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Some dreams and delusions about America


NEW YORK -- Something nice is happening on the radio. On this Memorial Day weekend, a disc jockey with the sentimental heart of a patriot is playing music from some other America.

It's the America in which we all want to believe but sometimes don't. It's the America of bravery and romance, and of shining cities, and it's the America where everybody gets a fair shot.

But it's the America we sometimes feel too cynical to imagine anymore. Here's the kicker: It's a foreign-language radio station, 105.9 on this city's FM dial. You hear the voice of the disc jockey for the first time after he's played "America" and "Over There," and he's talking to his audience in Spanish.

Much of it, I couldn't figure out (being as I only had three years of public school Spanish), but certain root words travel in any language.

In a voice throbbing with emotion, he's talking about freedom and democracy. It's the immigrant's ancient yearning for the things we have in this country that much of the rest of the world only dreams about.

Sometimes, dreams fade. One year ago, in the afterglow of what seemed like victory in the Persian Gulf, millions of people gathered along this city's Broadway Canyon of Heroes for a parade that signified not only an outpouring of love but a rebirth of American self-confidence.

On this Memorial Day weekend of 1992, for the first time in 73 years, there is no parade at all, only a wreath-laying, a few simple speeches, the playing of "Taps."

Like many American cities struggling to survive a dozen years of criminal White House neglect, this one moves between elation and exhaustion, between the glitter of its theater district (top prices are now $60 a ticket) to the squalor of people who sit on street corners with signs saying, "I need money for food. I have AIDS."

In the length of a cab ride, you move from the glitz of the Trump Tower to an unconscious man on a Bleeker Street bench.

The Trump Tower is symbolic of this city: lots of sparkle, lots of ostentatiousness, in hopes that nobody notices the bill collectors banging at the door.

The man on Bleeker Street is the vision of what happens after the money men have fled.

He's sitting in this shaded little Greenwich Village park, maybe 25 yards long and 25 wide, with benches arranged in an L-shape and people engaged in gentle mid-afternoon patter.

The guy isn't wearing a shred of clothing. Head back, arms outstretched across the back of the bench, a modern urban vision of the crucifixion itself, he's utterly oblivious to all around him.

What's more, all around him are utterly oblivious to him. They chat with each other, and play checkers. A nearby basketball game draws a crowd. People walk past the man on the bench, some of them holding their children.

Nobody complains, not even the cops, who have other things on their minds.

It's just one of those things that happens in the City of New York, which is always a few years ahead of the rest of the country: a leader of parades when we wish to celebrate ourselves, a dark preview of coming attractions during the desperate hours.

It's gotten pretty desperate around here.

At City Hall, they talk of the need to spend $200 million for shelters for the homeless. This begs a certain question about those who live in actual homes. The Department of City Planning says one in every seven children here lives in a household headed by neither parent.

Those nice men in the White House are naturally cashing in on this. Not on the homeless, whom they wish would merely go away so that nobody would notice them in an election year, but all those in homes not consisting of traditional families.

The nice men speak of "family values" and say it with a little wink. It is, of course, a code word for race, the reminder of black families who have not kept their families intact.

Therefore, goes the implication, they are responsible for their own conditions which made them riot a few weeks ago.

The beating of Rodney King had nothing at all to do with setting the spark. The utter neglect of cities had nothing to do with it. The willful dividing of rich from poor had no part. Family values is all.

There is a germ of truth to some of this, but not the way the nice men in the White House tell it.

They absolve themselves of all responsibility. They kiss off the frustration and anger caused by their own years of kissing off urban America.

What's more, they send the following message to white suburbia: Those people who live in cities are different than us. We're the ones to protect you from them. Those people who live in cities don't share our values any more than (wink, wink) Willie Horton did. We'll keep them from you. Those people who live in cities don't look like us or talk like us.

But then you hear the Spanish-speaking voice on the New York radio. It doesn't sound like most Americans, true enough. But it seems to be saying the same things as most Americans, the stuff of shared values, of romantic notions of the American melting pot, of the things that should bind us together instead of pulling us apart.

How nice that a disc jockey can find those words in his heart, even if the nice men in the White House can't.

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