“We’re 52%!” the sign read. It was being held aloft by a very young man with unkempt hair grown past his ears and a sparse and nascent cinnamon beard. He wore a yellow T-shirt bearing a legend in Gothic script: “THE WAGES OF SIN,” and below that, in smaller script: “Are syphilis, gonorrhea and death.” He also wore eyeglasses of the type I’ve always thought of as Old Guy glasses, popular among squares in the 1960s: black rims at the eyebrows and no lower rim visible. My father wore them, and so did (then–Secretary of State) Robert McNamara. The kid, who was probably the same age as I was, sat next to Ulysses S. Grant on horseback (at least I remember it as a statue of Grant), surrounded by other people in their teens or 20s, some of them scrambling upward on the statue, others milling at the base. It was the first week in August 1968, in Chicago’s Grant Park, across Michigan Avenue from the Hilton Hotel. In that hotel, presidential candidate and poet Eugene McCarthy had converted his temporary campaign headquarters into an emergency facility for those injured during the “Police Riots” — as it was later and officially termed. I distinctly remember thinking, what a stupid sign. It trivializes this whole demonstration. It’s a line from a bad rock song in a worse movie. And it was. That movie was popular for maybe two weeks that summer and was called Wild in the Streets.
Beneath him and around him were maybe a couple thousand people chanting before the television cameras from every network, the local stations, and foreign news agencies: “The whole world’s watching! The whole world’s watching!”
The 52 percent figure was accurate in a ballpark kind of way and referred to the country’s baby-boom population: those then under roughly 25 years of age. That summer, I was 17. I’d already graduated from high school and was attending the Art Institute of Chicago, a few blocks from Grant Park and also on Michigan Avenue. I worked at Rose’s Records, two blocks from the park on Wabash, in the Loop of elevated train tracks. Upstairs from the record store was the Chicago Guitar Gallery, where the lead guitarist in my rock band, the horribly named Sounds of Silence, sold guitars to rock stars from all over the world. I met quite a few of them there, during lunch breaks and after work. It is now 40 years later, and that kid by the statue, my old guitarist, and every one of those rock stars (those who have survived, that is) are old people, senior citizens, doddering codgers and crones. Naturally, I am among them.
If I could somehow reach back to touch the imagination of my 17-year-old self, to see how I might have pictured myself in the distantly future year of 2008, I think it might have gone something like this: I am standing on a balcony on some impossibly towering skyscraper, against a backdrop of whizzing air-cars (which we had been promised since 1958) that take off and land to and from expansive balconies just like the one on which I am ensconced. I am dressed in a kind of futuristic jumpsuit with an upturned Ming the Merciless collar of fluorescent violet. My completely gray hair hangs to my shoulders, but I am bald at the top, just like my father. My head, in fact, looks like Benjamin Franklin’s, except for the cool ultraviolet eye shields I wear constantly — by 2008, the sun is going nova. I have a paunch that the jumpsuit does nothing to conceal, and I allow for this because I believe it is as inevitable as a thoroughly extinct sex drive past the age of 40. Again, taking cues from Dad.
I was right about the sunglasses and the sex drive (with the age of libido failure adjusted upward to 50), but almost nothing else, though I do have patches of gray hair. I recommend this memory/imagination exercise (a spot-check to see if either remains — good enough reason right there to do it) to anyone in my age group who may be feeling bad about the way one has “ended up.” Chances are we may be doing better than we thought. In other ways, however — and I don’t see how to dodge this — we are far more pathetic than we were even capable of supposing back then. Without thinking, just glancing up at the television and taking it off “mute,” its usual setting, I hear and hardly for the first time: “Forty is the new 30, and 50 is the new 40! If you’re 45 to 65 years young, you’re not getting older, you’re getting better! Call now [for hair dye, medical insurance at usurious premiums, yogurt, Viagra, work-out gizmos, whatever] — an operator is standing by!”
