Kirsten Major is a writer living in New York City. Over the years, she has written noteworthy pieces on Generation X. The following is a piece she wrote several years ago. I linked to it at the time but the link is now broken. I wrote to her and asked her if she had a copy and if I could preserve it here on the world’s largest Gen-X blog (read by 10s of people every day) for posterity. She kindly agreed! Once you read it you’ll know why I wanted to save it forever. Her story captures so much of my story. A story I thought belonged only to me until I started researching Gen-X. If you are a Gen-Xer born between 1961 and 1969 (the Atari Wave as Neil Howe described us), this is probably a lot like your story, too. And, there’s a good chance that many of you in the Tetris Wave of Gen-X will also strongly relate.
I hope before I die, I hope before Kirsten dies, we are both able to write the books we wanted to write during Summer Wasteland after college when we stared walls and counted crosshatches. I was there, just in a different state. Of course, the books will be different now. But, still. Generation X.
We Were Generation X
by Kirsten Major
There was any number of inklings that something was going to go amiss, really amiss, with all of us, but I only think of this in retrospect—my only concern at that point was that I had graduated from college and I had absolutely nowhere to go. Here were the inklings—the day that we all received tax forms in our student mailboxes—student’s wages would no longer be tax-free. It seemed like a monstrous thing, especially during the go-go-go 1980s when people were getting rich on Wall Street, when the word yuppie was born, when the preppy handbook made a small elite way of life a national pursuit. Why on earth would they tax people who for all purposes did not have real jobs? Why take money away from people who didn’t have any? That was one inkling.
The other was the goddamned student ball. The midwinter ball was, of course, the sexual revolutions joke about propriety — it was a time to drop acid, wear the ugliest outfit you could think of — as freshmen we followed seniors, who had ridden the crest of the wave of the sexual revolution, treat it as small rural rich kids school treated social traditions — with derisive humor and a proper collegiate ironic disdain. And pot and acid. Our senior year we stood stricken as freshmen asked each other to the ball, despite many of us saying, you know this is a joke, right? No, they ignored us and asked each other to go as dates and on that night, got dressed up in ties and long dresses, and attended in an unaltered state. We didn’t even know how dating would work.
Wait, you ask someone to go to the movie with you in Olin that and then you pick them up at their room and go with them to a movie? Is that a date? But you’d see them at the movie and in Sayles Hill anyway and you wouldn’t even have to tell them that you liked them like that. Supposed you liked someone and you just stopped by their room on like a Tuesday, is that a date?
Ask the goddamned freshmen.
They don’t know anything. They’re just faking.
We all looked at each other.
But then finally we did graduate and that was the end for me, no commencement here. There were ongoing talks and plans with a classmate to go in on an apartment in alphabet city and I kept asking her when and if she needed money and while she was happy to give updates on her sister’s forays into the neighborhood on our behalf, and described apartments viewed, two days before graduation she said, “Oh, yeah, we didn’t get the apartment. Oh well.” She was just going to go back to her parent’s house in Forest Hills and I realized how much of the talking that she did, in front of other people, stagily, which I wanted as well, was a way of assuring ourselves that something was waiting, but it was just talk to her.
I had all my things in boxes. A friend came from Minneapolis came to see me graduate. After she left, that day I just wanted to be with the one friend I had who was also the first great love of my life, this former skinhead who seemed as uncomfortable and angry as I was. I grew to love him and depend on his companionship. He was two classes below me but stayed behind to see me off. I wanted to be alone with him, and most pointedly away from everyone else and their parents. I was hanging out with him and a friend of his that I was sleeping with the last couple of months of school.
“This is sort of hard,” I said. “My parents aren’t here today.”
“Well neither are mine,” he said with a can’t you do better scorn in his voice.
“Me neither,” said his friend.
“But you guys didn’t graduate from college today.”
“Well,” well my friend said, “I guess that’s true.”
When Are Your Parents Coming For You?
My world was so whacked out that I absorbed this as part of my daily work of sucking it up and trying to act normal, rather than the outrageously callous words of someone to whom I had confided my deepest sorrows. And then he left too, the next morning, back to his parents’ house in Oak Park. I was supposed to be gone by noon that day, instead, I continued to pack and took breaks to wander into rooms of the now-empty house, thinking of the people who had just occupied them.
I let campus security find me sleeping in the now-no-longer mine room. I had been the house manager and had welcomed security many times when I had to deal with the violent rowdy football players who lived on the ground floor. But I jumped and squirmed on the raw mattress ticking when they tapped on the half-open door with the butt of a flashlight. They said, “Don’t be alarmed, take your time. When are your parents coming for you?”
