Mid-September, Sunday morning. The fire station is a functional, roomy, building, probably built in the 1970s or 80s. The room we’re in a large and looks like a drill room or muster area, but today it’s filled with families, straight from church or a Sunday stroll, and we’re having breakfast!
This is the town of Sag Harbor on the east end of Long Island, New York, surrounded by the sea on all sides, and half covered by it by the force of Super Storm Sandy last week. In the winter this old Whaling port has 5000 residents, but in Summer this can be as much as 15000. ‘Sag’ is on the edge of ‘The Hamptons’, but fighting strongly to resist becoming enveloped by all that faux aristocratic nonsense.
After whaling, the town became a blue collar, working settlement. The Bulova watch company was a major employer for many years, as was the Grumman Aircraft Corporation. Now long gone, their exit meant hard times for the town, but, from the negatives came positives, and perhaps the years of struggle helped preserve the soul of Sag Harbor, not just architecturally – and it still has a main street where you might expect to bump into Jimmy Stewart outside the bank – but also in its distinctive community spirit.
To be fair, there are huge yachts dripping opulence moored on the town’s Long Wharf, and the American Hotel, with its carefully composed air of faded gentility, has some eye watering prices, but Sag Harbor refuses to be over impressed by the Summer people and remains true to itself.
That Sunday morning breakfast was a practical example of the town’s community base. It was organized by the firefighters and Ladies Auxiliary of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Fire Department – an organisation of 165 volunteers who man four stations to cover around 30 square miles of town, countryside, sea inlets and lakes.
Each September, for four Sundays, they put on a full American breakfast, and the people of the town come along to donate and show their support for the volunteers’ efforts. I was there with my cousins, my uncle having emigrated from Edinburgh in the 1920s, married a Sag Harbor gir,l and lived there from the fifties onwards. There’s a fire department tradition in my Long Island family members. Between the towns of Sag Harbor and Southampton, various family members must have given over 100 years of service to their communities in this most dangerous area of volunteer work.
Like so much about the USA, it is an aspect of life which is perhaps little known about on this side of the Atlantic, yet tells us so much about the ‘real’ America’.
It often seems to me that in Scotland we have a kind of cartoon vision of the States. I remember years ago reading an ‘Oor Wullie’ strip. Like many of us post war, his family often received ‘clothes parcels’ from relatives in the US. On this occasion, he had been sent a pair of those ‘new fangled’ jeans, and he had ditched his well worn and familiar dungarees for the rock and roll equivalents. His pals, Fat Bob and Soapy Soutar, were less than impressed, and by the bottom of the page, Wullie had ‘come to his Scottish senses’ and stopped ‘dressing as a Yank’.
Even in a globalised world, I’m not sure our vision has changed much – at least in terms of the reality of American society. We Scots are better travelled, but our experience of the US may well be Disney World and Las Vegas. We come home dazzled by the lights of Broadway and the Studio Tours of LA, but often have pretty thin evidence of what it is like to be American in less rarified areas.
And politics doesn’t help much.
There is a kind of ghoulish fascination in this country at the antics of folk like Newt Ginrich, Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan. We can’t believe many of their reported statements are true, far less that they may be greeted with enthusiasm by a large section of voters. The very idea of someone like Mitt Romney being able to become a Presidential candidate seems bizarre, and more than a little frightening to us. To cry Obama a socialist seems laughable – and yet many serious minded Americans appear to accept that as fact.
However, before we use all that to summarise our view of Americans, we should remember that many Americans don’t know where Scotland is,many of those that do have an image carved out of Edinburgh Rock, shortbread, Braveheart and Brigadoon, and, almost universally, Margaret Thatcher is seen as a great leader of the UK.
We should wise up to the fact that, generally speaking, we have incomplete views of each others’ countries. Anyone who has spent time or travelled widely in the USA will tell you that America is almost impossible to sum up as a single entity. It is a young country, in Scottish terms. It is moving towards becoming a primarily Spanish speaking nation, and has inhabitants from almost every corner of the globe. New York is only 500 miles closer to Los Angeles than it is to Edinburgh; it is a huge and disparate state and that is echoed in its people, their views, and attitudes.
