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.