I lay in bed and felt one hour go by after another. I got up and went to the head of housekeeping. My freshman year of college I had prosaically enough lost my virginity on spring break and in a way of penance for such a lowbrow cliché, every spring break after that I stayed at school and worked on the housekeeping cleaning crew. At first, they had been leery because I had gone to a private girls’ boarding school and wondered if I would think scrubbing and cleaning were beneath me, but as I recall I worked out decently enough to go to the head of housekeeping and persuade him to let me move my belongings to unused space in the dorms where the alumni service crew which included me, would be working. I moved everything up the hill and into a temporary emptied dorm room.
“I wanted to graduate and stare at walls.”
That alumni weekend, I poured water in people’s glasses, carried blankets, I forget what I did. Alumni turned their shining faces to me and said, “So you just graduated! Congratulations! What are your plans?”
“I don’t know. On Monday morning I have no job, no money, and no place to live,” I said. I enjoyed the horror in their eyes — the recognition I did not get from my close college friend. I did also managed to scoot away before one of the horrified alums offered any help. I depended so long on the charity of other people I was willing to let the worst happen rather than let this sort of thing carry on into my supposed self-sufficient years. But no, I’ve typed that and it is a lie — I didn’t want help because I did not want to get close to an older concerned adult who I figured would eventually get sick of me and my problems. I didn’t want to take on any one’s feelings of being nice to me, of their mediating their own feelings of plentitude through being there for a needy young person. I wanted to graduate and stare at walls.
Part of me was relieved. Wasn’t this what was always lying in wait for me, in fact, as a scholarship kid, that finally the schooling would end and the natural consequence of my situation would be something I couldn’t finesse.
I no longer remember what I thought should happen after school, only that I was stricken by what did happen. Temp agencies were brand new back then and I went and registered at one. It was as if I had learned nothing, done nothing — my typing skills were below par, I had no experience entering numbers into a desktop adding machine — but I was brightly offered work doing inventory at Dayton’s at night near Nicolet Mall for three days at $6 an hour. I reported for work at 7 p.m. and discovered many of the weirder members of my class, those who sifted to the bottom at college in terms of academic success, work ambition, or even college popularity. There we were. Writing down sales codes on yellow legal pads and then counting how many with crosshatches. That fall I met up with my old crowd of friends — another essay I could write is my life long avoidance of my closest friends—but we all ended up, seven of us, squeezed into two apartments. We thought you were going to move to New York, they said when I arrived with my stuff.
“Not one more ounce of fight for the future left in me.”
Collectively our promising futures materialized into present brutal failure. I worked in a bookstore and bused tables at a restaurant. Julie and Amy also bused tables. Eric collected and fixed old bikes in an alleyway garage behind our apartment building. Jeff worked at a marina in Lake Minnetonka filling boats with gas. Chris worked in a video store. Bowman was living at home, working at Dayton’s selling ties and Johnny moved to Seattle and got a job in a parking garage. I wish I could remember more clearly we had expected or even wanted to happen. I know that I was= psychologically exhausted after years of going to private rich kids’ schools on my own and I had not one more ounce of fight for the future left in me.
Besides — this was the future — I never told anyone how my father beat me or called the police, though I remember staring at the beige rotary dial phone — because I thought I would get put into foster care and then I would not be able to go to college. I also knew that our fates were tied — he was the only black man living in an all-white suburb and the police at our house would make things worse — he would be ratified as the near animal or destroyer of real estate values, that everyone feared he would be. I told a therapist once about seeing him from a distance pull into the driveway of our house, of his unlocking the car trunk to take out his dry cleaning or groceries. “He looked like this little black man from nowhere,” I said. “That was probably how he felt,” the therapist said.
So I can’t even say in retrospect that it would have been all made better by my having a good job at General Mills, or at a bank, or doing anything involving career aspirations. I actually didn’t want that. I wanted to sleep and I wanted to write a novel, and I did not want anything to get in the way of those two things. Instead, I had insomnia, friends, and jobs that left me so tired and broke that my only creative output was desolate diary entries about the ex-skinhead, who lost all interest in being close when I wasn’t back at school that fall.
Deeply Boring or Violent Movies
It hurts me more than I can say now that I did not take great and daily delight from living with my friends, who a very long time later are still my friends. But back then I would look around and add up the evidence that our lives were now in a place where they would stay. None of us had ever expressed any desire to get married or have kids, and none of us save Chris had been in a long term relationship at school. We majored in things like English, Art History, Latin and ancient Greek, but save the two pre-meds among us none of us had any real idea of what we wanted to do other than go to art shows and be near art and watch deeply boring or violent movies.