Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fame and anonymity

Someone famous lived in my hometown. Everyone would know the name were I to mention it, but I’m not going to do so. I think part of the reason she lived there was precisely because we gave her the privacy she wanted when she wasn't engaged in her professional life. If I saw her, I’d wave as I went past on my bike, in my car, or on the back of a friend's motorcycle. She'd smile and wave back. I wondered what it was like, to be so well known, and I must admit I didn't envy her when I espied her at town functions fraught with summer people. She'd do her best to remain hidden so she could partake in the goings-on, but she was always marginalised, because if she sought to take part like everybody else, all the attention would focus on her rather than the task at hand.

I had a taste of it years after I moved away from my hometown, when I lived in Pennsylvania. I lived about an hour away from Philadelphia and was involved with a fife and drum corps there. We marched in some parades, but we did a lot more gigs where we were the entertainment to a degree at places around the state, and especially in Philly. There was a daily gig every summer for years where we'd have at least one fifer and one drummer involved in the Call to Arms. One year, they had us march to various points in the old part of the city (Olde City) and stop to play a few tunes. We started at Betsy Ross's house, would march and play by the cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried, and we'd end up at the Signer's Garden at 5th and Chestnut, very near Independence Hall. Other years, we simply started at the Signer's Garden where Tom Jefferson, or more often Ben Franklin would be encouraging all able-bodied individuals to join the Continental Army. We would arrive first, play a few tunes to attract attention and have people gawk, while most often a friend of Ben's, Mr James McIntytre, would select an individual to carry the flag and would encourage others to line up alongside of us so that we could march to behind the Second Bank whereupon the new recruits would receive training in how to use a musket. After we were done playing a tune or two, he'd let those gathered know that Dr Franklin would indeed be arriving, and we'd need to thrust our arm into the air and give Dr F a loud, hearty huzzah, and he'd demonstrate, then ask the crowd to do likewise, for practice before Dr F arrived. 

As one might guess, this was directed mostly towards children, but some enterprising adults good-naturedly lined up, in some cases to assuage a little one's shyness, and in others, just to be part of the experience.

Dr Franklin would arrive, sometimes comment on the weather and exclaim it was just as predicted in Poor Richard's Almanack, and then let those gathered know that these are indeed troubled times, and like it as not, we must gird ourselves for the pending crisis, as the British, indeed, were coming. He'd look at the recruits and make some remarks, such as, "Bit long in the tooth?" to a grizzled recruit or ask a young person too shy to join, "Don't you love liberty? If you do, join with us!" He was very good at reading when a youngster's shyness could be easily won over, and then there were times that the child would join up only if the parent to whose hand he was clinging could also join, and the two would cross to where the other recruits were.

On one occasion, there was a little boy in a wheelchair who plainly looked as if he'd love to join up, but no one wheeled him over to the other recruits, nor did he seem to expect anyone to do so. Just that wistful look of wanting to be a part of things mingled with the sad acceptance that this was the closest he would get. Ben looked at the boy and said, "I see, sir, you have already fought at the Battle of the Brandywine and wish you could do more. Thank you, sir, you have indeed done more than enough already for your country. Perhaps you can fall in behind the new recruits during the march and watch as they are drilled to ensure they are instructed properly." Here the little boy beamed, feeling as much a part of things as any other child there.

And so, after his chat about the pay and rations a soldier would receive, and encouraging those who wavered to join the cause, the drummer would tap us off, and we'd march to Yankee Doodle and a few other tunes as we made our way from the Signer's Garden to behind the Second Bank. The onlookers would fall in behind the recruits. Once we all made it behind the Second Bank, and at the sergeant at arms' nod, we'd stop playing the music. Ben would then say he would leave the recruits in the sergeant’s capable hands, they’d each bow, and the sergeant at arms would take over, handing out musket-shaped wood pieces to the recruits, showing them how to march, how to shoulder their guns, how to present arms.

The time that the boy in the wheelchair was there, Ben Franklin let the sergeant at arms know that we had a wounded veteran from the Battle of the Brandywine present, and he'd be seeing to it that the sergeant omitted nothing during the training. The sergeant at arms thanked the veteran for his service and asked if he'd like to be beside him during the drill so he could have a better view of the new recruits as they learned. The veteran nodded and said he'd like that very much, and I don't remember a broader smile ever for all the times I performed that gig.

