It is true, this year we were not seated along Danville Boulevard cheering on the fire department, the Mustang Under-12 Soccer League girls, our favorite bleachy-smiled local real estate moguls, and the rich old guy from the Rotary Club with the stars-and-stripes-clad Porsche convertible. Nay, we were not lying on San Ramon Central Park’s perpetually moist grass waiting for the East Bay’s foremost Kool & The Gang’s Greatest Hits cover band to shut up so we could get through the “Proud To Be An American”-serenaded fireworks extravaganza our friends and girlfriends dragged us to. And neitherest of all were we curled up on the sofa dabbing our drippy eyes with Kleenex during Bill Pullman’s inspiring speech for TBS’ third or fourth showing of Independence Day that night.
But no distance from our patriotic hometown or palatable French Fries would stop us from reveling abroad in and generously sharing our love of Freedom with whosoever Democracy-less heathens we might encounter.
[Continued from 4th of July in Ladakh: Day]
So late that afternoon we rolled into the barren, Nevada-esque, snowy peak-encircled, 11,500-foot-high Leh, grabbed our packs, dodged some wastely garbage-munching cows and followed Neo and Trinity up the filthy reeking streets to Changspa, the traveler section of town, wished them a splendid 4th and parted ways.
On the third knock, Steve and I had found a cheap and tolerable room at the Tsavo guesthouse, tucked away in a Tibetan farmer enclave overrun with donkeys, calves, stray dogs and wayward old men. Dehydrated, malnourished, underslept, anally uneasy, and having climbed some several-thousand-odd feet in two days, we resolved that evening just to take it easy like The Eagles: relax, acclimatize, let our blood get used to nippin’ this lower-strength oxygen.
So we sauntered in search of some good ol’ Tibetan thentuk, the local answer to our beloved Campbell’s, our mini Stars and Stripes poking high out of our chest buttons, strutting Americanly past silky shawled whiteys, Hebrew-named cafes, bad acoustic attempts at Pink Floyd, and phony tourist information offices toward the main town, when suddenly we were accosted by a brown-haired fellow, taking our hands into his.
“Americans!” he half-asked with a characteristically Californiaesque cadence.
“You bet your balls, pal,” we confirmed. “Where’s your flag?”
“Dude! I don’t have one! I can’t believe you found those in India!”
“The hell we did! We brought ’em here. Hand carried.”
“From America. Wow. That’s… amazing. I wish I had, man. And wow, it is the 4th of July, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah. You know we could have your passport canceled for this.”
“Totally. Well, my name’s Max.”
It continued on thus, us pegging Max a commie, him laughing and quoting the puppets in Team America. Evidently, he mistook our Live-Free-Or-Die-Hardiness for sarcasm, because he ended up inviting us to a party. Ziwa Guesthouse, nightfall. “It’s not, like, an America party per se… No for sure there will be Americans there, and yeah we can celebrate! But it’ll be a celebration of all countries. Know what I mean?”
We did know what he meant. We’d heard about sordid gatherings like these in our Bush Youth classes. And we knew what we had to do.
At dusk we walked over, clutching our Flags like crucifixes at an exorcism, and climbed the stairs to the upper floor. Seeing the first room’s door open, we hid behind the wall and waved our Flags into the room. A chorus of “Huuuuh?”s rang from within. “Oh. No Max here? Sorry. Carry on.”
The next open door revealed an Israeli girl with whom Max had walked to the alcohol store. She greeted us, invited us in, and introduced us to Zoey, a punky outgoing chick from Las Vegas, Nevada, America. Apparently way too early, we spent the next hour or so blowing up balloons, wrapping crete paper, telling silly tales and getting bested at horrendous photograph boasting by Zoey, whose visit to Varanasi included an excursion to the side of the Ganges where all the charred rich people’s skeletons and river-bloated poor people’s bodies wash up. So far so good.
We migrated to the landing, where the gathering was beginning. Max showed up with his companion — also a Devon, except one with long blond hair, a “whooaaaaa cooool maaan”ish voice, and a guitar. Then some other dudes with guitars. A Canadian girl/woman who talked about feminism. A metallic-faced gothy girl. A pack of Israelis. For some reason, these kids listened to our stories, and they laughed pretty well. Still going good.
As dark got even darker, the procession climbed the ladder to the precariously wall-less dirt roof and formed a circle around a bottle each of Bagpiper Whiskey and Old Monk Rum, Indian classics. Concerned about our acclimatization, Steve and I had consulted the guide book. “Don’t do too much for the first few days,” it read. “Just relax and enjoy drinking in the deep beauty of nature.” Citing these exact words, I produced a tall bottle of Godfather Super Strong beer. Somehow, Steve interpreted them differently and produced a water bottle.
It took about five minutes for the Israelis to coagulate and abandon any English conversations. We kept the stories and jokes flowing to those who’d have ’em, frequently reminding all gathered of the Reason for the Season (America) either with our words or flags or both, but our popularity began to wane. Hippy Devon started singing. Others joined in. A skeletal Latvian woman detached herself to go spin light sticks. Annoying discussions flared up and down all around us. I continued drinking. And so the evening progressed.
Soon, all present were boozy or hashed out (or sufficiently hydrated) and getting more animated, silly, stupid and annoying, as people do. But just as Steve and I hit the bored/tired boundary, a pair of Brits sidled up to the circle, sat down, located the booze, confiscated it and immediately engaged in an isolationist, self-preservationist, alienating, brutish foreign policy towards the circlefolk.
