Sunday in the park

Ah! A Feb­ru­ary day that looks and feels like spring. Even though this winter has been on the milder side, some­times in this dark month on the cal­en­dar it can seem as if spring will nev­er ar­rive.

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Ah! A Feb­ru­ary day that looks and feels like spring. Even though this winter has been on the milder side, some­times in this dark month on the cal­en­dar it can seem as if spring will nev­er ar­rive. Feb­ru­ary is the shortest month on the cal­en­dar, but emo­tion­ally it seems to be the longest month of all. So on this day, with the tem­per­at­ures push­ing 70, Ritten­house Square pulsed with life. Feb­ru­ary had turned in­to May.

It was as if the word had gone out across the city and people came pour­ing out of their winter bunkers to come to­geth­er to cel­eb­rate be­ing alive. We wandered through the park over­flow­ing with people (un­for­tu­nately the trash cans were also over­flow­ing). Young people, old people, gays and straights, black and white and folks of all shades in between had gathered. A crazy quilt of hu­man­ity. People walk­ing little dogs and big dogs. Push­ing strollers. Fath­ers car­ry­ing chil­dren on their shoulders. Lov­ers hold­ing hands. Older folks walk­ing with canes. Kids perched on the con­crete rail­ings. Oth­ers sit­ting on park benches eat­ing frozen yogurt or sand­wiches. Some of the crowd already wore shorts and flip flops — at least the more youth­ful did. Oth­ers were still trapped in the in­su­lated jack­ets of winter, look­ing fool­ishly out of place. A light breeze play­fully fooled us in­to think­ing we were 20 years young­er than we really are.

At one end of the square, a young man in bare feet strummed an acous­tic gui­tar and sang James Taylor songs ri­dicu­lously off key. Only on a day such as this could his mangled rendi­tion of “Coun­try Roads” be for­giv­en. At the oth­er end of the square, you could hear the brass sounds of New Or­leans Dixie­land, and that’s where we headed.

A big crowd had gathered as five men dressed form­ally in black played their joy­ful mu­sic. Some wo­men stepped in and began to dance to the rag­time—not all of them young. Their hap­pi­ness was in­fec­tious. One of the young people took selfies while dan­cing. No doubt they would soon ap­pear on her Face­book page.   When the band began to play the in­ev­it­able “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” one young man stepped in­to the circle and helped sing the re­frain while he stepped lightly with the head jazz mas­ter. We saw friends in the crowd and waved.

Five or six young black men jumped in­to the circle, as if on cue (and in ret­ro­spect I guess there had been some kind of sig­nal). Their dan­cing owed as much to their won­der­ful gym­nastics abil­ity as Terp­si­chore. The crowd clapped in rhythm. The French Quarter and Bour­bon Street had been ma­gic­ally trans­por­ted to Ritten­house Square. Dur­ing a break in their per­form­ance, the dan­cers so­li­cited con­tri­bu­tions from the crowd with a good-natured rap that as­sured us that though black, they were un­armed and posed no threat. My wife and some oth­ers dropped dol­lar bills in­to the hat be­ing passed. The dan­cers and mu­si­cians had earned it. They were our pied pipers, and we were thrilled to be their fol­low­ers in the mo­ment.

We were lucky to find space on a park bench as the band and the dan­cers dis­solved and moved to an­oth­er en­trance of the square. Snuggled to­geth­er, we marveled at the passing parade. We wondered aloud at the crowd’s di­versity. Di­versity has got­ten such a bad rap. Di­versity has be­come a word used to con­note an ar­ti­fi­cial quota. Or di­versity is simply mocked by some in this age of cyn­icism and feared by oth­ers. But in Ritten­house Square on this beau­ti­ful Sunday, di­versity had shown its true mean­ing. We were ex­per­i­en­cing a re­mind­er that di­versity can be real. And when it is real, di­versity is a gor­geous thing — a thing that is what really makes Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al. Maybe this was only an il­lu­sion like the spring-like tem­per­at­ures in the heart of winter. Maybe di­versity is only something that you can find in the City — in Ritten­house Square, where the at­mo­sphere is non-threat­en­ing. Where it is even wel­com­ing. Maybe this ma­gic­al Sunday is only just that, a ma­gic trick played by the mind — a hope rather than a real­ity — like the first black man be­com­ing pres­id­ent and be­ing re­placed by in­suf­fer­able smug­ness and en­ti­tle­ment — a re­turn to yes­ter­day. But neither my wife nor I think so. On this Sunday in the park, it was pos­sible to be­lieve. 

We need to be­lieve this day is real for our lives to have mean­ing — for the fu­ture to have mean­ing. And as corny as it sounds, the words of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Chan­gin’” sneak in­to my mind. The dark­ness that has des­cen­ded on our body polit­ic is but a tem­por­ary set­back. Pro­gress does not flow in a straight line. What is hap­pen­ing across this coun­try em­an­at­ing from Wash­ing­ton is just an at­tempt to roll back the tide. Maybe what we’re feel­ing in the park is “the au­da­city of hope” as Obama called it. But in our au­da­city, as I watch the multi-colored rain­bow that sur­rounds us in Ritten­house Square on this ma­gic­al Sunday, I sense the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity of these time­less waves that sweep to­ward us.

Those who try to stop the waves stand at the wa­ter’s edge. They be­lieve that they can hold back the tide with a wave of their hands. They an­grily shout. And while they stub­bornly stand there, the tide rolls over them. 


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You can reach at tcardella@southphillyreview.com.