What’s the most Gen-X thing you’ve ever done?

There is a thread on Twitter asking people to comment, “What’s the most GenX thing you did?”  It’s a riot — check it out.

These are my responses:

  • I brought a typewriter to my freshman year at Mary Washington College.
  • I stood in line outside the registrar’s office to register for classes.  I once had to camp out there overnight so that I could be first in line, because there was only one spot left in a course I really needed.  My girlfriend brought me snacks.
  • I walked to air-conditioned “computer pods” in a designated academic building when a computer was required to properly format term papers.
  • I had a 5-disc CD player that could play songs at random, and I filled it with U2, Nirvana, Depeche Mode and Pearl Jam. I marveled at how cool this advanced technology made me.
  • I wore a jean jacket.
  • I wore fluorescent clothes and went to raves.
  • I’ve watched every Kevin Smith movie at least twice.

 

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Pitt Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, June 2017

Pitt Street in Fredricksburg is looking terrific — the area seems far more gentrified and better maintained than when I lived there during the summer of 1991, after my freshman year at Mary Washington College.

There were always a few college kids living on Pitt back in the day — either just during the summer or for the entire year, attracted by the dirt-cheap rents just north of downtown.  You sort of got what you paid for, though; back then, we thought of it as “Pits Street.”

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I had my first place (outside of my freshman dorm room) at 304 Pitt Street — that’s the little grey house on the left in the next two photos.  I sublet it from another drama student at MWC.  (He was an upperclassman who coached me a little on my acting, despite the fact that I wasn’t very good.)  Tim was a gigantic guy, and former military.  He’d been in some kind of special forces, and the other guys explained to me that he was too tough to care much about the size or quality of the accommodations.  “To Tim, a two-by-four is a bed,” one of them explained me.

So the “place” in question wasn’t fancy.  It hardly qualified as a room.  It was actually just a walk-in closet with a window; I slept on a futon because a mattress wouldn’t fit.  But the price was right — rent was just $150 a month, with utilities included.  My part-time job was right on Caroline Street.  (I played the role of “the tavern-keeper’s son” at The Rising Sun Tavern, a living-history museum.)  And right up Princess Anne Street was the comic shop I’ve written about here before — this was the place with the singularly horrid woman who visibly hated every customer who walked in.

I had sooooo little money that summer.  Meals occasionally consisted solely of those butter cookies that sold for 99-cents-a-package at the nearby Fas-Mart.  (This wasn’t an entirely unhappy circumstance — those things were so good, they were addictive.)  I spent a lot of time listening to Depeche Mode on cassette; any song from the “Some Great Reward” album will always take me back to Pitt Street.  When I started dating one of the “tavern wenches” at work, our dates always had to cost little or nothing.  And I spent a lot of time watching “Star Trek” on VHS tapes from the Fredericksburg Library.

My housemates were Mike and Paul, who were upperclassmen.  Mike was a tall, soft-spoken Fairfax native who appeared to endlessly ponder things.  Paul was a likable, irreverent metal-head who loved to make fun of me.  (Hey, I deserved it, after working hard for a year at Bushnell Hall seeking the Most Obnoxious Resident Award.)  My complete dependence on Fas-Mart was an endless source of amusement for him.  (I didn’t have a car, and the Giant Supermarket was along Route 1 on the other side of town.)  He laughed the hardest when I demonstrated my ignorance of metal.  He actually fell over once when I read his Queensryche poster and pronounced their name as “Queensearch.”

Mike and Paul had a friend named Stefan who occasionally stopped by the house.  Stefan was unique.  He always appeared confused by life, and he always arrived with news of some strange new misfortune that had befallen him.  He once showed up at our door, for example, looking like a victim of a nuclear reactor meltdown — his thick black hair had been brutally shorn away into a mottled “crew cut.”  (He’d tried to save money by giving himself a haircut, not realizing how difficult that was to do correctly.)  Later that summer he stopped by with news of a near-death experience.  (This time, he’d electrocuted himself trying to change a broken light-bulb while the lamp was still plugged in.)

