“Let’s all go to the parade,” my wife said. There was a 4th of July parade in a nearby small town.
I have a history with small-town parades. I grew up in Morris, Illinois surrounded by corn, soy, and nuclear power. They have the Grundy County Corn Festival. There is a Corn Queen. There is a parade. People bring lawn chairs out the night before. They duct tape them together and rope them off and make small signs. There is drama, about the chairs.
It had been ten years since my last sweltering small-town parade, so I agreed to go. Our son was excited. He is only two, and was captivated from the moment we crested a hill, half a mile from our parked car, to discover the first set of parading tractors and a group of teenage boys revving dirt bikes. We hurried down, hoping for a good view. Unfortunately, lawn chairs had spent the night. Tape, you understand. Ropes.
From behind lawn chairs, giant hats, and umbrellas, I learned the main qualification for entering this parade was the ability to throw candy at the first three rows of parade goers. You could throw candy from a wagon. You could throw candy from the undecorated trailer of an unremarkable truck. You could throw candy from the window of a Volkswagen Jetta.
People screamed and clapped. A young girl bloodied her knee diving for Laffy Taffy. Her mother told her this was her last parade.
The parade entered hour two. If you had no candy to throw, you could still join the parade if your vehicle was unusually loud or slow-moving. Sirens were a plus. Outside the 8-block stretch of the parade route, Lane County’s rural communities would be hard-pressed to handle a fire, death in the family, or field in desperate need of tilling. During a short break in sirens and farm machinery, a mob of white men advanced, wielding signs for a local Republican congressional candidate. They held the signs as if in protest. This particular candidate believes all public schools should be abolished.
“About time for some common sense,” the man next to me said.
I felt sick at that point. It may have been the 90 degree weather, or the ringing in my ears. At hour two and a half, it was if the entire parade had been one giant, unsuccessful emergency response effort, with all parties still circling to find the source of the trauma.
Eventually, we made it back over the hill to our car. The drive home was like a faster parade of the things we’d just seen. People standing on the side of the street. Tractors running in fields. Emergency vehicles, likely traveling to or from other small-town parades. It became even more like the parade as we entered our own neighborhood. Traffic thickened – beeping bulldozers, flashing lights.
This is because they are doing major construction on the road directly in front of our house. There are three signs on the way to the torn-up road. ROAD CLOSED AHEAD, is the first sign. ROAD CLOSED is the second sign. The third sign is the same as the second, but is punctuated by a two foot vertical edge which drops onto a bed of gravel.
All day, people drive past the first two signs and stop at the vertical edge beside our house. They lean out their windows. They throw up their hands. They get out, stare down at the gravel, and shake their heads at the complexity of it all. Two cars have gone over the edge. When this happens, a line of emergency vehicles rumbles down toward our house. All the while, everyone makes U-turns in our driveway. A new U-turn every five or so minutes. Moving vans. Trucks with trailers. Classic cars. Sometimes, the people wave.
Yesterday, I went outside with a lawn chair. “Come on out, baby,” I called into the house. “Come watch the parade.” But I was the only one watching.
The Booyakasha, the finger pop, the dip-snap, the Aww, Snap. A gesture by any other name would probably make you look like less of a douchebag. But could any other gesture save your life?
I first saw it while studying in Newcastle, Australia. A sophomore named John Win who had a silver choker chain and immaculately spiked hair snapped his right finger like a mating call across campus for the entire 6 months I was there, generally accompanied by the cry “Booyakasha!”
You could hear his assholery coming for kilometers. I hated John Win — largely because of his silver chain, his love of “imported” Budweiser, and his tendency to get laid far more frequently than I did. But his snap. That, I envied. It’s my firm belief that The Snap, once seen, is a skill secretly coveted in every man’s reptile brain until the point of mastery.
It’s a primal thing.
Without meaning to, I started trying to snap while I was on the phone. Then I practiced in front of the mirror. My friend Leo, further along in his SnapQuest than I, would offer the occasional tip: “No, no. You gotta hit this finger, here. Just put in your time, mate. There are no shortcuts.”
I never mastered The Snap in Australia.
A year later, I was hiking in Italy with an old friend from Chicago. Although many of my ambitions for our three-week trek were ill-conceived (self-discovery, Coming To Terms With Myself as a Writer), I had one reassuringly concrete goal: I would master The Snap by the end of the trip. So I practiced. Over mountains and through streams, at the base of waterfalls and on fogged summits, I hiked behind my friend and flopped my hand around like an idiot until my wrist ached and my fingers throbbed. Then – one day I heard a dull thack in the middle of a field of wildflowers. I remember it distinctly.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, stopping.
“The snap! I did it!”
“Oh, God. Is that what you’ve been doing back there?”
You bet your ass. And after the first satisfying crack, I could steer my finger-snapping development with live audio feedback. I got louder. I took the lead on the hike, happily snapping at Alpine streams, songbirds, Italian huts, mountain goats, oncoming hikers. Then during the third week, midway through a rough scramble up a scree slope, I heard a dull thack behind me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Shut up,” my friend said, rubbing his wrist. Like I said. Guys. We can’t help ourselves.
