This is the first piece I ever published. It ran on the opinion page in the local daily in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California. It introduces several themes that continue to preoccupy me, including the fogeyish critique of those younger than me, even if just by a few years. The long subordinate clauses, drawn-out metaphors, and juxtaposition of formal language with slang was my attempt to mimic the prose of J-K Huysmans.
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Recently a parasitic weed has sprouted in Santa Rosa, namely, downtown youths prodding for spare change. Its grassy roots have blossomed to bulbous proportions, leaving our city in dire need of a pesticide. For I have lately found that on any given day I am unable to walk down Fourth Street without being asked for money several times. I find this extremely rude. And I find the perpetrators of this annoyance disturbing — and yet also intriguing.
For these perpetrators are not the homeless; they are rather high school-age kids, who probably have electric blankets and microwave ovens at home, and who don’t want a part-time job to interfere with their cafe hang-out time. Just last week I overheard two kids with the audacity to walk into a small business located in the mall and ask the manager for a quarter, giving the usual story that they were short on busy fare. I suspect the funds went to coffee and clove cigarettes.
Then two days later I saw two young girls who had, suggestively dressed, approached a lonely looking middle-aged man and mumbled something coquettishly, whereupon he reached for his wallet and withdrew several bills. Complely vexed, I wondered what would make young people, in an age where almost no one has eluded the shadow of a droopy and sagging economy, have the effrontery to openly solicit financial assistance.
I mean, I could use some money, too.
A friend of mine, far more hip than I, offered me the following tidbit of insider information: these kids are simply trying to be “hard core.” Their parents are probably professionals, but the kids prefer the pose of poverty. Thus it seems that panhandling has become fashionable, for it represents the absence of affluence, the denial of prosperity, a mocking of the naivety of the American Dream. Panhandling displays for public inspection the bites and scratches inflicted the the oppressive “establishment,” which caters to the rich and never grants the poor so much as a stale morsel.
If this is so, then panhandling is yet another trendy expression of that rustic, retro movement in fashion and music known as “grunge,” which seeks to espouse the fashions of lumberjacks with the druggy drudge-sludge of garagy post-modern punk. Then this is in fact merely a group of charlatans purporting a glorifying of poverty, a parading of the under-privileged, a romanticizing of neediness sung to a tune of saccharine schmalz, the likes of which not heard or seen since Puccini premiered “La Boheme.”
But the more annoyed I became by these kids of the left bank, the more I became fascinated by them. Not yet satisfied, I wanted to penetrate to the heart of grunge philosophy. There must be something deeper, something below the roots, something that had poisoned the soil and tainted a generation.
I believe that beneath the tattooed surface of the grunge movement lies a real and sincere fear, a desire to halt time, to slam on the brakes before our calendars hit that eerie, science-fiction-looking year 2000. This manifests in their truly medieval clothing, their apocalyptic music and their ’60s-saturated temperament. In an epoch that has tried so ardently to believe in the doctrine of progress, that our problems can be fixed only through faith in science and technology, that a cure for AIDS, racism, an ailing environment and everything else that preoccupies us in the ’90s lies in the future, that things will get better and not worse, here is a generation that has said in the oddest way imaginable, “Stop the clock! I’m scared!”
These dusty kids shine like beacons in the night.
Their ripped clothing, their yearnings for the assistance of their community, the tobacco that floods their lungs and kills them slowly while they seem not to care, is a fierce repudiation of the doctrine of progress. These are Romantics. This is Shelley and Keats preferring to roll in the grass rather than study rocket science.
Apathetic, lazy and languished, pretentiously unpretentious, neurotic but snotty, undignified and uninspired, this is millennium consciousness.
From the Press Democrat, January 12, 1994.