A country band from New Mexico mounts the flatbed truck turned stage adorned with red, white, and blue bunting and a cloth banner with the word 'welcome' stitched into it that hangs down barely grazing the dirt lot next to the public park. At this point the line for food (a set of aluminum pans filled with beans, fish, hot dogs, and fries) stretches past the bouncy houses and to the covered picnic bench set atop a concrete slab. Behind the park's toilet facilities several large metal pots full of oil and heated by well tended wood fires in their lower chambers give off immense heat as a group of men from the volunteer fire department keep the food coming and rib one another about this or that the way some men do when they feel affection.
Several of the men chat with us and one spends a while telling us about his family's multi-generational history in the town. We talk about differences and about resistance to change. He tells a story about his grandfather housing and employing a Japanese family for about fifteen years around World War II, even as others lived in internment camps in this area. His grandfather considered them family and stayed in touch long after they ultimately returned to California. He offers this as a story about how, when you know people personally who are supposedly 'enemies', it becomes clear that nothing is quite so simple. It is totally relevant and exactly the kind of argument I would make against the 'Muslim ban' or 'The Wall'. I admire the progressive values of the story and his grandfather's humanity. Still, as he tells the story he uses the word 'Jap' to describe the family repeatedly. He says it plainly and without malice. It's a word I don't think I've ever actually heard someone say in conversation. My guess is it is the same word his grandfather used to describe these dear friends he cared so much about.
That is the kind of paradox I experience over and over again here. Points of connection and shared values rise up and I thrill at the discovery. Then a word or idea or bias or assumption gets dropped in and adulterates the mixture. Do I focus on the points of connection? Do I challenge the use of language? How do I help him see what we share without shutting him down through 'correction' or pretending that there aren't real disagreements. I told myself my mission was to spend time learning more about the places most different from New York and how their lives and values and histories contribute and lead to some of the thinking and politics that feel so foreign to me. At the same time, I know part of that is finding a way into conversations that don't shut people down by proving what they might suppose - that I'm some judgmental costal elite that is here to police their thoughts and look down on their way of life.
He, like many, is puzzled by the very idea of living somewhere like New York City. Many can't fathom having a desire to even visit a place they perceive as so crowded and dangerous. My stories of giant parks to get lost in and neighborhoods and kindness and other ways to form community than geographic proximity are revelatory and inscrutable in turn.
For days now the men I meet tell me I have to try "cat fries" at the 4th of July event. I don't know what these are. I'm sure they aren't cats, but I'm also sure they aren't vegetarian. One guy runs up now with a paper basket full of irregular breaded nuggets of some kind and offers me one. He eats one and holds another out to me. I politely decline, but that isn't going to be sufficient. I out myself as a vegetarian... which doesn't seem to strike him as relevant to this particular situation. He's sure I can try one. Eventually he gives up when I learn that "cat fries" is a euphemistic name for fried and breaded bull testicles. Back home in New York this interaction would feel cruel or disrespectful. This man isn't either. I find out later he's married and a step-dad to two kids. After his first date with his now wife he had to take a trip out of the country. On his first day back in town he showed up at 6:45am to her house with t-shirts for her and her kids. He was too excited to see her to wait until a reasonable hour. She raves about what a kind man he is and how different he is than so many others that treated a single mom like a, "piece of meat." He couldn't care less if I eat bull testicles or not. It was about trying to share something local with a stranger to make him feel more like a part of the community.
We circle the park once to get a sense of the event. Doing this in a town where you are told everyone knows everyone else feels a bit like a coming out party. There are three kinds of responses: disinterest, interest, and intense interest. We've been here nearly a week and at this point people know my name everywhere I go without introduction. It is a feeling of minor celebrity, though hard to own or feel much about because it was earned merely through existence.
