“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.