A commercial like that might be followed by news about the war in Iraq. Our parents won a good war, and I’ll be damned if our generation didn’t stop a bad one. But then, instead of showing our kids how to prevent the next one, we gave those kids weapons and sent them overseas, because “We grew up. We’re a little more — heh-heh — conservative now after that brush with the stock market in the ’80s, and how about that real estate roller coaster for a while there, and don’t get me started about gas prices and besides, Saving Private Ryan was a great movie. I cried, I’ll tell you right now, I cried. It gets you thinking, it does.” And well it might, but not quite enough. We were supposed to prevent the next war, not invade unprovoked, occupy a people (benighted and religiously wack as they may be) for five years and call it liberation. We — yes, “we,” if you were born between 1945 and 1975 — pulled a Deutschland-drops-in-on-Poland-circa-1939 in Iraq, and so far, a good number of the nationals in that Middle Eastern country would rather immolate themselves in the family car (taking infidels with them) than grovel in gratitude for Hershey bars or a chance to buy stock in the company — with wages earned at the downtown Baghdad Taco Bell. My politics, like the religious views of benighted, radical Islamic nationals, may be more than wack, but I believe that is what we did, and I don’t see putting it on our kids. If we can share responsibility with our parents’ generation — and we can — at least it is not an overwhelming number of them.
Mentioning, as I did, our kids, by the way, how would you grade us? As parents, I think, we’ve mostly been worse than our own. This explains allowing our children to think war was so many special effects and/or a video game. Who hired the television as babysitter, nanny, guardian, schoolteacher, and PBS child psychologist, anyway? I include myself here absolutely. My own near-sociopathic impulse toward immediate gratification is, on a twisted level, a state only attainable for those born into that particular corner of time and space — 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s America. I have a grown son with a severe mental-health disability, which I, after some years now, have come to consider as my kid’s eminently sane response to the world my friends and I handed to him.
“I hope I die before I get old!” the Who sang in 1965 or ’66 (making me 14 or 15), and I shouted that line louder than anyone. Twenty years later I was wincing a little, thinking, It’s a figure of speech. A little rash there, maybe. We were kids, whaddya gonna do? Twenty more years, and Katie Couric or someone is telling us that 50 is the new 40 blah blah, and I know it’s bullshit. I’m thinking, Damn right, Daltrey or Townshend. You guys were right the first time, because I’ve had bypass surgery and I’m packing a pacemaker, and I’m up six times a night because I’ve got a prostate the size of a cannoli.
It’s everywhere now, and we saw it coming, didn’t we? We are the demographic that moved like a tectonic plate of cooling lava through the decades into a cyber, cable, satellite, cellular microwave — liquid crystal plasma in hi-def display — virtual version of our own global Lawrence Welk Village. Only instead of Welk and Eddie Albert and Sinatra and Arthur Godfrey (c’mon, if you’re with me this far, you remember him), June Allyson and Doris Day and the Lennon Sisters, we have Bono (I think we can be okay with that) and Sting, a crotchety Letterman and Steely Dan (was it Dennis Miller who said, “They [Fagan and Becker of Steely Dan] look like Ben & Jerry fresh out of rehab”?), Denis Leary with Alzheimer’s, and Cher and Hillary. Oh, and Dennis Miller is singing in the shower these days to an old John Lennon and Yoko Ono tune: “All we are saying, is give the surge a chance…”
I have the “Five Friends Package” on my cell phone. Two of them are CVS and the Rite Aid pharmacy, one is my cardiologist, the others my orthopedic guy and an editor. My grown son doesn’t rate in terms of sheer minutes. As for girlfriends? Give me a break. I have a “lady friend” with whom I’ve kept company for ten years, but I forgot her phone number. Almost everything I love to wear, they don’t make anymore. Everyplace I used to love isn’t what it used to be, and as time has revealed, it probably never was.