Most years, after we were done playing our tune and as the sergeant at arms started his instruction, we'd quietly leave with Ben Franklin.

We were dressed as 18th century military musicians, which meant that our jackets were the opposite colors of the infantry. This was done in part so we were easy to spot. Infantry wore blue coats with red trim, so our coats were red coats with blue trim. This confused a great many, who sometimes thought we were Redcoats, i.e., British, and I got hissed at a few times when walking about the Olde City. The British wore red coats with white trim, and their musicians donned white coats with red trim. So, a chance to explain a bit of history if anyone asked, and we were asked that often. We played music that was mostly 18th century or earlier. One time we purposely didn't was when Roy Watrous died. Perhaps not a household name to many, but among fife and drum circles, he was well known as he penned many tunes in the 20th century. I was doing the gig the weekend the largest fife and drum muster was taking place miles away from where we were. Roy had recently died, we knew that lots of corps at the muster were doing something to commemorate him, and we wanted to do likewise, so played all Watrous tunes that weekend except for Yankee Doodle, which we had to play as lead-off tune for the parade. One visitor remarked that one tune we played didn't sound 18th century. We then explained it wasn't, and why it wasn't. The man was shocked to learn that all the pieces we had played before that were 20th century, as they sounded older. He thought it a fitting tribute.

For a time, rather than drive all the way into Philly and try to find a parking space, I decided instead to drive to the outskirts and take the El. (El meaning elevated train, which it was at the 69th Street terminus, but it ultimately became a subway later on in the route.) The parking was much easier to find and cheaper, but it did take more time as the El made quite a few stops. I rode it through West Philadelphia, which is a dangerous neighbourhood, and heard quite a few remarks. Some told me to say hi to Ben or George (Washington). Others asked what a British Redcoat was doing on the El (and here I had a chance to explain about the reverse colors). A few thanked me, one of them a real veteran from a real war. I told him, "It is I who should be thanking you, sir, as your service allows me to do this." He smiled, and he got off several stops before mine. He turned to me, stood at attention, and saluted. I rose from my seat, and returned his salute.

So, yes, I did stand out a bit as I made my way around Philly. This had its advantages as people made way for me. It also had its disadvantages as people would ask me where things were. I didn't always know, and developed the habit of carrying several maps of Philly with me. Some I could give away to those who needed it, and others I kept for myself but would let them see the route they needed to take.

I have never liked having my picture taken, and I have appeared in holiday snaps all around the world. What I found most surprising when doing 4th of July gigs in Philly, was the number of people who weren't from the US who wanted to be there on the 4th of July. I found it was very humbling and quickly learned to ask, "And what country are you from?" when people asked if I’d stop so they could take my picture. My favourite drummer, H, when asked if we could stop for a picture would always reply, "Only if you're in it!" He'd ask a passerby to take a photo of all of us, and then very often the passerby would want a photo, too. Or if it were a couple people asking, they'd take turns using their cameras so all of them got in at least one photo with us.

On one 4th of July, when we had five gigs, H and I were making our way from Gig 4 to Gig 5, which was the long 4th of July parade, and we needed to hightail it to get to the parade start on time. We were making our way towards the subway when two young people in their early 20s wanted us to stop for a photo. We explained that we had to rush, sorry, and we needed to get to the other side of the city for the parade. They were excited and said they wanted to see the parade, could they tag along? Yes, of course, so they ran with us as we caught the subway, and took a few snaps of us in the subway car. They were from Norway, couldn't believe how hot it was in Philly, weren't we hot in those wool coats (another often-asked question), why were they red coats, and to answer our question, yes, they were having a great time in America. Such a big country with so much to see and do. It was great to see them enjoying their holiday so much. H told them that we needed to get to the parade start, which was a number of subway stops yet, but if they wanted a great view of the parade, they'd do well to get off at this next stop. They thanked us and told us they'd wave to us when they saw us in the parade so we could see them. We nodded, bid them welcome, and after the doors shut and we were once again underway to the next stop and closer towards the parade start, H smiled incredulously at me and said, "Yeah, with at least several hundred thousand people here along the parade route, we'll be able to see them?" and we laughed. We liked their naïveté thinking that we'd all see each other, and their energy revived us a bit, which was a good thing because the parade went about 4 miles (~6.5 km) and at 90°F (32°C) those 5-lb (2.2 kg) woollen coats would feel hot and heavy.

