american dreams (and personal realities)

spiritual warfare:  a self-portrait.  albany, ny, 1997.

One night in March of 2003, I was jolted out of bed by a series of blinding lights on my television screen. Squinting in order to get a better look at the bombs bursting in air and the rocket's red glare, I was informed that the jam of the month had hit the airwaves: Operation Iraqi Freedom (The Gulf War Remix). Number one with a M.O.A.B. on American charts, slated for heavy rotation until DJ Tommy Franks takes the needle off the record.

I saw the truth stare back at me from a comic strip. It depicted Donald Rumsfeld sitting in a chair, pants around his ankles, pleasuring himself while watching explosions on four televisions (each broadcasting a different news station). Edging ever closer to climax, he shouted, "Burn, baby, burn!"

Less than 12 hours after Michael Moore pisses off everyone at the Oscars, I stand in front of my TV set bewildered as Wayne Brady gives a rousing "Yay For America" monologue to a studio audience full of stone-faced White people...all of whom look as if they're just waiting for the good Negro to forget his place. Their fears are soon put to rest as he stands center stage, belting out a rendition of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The U.S.A." And while I try not to dismiss it as another example of "shuck and jive" in the age of "shock and awe," I envision Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith standing before him in uniform, turning her back to this display of stars and stripes in song.

When Natalie Gilbert forgot the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" at that Portland Trailblazers game, I left the room. I figured that if a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Dixie Chick could get their CDs steamrolled, watch their album sales plummet, and receive death threats along with significantly less airplay, there was no way that that thirteen year-old girl was going to make it out of there alive. Thankfully, it didn't end that way. Much love to Maurice Cheeks for stepping in and helping out a young damsel in distress. They sang it together. Twenty thousand fans joined in soon after. It was one of those uniquely American moments that you see on the big screen - everybody wins. So why wasn't I smiling? Because somewhere in that crowd, there was at least one person that stomped on a Dixie Chicks CD, won't frequent a French restaurant, and told even the most eloquent of war protesters to keep their big mouths shut.

I'll be honest: I had patriots to the right of me, protesters to the left of me, and both were getting on my nerves. Seems as if nothing in this country can be done without a subsection of the population taking actions to the furthest extreme possible. As a result, staged die-ins occurred every hour on the hour by every leftist organization known to man - a few of whom still hadn't figured out their own agenda yet or used the confusion as the perfect time to bitch about unrelated matters in the public eye. Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, French cheese was thrown in the garbage, their wine ran like blood in the streets, and somewhere in America a star-spangled spud technician underneath the golden arches asked, "You want 'freedom fries' with that?" Apparently, turban surveillance wasn't enough: the United States decided to take up beret profiling as well.

The days soon began to run into each other, getting longer with each news report. Sandstorms against red clay made the Middle East look more like Mars. Comical Ali became the poster boy for positive thinking against all odds. A thousand dancers in Iraq collectively get their Fred Astaire on and did the liberation pogo atop the head of Saddam Hussein's statue. President Bush declares the war officially over on May first, but sniper bullets say otherwise. And as Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Desert Scorpion, which then morphs into Haven Denial; as NBC works diligently to bring the made-for-TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch to a small screen near you; as the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein are paraded throughout the media as symbolic trophies for a bad-ass administration, I find myself on the front line back home, facing a common enemy...

One day in June, the skies opened up on New York State and a voice said, "Welcome to Seattle." Every weekend that month was a washout. The sun would show up regularly on Monday morning just to be spiteful, which ultimately means nothing if you're unemployed. While soldiers continue to feel the aftereffects of the war in Iraq, I (like so many millions of Americans) fight a war of economics. Nobody enlists for this war, you just get drafted one day. My draft date was January 31, 2003. Persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed, my days are spent in attempts to master the art of being noticed. Caught in the vicious cycle of research-apply-reject, playing craps with keywords in cyberspace on company websites, I aspire to crack the code that triggers an acknowledgement of my existence.

I have recently renamed New York: welcome to CLUB DARWIN. "Survival of the fittest" is the only door policy. Nobody wants to frequent this place, but too many of us end up there through no fault of our own. And no matter how crowded the joint gets, it never seems to fill to capacity. There's always room for one more. Price of admission: pride, ego, tears, self esteem, whatever the NYPD decides to fine you for that day...the management's not picky.

A pivotal quote from a bishop's sermon has become the underlying theme to my dry season: "I don't care how holy you think you are, everybody has a breaking point. Pressure reveals character." Nowadays, these sentiments are more valid than ever. The pressures of everyday life have grown to a point where even those within their right minds have no problems doing the wrong thing. Given the right circumstances, we all could do what we said we'd never do. In desperate times such as these, never say never. At the end of the day, you just might.

Pressure will make a man bold enough to rob a bank or an armored car because they're tired of being thirty cents away from having a quarter. Pressure will make a woman beat a man to death with a high-heeled shoe because all she wanted was to be loved, but got lies instead. Pressure will make a soldier in Iraq say (on national television), "If Rumsfeld were here, I'd ask for his resignation," or off themselves before the snipers get to them first. The line between you and the extremist is frighteningly thin and in a world of extremes, we're all being pushed to the limit. So don't be so quick to judge whoever's being dragged away in handcuffs on the evening news; that person's liable to show up in your mirror someday...

I step off the number four train to be greeted by camouflage figures, machine guns in plain view by their sides, casually talking amongst themselves. It's a sight that I still haven't grown used to. I make my way towards an apartment complex near the FDR Drive for the only interview I've had since being laid off. While it went great, it raised as many questions in my mind as it answered. Afterwards, I sit by the waterside: the calm of the waves before me, the hustle and bustle of automobiles behind me. I began to ponder the struggles between the spirit and the flesh, working for personal fulfillment versus working to pay the bills, and the sobering reality that my life was never meant to be lived for myself.

A situation named "No Win" stares me in the face, a thug mug worn by countless hard rocks on any given day, Timberland boots laced and ready to leave prints on my face. Situation asks, with arms folded, "So now what?" I respond with silence, looking past a worse case scenario to watch motorboats carve through the Hudson River. The sun's rays make the waves glisten and sparkle like precious jewels, each one representing the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a sea of survivors that have yet to be fulfilled.

{jason randall smith}

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