A year ago I lived close to a major state university and often found a patio on which to sit and people watch on weekend nights. Checking out the outfits, the body language and overhearing snatches of conversation was an excellent source of fascination for me. Invariably, as the night wore on, packs of young women in skintight dresses cut just below the ass, and just above the nipples, tottered by on sky-high heels. (I call these girls baby giraffes, because their look evokes that of an unsteady, gangly newborn.) Packs of young men in fitted tee-shirts and jeans, swaggered past in clouds of Axe Body Spray—these boys I call bros. Young couples, made up of members of these groups, walked hand-in-hand, hoping to be seen and always drunk. From my thirty-something vantage point the opposing forces of self-consciousness and self-promotion sparked feelings of disgust, which gave way to tenderness. Let’s just say it right now—the late teens and early twenties suck. My experience of being college-age was a study in miserable depression, budding alcoholism, crushingly low self-esteem and an utter lack of a sense of self. And yet there I also was on weekend nights for a moment, hair carefully smoothed like Jennifer Aniston’s, tight mini-dress and platform heels, posing all night before finally lurching home after drinking too much. The spectacle invokes empathy.
A dining companion pointed out one night, after an hour or so of watching the fishbowl of young, fresh kids working hard to look hot, “I look at these kiddos and all I can see are tomorrow’s fat, frumpy, miserable parents, living in the suburbs and never having sex. Because that’s where they’re all headed.” While his comment was provocative and entirely cynical, I couldn’t help but see a connection to where people I’ve known over the years have ended up. By no means a quantitative sociological study, as I thought back to the friends and acquaintances who were the most enthusiastic participants in the college “scene” (defined here as dressing up, drinking up and hooking up), I realized that each of them are now married with children and living in the suburbs, a state which I’ll call “the middle”. As to whether or not they’re sexually fulfilled, I have few data. I won’t comment on physical appearance, but to say sometimes the changes folks have gone through are surprising. I began to understand what we were seeing in the fishbowl was an early chapter in the life of the American breeder.
And to think that I spent years worrying about not spending enough time in various scenes (sipping stolen anything in public parks or breaking into someone’s parents’ stash; partying in bars on the north end of the Ave, and later Pioneer Square or Belltown; hosting or attending epic house-ragers; drinking at Linda’s or Smith or Bimbo’s; endless) and fearing that I was “lame”. When I quit drinking the first time I stayed in, all the time. It was senior year of college, and I loathed myself for not owning a closet full of clingy dresses, or having the confidence to put one on and go out. I sensed I was being left behind. What was wrong with me that I wasn’t spending weeknights in low-lit dives where men in plaid drank PBR tall cans from paper bags? Why, as a high school kid, didn’t I ever meet up after hours to get my drink and smoke on with everyone, even when my strict, controlling parents were out of town? I could never seem to muster up the energy or find the desire to place myself among the beautiful people. That was a terrible flaw. I felt isolated, apart.
Maybe later we’ll get into my experience of forcing myself into public displays of hipness, when I believed I had at last become one of the cool kids.
Lest I wander too far from the subject my title suggests, let’s wonder about the forces that seem to guide the pretty, cool kids from the scene to the middle. I’ve arrived at an understanding of both life stations as a reflection of the status quo. The warm, glowing status quo; my feelings on which have gone from desperately and haplessly desirous of, to a rather laissez-faire attitude. Is it a crowd mentality, pushing everyone to the center? Is it about “this is what people do”? And what people do changes over time, but there’s always a prescription? Is it too cold on the margins, the S.Q. representing a stacked, towering beach bonfire, the light from which renders everyone attractive, the heat from which binds the group? Or, if you prefer something more stark, a flaming metal trash drum, around which the huddled come in from the margins to warm and stretch their hands. Let’s mark this idea and continue to talk about it.