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A Philadelphia Story, Part 1

“Thus in the varicose town/where eyes splintered the night with glass/the children touched at random/sat in places where legions rode…”–from “Philadelphia: Spring, 1985,” Sonia Sanchez

I spent this Independence Day in Gambier, OH, where the Fourth of July parade–complete with tractors, fire trucks, and local puppies–was washed out by a thunderstorm that never arrived. It was a holiday without fanfare or fireworks, which seemed appropriate for a nation that is often criticized for its arrogance and ignorance. What was there to celebrate at a time when many people had to choose either gasoline or food?

And then there was Philadelphia in July.

At first the city reminded me of everything I can’t stand about urban life in the United States. I had to park my car on the second floor of a dark lot, and I had to pay $18 a day for the privilege. As I walked the streets surrounding City Hall, I had to sidestep murky puddles at the curb. The whoosh of buses, the chorus of taxi horns, the constant buzz of traffic lights on the job gave me a headache before I reached the hotel.

Of course, perceptions can change in the sobering light of day. I took a walking tour of the city, starting with Independence Hall. I had to secure a ticket at the visitors’ center across the street, and I had to wait in line. For a moment, I thought I was going to see the Founding Fathers in Concert (which, I imagine, would sound a great deal like Journey or Foreigner in Concert. That is, it would sound awesome).

The tour guide led the crowd into a room with a painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Her talk felt a great deal like my fifth grade social studies class. The girls sitting next to me sniggered and rolled their eyes at the tour guide’s enthusiasm, and I found I’d forgotten most of the major details surrounding how this country came to declare its independence in the first place.

And then, inadvertently, I recovered the appreciation I didn’t know I had for this country. It wasn’t about the high and sometimes vague concept of freedom. The tour guide said the Declaration of Independence is a “statement of accountability” for Americans, that there have been moments in history when we’ve had to answer to our claims that we hold certain truths about humanity to be self-evident.

“We Americans always say, ‘Put it in writing,'” the tour guide said. I’d always taken that phrase for granted, the kind of thing we say when we’re working out the details of a personal loan. Now I see that this is a country that believes in writing, in the power of language to keep us bound to our values and principles.

We honor the word just as we struggle with its mutability. And it’s a curious and fascinating struggle as we wonder what the original authors of this country intended when they first took the quill to the parchment. With that in mind, I celebrated this country nearly a month after a washed out Fourth of July…