We made it to the parade starting point just in time, lined up with our other red-coated friends where most, like us, had had other gigs around the city earlier in the day, and after a few minutes, we started our march. As expected, the parade route was muggy, long, and lined with people on both sides, easily five deep. About halfway through the route, when we felt ourselves flagging a bit, we heard two excited voices exclaim, "There they are! Hi, H! Hi, Megan! This IS a great spot to see the whole parade!" and there were our two Norwegian friends, their faces bright with happiness and sweat. I was fifing so could do little more than nod at them, point with my elbow, and smile with my eyes. H called back to them, "Hey, you made it!" waved to them with one hand, and drummed with the other.  At the next stop in the parade, H and I were stunned that not only did they see us, but we saw them again.

We found out later upwards of 750,000 people lined the parade route and filled the Parkway for a concert later that evening and fireworks. And in that number, two Norwegian kids had snaps of people in funny red coats taking a subway ride and believed that we'd see each other again.

I went into Philadelphia many, many times during the 27 years I lived in the Mid-Atlantic, and I think most times I was dressed in 18th century togs. As strange as it may seem to others, I’d forget what I was wearing and would sometimes wonder why they'd stared at me.

So not a household name to anyone, but as previously noted, in many holiday/vacation snaps around the globe. So, a bit of fame.

One afternoon, I was meeting a friend who lived in Philly and I was going to change into modern clothes immediately after the Signer's Garden gig. It was another scorching summer's day, and before the gig, I had to use the loo, or in 18th century parlance, "the necessary." Now women know that they need to think of their necessary needs several minutes before they really need to use the necessary to allow for lines/queues and loosening garments so they can do their business. Men have it far easier with Y-front underwear and button-fly or zippered jeans and trousers for those quick relief moments. But with 18th century breeches, there are no zippers or flies. There's a front flap with buttons across, then buttons down which must be unbuttoned before all clothing is out of the way of the line of fire, so to speak. I suppose men who are used to using urinals find it a bit noisome to have to hold up their breeches with one hand while aiming with the other, and I’ve heard more than one newcomer to our group complain about how long it takes to unbutton then rebutton the breeches each time. I let them know this is part of the reason why women can take longer than men for a quick loo stop, and a look of newfound understanding usually spreads across their face.

I say all that as a preface; for I was on my way to the necessary, having allowed enough time to unbutton and rebutton my breeches, plus have to wait a moment or two for a free stall, but I hadn’t factored in the photo shoot time. A woman approached me asking if she could take my photo. I didn’t stop, told her she could walk with me and snap one that way or join us in the Signer’s Garden where I and a drummer were due to appear in five minutes. She looked cross and while I felt bad, I knew I had to think of my bladder and I didn’t have time to explain how damnably uncomfortable it is to play a wind instrument when one’s bladder is full. She stood in front of me, expecting me to stop, but I went around her, made my way to the loo, finished my necessary business, washed my hands, and came back out. She approached again, and again, I encouraged her to walk with me towards the Signer’s Garden, where she would not be disappointed.

“I’m on vacation, you know!” she snapped in a disapproving tone.

“Then all the more reason to join me in the Signer’s Garden where we have the Call to Arms. Have you seen it?” I said quickly, and glancing at the clock at Independence Hall, saw that I needed to walk a tad more quickly to be on time. “I’m on my way there right now, it’s just across the way here,” and I pointed.

She reluctantly followed. I saw my friend there, already waiting. She gave me a small wave, which I acknowledged with a quick nod. H was already there, surprised that he beat me, as he usually arrives only at the very last moment.

“Necessary call,” I tell him as I line up alongside him and then in a lowered voice, “And a fan wanting to take a picture, not understanding that I couldn’t stop just then,” and here the woman and I meet eyes. I nod and smile. She looks like a thundercloud.

“The happy one, you mean?” H asks sarcastically.

“Yep, that’s the one.”

Mr McIntyre gives us the nod to start playing, so we do. The thundercloud woman is transformed and happily clicking her camera at me, H, Mr McIntyre, and is positively overjoyed upon seeing Ben Franklin appear.

When we start the march towards the Second Bank, she’s right by the gate we pass. She catches my eye, gives me a thumbs up, and says, “This is just great!”

I smile as much as I can while fifing, which really means I crinkle my eyes, and nod a little. She continues taking pictures.

