Flag Shopping With Documentarian Alexandra Pelosi

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Pelosi and Voss. Photo: Patrick McMullan

Alexandra Pelosi needed an American flag for the Fourth of July, and last week, I set out to help her get one.

It was to be a gift for her boss at HBO, Sheila Nevins, who executive produced Pelosi's documentary Citizen USA. The film follows Pelosi as she visits naturalization ceremonies for immigrants in every single state in the country. It airs on Independence Day.

Pelosi, who directed the films Journeys With George and The Diary of a Political Tourist for HBO, got the idea for the present — and the film — from the naturalization of her Dutch husband, Michael Voss. A documentarian by vocation and hobby, she had already filmed him getting sworn in as a citizen, and decided to start the project from there. At the very beginning of the film, shortly after Michael's ceremony, they run into President Barack Obama, who sticks around to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with Michael. That kind of thing happens sometimes when your last name is Pelosi.

To celebrate Michael's naturalization, his House Speaker mother-in-law gave him a framed flag. "It has the plaque that says 'On September 17 this flag flew over the Capitol in honor of the new citizen, Michael Voss,'" Pelosi explained in her rusty, rat-a-tat-tat voice. "I wanted to give Sheila that one, but he wouldn't let me."

The three of us were in Union Square, where she had filmed a scene featuring an Iranian immigrant explaining why he became a citizen. "I stayed here because I'm a gay man," said Hossain Alizadeh, marveling — as many of Pelosi’s subjects do — about everything that's taken for granted here. "I cannot go back to Iran because of my sexual orientation."

As we walked to National Flag & Display in Chelsea, Pelosi spotted something in the window of the store Fish's Eddy. "They had a 'Thank you, Governor Cuomo!' sign!" she noted, delighted. She's known Andrew her whole life — her mother and his dad, Mario, are good friends. She recalled watching him at the gay-pride march the previous weekend with her children, after his Marriage Equality Act passed. "I really felt something when I saw the crowd go wild for Andrew," she said. "I really felt like all of the values that I've ever been taught my whole life meant something."

National Flag & Display, we discovered upon arrival, isn't so much a shop as a vast underground warehouse and workspace. But Ann-Marie, the beleaguered staffer who patiently helped us, presented plenty of gift options. There were flags from every nation in every size, and even a small cardboard box labeled "NAZI." (Ann-Marie assured us these were for sale only to movie propmasters.)

The number and variety of American flags alone sparked a mile-a-minute debate between Pelosi and Voss that lasted nearly 40 minutes. They couldn't decide between a wall-hanging flag, an elaborate standing one with fringe and a golden eagle, or a cheap but amusing "Flagpole to Go," which you could affix to your SUV for a tailgate party. Encased flags like the one Nancy Pelosi gave Voss weren't appropriate, we were told, because that honor was reserved only for flags that have flown over the Capitol, or that returned to America over caskets.

"You should see my flag dress," Pelosi said to no one in particular, at which point Ann-Marie told us about more flag uses that were inappropriate. "That's actually not patriotic," she politely lectured. "No beach towels, no pillows, no dresses."

Pelosi laughed. "Can I quote you on that?"

Only one other shopper popped in while Pelosi animatedly mulled her options. Sergio, a Venezuelan cook, was picking up a black, blank flag he could paint while "pimping out" the food cart he was about to debut in the Rockaways. Hearing his accent, Pelosi pounced. "How long have you been here?" she asked. He'd lived in the U.S. for three years on a visa.

"So are you planning on staying here?" she asked eagerly. "In America?"
"If I can," he said. "I will."

Eventually Pelosi picked an elaborate, "over-the-top" Senate-office-type flag for Nevins ($176.50) and we headed out. Later in the day she was headed for an appearance on The Colbert Report. "I was going to wear these American-flag shoes, but now I can't because she said it's disrespectful," Pelosi lamented. "Also, my husband says they make me look like a transvestite."