Letting The Freak Flag Fly

So I’m out for my daily penance which used to be as close to a trot as I could manage, degraded into a brisk walk and is now a limping slog. En route, I come to a house flying two small flags and one larger which is red, white and blue stripes but not in the French vertical direction, rather horizontal.

Then I saw a middle-aged guy rounding the corner of the house. I figured the flags meant he was a fan showing his allegiance in the World Cup or Tour de France. So I slowed down, extracted my ear buds and asked which team he was rooting for.

“No, it’s not that,” he said in a vaguely mittel-european accent. He was wearing shorts, something resembling a bowling shirt and a flat black leather hat, like John Lennon’s Breton fisherman’s cap or the motorcycle cap worn by Brando in “The Wild One” or the working man lid of the Hungarian tool and die maker father of my elementary school friend, Nelson Weber.

The homeowner explained the big flag was from the Netherlands. His sister brought it back as a souvenir when she went to Amsterdam to see the art. The others were Scotland and England that he had around the house. He hung them out because he figured they’d drive the neighbors crazy.

“You see,” he said, “They are like the Christian Taliban.” On either side of his, the houses sported campaign signs for an evangelical minister running for Congress on a cleanse the temple platform. Presumably the goal is to eliminate the need to render unto both Caesar and God or to separate church and state. One stop shopping.

“I keep them up because they don’t think any flag other than American should be allowed,” he said.

Bemused, I wished him good luck with his subversive project and ambled on. But I admit to being warmed by the encounter. Here was an instance of pure American cussedness, of contrariness, the refusal to go along with the conventional wisdom or prevailing ethos or expected orthodoxy. Refreshing since we’re living in an increasingly homogenized society where conformity is king.

Yes, there are often two (really antagonistic) sides to everything. But thanks to the so-called Big Sort, birds of a feather are more and more flocking together. Red states get redder and blue bluer. The affluent and educated roost in one neighborhood and school ystem, blue collar folks in another. Each gets his “news” from his own biased set of sources. There may be a couple parallel universes, but each is surprisingly uniform.

It didn’t used to be so. Greil Marcus, the music and cultural critic, once remarked that rock ‘n’ roll originated in “the old weird America,” before entering the middle of the road mainstream. It was a place where eccentrics and autodidacts were around every corner, free thinkers blossomed in backwoods and back streets, a new religion sprouted up once a week. A place where pockets of homemade regional culture refused to have their rough edges sanded down.

I remember catching a glimpse of a more patchwork America when browsing through the 1920 census page for the city street where my grandfather and grandmother lived when Harding was president. It gave the birthplace for each person and there were plenty that said USA. But it was striking that almost as many said Orange Free State, Italy, Prussia, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Montenegro. What a rich stew that neighborhood, those public schools, must have been.

Some believe the internet and burgeoning TV on demand will bring back a wild, grassroots diversity of opinion and expression. But until it happens, I liked seeing the guy in the bowling shirt and working class cap going his own way and giving a bit of epater to the local bourgeoisie.

Even better, instead of expressing his opposing sentiment in the usual either/or fashion by putting out the yard sign of the evangelical candidate’s opponent, he hung out the flag of the Netherlands. Excellent! Surrealist confusion to the conformists. It made me smile.

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