So, if their politics seems strange to us, we should accept that it’s a different system for a different and diverse people, though given their world influence, that shouldn’t stop those of us with a political interest in being fascinated by the whole process.
Gobsmacking though the whole Presidential circus is in election year, I find the grassroots politics almost as engaging; which brings me back to the Fire House breakfast – which, I should say, was excellent: pancakes, syrup, crispy bacon, potatoes, scrambled eggs, toast and so on.
The atmosphere was brilliant, and why wouldn’t it be? It was a community coming together to celebrate their support for each other. The volunteer firefighters have a real respect and genuine affection within the town. They fight fires, attend traffic accidents, operate a sea rescue service and are an integral part of all village parades and celebrations. As well as the breakfasts, they also organize a family carnival annually.
Although in rural areas in Scotland, the ‘retained fireman’ is common enough (around a third of Scotland’s 8,500 firefighters are ‘retained’) the set up is slightly different and the bond between community and firefighters not quite so marked. In Sag Harbor, they have the oldest fire department in the New York area, dating from 1803, when the combination of wooden ships and houses, whale oil, and any amount of combustible heating materials must have made the town a tinder box. In addition, service can be traditional in families; a couple of years ago the department could list 15 combinations of father and son/daughter firefighters. Old timers in the village can list the fire chiefs going back generations – and will tell you how good they were at their job – or otherwise!
Although Sag Harbor is particularly dear to me because of family ties, I’ve seen this sense of community displayed in so many ways in different parts of America – the mid-West, Cape Cod and even Washington DC and parts of New York City. There is a simple but touching commitment to be good neighbours and to work for the community. Sometimes it’s an obvious thing – like the Sag Harbor Fire Department, other times it’s more complex and less rewarding – such as the ongoing fight in inner city areas to regenerate, get decent services, reclaim the locality for its residents.
It’s an aspect of the US which is not much lauded or even known about over here – and it can make it a special place – though this is not to deny the negative aspects of American life. However, I would have to say that I’ve seldom come across the levels of community involvement, generosity and hospitality that I have in the States, in my home city. It happens here, but it doesn’t seem to be as much of the DNA as it is in parts of the US.
So, when, on our holidays, we disappear from my cousin’s house in Sag Harbor, only to return four hours later with the explanation: we were hanging around ‘down the street’, they may be puzzled – but, in effect, we were enjoying sitting on a bench, getting a coffee from Schiavone’s, watching the boats, listening to the people, feeling part of a unique community.
As I sit watching the election results coming in tonight – my 12th election night extravaganza, I’ll be thinking of lots of folk who will have voted today. Naturally my relatives, the McPartlins, Brenners, Thomases, Essays, Beaumonts and others in Long Island, New York, Massachusetts and points west, will be in my mind. Hardly any of them agree with me politically – but we’ve reached that stage in life when the disagreements can be reflected in a wry smile and a shake of the head; I hope they know I’m interested because I love them all and care about their country. I’ll be thinking of folks I’ve met in Indiana, Illinois, New York City and Washington DC, of Cindy Stearns, Ellen Handel and Kristin Carey in Chatham, Cape Cod, of Celeste Ribiero and all the community activists in East Boston, and so many ‘ordinary folks’ who have shown me the friendly, inclusive, and hospitable side of America.
Sometimes America’s youth as a country leads to a certain gullibility in its affairs; but often it helps it retain a sense of community, of neighbourliness and of openness – and that’s the America I fell in love with a long time ago.
As the votes and exit polls and projections fly across my screen, I feel the election night excitement I’ve felt on such nights since I was a teenager. Of course I’ll be rooting for Obama, but I’ll also be wanting the best for all those Americans I’ve learned to love and admire.
And the taste of those breakfast pancakes is still in my head!