There was no shortage of drug activity in that part of Fredericksburg in the early 1990’s.  Some girls up the street from where I lived grew a man-sized marijuana “tree” right in their living room.  Another guy who was well known in the neighborhood offered the dubious service of delivering acid to anyone’s door.

A Fredericksburg native on the other side of the street was known for howling at the sky from his front porch.  This was during the day; the moon had nothing to do with it.  I was told he was issuing some sort of recurring, primal challenge to some other local who had threatened him.  He was at least not acting out of paranoia … one morning his adversary indeed appeared at the edge of his yard, brandishing a baseball bat.  The Howling Man fortified his position on the porch by returning with a lengthy kitchen knife.

Nobody called the police.  The guys in my house at least had an excuse — we didn’t have a phone.  Cell phones just weren’t a thing in 1991, and we lacked either the money or the organizational skills to set up a landline (probably both).

I remember being concerned about the Howling Man after Mike told me about the extended stalemate.  (It had occurred when I was at work, pretending to be a colonist in charge of the tavern wenches.)  Our neighbor had always been nice to me.  I’d given him some milk after he asked for it one morning, and he’d given me an ostentatious bow, kneeling before me on one knee and bowing his head, like a knight would do before a king.  He had plenty of decorum, he just saved it for those who were deserving.

 

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Looking south down Princess Anne Street toward the downtown area.  The Irish Brigade used to be all the way down and at left.  (I’ve been told that various restaurants close and re-open at the address, and … that the site of Mother’s Pub was also rebranded as the “new” Irish Brigade for a while?  But by different owners?)  That’s just confusing.

Just a little farther down on Princess Anne is the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church. My girlfriend during the summer of 1991 sang in the Maranatha choir there.

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Looking north on Princess Anne Street, toward Hardee’s, and where Fas-Mart and the comic shop used to be.

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Does anyone else remember this grey house on Pitt Street, between Princess Anne and Caroline?  (That extension with the latticed porch hadn’t been built yet in the 1990’s.)  I think the house number is 209.  It became a big party house in 1993 and 1994 … I was at a party with a bunch of New Hall people during my senior year, I think, when the cops arrived.  I remember the house emptied out in an instant.

I myself slid down the outside of the house via the gutter from the second floor.  (Seriously, people, when I went through my Spider-Man phase, I was really into climbing things.)  I did something weird to the joint in my right thumb — it didn’t hurt much, but, to this day, my thumb still makes a clicking noise whenever I bend it.

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Nothing says “gentrification” like seeing an upscale “Red Dragon Brewery” where a creepy, vacant building used to be.  Way to go, Fredericksburg.

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Heading south toward Caroline Street.

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Caroline Street.

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Looking south on Caroline from Pitt.

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Looking back up Pitt from Caroline.

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Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA, June 2017 (4)

Pictured is Bushnell Hall at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  I lived here during the 1990-91 school year.  It was a freshman dorm then; I don’t know if that’s still the case.

I arrived here just before my 18th birthday; this was the first place I ever lived away from home.  I have never admitted it until this moment, but I was terrified watching my mother’s car pull away after I unloaded the last of my things.  That terror lasted … two hours?  Three?  After my first dinner with the other Bushnell kids at Seacobeck Dining Hall, Mary Washington College felt goddam perfect.  I never wanted to leave.

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My dorm room was on the bottom floor, second from the right in the picture below.  It was a suite — there were two rooms connected by a small bathroom.  And there were six 18-year-old boys living there — yes, that means three to a room.  Good lord, those were close quarters.  We were awakened twice a week by the BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of the garbage truck reversing to empty a dumpster outside our window.  And this was in a room without air conditioning, in Virginia, where teenagers were experiencing college-level academic stresses for the first time.  I helpfully eased tensions in the suite by playing Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth” 3,043 times.  The other five guys LOVED that.