Now here was a language we could speak!
Letting bygones be bygones, we agreed to forget about the Revolution if we could share in the spoils. Soon, together, we were ready to start culturally imperializin’. This was the impetus we’d been waiting for.
Hippy Devon announced he was going to play Hey Jude. That’s all I needed. I protested. He was taken aback; he wanted a reason. I told him: because that song sucks, and Paul McCartney was the worst Beatle. A dispute was raised. There was a back and forth. Several people one one side and, well, one on the other. After some breadth, it ended with one side telling the other, liquoredly thinking itself clever, that if they love Paul McCartney so much, why don’t they go and marry a one-legged gold-digger? That may have been the end right there, but just to be sure, Canadian girl/woman yelled across the circle a stringent “THAT’S ENOUGH!” And like with kindergartners who’d been bickering over a Tonka truck, it was.
At least until Max went back to Zoey and Steve for a fresh dose of pro-Americana. “You know what’s funny about Americans, is we can laugh at pretty much anything!” Seeing a window into a conversation he could enjoy, Steve jumped in, agreeing alongside Zoey. “Like dead baby jokes?” Max continued. “Those would never fly here.” Instantly, Steve was transported back to the seventh grade quad, where these each and every one had last been shared, chuckled at, then forgotten. When Max exhausted his repertoire, he shifted to black guy jokes. A Jew joke. Perhaps, Steve thought, they were entering the realm of irony, of postmodern antihumor, of things that were actually funny. But sick of guessing the obvious, mildly provocative punchlines, he offered one up:
“What would you call the Flintstones if they were black?”
The punchline, a single word, historically burdened, loathed and tabooed for its undying age-old controversy, used only by assholes and Mel Gibson, is not important. What is, is that Zoey and Max did not find it very funny. All irony was lost.
All but that of Max having proved himself wrong.
Steve tried out a few more anti-jokes, but to no avail. He tried explaining the American-ness of jokes that are so absurdly or inappropriately unfunny that the mere telling makes them funny. Meta-funny. He cited Tim And Eric Awesome Show: Great Job! Max concluded the discussion: “I hate that show.”
Across the circle Steve could’ve cited a real-time example. Hippy Devon had been coerced by Our Devon and the Brits into playing some American music for America Night. As he butchered the opening bit to Sweet Home Alabama, I figured he must know what a bunch of Confederate Lost-Cause racist assholes Lynyrd Skynyrd were and is therefore singing this to be ironic, to sarcastically embody a viewpoint we obviously find abhorrent for comedic effect. So when he couldn’t raise the words to the Neil Young verse, I helped him out:
“NEEEIL YOOOUNG IS A FAGGOT!
KEEP HIM OUUUUT OF THE SOUTH!
IF HE COOOMES TO AL-A-BAMA
I’LL PUT MY DIIICK IN HIS MOUTH! Badabada ba ba!”
Turned out that wasn’t what Hippy Devon was doing. At all.
It was about this time we noticed that all the English-speakers had discovered much more interesting storytellers and conversation partners than us two. Really, anyone besides us.
Except the pair of Brits. They thought Hippy Devon sang like a girl anyhow. So when we made noises about leaving, they pointed out the few remaining fingers of booze and reminded us of our implicit agreement to help hack them off. When we protested, citing fatigue, acclimatization, health, they went for the heart: they told us we were shaming the British heritage we’d told them about.
So we stayed. And we killed it. And then perhaps unconsciously I produced my Cowboy Poetry flask, harboring some grotesque concoction leftover from Nana George’s liquor cabinet, and we killed that, too.
When it was finished, Steve stood up to leave. Still unsatisfied, the tall one called Steve a pussy. “Well before I leave, then,” Steve countered, “would you give me a lesson on headbutting?”
“Yeah, like you guys do in pubs and Guy Ritchie films.”
The antagonism expertly diffused, the tall one stood up and put out his open palm. “Here. Hit it.” Steve did, as if it were a soccer ball. “Jesus Christ! That was fucking weak! Try it again. No, still weak. Do it again. OK, good enough. The way you do it is…”
Ready to go myself, I stepped over to walk back with Steve. But the tall one wanted me to give his palm a go. “Fuck, you’re even worse than your friend! No no, what would you do if someone got up in your face like this?” he demanded to know.
“I’d probably smack them in the dick.”
Wrong answer. All of a sudden I was down in the dirt, legs in the air like an overturned pillbug. It was instantaneous, yet somehow gentle, like he’d slowed down the slam just before impact to lay me down gingerly. Then just as quickly I was back on my feet. “Sorry, mate! Sorry! British people don’t, we’re not like this, I’m just drunk.”
Not taking the out, I replied, “Listen, it’s ok, man. But if you want to marry me, all you gotta do is slip a ring on my finger.” A moment passed. Then whoomp. Back on the ground, legs back in the air. Less gingerly this time.
Then up again and “Fuck, mate! Sorry. Sorry!” Hint taken, I checked to make sure my person and my affects were together. Camera was fine. Flask was dented, but that added character. But most importantly,
The Flag Was Still There.
And say did that Star Spangled Banner wave our asses right off that roof, away from the turned backs of heads, the bad singing, the glowstick-swinging, our welcome well overstayed, no goodbyes, no nothing.
But it just goes to show you: You can take these boys out of America, but you can’t take the America out of these boys.
Unless you’re a couple of large belligerent Britons hellbent for booze-thievery and headbutting. Then you can.