I don’t hate our generation, and I don’t feel sorry for us either. We’ve had our time; we just can’t remember a lot of it. We still have Springsteen and Dylan, though (any day Bob’s going to come out with a depressing-ass song and video like Johnny Cash doing “Hurt” — just wait), and Obama’s going to show us that his “hope” was no big favor after all. I can see a remake of the series All in the Family, with our version of Archie and Edith (I see maybe Peter Coyote or John Mellencamp and Jane Fonda or Joni Mitchell) opening the show at the piano, singing “Those Were the Days” with revised lyrics, like, “…Brother, we could use a man like Abbie Hoffman again.…”
Here in Southern California, in San Diego, in the shadow of the Beach Boys, Fabian and Annette, and the Mamas and the Papas, we will only see more of the people we’ve been seeing for ten years in Ocean Beach and PB; people springing up through cracks in the sidewalks from cracks in the system. I’m talking about those guys in gray ponytails on skateboards and bicycles with beef-jerky, whip-thin bodies like stretched shoe leather and weed-worn, ’shroom-sautéed, melanoma-riddled clusters of brain cells between wire headphones; batteries long dead but somehow still playing “Stairway to Heaven” on an endless refried loop of tired neurons. They’ll be in the 7-Elevens buying Ensure with food stamps and Depends with their $18-a-month Social Security checks. Their old ladies will be back at the assisted-living pad or the shelter, taking the rectal temperature of their 18 cats, boiling pinecones for next week’s granola, listening to John Denver on the eight-track, and firing up Love Story on the Betamax.
Advantages to codgerhood, dotage, etc., are many and well known, but ours may be the first generation to create new ones. Who knows more about entitlement than we do? And spin? We invented it. Everyone has known for millennia that the elderly can get away with much more in the way of “speaking one’s mind” than youth or middle age. We have not only co-opted self-expression but truth itself — or whatever remains of that concept after Vietnam and then Iraq and Watergate and then the 2004 election fraud. Truth, as we were quick to discover, is whatever works on camera, or whatever we need it to be at the moment. Ask any of us baby boomers to define truth, and don’t bother staying for an answer.
What I’m saying is, we’re already saying anything we damn well feel like, as long as we follow it with, for example, “I’m just being honest.” We may have delivered the most unfounded and diabolically sadistic, devastating pronouncement on the most innocent of recipients, but if we shrug and claim honesty, we’re home free, even admired (by ourselves). Same goes with the backlash to political correctness. We’re doing this kind of thing more all the time in the media, in Starbucks and in our wine-and-tapas bistros. We’ve found a way not only to continue but refine and render more deadly, hate-fueled fat jokes, fag jokes, race jokes, religious…in short, whatever we want. The idea is to present some slur against, say, “dot-heads,” “rag-heads,” and “camel jockeys” as patriotism. It’s easy enough. As for fat jokes or gay jokes or race jokes, we have created such a resentment against what has been termed politically correct — our invention, mind you — that now violating the heart and soul of human rights and tolerance with any semblance of humor comes as such a relief to the listener that we again come off as rebels, honest, and cutting edge.
As for me, I recently played the age card with an old acquaintance who introduced me to his extremely attractive niece, a girl of 22 or so. As he left to get our coffee order at some Internet café (a collaborative invention with our kids — they contributed the concept of the $4 cup of coffee), I proceeded to flirt shamelessly with the girl, drooling and pawing her knee. My friend returned and asked, chuckling, “You haven’t been molesting my niece, have you?” I gummed the coffee, coughed tubercularly, then blinked in confusion. With my best, hoarsest, and most senile voice, I said, “I forgot,” then quickly changed the subject. “Matlock’s on!” I exclaimed. This brought a hearty round of good-natured laughter, though the young lady looked genuinely disconcerted, and creeped out too.
Say what I will about yuppies growing old, I never related to them much and belong more in that cracks-in-the-system group mentioned above — though I can’t afford to live near the beach. I was pretty much born a malcontent and curmudgeon and so consider myself perfectly poised to face the challenges ahead. As depressing as our prospects may be in the years left to us, we can continue to count on our generation’s secret weapon: we will soon forget what we were depressed about.
I had intended to tell a little story in here about a boy I saw on a statue in Grant Park in Chicago in 1968 because it had something to do with what I was talking about, but it seems to have slipped my — Oh, I see it’s there after all. I didn’t forget.