I walked into Surplus Sid’s in Carrboro and inquired what it might cost to have some flags made. It was dark in there, with an atmosphere redolent of an adult bookstore. A leftover from the old Carrboro. There was a customer in the far corner. Eric Rudolf with a pony tail? The manager came over and asked me what I wanted.

It was late September, just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Walking down Franklin Street earlier that day, I’d noticed a car, nondescript, fairly late model, with a middle-aged couple inside. What caught my attention was Old Glory flying from the driver’s side window.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Well, it sent a chill down my back. Were we, I asked myself, about to revisit the unsavory side of patriotism, the jingoistic, self-righteous kind that casts its cold eye on the insufficiently loyal, the suspicious sorts of folk who somehow aren’t enough like “us”? By ostentatiously flying the flag, this couple seemed to be saying, “Watch out. If you ain’t with us, you’re agin’ us, and you’d better take cover.” Of course, maybe they were just expressing their grief and sadness in the only way that made sense to them. But my chill didn’t go away.

And then it came to me–one of those pleasant daydreams that plucks us out of the quotidian and sends us rollicking along the seductive pathways of what might be. In my mind’s eye I saw cars driving around with the flag of the United Nations at the “masthead”–lots of them. It seemed appropriate that this would happen in the Triangle, this “pat of butter in a sea of grits,” as it’s sometimes called. In this oasis of thoughtful people who typically have a larger vision of things, it just might be possible to get people to fly the UN flag in place of Old Glory.

Then paranoia struck. And the next image was of some yahoo smashing my windshield and slashing my tires. After all, this is still North Carolina, and Jesse isn’t gone yet. But what if all these flags suddenly appeared on the same day at the same time? There’d be too many of us, and those prone to doing nasty things would just have to go home and sulk.

At Surplus Sid’s, business was business and the owner was happy to look into flag ordering for me. In the following days and weeks there came suggestions from all sorts of people. How about the Earth flag, the peace sign, the white dove, and so forth? How about new flag designs, all expressing the fundamental idea that we are now one big family, like it or not, and we’d better learn to get along?

One thing led to another, and now we have a nonprofit and a Web site, www.alternativeflags.org. Minimum flag orders from manufacturers are by the thousand, so feel free to sign up and let us know you’re interested.