The Story Behind the Story: “The Only Song is the Song of the Self”

This story is a fictionalized version of an experience I had in New York on 29 June 2008. After watching Spain beat Germany in the Euro 2008 Final at the Playwright on 49thStreet, my girlfriend and I had gone down to the Village to join the Gay Pride celebrations, but we were late getting down there—there had been heavy rain that year. Like the narrator of “Araby,” all we found was the evidence of a big party scattered over the streets and in the rain-drenched gutters. But unlike the character in “Araby,” I had party radar that guided us towards the Hudson, where we found an enormous crowd of people—largely from the Bronx and Brooklyn and overwhelmingly African American—enjoying the evening and waiting for the Pride Celebration fireworks over the Hudson. We mingled with and enjoyed this amazing crowd of people for a few hours and watched the fireworks with them. But around midnight, a large Police force moved in quickly to clear the crowds, and some people—a lot of us—wanted to continue celebrating and didn’t want to go home. Things got a little chaotic in various spots, but we wound up at the police barrier I describe in the story, part of the crowd who wanted to join others we could see dancing up the riverbank. On that occasion, people power beat the police demand that we go home, without any violence or harm—the police were good sports about losing this one! We ran up the riverbank with hundreds of others, jubilant like kids. I remember the sound of the barriers being trampled and then the sound of the crowd laughing and cheering and the clip clop of many soles of shoes clattering as we all ran to join the other revellers, where we all pooled together and danced for a while more. The next morning, while sitting on a bench in Sutton Place Park, I wrote an account of this in the back of the book I’d taken to the park, Chester Himes’s Cotton Comes to Harlem. I wanted to write an intersection flash fiction set in Sutton Place, but the preface of the previous night’s events sort of took over. Six years later, In 2014, I took the Himes book of my bookshelf in Hong Kong and found that account of the riot printed in the back of the book. I then transcribed it and shaped it. By that time, on many occasions, I’d had chance to reflect on how unusual and also affirming that experience in New York City had been. It was, amongst other things, the only time I’d ever crossed a police line in New York. Also, I often saw it as a wonderful example of people power. At the same time, I felt the police had been very human and understanding on that occasion. In times when police and African American communities were having a lot of horrific conflicts, I remembered that sweet night that proved something important: sometimes the state’s enforcement agencies can be disobeyed and let the citizenry have their will, with no disastrous consequences: civil disobedience doesn’t have to be destructive–sometimes it’s just life force. Between the events and the writing, I’d enjoyed the late great Marshall Berman’s All that is Solid Melts into Air, in which Berman had included a lengthy analysis of the great Russian novel, Andre Bely’s 1913 Modernist masterpiece Petersburg, including a discussion of Bely’s wonderful word myriapod, which Bely had coined to describe the collective appearance of the legs of crowds of pedestrians on Nevsky Prospekt. That gave me a key word with historical—if somewhat obscure—resonance to cap the essential epiphany of the story: that dance, this collective dance, was a very human but also a very American dance and also a metaphor for freedom itself. Whitman himself, given (for me) his hovering ‘presence’ in lower Manhattan, and because of the great songs of freedom he set and sang there, seemed like the perfect muse of the piece, and thus, adapting slightly, I had my title.

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About MARK CRIMMINS

Mark Crimmins’s fiction was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize, a 2015 Best of the Net Award, and a 2015 Silver Pen Authors Association Write Well Award. His short stories have been published in Confrontation, Cha, Split Rock Review, Penmen Review, Trainless Magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Kyoto Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Microliterature, Eclectica, Cortland Review, Tampa Review, Ellipsis, Columbia, Queen’s Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Del Sol Review, Pif Magazine, and Chicago Quarterly Review. His flash fictions have been published in Happy, White Rabbit, theNewerYork, Eunoia Review, Flash Frontier, Portland Review, Gravel, Eastlit, Restless Magazine, Atticus Review, Apocrypha & Abstractions, Dogzplot, Chaleur Magazine, Spelk, Long Exposure, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. He teaches English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.