I don’t know if they do it anymore, but back in the early ‘90s revelers in Camden, New Jersey liked to engage in pre-Halloween arson on what only Garden Staters call “Mischief Night.” The Camden fires were gorgeous when viewed as I viewed them, from high up on the interstate bypass and with artificially elevated levels of serotonin. Below, in little patches here and there, empty homes in desolate neighborhoods burned. Above, I whizzed by, returning to Philadelphia from my adjunct teaching gig at Camden Community College which paid me $1,100 per class.
Nearly two years out of graduate school, I had no idea what to do with my life. I had hoped that fame and fortune would be handed to me — I was kind of self-important in that way in my twenties — and had no idea how to work to get it (or even what “it” was exactly). I was preparing for my Fresh Air interview before actually doing anything of note. I was interested in many things, like medieval bestiaries and Burmese cuisine, that a business savvy person would not be interested in. I wrote a novel (unpublished, natch) about a race of women who made love like cuttlefish and grew little boys in jars. I was living with a girl but we weren’t sure if we were supposed to get married or if marriage was an outdated patriarchal construct or if maybe we just didn’t like each other that much. My adjunct teaching and my girlfriend’s job as a lab assistant at an anosmia center didn’t provide much cash. Our parents often paid our rent. I created a kind of double sonnet that included an iambic decameter line. I had no health insurance and a horrible, hacking cough. I was considering becoming a commercial actor. I was entranced by the 18th-century novels of Philly native Charles Brockden Brown. I was probably insufferable to anyone over the age of 30 who had big important life things like Payments and Children and Yearly Reports or whatever it is that is supposed to make us mature.
Now that I am older and responsible for those Important Things, I don’t feel more adult. Just busier.
Up on the overpass, driving a car my brother’s girlfriend gave me, I attempted to weave an important meaning out of the Camden fires. They were blazing near Walt Whitman’s house, near the jail near Whitman’s house, near the birthplace of America. Whitman’s America was burning: the heartbroken jailbirds, the reckless and inconsolable children with fiery thoughts, the tired firemen, the homeless inhabiting the decayed factories, the mothers with their sinewy faces buried in the manly fabric of Camden streets, the fathers heaving heavy objects with muscular arms like sacks of Kansas corn… you know what I mean. Whitman did not list, as far as I know, kids of my stripe: the over-educated, underemployed Caucasian who fears manual labor, the post-modern joker in a Quisp t-shirt singing Schoolhouse Rock anthems to an apathetic girlfriend, the wannabe country-singer sitting in a café alcove pretending she is Johnny Cash with a latte, Ethan Hawke on a mall escalator…
I was playing house and playing love and playing adult. Anyone could see that I was a poor player. A slacker. A Gen X wanderer. A sub-par intellectual with grandiose dreams. Some little entitled snot who didn’t think he had to work hard and kill his dreams like everybody else.
From what I read, today’s narcissistic products of helicopter parenting have a difficult time navigating early adulthood as well, especially if they are psychotherapy patients. Trouble facing the real world? Isn’t that just like a coddled layabout who spends her days yoked to a reality app, never having to face the world unmitigated by technology? Back in the ‘90s psychotherapy patients were all well-balanced and ready to face the world. We simply swallowed newfangled, little-tested brain pills and went on our way.
It seems that the media hates kids these days. Except when it is defending them. Time magazine made the biggest anti-millennial splash by calling millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists” on their front cover. Time magazine, whose writers have no a sense of shame, irony, or access to the magazine’s archive, also called Generation X shiftless know-nothings entranced with the shallow-modern and eschewing the deep values of the generation before. Isn’t this old-media millennial-think-piece link-baiting just a way of trolling the olds in order to get them to spend their retirement money on dead-tree based ancient tech? Or do they have a point? Is every generation since Tom Brokaw crawled fully-formed from the womb a bunch of mewling, self-involved twerps?
Eight Things Time Magazine Said About Generation X in 1990: True or False?
Back in 1990, before I moved to Philly, when I was but a college youth contorting my lithe, young body in “Contact Improv” class, Time magazine said that my generation “(had) trouble making decisions.”
