Outside Lux Lounge on South Avenue
I have often felt those of us who came of age in the 80’s had it good. With the free spirited 70’s still in the air and not yet feeling the pressures of a globalizing and digitalizing world, we were a charmed generation. On “The Bridge Generation:” Born 1960-1980
Particularly so, college did not leave us burdened with debt. Tuition — even at Brown University where I went — was relatively low and had not yet made its staggeringly expensive rise well past the rate of inflation.
Not fully in the pre-professional grip, we felt freer to study what we pleased — at Brown that meant just about anything — and at least several years of experimentation and bohemianism after graduation was par for the course.
My first jobs were running an elevator in the school cafeteria, working in a liquor store, hawking credit cards in student unions all over southern New England and a stint with the Providence Business News as a freelancer. Doing things like my one and only acid trip in 1987 with President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, in her neo commune.
Wendy spent a couple of years as a singer in Portuguese bars off Gano Street in East Providence. Scott lived in the Zen Center in Cumberland, RI before he was kicked out for a violation involving sandals and a watch. Sarah shuttled back and forth between the old Soviet Union working as a translator, sometimes for Gorby. My best friend Josue (in photo) painted murals for the city of Providence. Ever unbounded, Josue later got a Ph.D. in Anthropology, researched and wrote a book on machismo in Mexico City, revived his artistic career in Brooklyn, and is now writing a treatise on money.
To empirically gauge my hypothesis that in the 80’s we lived freer, wilder and marched to the beat of our own drums more than people today, I went to Lux Lounge on 666 South Avenue for “Back to the Future” 80’s Dance Night. I have been to Lux before. For the dubious, impromptu orchestrated poetry slam On the Road. Destination Little Bohemia in the South Wedge.
Lux itself is really an intergenerational mélange. Not an ideal venue for uncovering stark generational divides: analog vs. digital, landlines vs. smartphones. As I listened and observed, media narratives labeling, dating, and marking off Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials collapsed. At Lux, people are very much on the same bridge together.
A few generalized impressions did come forth. First, I was heartened that almost everyone thought we had more fun in the 80’s (summed up by one Millennial as the epoch of Big Hair). Looser and more laid back. Maybe even love was freer. “Cocaine” was often the first word invoked. Several people noted that old yearbooks and faded photo albums (at RIT, supposedly a “dry” campus in the 80’s, every dorm room seemed to have its own wet bar) pictured college life in the 80’s as one long 4 or 5 or 6 year party. Check! Today, prescription drugs thrive; often taken, as someone said, to get homework done. The epoch of Adderall.
Long term economic trends distinguishing 1985 — the date of Back to the Future hovering as a time capsule backdrop as Wednesday is movie night at Lux — and today were frequently mentioned. Several people said the the 80’s were still a relatively golden era economically; the big dip of the early 90’s yet to come. The middle class not yet so battered down. Jobs still plentiful. College grads did not have to compete in a full-fledged global market place. As one Millennial woman said, people in other countries are pretty smart and we know it. When I came of age, outsourcing of middle class jobs barely existed.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008, described by one victim as a punch below the belt. College grads — already burdened with debt — found a barren job market and faced with new pressures to constantly re-invent, re-educate, re-credential themselves in an economy where they might work in 5-7 careers some of which don’t even exist today. Majoring in English and Semiotics and aimlessly drifting in pseudo self discovery between Zen Centers, Portuguese bars and Leningrad seem like a luxury.
At first, my Bridge Generation conceit held firm. I liked the fact that a Millennial said popular culture today is really derived from the 80’s. However, as Millennials reminded me of then and now, my lens shifted. Remember, we had Reagan and AIDS and nuclear winters a push of the button away. People today are on the whole better educated. And the most important advances of feminism then still on the horizon. And, as was frequently repeated, today society is much, much more open and tolerant about sexual and gender orientation. Many made convincing cases that the Information Age is a Golden age where you can research and even master many fields and disciplines independently or in online collaborations. As I took photos, I was reminded twice that I can see them instantaneously.
Amber (pictured at top), an RIT senior from Los Angeles majoring in Imaging Science, explained how she felt the generation today, especially by virtue of digital technology, is really more open, exploratory and creative. Connecting and communing with the globe; making their own markets and jobs. At the age when I was offering credit cards and free M & M’s in the cafeteria at Wheaton College, Millennials were doing start ups limited only by their imagination. But at least we had more fun.
