celebration.”

And I was definitely digging it.

Americans traveled to D.C. from all parts of the country, even if many of us weren’t completely sure why. We had faith that something important was happening; it was. Stewart and Colbert essentially said that “a real celebration would be waiting for us all” in Washington if we wanted it — really wanted it. Two hundred thousand of us did.

Shelter from the storm

Stewart and Colbert became the respective favorite uncle who doesn’t fit well with the other adults at the family reunion and chooses to sit at the kids’ table. The misfits hosted the party this time, and they didn’t care whether or not the other relatives approved. They said to their children, “All is not lost.”

Recent college graduate Kevin Kirby
23-year-old recent graduate Kevin Kirby

“These are hard times,” said Stewart. “Not end times.” Maybe we can’t predict tomorrow’s forecast, but we can choose how to react. On Saturday afternoon, 200,000 Americans chose to laugh.

“The voices of people who don’t scream” walked tall and carried big signs. Signs that said things like: “I can see the real America from my house” “More Wag. Less Bark.” “I’m even tempered as Hell!” “A wrap is NOT a sandwich.” “I like tea and you’re kind of ruining it for me.” “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” “There is nothing to fear except fear itself; and cat people.”

The Busted Halo staff took a particular liking to the sign that featured a drawing of Jesus with the words, “Actually, that’s not what I said.”

Comedy Central has been criticized for making light of dark times in American. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert did not bring about these times; their humor provides a respite from them. Comedy and tragedy have always been two sides of the same coin; this really hit home when I met Kevin Kirby.

“I grew up during Columbine and September 11th,” said Kevin, a 23-year old recent college graduate from New Jersey. “All that the Y generation knows is fear,” he said. His statement struck me; it made my own coming of age in the 1980s seem like a Disney movie. Yes, we had Star Wars and big hair to contend with, but my prevalent fears back then were that my family would be the last one on the block to get a VHS and the first to participate in the Nestle boycott, not that a classmate on the way to Geometry might shoot me. Growing up, the “tragedies” of my life were personal and not political; receiving the album Godspell for Christmas when I specifically asked for Thriller wasn’t exactly cause for therapy.

When the relative security of my childhood ended in December 1988, I hadn’t seen it coming. I was 16 and the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland carrying 243 passengers was linked to terrorism — a word not yet in my vocabulary. It wasn’t just the act itself that scared me. It was the televised images of the caskets being carried off of military planes at JFK, knowing that one of my friends was among them. Melina was also 16. She was coming home for Christmas after spending the semester at Oxford. When I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 to the television coverage of the second plane hitting the towers, it was Melina’s face that I saw.

“People talking, really smiling”

Much of the 18-to-30 demographic cites The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as their only news sources, possibly because their post-9/11 coming-of-age memories are of an international sense of doomsday. Colbert and Stewart provide them with what their childhood failed to: a laugh.

I’m grateful that the first 16 years of my life were terrorist-free. The teenagers and twentysomethings of today don’t share that luxury. Kevin spoke for millions of other young Americans. Gen X pondered the puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube; Generation Y stayed up nights wondering where the hell the weapons of mass destruction were hiding and whether the WMDs would end the world before global warming did? The same kids had to worry whether their Halloween candy was laden with anthrax. Even the Fluffernutters in their lunchboxes were cause for red alert: along with the axis of evil, now they had to fear peanut oil.

Much of the 18-to-30 demographic cites The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as their only news sources, possibly because their post-9/11 coming-of-age memories are of an international sense of doomsday. Colbert and Stewart are the heroes of their proverbial tales because they provide them with what their childhood failed to: a laugh.

For the last week, I’ve wondered what it would be like to live in a world that wasn’t divided by racial and religious differences, sensationalism and fear. Our country was founded because the first Americans fought for independence from oppression, yet now it’s as if we’re a nation of Capulets and Montagues, divided by feuding and the need to be right. We’ve pledged our allegiance to the power of taking sides.

“All we’ve known is fear…” Is the inability to seek peace going to inflict the same fate upon our nation’s children as it did Romeo and Juliet?

For three brief hours last Saturday in Washington, DC, it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, red state or blue state, Democrat or Republican, gluten-free or carb-eating. Because we were all one nation under God.

And there was nothing to fear.

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