Sadly, wives and girlfriends almost universally hate The Snap. Probably because it makes their men too attractive to single women.
“No, Jeff. I hate it because it’s annoying. And because you do it ALL THE TIME,” my girlfriend, Lea said. We were living in Italy.
“It’s a life skill,” I said. “Like riding a bike.”
While living in Italy, I both snapped and rode a bike every day. I worked at a school about two miles away from where we lived, and my lead teacher was an affable man from Calabria with an giant smile and adorably exaggerated gestures, even for an Italian.
“Davide,” I asked him one day. “My girlfriend – she hates The Snap. Do Italian women hate it as much as American women?”
“This ‘snap,’” he said, shrugging and screwing up his face. “What is this?”
So I showed him:
“Oh, yes,” Davide said. “Where did you learn that?”
I told him about Australia. My time in the Alps.
“Yes,” he said. “Takes time to learn. Here it is used mostly in the military. It is what you do to new people. The youngest people, when they come in. It means ‘you know nothing.’ You do it to the new recruits – kind of like messing with them.”
David reached out and impressively rat-a-tat snapped my right ear. I flinched, feeling like I’d just been bitten in the neck by the Alpha male. Like I said — primal.
“Sorry, babe,” I told Lea when I got home. “It looks like this – *SNAP* – has cultural significance.”
“I miss America,” she said.
Luckily for Lea, we were going back soon. We were taking a final, three-week tour of southern Italy, then flying back to the east coast just in time for the leaves to change. Lea had southern Italian ancestry, so we talked to Davide about good places to visit in Calabria, where both he and her grandparents were from. He raved about the food, the wine, and the warmth of the people.
I’d heard the warning before. We took down a few of Davide’s travel tips in our guidebook and began our journey south. We visited Naples, had a blast on the Amalfi coast, and were making the final plunge toward Calabria on a 12 hour train ride south.
From the start, it was the worst train ride I’d taken in Italy. The cars were standing room only, and the humidity was like breathing though a hot towel. Open windows had let in so much dust that no one could stop coughing and wiping yellow grit off their bags and glasses.
Lea and I ended up wedged in a compartment between two coach cars. It had a hinged steel floor that twisted and jerked with every bend in the tracks, toppling our suitcases and oversized backpacks every 5 minutes. At each station, more people piled in. In Salerno, we sat on our bags to make room for the flood of people boarding the train.
Three men immediately slid into the space our bags had vacated. These were not the trim fashionistas from Milano. Their clothing was torn and dirty. One of them had a black eye, and the youngest had a chain collar, spiked hair, and a wide gap between his front teeth he breathed through, air hissing over his tongue.
Lea and I balanced ourselves on our stack of shifting bags. The men hadn’t stopped looking at them. They didn’t appear to be carrying anything.
“Lots of bags,” the one with the black eye said in heavily-accented Italian.
“Too many,” the one with the gap said. They laughed, and their conversation turned to talking about home – Calabria. They had work waiting for them, and were anxious to start. They’d lost money in Naples. It had been a bad trip, and they had explaining to do. Occasionally the conversation would slip into dialect I couldn’t understand.
“What are they saying?” Lea asked.
“Nothing,” I said. But I’d hooked a leg over our bags, and stuffed my wallet as far as I could into the front pocket of my jeans.
“There’s just one guy,” the oldest one said after a pause. I tried not to react.
“I’ve still got a knife,” The Gap said. “Two knives. One for each. Plenty.”
“They let you keep those knives in the military?” Black Eye said. “I can’t believe they trust you with anything pointed. It’s your first year.”
“Everything so new and exciting,” the older one said. “It’s cute.” He rubbed his hair. The Gap flinched away from him.
I didn’t even think about it. The surge traveled through my brain and down the length of my arm. Then I did it. I raised my hand, looked The Gap dead in the eye, and hit him rapid-fire.
Lea grabbed my arm “Jeff, JEFF.”
The Gap stared, wide eyed. The other men looked at me. Smiles broke over their faces – so wide and warm they could’ve been Davide’s cousins. Then, roaring laughter as the men raised their fingers and snapped The Gap, encouraging me to join in.
“Parla Italiano!” Black Eye said. He was tickled, and not the least bit embarrassed about the stabbing and thievery business.
“Si, certo!” I said.
“How did you know about the military tradition? This is wonderful! You teach in Lodi – ah, with a countryman from Calabria. Where are you going on your journey?”
I told them, then brought out Davide’s Calabria tip sheet and they added their own recommendations to the list. They strongly disagreed with his top pizzerias, but did so respectfully. We talked and laughed for the next three hours, and when they left, they demanded I rise for a hug. The two older men made me snap The Gap again and they slapped him on the back, shoving him around as they crossed the train platform onto the street, laughter audible until the door hissed shut.
Lea looked down at our bags.
“I’m glad you speak Italian,” she said.
“It wasn’t the Italian,” I said, cracking my knuckles.