On reason why Lux is an outlier when it comes to sociological inquiry into generational labels are the artists who gather there. I met six or seven artists, mostly painters (and a philosophy major fellow traveler who teaches a course in logic at Nazareth) who plan to pursue their calling to the end despite financial or career hardships. As they talked about their passions, it could be any generation: Paris in the 1890’s, Harlem in the 1920’s, Greenwich Village in the 1950’s. Marching to the beat of a different drummer.
Finally, when the 8o’s music came on full blast, I had that Proustian wave of memory, transported back to my beloved Rhode Island (where the Talking Heads started).
London Calling from the edge of the abandoned, permanently erect red Seekonk Bridge perched part way over the Providence River where in the now boarded up tunnel in the woods behind bands used to play at cage parties and generations found themselves not far from daybreak on the precipice seeing visions. London Calling
We can dance, we can dance if we want to all night on the tables with pitchers of Narragansett at the now gone Rhode Island School Design’s Tap Room underneath a giant statue of an interpreted Buddha because art is long and life is short.We can dance if we want to
Tainted love not once but twice on the ladder leading up to the Organ Room at Sayles Hall (see below and poem)Tainted Love/Where did our love go
I ordered a Brown University shirt for the occasion. But it did not make it from China in time. Hence, an addendum at end with caption, Living in the past?
ON THE ALL CAMPUS DANCE
Caressing the still visible pinkish line with its sixteen stitches,
For thirty years he imagined telling the story to great effect over wine at tables for two.
Slyly he recounted how he had taken a Brown girl inside Sayles Hall. Coaxing her upward,
Climbing a ladder to a musty, nearly dark alcove, sweater breached and bra unhinged.
Suggesting the math classrooms downstairs would be more amenable to their purposes.
The fall, the nail, the glass, the blood. The air cast, the sixteen stitches.
No doubt the gay organist who used the alcove placed a curse.
Because later he would take a RISD girl to the scene of the crime.
This time the organist was booming fugues from the Phantom of the Opera.
Chastened, he offered she go down first.
The fall, the nail, the glass, the blood. The air cast, the seventeen stitches.
Needless to say, the wound was fatal to our budding romance.
He always ended, squinting, that one Campus Dance he planned to take a woman
Back to the second floor of Sayles Hall when on the steps below the window at midnight
The Jabberwocks sang Ever True to Brown.
There and then he would propose.
Who knows, it might be a stranger he had just met. An old love back for Reunion Weekend.
It might be you. Curses don’t last forever.
* * * *
In the afternoon before the Dance, those not wanting to overpay for their liquor
Tape bottles of Tanqueray and Old Bombay underneath their assigned tables.
By 10:30, the bottles are empty and the revelers are back in line paying double prices.
The clear skies above Providence keeping its celestial promise for an evening.
Ever the same twelve thousand people Under the Elms.
Rows of Japanese lanterns making the Green look like a colonial outpost.
The Big Band announcing that happy days are here again.
Dancers dancing as if it were 1955 or 1965 or 1975 or 1985.
Kisses melting time.
* * * *
Said to be comfortable in his bachelorhood, they had met at the University track one June day.
She was young. Improbably young. Only 28.
They had made love in a Narragansett beach house as the Beavertail Lighthouse
Sent continual beacons of light through the window whose rhythm matched their own.
Somehow he sweet talked her into the Reunion and Dance.
She found his old story clichéd and obvious.
And she was from Manhattan and to her it was just another crowded affair.
And it might rain. And they would have to stay in dorms.
Fifteen minutes before the Jabberwocks were to begin, he went into Sayles alone.
Seeing her in the crowd, tipsily flirting with a circle
Of Class of ‘65ers, he beckoned.
Smiling, laughing, waving back, she returned to the conversation
With a man wearing a hat shaped like the head of a Brown bear
That made him look like a fool.
Later back in the Wriston Quad dorm she admitted
She had more fun than expected. The old guys were a hoot when drunk.
Was that him waving? It was dark and hard to see.
Too bad her train left so soon and she couldn’t stay the whole weekend.