There were even good-natured jabs connected with the North and the South.  I habitually and dryly referred to one of my suitemates as “South Virginia;” he addressed me just as dryly as “Long Island Piece of Shit,” (or just “L.I.P.S.,” for short).  He also took to calling me “Urban Spillover,” an appellation he derived from one of Dr. Bowen’s “Geography of North America” classes that mentioned Long Island.  For some reason, the latter nickname absolutely felt more pejorative.

Seeing those double white doors beside my room below, and that steep hill in the following photos, will always remind me of my 18th birthday.  A group of first-floor guys and fourth-floor girls had gathered inside that door just after moving in during the August of 1990, before classes started.  A polite debate stirred there about whether opening those doors would set off the fire alarm.  (They were clearly marked “Fire Doors” by an electric sign but … the LIGHT wasn’t on in the sign.  And surely the administration wouldn’t require the guys on my floor to walk up an entire flight to the lobby just to exit the building, right?)

Without a word of warning, one of the first-floor guys spontaneously decided to test this theory by just blasting right through it.  (No, it WASN’T me.)

The fire alarm went off.  Everyone panicked.  The guys and girls all shot down the hill outside Bushnell after the guy who’d triggered the alarm, and we all ran … right off campus.  We didn’t stop running until we’d reached somewhere along William Street, I think.

But not all of us escaped without injury.  One of my roommates was a tall, burly guy from right there in Fredericksburg, and he slipped in the sand and loose gravel that characterized that hill during that long ago August.  I still remember that dull, loud, discordant thump-and-rattle as his body hit the slope, while my own lungs were pounding.  When we reached the spot along William Street where our panic finally subsided, we all turned and gaped at his wound.  One of his legs had become a sepia Monet of sand-encrusted blood.  There were still pebbles clinging there, I’m sure of it.

He took it like a trooper.  I guess … he just walked it off.  And we walked around the ENTIRE town.  We were scared to return to campus, what with images of arrest and expulsion dancing in our teenage minds.  (We all might have overreacted a little.)  So we went on a truly lengthy hot summer trek that circled all of the historic downtown area.  (I think we wound up at Carl’s Ice Cream on Princess Anne Street at some point.)

That was really when I saw the City of Fredericksburg for the first time.  I remember thinking that the South seemed like some other world — or maybe the same world, but 100 years ago.  And I don’t mean that in any negative sense.  It genuinely confused me that this town was called a “city,” but it just seemed idyllic and old fashioned and beautiful.  I’m not sure if the average Fredericksburg resident realizes this, but their city indeed makes an impression on newcomers.

Somewhere along the way, I finally let it slip that the day was my birthday; I think heat exhaustion influenced my usual reticence on the subject.  A couple of the girls stole away to a card store on Caroline Street, I think, and bought a card for me.  My new friends all signed it for me upon our eventual return to Bushnell Hall that day (which was thankfully not occasioned by even a mention of the fire doors).  I went to bed that night thinking that my new friends were a pretty decent group.

Anyway — more on my roommate’s injury … he was a bit of an eccentric guy, and one of his eccentricities was that he did not like to go to the Campus Health Center.  He cleaned his long leg scrape himself, and then … bandaged it with duct tape.  That’s right — duct tape.  He’d apparently brought some along with him as an incoming freshman, just in case of an emergency.  You can’t say it was a needless precaution — here he was, using it in lieu of bandages.

He walked around campus like that for a while.  He looked a lot he was wearing part of an extremely low-budget “Robocop” Halloween costume.  I honestly don’t know what transpired when it came time to remove the duct tape, and I’m not sure I want to.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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This the dorm’s south side.  If you face Bushnell looking north, the southern cap of the rectangular campus will be at your back.  Today, it is is one the last places of the main campus’ 234 acres that remains undeveloped.

I’m not sure if there is any connection here, but there is a large mound of dirt among the trees and ivy that was rumored to be the remains of a Civil War fortification.  It makes sense — that hill commands a view of the city; that’s why I used to go there to have my once-a-day Newport menthol cigarettes around dusk.  And in the Nineteenth Century, before William Street’s more modern buildings were erected, I’ll bet you could see Marye’s Heights and the key sections of Sunken Road where the Battle of Fredericksburg raged.

