Wandering through this city in search of the meaning of Independence Day, I was surprised to find an almost unanimous mood of patriotism. From Georgetown to Anacostia, it seems that everybody is happy to be an American these days -- and especially an American living in Washington.
Despite years of unsuccessful attempts to obtain a representative in Congress with the right to vote and failed drives to make the District of Columbia the 51st state, Washington residents, for the most part, seem as content as ever.
The revolutionaries of 1776 would probably have frowned on this lackadaisical attitude, but this is not colonial America. And with a little home rule here and few federal benefits there, most folks seem to think life on the Potomac couldn't be better.
This thinking is not without reason.
For a change, crime is down. Test scores in public schools are up. Construction jobs paying $12 an hour and up are being offered on street corners all over the city. There are record numbers of free summer concerts scheduled, the city is in the midst of a drive to bring back baseball and now after 17 agonizing days all the hostages aboard the hijacked TWA airliner, save one, have been brought back alive.
Americans, especially those living here, are feeling good.
"When I first came to this city in 1935, I didn't have a penny in my pocket," said Frank Green, owner of a corner grocery store in Anacostia. "I worked odd jobs for nearly 20 years until I saved enough money to get this place. Now my son is the manager and when I die I can leave him a piece of the American dream. If you know of any other country where I could have done this, let me know. Then tell the Koreans."
Green was referring, perhaps pejoratively, to the fact that Korean immigrants now own or run many of the city's corner stores -- mom-and-pop stores like Green's. There has been a well-publicized rash of arson at Korean-owned stores in some neighborhoods. But in most parts of the city, the newcomers are accepted. They have become a part of Washington life, and the Fourth of July is theirs, too.
"This is definitely the best country," agreed Ray Kim, a Korean who runs a nearby liquor store. "My family is out buying American flags to take with us to the Mall today . We came here seeking freedom, and it's a great feeling to be free."
Even homeless people congregated around the controversial Second Street shelter had their views, and despite what has happened to them, their patriotic fervor lives.
"We should retaliate against people taking us hostage," a wino said introspectively. "Can't nobody pick on Americans and get away with it. That's what I say."
Closer to home, another homeless man added, "If you've got to beg for a living, it's better to do it around people who have money. I think Dupont Circle is the best place in the world."
To be sure there are many who have legitimate gripes against what can often be a cold and insensitive American system. More than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence, the state of dependency is still very much in evidence in the homelessness and drug addiction that fill the streets of the city. But the mood today is strikingly different from what it was, say, a mere 15 years ago when the flag and draft cards were being burned in protest against the inequities of society.
Indeed, times have changed. Just check out a group of so-called street youths playing basketball near Seventh and T Streets NW.
"I don't care what anybody says, this is the best place in the world -- especially if you are black," said Eugene Smith, 17, as he practiced his jump shot. "Even Africa sends basketball players over here."
His friend, Joseph Henderson, also 17, intoned, "I got a summer job, I got tickets to see Tina Turner and I got a new girlfriend. I can't complain."
Well, so much for living in what supporters of voter representation call "America's last colony." And who needs cable television when there are fire works on the Mall?