CONEY ISLAND – 4TH OF JULY
Jul 4th, 2011.
Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, 4th of July 2010. The sun is burning the back of my neck as I scan for a shady spot while the crowd around me cheers at the competitors in the dock wolfing down five hot dogs in a single mouthful. Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is an annual event watched by millions on ESPN, and apparently, a show of patriotism on Independence Day.
Unable to find any shade I turn my attention to the sea of red, white and blue while Joey Chestnut, for the fourth consecutive year, retains his title of hot dog eating champ, by gobbling down fifty-four hot dogs in ten minutes.
The bell rings and a roar erupts from the crowd as a victorious Joey is handed the bejewelled mustard-yellow winner’s belt, that he will keep until next year’s competition.
As I jostle through the sweaty crowd to sample one of Nathan’s famous hot dogs I am bemused by the spectacle I have just witnessed. Though few things are more American than this ritual, there must be more dignified ways of proving one’s love of country.
In the queue I voice my thoughts to a man showing off his leathery tan and faded tattoos in a string vest. With a thick Brooklyn accent he tells me: “Ninety-five years it’s bin goin’ on. On July 4th, 1924, some immigrants had a hot-dog eatin’ contest right here to establish who was most grateful to his country.”
Last November’s midterm elections once again revealed US politics as among the most polarised in the world. Yet the patriotism I witnessed on Coney Island – from the eating contest to the thousands of people clad top to toe in red, white and blue, is pervading. Never have I seen a country celebrate itself on such a scale – from New York to California and Alaska to Texas.
When I listen to Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin, or to Jon Stewart versus Glenn Beck, the divide in the American national psyche is apparent. It is at times difficult to believe these individuals speak of – even come from – the same country. On the 4th of July, Americans are united not in what they celebrate, only how they celebrate. How schizophrenic – and how unnerving – in a country of such global influence, to see such jingoism combined with such bitter internal discord.