A desperate need to express individuality propels many Americans these days. With a gaudy assortment of embellishments tattoos, dreadlocks, metallic fixtures inserted in the skin, even branding iron insignias that only cattle used to sport people are obsessed with making a statement: I am I.
Middle-aged people go about with their hair dyed in Kool-Aid hues. The cashier in any backwater convenience store can be expected to have a ring in her nose. Turn a clean-cut businessman around and you're likely to discover a cute little pigtail hanging from the nape of his neck.
There's a kind of aggressiveness to some of these statements. Notice me or else. The noisiness of people today is a kindred phenomenon. It's all part of our "just do it," in-your-face, smashmouth world. Though recognition obtained this way is ephemeral and anonymous, it seems to serve some longing for self-affirmation. Who knows, it may help some answer doubts about the reality of their existence.
It didn't used to be so. In the '50s, conformity was the thing. People didn't want to stand out because they might be subject to criticism. Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge couldn't bring himself to wear a plaid shirt. A photo of the crowd leaving a Kansas City Blues baseball game shows all the men in uniform: fedoras, white shirts and ties. Of course, that era has been written off as bland, uptight and repressive. The man with the button-down shirt had a closed mind.
The only tattoo I ever saw when I was growing up was on the arm of a Toddle House cook. Back then, a tattoo signified a drunken night on military leave in some exotic port. Today, tattoos are as commonplace as argyle socks used to be. Without a tattoo, you look like some kind of weirdo.
The funny thing is that bizarre appearance has become so commonplace it's lost its power to shock. A mauve, waxed mohawk hairdo doesn't get a second look. Someone who showed up today in '50s attire, body unpierced and innocent of tattoos, would foment a sensation, if not a riot
We were talking about these deep matters the other evening as we strolled around downtown Lawrence, a showcase for the human body as a canvas for self-expression. Fate led us to South Park, where the Wednesday evening concert was in progress.
At once, we felt transported back to the Eisenhower years. Senior citizens on their lawn chairs wore faint smiles of nostalgia as they listened to the Lawrence City Band serving up classical music and show tunes. Little children followed a clown, marching to the beat of the "Elephant's Tango." A group of teenagers teenagers! played leap-frog. A man slept on the grass beside his lawnmower. A juggler who could have stepped out of a medieval fair dazzled spectators with flying balls and pins. A young ballerina practiced her glissades and pirouettes. A couple even pedaled past on a bicycle built for two. The emcee gave Italian a midwestern spin when he announced, "La Forza del Destino Overture." I didn't see a single person wearing a dog collar with metal spikes.
It made you feel like shaking your head: Could this really be happening? It was so normal, so peaceful, so '50s, you felt it had to be staged. Perhaps the participants were actors hired for a Chamber of Commerce, "We've Got it Good in Lawrence," promotion.
Surely a gang of Skinheads or Hells Angels would appear at any moment to break up this unabashed enjoyment of the simple, wholesome things of life. Surely some iconoclast starved for recognition would start shouting slogans or obscenities. But nothing of the sort happened. The folks who'd showed up seemed to have no agenda other than old-fashioned fun. Nor did anyone seem bored by this quaint form of amusement without an edge of nastiness or irony. Where were their bad manners? Had no one told them that this is the Age of Incivility?
It evoked a time when there wasn't as much entertainment as there is today, when you didn't have to offer naked bodies, exploding cars, screaming wrestlers or vain celebrities to hold an audience's attention, a time before television when listening to the Boston Pops, Inner Sanctum or the Cisco Kid on radio passed for a rollicking good time.
"The world is ugly and the people are sad," wrote some poet. That would have been news to the people in the park that evening. On our way home, we stopped by Sylas and Maddy's, where the ice cream is homemade and they roll their own cones. It was an apt ending to an idyllic night. Cars with thumping bass amplifiers had not yet begun dragging Massachusetts Street. The lonely crowd who sit in the backs of pickup trucks to see and be seen a farmers market of souls had not yet showed up. The twilight was soft, a welcome coolness in the evening air. It was one of those moments you longed to clasp, a moment that might have compelled Faust himself to murmur, "Ah, linger on, thou art, so fair."