I chatted with a girl on the steps of Bushnell once who told me she’d spoken with the ghost of a Civil War soldier.  She actually carried on a brief conversation with him.  She re-enacted the exchange after a some urging from me, but I wound up giving her story little credence.  I didn’t exactly believe in ghosts, and she sounded like an actress confused about a role.  (I wasn’t sure why her Confederate soldier would speak with a British accent.)

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Throwback Thursday: “I want my MTV!!!”

This past Monday marked the 35th Anniversary of MTV.  It aired its first music video, ironically The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” on August 1st, 1981.

That’s a cool answer for a trivia question, but it’s not actually a memory for a lot of people.  Not everybody had premium cable packages back then.  My family didn’t.   And if we’d had fancy cable channels like that, I’d have been far more thrilled to get Showtime or the legendary HBO.  (We called the latter “Home Box” back in the day.)

The first time I laid eyes on MTV was at a friend’s house, and it seemed weird to a fourth grader.  I thought it was an inscrutably dumb idea — why did we need to see the music being played?  That seemed like something appropriate only for fanatical music fans.  In my child’s mind, I pictured them as the weird, overly nostalgic, long-haired men who purchased those “Hits of the 60’s” cassettes that were so often advertised on non-primetime television.

I  only gave it a glance; my friend and I then went on to play in the woods, maybe to build a tree-fort.  The 80’s were a different time.

Adults, too, scoffed at “Music Television.”  I heard more than one opine, disapprovingly, that “music is meant to be heard, not watched.”

MTV also arrived with little initial fanfare, of course, because nobody knew how big it would be.  By the end of the 80’s, even describing it as a cornerstone of popular culture would be an understatement.  It was … I dunno … a cultural conduit.  It was part of life, if you were a teenager.

By the time I graduated from Longwood High School in the spring of 1990, I was watching it nightly, just like countless other kids.  This was arguably MTV’s Golden Age — it would be many years before its inexplicable, universally maligned transition away from music videos to brainless, bread-and circuses”reality shows” and other questionable programming.

The countdown show in the late 80’s was “Dial MTV,” Wikipedia reminds me.  (Why do I feel like I remember it being called something else?)  I didn’t pay much attention to “120 Minutes,” which focused on alternative music.  And that’s weird, because I would go nuts for alternative music when I was bitten by the Depeche Mode bug early in my freshman year of college.

MTV could be found on Channel 25 in my part of Long Island; its sister channel, VH-1, was on Channel 26.  I remember thinking of VH-1 as “MTV for old people.”  And, by “old people,” I did mean people in their 30’s.

For some reason, I had quite a preoccupation as a teenager with Vee-Jay Martha Quinn.  I definitely had Martha on my mind, back then.  I’m not sure what was up with that.  Looking back, I think she resembled a mild-mannered, nondescript librarian who dressed just slightly cool, maybe because she just got a job at the local high school.  Or maybe because she was sneaking up on 30.

 

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Throwback Thursday: CD’s?!

CD’s?!  Really?!

I didn’t think that compact discs were such an outdated format that they’d be the subject of a nostalgic Facebook meme like the one you see below.

But I guess it makes sense.  I actually own a portable CD collection case exactly like the one pictured, but it’s been in storage for years.  Today’s digital music is absolutely more convenient.

I always thought of CD’s as a 90’s phenomenon, but I was surprised to learn that they’re definitely an 80’s technology.  The first CD released commercially, according to this Internet thingamijiggy, was Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” waaaaaay back in 1982.  (For a little perspective, that was the album that featured oldies like”Big Shot” and “My Life.”)  But that was released in tech-savvy Japan — the first CD released commercially in America was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984.

They didn’t sell so hot right away.  They were far more expensive than cassette tapes, which peaked in sales in the late 80’s, and a lot of people weren’t sure the medium would take off.

