The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

A Tale of Two Cities

May 26, 2009

Memorial Day in Washington, and geese swimming in the great reflecting pool that reflects the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, depending on where you are standing, and busloads of tourists pulled up to the curbs. Heroic architecture everywhere, bas-relief sculptures of heroes, men on pedestals, monuments to Fidelity and Sacrifice and Devotion, and a milling crowd of people, many of whom are Hot and Irritable and Dazed with Tedium.

Signs of museum fatigue everywhere. Stone-faced couples in shorts walk by, cameras dangling from their wrists, who appear to be on the verge of divorce. Small children crouch whining and weeping who do not realize how close they are to being put up for adoption.

The smell of Vienna dogs and sauerkraut wafts around the Vietnam Memorial, and schoolkids in bright blue T-shirts circle around back of Mr. Lincoln under his grand pavilion to see if it is true that the face of Robert E. Lee appears in the whorls of Lincoln's hair (not), and people come into the white marble cave of the National Gallery to cool off and pretend to look at paintings.

I love Washington, a city reviled by the right even when they were in power but which inspires in me a simple patriotism not so different from what I felt in the fifth grade. One does feel elevated in a city that honors public service, which this one does, and not only on Memorial Day. And then I got on the train to New York, where public service is a remote abstraction, a sort of Higher Consciousness that is spoken of but rarely practiced.

In Washington, I watched a woman present awards to 12 students for their good work and stand next to each of them for the ceremonial photograph. The kids were goofy or sheepish or solemn, and the lady was exactly the same graceful smiling person in each picture — I told her afterward that I admired that and she said, "Well, it's their moment, not mine." Exactly. And there is the byword of public service, whether in the ranks of the uniformed or in a cubicle or at the White House: It's Not About Me. And in New York, it is. All About Me. Or sometimes about You and Me. It's not about you, I'm sorry.

New York is the original MySpace where you can go to put yourself out there and maybe become Famous, at least for a few minutes. Do something weird or funny and suddenly people are noticing you and maybe one of them will develop a big crush and now your Friday night is taken care of. Health care reform is not an issue, nor the war in Afghanistan, it's all about who I am and what I want and what is necessary for my happiness at this very moment.

It's been a liberal city since 1654, when a shipload of Jews arrived in a Dutch Reformed community, and they wanted to observe Rosh Hashanah, which was illegal in New York at the time, and the Dutch authorities said, "Well, why not? Go ahead." And they have been saying "Well, why not?" ever since.

And now, if you went out in the streets in your pink pajamas with a banana in your ear, New Yorkers would simply assume you must be very rich to be that eccentric, or that you're an artist making a fashion statement, or that you are up for first-degree manslaughter and going for the insanity defense. They'd be interested up to a point, but they wouldn't intervene or show you disgust or pity.

I was discussing this with relatives from the Midwest as we hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge Monday night, the great stone arches and the harp-like suspension cables so beautiful in the floodlights, the skyscrapers of Wall Street huddled together, yearning to breathe free, and the impassivity of passersby, the stone-faced women, the blank men. Not hostile, just impassive. It's meant to minimize interference and allow each other to be private in public.

There in lower Manhattan on 9/13, people were going to movies and sitting in cafes eating mussels and talking about their careers. Evil had shaken the world and busloads of firemen went by, to rake through the smoking ruins, and in the Village, the waiter brought out the linguini, and let me tell you about my screenplay, it's a sort of Coming of Age story of a guy my age. I have a hard copy if you want to read it.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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