After the sergeant at arms takes over, I leave, my friend joins me, and I go into the Second Bank to change my clothes. The Second Bank is one of the coolest places to be on a hot July day in Philly. Minutes later, I’m in shorts and a tee shirt looking like everybody else. We make our way to a nearby eatery for a bite. Afterwards as we are walking back to my car (for I drove in that day, and she took public transport), I’m jostled by the crowds, and one of them is the reformed thundercloud woman. I nod at her, and she flashes me a look as if to say, “Who the hell are you? I don’t know you.”

And that’s when it hit me. All she saw was the red coat and breeches. Then I was Somebody to be seen with, talked to, and photographed. In modern dress, I look just like everyone else, and it was clear, she didn’t see ME at all. Just the togs. I most likely would be mugged or at the least harassed riding through West Philly on the El. I was anonymous now. No one made way for me. I was just one in the crowd.

And I thought of that famous person in my hometown. How, while it was nice to have people want to see you, say hi, talk, and take your picture, it was also a real gift to be able to frown or walk over to a loo without someone taking it the wrong way if you couldn’t make time for them. And how so many who wanted to be with you didn’t want to be with YOU but with what they thought you were. How that made them feel far more special than you ever could.

When I hear people saying they wish they could be famous, I wince a little. There’s a wonderful gift in anonymity that we don’t see. The freedom to be ourselves, without every moment photographed, taken out of context, or held against us forever by a fickle public. Yes, it also means that we can get jostled in a crowd, are sometimes denied the best table in a restaurant, or most likely are not remembered. It’s true much of the time. I can’t remember all of the people who watched me play at the Signer’s Garden but I can recall one very happy boy in a wheelchair. Nor can I remember 749,998 of the people along the parade route on a hot 4th of July day, but there are the happy faces of two ordinary Norwegian people having a wonderful foreign holiday I’ll never forget.


  1. What a wonderful tale! I had no idea about all these goings-ons in Philly being from way out west myself, but you really bring it all to life. I wish I could see it all some Fourth of July.
    Like you I've thought about the fame/anonymity equation and come down hard on the side of the latter. I remember seeing a well-known, older actress (whom I couldn't quite place) standing in line in front of me at a public library one time. When she glanced around and saw me gazing at her she immediately lowered her head and turned her back, trying to fend off an approach. I remember feeling a wave of compassion for the woman and thought how difficult it would be to always have everyone wanting something from you. I know there are benefits to fame, too, but still, I don't think I would be happy.
    Great post. I love the way you write.

    1. Thanks so much! Philly can be very fun on the Fourth! Really hot and muggy, though. For all the times i went there, i never got tired of seeing Independence Hall, and to see others' expressions as they took it all in for the first time kept it fresh.

  2. I love that tale of the boy in the wheelchair. He must have been thrilled.

    1. Cro, it was always a great gig to play, and i learned a lot about how one small act of kindness could mean the world to someone.

  3. Brilliant post. I also learnt a lot about uniforms!

    It goes without saying that your description of the way the main players made the boy in the wheelchair feel part of the proceedings brought a lump to my throat.

    " in some cases to assuage a little one's shyness " I cannot recall the number of times I have willingly made a fool of myself in order to encourage a child...

    1. Thanks, Tom. I saw a number of adults who wished they had a little one with them so they could have a ready excuse to join up. At times, the drummer would encourage them to march with us. I'd wave them over also, and we usually gave them a huzzah for being willing participants.

  4. Oh go on - tell me who she was - promise I'll keep it a secret.

  5. We took the kids on a grand bicentennial tour in 1976. Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Lexington, Concord...
    Costumed reinactors were everywhere, and made it so real for the children. A patient minute man in Boston stood like a Beefeater while seven children were photographed with him, one at a time. I came across one of the snap shots the other day.

    1. Yes, i was a busy, busy fifer during the Bicentennial.

      Even now when we see re-enactments on TV or other places, Himself will turn to me and say, "Do you know any of those people?" Usually i can identify at least one person. In some cases, when we're at the event, the re-enactor and i will stare at each other in disbelief because we seldom see each other in modern dress.

  6. That memory came from the heart.....
    Ok I have been nice to you....
    Now you can tell me who the famous broad was..........
    Go on whisper... No one will hear

  7. This is a really brilliant post. I enjoyed reading this very much.