I want badly to spend $5 to throw six balls at the dunk tank. The price, though a bit steep, isn't what stops me. Nor is it empathy towards the target. The man is already drenched and seems good natured about the whole thing. We overhear that he is the local principal, which makes sense. It certainly explains the long line of young kids throwing with a kind of glee reserved for guiltless revenge. Mostly I'm stopped by a fear of failure. It is one thing for some ten year old to miss and then be given the consolation of having gotten 'close enough' so they allow him to push the target by hand and plunge a local authority into the giant plastic tub. It is entirely another thing for the New Yorker to step up with his Keen sandals, Goorin Brothers hat, and two theatre degrees and fail to hit the mark.
I see my fear play out when a local family plops down to watch. A serious looking dad and two teen children set their folding chairs down front and center. There is a small dance of what chair goes where and who sits in which. The reasons for these adjustment are mysterious - all the chairs are identical. The teen girl is tall and strapping. She carries a kind of robust confidence without much effort or pride. The teen boy has that tell-tale curve in his upper spine and slightly shaggy hair that telegraphs he spends many walks down school hallways with eyes aimed at the floor trying to be invisible. I immediately feel a kind of sympathy for him. The park is full of big men with big hats or voices or both. Many of these are men who work outside and spend their days yelling over the sound of machines or across distances. They drive big machines. They train or handle or kill big animals. Their bodies are their office and their paycheck. The boy is not one of these men. He gets up to take a turn dunking the principal and I feel worried for him. His first pitch is wide. No worries, these are not exactly regulation baseballs or anything. Anyone would have to learn their weight and how they fly. The second one is high. Very high actually. It might have been better if each throw after that was a kind of learning process getting him closer to the target. Instead he settles into a rhythm of equally wide throws - a maddeningly inept consistency. After the last one he turns to walk away and the mom of a small child gives him a retroactive tip that is as useless as it is embarrassing. As he arrives back to his family he lifts his eyes and says to his dad, "I told ya I can't throw. I never could!" He says it with a laugh, but there is enough edge in his voice that he doesn't get the kind of ribbing the men here usually give one another about minor failures or mistakes. The teasing would feel too true.
Just about the time that blip of embarrassment was fading his sister got up to take a turn. Immediately this seems bad. Even the way she paid her $5 has a kind of flourish and expertise. The first throw misses, but hits closer than her brother ever did and smacks the canvas backing with a whack that reverberates and makes her potential victim take notice. It is either the second or third ball that lands hard at the center of the target and dunks the principal to the laughter of the crowd. It gets worse. She's only used half her throws and manages to dunk him a second time before it is through. Her victory lap back to the family includes at least one high five. Her brother doesn't look up.
We end the night with fireworks. In Oklahoma fireworks are legal and ubiquitous. My teen years included some amateur fireworks displays in New Jersey of questionable legality. I always reassured myself that it couldn't really be so bad if UPS delivered them and allowed underage kids to sign for the package. That was, of course, before 9/11 and I suspect mail order explosives are harder to come by now. Not so here. Rather than having a town sponsored professional display there is an unpaved lot between the park and the high school football field that is designated for a kind of crowd sourced fireworks demonstration. We light off many, basking in the guilt free feeling that comes from doing something that is entirely legal where you are but illegal where you're from. I remember my dad and I meticulously planning shows in our backyard, focused on the best order for the fireworks for maximum effect. He understood theatrical structure without realizing it. I have one of those moments you have when you lose a parent - that ache to call and tell them something so very small.
The sunset is an event here. There's rarely something to block the view and very little to destroy the awesome vastness of the night sky as it appears. We watch the cars depart, nearly all pick-up trucks with their lights sweeping the thinning crowd as they turn to go. I have not been here long but I do see a piece of what they love. I can just now begin to imagine how a television full of hundreds of stations of people who don't sound like them in places that don't look like home and with lives and ideas nobody around them shares seems like a kind of lifestyle siege. Many told me that independence means freedom to live the way you want without others imposing their values on you. I think a lot of liberals like me basically agree. Sometimes though, no matter how big the country is, we will find ourselves standing face to face both wanting our liberty right then and there. In those moments, who gets to be free?
Scott Illingworth is an Assistant Arts Professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a freelance theatre director.