Yesterday, I was an invitee at the inauguration of Albany’s new mayor, Kathy Sheehan. After 43 years here, it was the first time I didn’t feel like some kind of outsider. Indeed, what struck me about the event was the broadness of representation (especially the great number of blacks commingled): not a segment of the city, but the whole city, as it were, come together as a community celebrating our new day.
I sat next to a former black elected official, outspokenly left-wing; but she recited the pledge of allegiance, and even sang along with the national anthem, without irony.
Much was made of Sheehan’s being our first woman mayor, and in her speech she spoke of diversity’s virtues. “E pluribus unum” (“one out of many”) is our national motto; and I take it to heart, as one who is here only because some other country had a very different attitude. The Albany inaugural event was an embodiment of that motto’s spirit. While the simultaneous mayoral installation in New York City was striking a different note: not of inclusivity but divisiveness, all but declaring some citizens the enemies of the rest; to me an echo of that other country.
At the reception I was glad to encounter newly elected city councilman and community activist Mark Robinson. I told him my name and that I didn’t think we’re related (he’s black). Then I said, “I only know about you from the newspaper. But I think it’s a great country altogether when you could go from where you’ve been to where you are today.”
He seemed deeply appreciative. Where he’d once been, in fact, was prison, for drug dealing. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “There are no second acts in American life”?
“A great country altogether” is actually another line from literature, the penultimate line from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He said it about America, upon his arrival here at last, for something seemingly frivolous that greeted him. But that surface frivolity bespoke something far deeper about the character of this country that, again, was much in evidence at our inaugural event. We are a free people; and a community of free people. The two ideas are not antithetical.
Pertinent to this theme, with another attendee I compared notes about the New Year’s Eve party we’d both been to, hosted by our mutual friend Geraldine, formerly Gerald.*
“I think there were only three males,” I said, “best I could tell.”
“Well, let’s see: you . . . Jack . . . and Melissa.”
“So Melissa is still a man? OK; but what about Ryan?”
“Ryan is a girl.”
“I thought so too, until he was introduced to me as Melissa’s son.”
“That’s because Ryan is becoming male — while her father is doing the opposite.”
Melissa’s wife was there too; as well as another cheerful married female couple, of whom one had apparently started as husband.
Welcome to Twenty-first Century America.
Not that all this is exactly normal. But the better word to use is common. It isn’t common, of course, but it’s up to the individual to choose how to live, and that includes the most essential aspects of our identities. And in this country, in this time, at long last, glory Hallelujah, people can do exactly that. There were some straight people at the party too but we all had a fine time together.
Isn’t this a great country altogether?
*The names in this story are changed.