True enough. We had trouble making decisions. To be fair, most people do. That’s why they’re called “decisions.”
Here are some other pronouncements from the first paragraph of Time magazine’s article. Did they get it right?
1. “They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder.”
True. And oddly specific. I did hike the Himalayas in the early ‘90s. On the whole, I think eating ganja pancakes in Tiger Leaping Gorge was more interesting than climbing a corporate ladder. Freakishly good call, Time magazine.
2. “They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own.”
This just makes no sense. Style, IMHO, is a retro-active media label thrust upon the past in order to make it easier to craft montages and create lucrative nostalgia. We didn’t know then, but know now, that in 1990 we were in the grunge era and Kurt Cobain was our hero. At the time, I lived in tattered-plaid-central (Portland, Oregon) but favored the Indigo Girls and had no idea what grunge was.
3. “They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.”
True. People in their forties today were so entranced by their TV programs and fancy remote control devices that they became empty, ethereal, soulless husks. The precious, precious buttons! Since we have the attention span of a mini-dachshund, we sometimes soil the carpet because we forget where we are going on the way to the lavatory.
4. “They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies.”
False. I wanted to be all of these things in 1990 and tried my best to be a yuppie (have some money, wear a sweater), a hippie (care about peace and the environment), and a druggie (ingest drugs).
5. “They postpone marriage because they dread divorce.”
False. They postpone marriage because they move to Micronesia and their fiancée is angry with them.
6. “They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders.”
True. Gen Xers sneer at pretty much anything beginning with “r” — this is due to growing up during the reign of Ronald Reagan. We also hate rabies, Rolaids, and responsibility.
7. “What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes.”
Why yes, Time magazine, what day didn’t pass in 1990 when I didn’t strap on the old penny loafers and take the family (which we put off because of dread divorce, but whatever) out to the national park for a fine day of mountain biking and “activism”?
8. “They possess only a hazy sense of their own identity but a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix.”
True. But only because this describes the state of being a young adult in the most general terms ever. And yet this idea of the callow youth resenting the previous generation’s trash (literal, cultural) is still the paradigm that undergirds the American media obsession with neatly defined generations. We are controlled by media narratives — anthems, heroes, and styles available for order — to the extent to which we define ourselves relative to that narrative.
So, basically, screw the narrative. If my life’s tale is to be told by an idiot, I want to be the idiot telling it.
Camden was burning. I was high on drug-trial anti-depressants. It was the ‘90s but not everyone was making a gajillion dollars founding websites. The difference between poor and poverty was the Ben Franklin Bridge out of Camden to less flammable digs. My girlfriend was waiting at the Burmese restaurant in Chinatown. If you saw us through the window of Rangoon on 9th Street as you walked home from a Center City skyscraper where you had to dress up for real work, you might have thought, Couple of slackers. Get a haircut, get a job, and get some clothes.
Imagine there are no generations X, Y, or Z. Imagine there are only articles about generations. Movies about generations. T-shirts and lunch pails about generations. Imagine the talismans of media are just the objective correlatives for non-existent ideas. In other words, people were as interested in peace before VW buses were invented. There was war and sacrifice before 1941, sex before Woodstock, plaid before Cobain, childhood before Pokémon.
Now look again at the couple in the window. He’s balding early, sure, but he’s skinny and scruffy and interested in a thousand things at once. She’s short, frizzy-haired, and hyper-intelligent without direction — she wants to be a chef or a doctor or a film critic. If you are older and unhappy, perhaps they annoy you with their directionless enthusiasm. Their seeming refusal to grow up. If you are older and content, perhaps they make you melancholy. They remind you of your own “before” days. They don’t represent the end of intelligence, the end of work, the end of culture, the end of family. They are a young couple in restaurant. They are just happy not to live in a burning neighborhood. They are searching for meaning the way human beings have done for at least a few millennia of generations.
There they go, walking away, probably to a Satyajit Ray retrospective or to a café where their friends sing serious folk music or to the old cobblestone alleys near Independence Hall, where he recites his poetry, speaking lines to one girl and the empty evening, because that’s the way the young sometimes speak to the universe, if they can.