There’s been some press this past week about Canada’s 150th “birthday. Our neighbor to the north was granted its independence from the United Kingdom in 1867 (the year the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia). As we celebrate our Independence Day weekend I thought back to 1976, when the United States celebrated its Bicentennial anniversary. Beginning January 1st, 1976 it culminated on July 4th in New York’s harbor with a veritable armada, waterspouts, & fireworks, as the rest of the country watched on TV and/or created their own celebrations. This led me to go through my files and dig out an essay I wrote in April 1976 when I was vacationing in Florida. It’s always interesting to look back at “who you were” (I was 27 during the Bicentennial) and what you were thinking. For my peer group, some of this may resonate and for younger readers, I hope it proves amusing, if not informative. So, this is my Independence Day weekend Blast --- a Blast from the Past, as it were. Thanks for reading.
Notes of a Naïve Son
My Bicentennial Florida Vacation
A tourist. What could be worse? There we sat, four of us, lobster-red, funny clothes, New York loud, and trying to be “natives.” It’s hard, you see, when your self-image --- your radical-Sixties, dope-smoking persona --- is hit squarely between the eyes by an ice cold Lum’s Michelob. Yes, four ex-hippies on vacation --- tourists --- true Americans in the Bicentennial. Not out there making revolution and not out there “making love, not war.” Out there at Lum’s. Sure, you smoke a little dope before you go in (hell, you can smoke a ton before you go in) but the bottom line is the same: tourists. Airfare. Dog races. Jai alai. The beach-sun-sand syndrome (ah, yes, the $400.00 tan). But always, always trying to remain “cool” --- “hip:” that “I’m down here to check it out, to visit my grandmother, not to be a ‘tourist’” exterior. But it’s a fraud. You’re here (for the second time) because you work a middle-class job and you had some middle- class time off, so you took a middle-class vacation. Southeast Florida. The Gold Coast; that West Palm-to-Miami strip. And all the while you’re cynical --- and even genuinely disliking it --- but you’re there, a tourist, and that’s what you dislike most. The incongruities, you see, close in quickly and you discover that “paradise” is actually a huge temperate suburb growing out of control. And that’s where our story begins.
Southeast Florida, along the Route 95 (or Route 1, or A-1A) corridor seems to have been planned by the same people who brought us Velveeta. It seems to have the substance of reality --- just as Velveeta looks like cheese (it’s the proper shape and color) --- and it even seems to have the feel of reality (Velveeta doesn’t quite spread --- like Cheez-Whiz --- but has to be cut, almost like real cheese). But when you bite it, when you start to really chew it and taste it, you realize: “This is a processed, pasteurized cheese food!” Indeed. It’s not real. And, in much the same way, Southeast Florida required a second visit for me to realize it was Velveeta.
Coming from the eastern suburbs of New York City it was easy for me to recognize Southeast Florida: it’s Long Island “grown up.” (Writer’s note: in 2017 we’d say, “on steroids”) If you were to take Long Island during its “summer trade” season, tilt it North/South (instead of leaving it on its East/West axis), inflate the whole thing and float it south, you’d have twin Floridas! On the voyage, though, you’d have to somehow remove everyone from ages 25 to 50 and hide them somewhere --- or alter their appearance above or below those ages. Blacks, of course, can be given shantytowns inland --- where the tourists (hopefully) won’t venture.
The abundance of “Senior Citizens” along this coast is almost overwhelming. There is far more blue hair per acre than green grass (the grass, by the way, is some rare form of crabgrass, legitimatized as “lawn” and sold in blocks of “sod”). Older people generally motor around in oversized American cars (with all the power options) advertised “as low as $5,128.00.” The residents seem to move about only in shopping malls, parking lots, and on the beaches. They move deliberately, with a motion generated by old habits. Many seem to be only memories moving about, in time to a clock with a different synch.
Shopping malls loom up on the horizons. Generally there are two or three “major” chain stores --- Mother Department Stores, really, which suckle the smaller shops (“boutique” seems a word invented for this environment) hovering about them. The malls are uniformly tasteless and offer the same basic pap every five or ten miles down major highways: two to three department stores, numerous shoe shops, several “men’s” stores, a number of “ladies boutiques”, a few card/gift/novelty/book stores and an endless array of fountains, indoor foliage (some real!) and other pieces of mall art/architecture. The single breakthrough that has caught the American imagination seems to be the idea that shops “open onto the Mall!” Voila! No doors! It’s not like walking down the street and shopping --- no cars, no noise, and, yes, no doors!
So, that’s the first half of the 1976 Bicentennial piece. Looking at it now, some 41 years later, it’s interesting to note that “$5128.oo” was considered expensive for an automobile (and power options was a big deal) and $400 could fund a Florida vacation. The last section describes a socio-cultural trend that was sweeping the country and reflected “white flight” from urban areas: the Mall. What could have been mentioned, along with the lack of noise and cars, was the added “safety” factor malls provided.
Parts VI through X of the Blast from the Past tomorrow.