I myself first laid eyes on one at a party during my last year at Longwood High School, in the spring of 1990; it was a gift from one guy to the classmate whose birthday we were celebrating.  Then I remember seeing CD’s in stores, sold in a separate section from tapes.  The packaging was weird.  They came in slim, 12-inch “longboxes” like those you see in the second picture.  I always thought manufacturers did that to make the product visually seem larger, like LP’s — but apparently the stores just preferred that packaging since the boxes could fit in the same racks used to sell records.

It was only at the start my sophomore year at Mary Washington College when it seemed like a lot of my friends owned them.  My roommate had a 5-disc CD player in which you inserted the discs onto a turntable the size of a record player — the “random play” function would select from those five discs, and I remember thinking that was pretty damned elaborate technology.

The discs themselves had a slight mystique.  They were shiny.  The bottoms were … lasery and kind of iridescent.  They just looked … high-tech and a pretty fancy, compared to the beige or white plastic cassettes every kid remembered since early childhood.  (I myself can actually remember my parents having 8-track tapes when I was a tiny tot, but those weren’t something that belonged to me.)

CD’s really were the first computerized format for music.  Hell, we were still watching movies on VHS tapes back then.  (Except for that one weird time when a hardcore collector in my dorm was showing off a rare, LP-sized video “laserdisc” of “The Monkees.”)  And again, CD’s predecessors were ordinary tapes.

At first, college kids occasionally erred a little too far on the side of caution in caring for CD’s …  Yes, they would skip or break if they were scratched or if they accumulated dust.  That indeed sucked when it happened.  But a few kids treated them as though they were made of priceless, eggshell-thin medieval spun glass — as though they would be rendered useless even if a single hair fell across them.

And one student I knew got CD care entirely backwards … he kept advising everyone that it was the top of the disc — with the artwork, band name and songlist — that actually contained the readable music, and not the shiny bottom.  (Retrospect suggests he might have been high.)

I owned only a couple of discs at first — I remember having Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”  I also was the owner of … God help me … “I’m Breathless,” Madonna’s tribute to the bizarre 1990 “Dick Tracy” feature film in which she starred.  (I was *19,* okay?!  I didn’t know what good music was yet!!)  I also routinely borrowed my mother’s “Glory” (1989) soundtrack; I remember loving that during the summer of 1992.  Hot damn if James Horner didn’t sound fantastic on compact disc, especially when I was stuck at home on a sweltering summer night in a new small town in Virginia.

I did like more mainstream music  … but I continued to listen to my U2, Depeche Mode and Def Leppard on tape.  My tapes still worked just fine, and CD’s were more expensive for a college kid.

Mp3’s eventually arrived, of course.  I was very, very late to the party, as I always am with cool things.  I stuck with my CD case; the idea of “downloading music” seemed oppressively techy to me.  (Would I have to know code?  Would I have to type stuff?)  My first mp3 player was a gift — it came with a personal (and punk-heavy) music selection already on it.  My subsequent iPod broke disappointingly early.  Do those damn things just stop working as some kind of variation of planned obsolescence?  Because their shelf-life sucks, and it makes it ironic that people worried so much 25 years ago about their CD’s being scratched.

There is a larger point that I am trying to make here … I feel like we really did lose something in the switch from disc to digital.  Look at that case in the meme below.  That’s … a music collection.  You could hold it.  You could organize it with your hands, and then hand it to the person next to you as sort of a document of your aesthetic personality.  If you’re at home and your CD’s were in their cases, you could examine the cover art.

Or, if you were dating someone new, in that getting-to-know-you stage, there was a subtle ritual in which you examined each other’s music collection.  It was a conversation starter, or maybe even a handy icebreaker when she first saw your place.

Digital music doesn’t do that for us.  I don’t think I know anyone who has ever handed over a palm-sized gadget to a new friend or sweetheart, and asked them to scroll through the song list to “see what I’m into.”  And … you just don’t get the same sense of “having” the music, or owning it.  The different feel of digital is further increased if you can purchase individual songs … the entire concept of “having an album” is just different.

But I’m just bitching here.  I probably sound like one of those overly nostalgic post-40 guys who used to lament the passing of LP’s.

Hey, you kids … GET OFF MY LAWN.

 

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