Not too long ago, on a weekend night, my boys (both teenagers) had some friends over. They were all camped out in the living room, I was in the Family room watching a movie. I paused the movie to get up to do..I don’t know what.. and realized it was amazingly quiet in the house, it was quiet enough to hear the bubbling of the water in the aquarium. Strange, I thought to myself. It’s too quiet. I purportedly have at least five teenaged boys in my house and it is quiet enough to hear the protein skimmer. Hmmm. Something must be up. I casually walk past the Living Room, I don’t want to appear to be nosy or a prying parent, that’s not my modus operandi. To my surprise, all the lights were off in the living room and there was this eerie bluish-white glow emanating from the large sectional sofa. And above that glow were five faces, illuminated by the glow. It seemed as if these five beings were in some kind of group trance. All were in the same position, heads bent, eyes blankly staring at a blue glowing object help within their hands. Had my Living Room been taken over by aliens? Oh no, nothing as exciting as that. It was simply my sons ‘spending time’ with three of their friends. More to the point, they were in the company of three of their friends, but with whom were they spending time?
So I, being the occasionally (I hope) annoying parent said, “Hey, what are you guys doing, sitting in the dark?” And they said, “Oh, nothing, just hanging out.” Their eyes never left their phones as they answered in unison. I couldn’t help myself and I said , “This is what you call hanging out?” and they replied, “Well, yeah – this is what we do.” Like how could I even ask such an inane question? “But what exactly is it that you are doing?” again I couldn’t refrain from asking. “Looking at social media,” (their words, not mine), “switching between Instagram and Twitter.” One of the other boys said, “Playing Trivia Crack.” and the other was looking at videos of girls fighting. When did girls start fighting so much? So I said, “But it’s Saturday night, shouldn’t you be out causing trouble, looking for parties and generally being a nuisance?” They all looked up from their phones in response to this question and shook their heads, and my youngest said, “No Mother, that’s what the loser kids do.” Well, there you are. The loser kids. Were me and my best friend losers when we were growing up? I wanted to tell them what we used to do when we were kids, but I sensed I would be talking to deaf ears and so I wandered off down the hall, leaving them in the dark with their eerie glowing lights, spending time with each other, but not really spending time with anyone.
But it got me thinking about how much things have changed and how sterile and ‘hands-off’ things have become. I was a teenager in the mid-seventies. I grew up in a rather unusual environment, that being the neighborhood that surrounds the University of Chicago. So my point of reference probably isn’t that of the average teenager existence in the ’70s in Middle America. I suspect however we did relatively normal teenager stuff. Saturday nights involved sleep-overs, going to the movies, hanging out at the Medici (the pizza place in our neighborhood-best pizza ever). Sometimes if one of our friends was having a party, and it was one of the big houses over in Kenwood (next neighborhood over – where all the big old mansions were – big enough to have servants quarters and stairs), we would go. My best friend and I would ride our bikes at night, which in retrospect was probably a dicey thing to be doing considering we lived on the South Side of Chicago.
If we had nothing else to do on a weekend or during the summer, we would save up our babysitting money (usual going rate back then was $1.00/hr) and get on our bikes and ride down the lake front to downtown Chicago. There we would spend our time at the Water Tower mall, spending our hard-earned money at Marshall Fields, Lord & Taylor and sometimes Saks. Then we would turn around and do the bike ride back home with our boxes (when clothing stores didn’t simply shove your clothes in plastic bags, they wrapped them in tissue paper and put the clothes in boxes) and bags of purchases balanced on our handlebars.
Summers were spent going to Wisconsin and Michigan, swimming in the lakes, buying fresh vegetables at the vegetable stands, reading books. When we were out of the city, we were pretty much out of contact with our friends. It was kind of nice in a way, but also frustrating because we were sure we were missing something really earth-shattering. It was really exciting to get back home and call our friends to see what had happened while we were gone.
I remember the summer the first McDonald’s came to Kenwood. Hyde Park (the neighborhood we lived in) didn’t have franchises. There were no fast food restaurants anywhere. If you wanted fast food you had to go out of the neighborhood. So we all walked all the way over to the McDonald’s – and it was good. The French fries were scrumptious. I think those were perhaps the best fries I ever ate. Baskin and Robbins was also over in the other neighborhood and we would make the 1.5 mile trek to get a scoop of Jamoca with a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip. We’d sit on the bench in the 53rd Street shopping area and watch the people go by, then begin the walk home.
We walked everywhere, in any type of weather. I think that is why we all stayed relatively fit. I don’t ever remember anyone ever talking about going to the gym, or exercise classes. The only diet beverage available was Tab, which I grew to love. No reduced fat, no ‘light’ foods. The diet plate at the diner on 53rd Street consisted of a hamburger patty, cottage cheese and slices of tomatoes. The servings were definitely smaller back then. I remember eating used to be really fun, we looked forward to it. I don’t think food holds the same excitement these days.
If we wanted to talk to our friends, there were three ways to do it. Wait until you got home and then call them on the telephone, or pre-arrange a time and a meeting place, or get on your bike and go to their house. That was it. Communicating was definitely face to face back then, unless you wrote a letter. Letters were the best. Letters came in all sizes and shapes, I think my most favorite were the blue airmail letters we would receive from overseas, with the ‘Par Avion’ stamped on it.
The music we listened to back then was Chicago, America, Seals and Crofts – you know all those really cool songs. Our rocking friends listened to Santana, Boston and Rush. We listened to the radio together. I think our favorite station was WLS out of Chicago. Boom-boxes were just coming into vogue, but we never had one. Remember ‘Summer breeze makes me feel fine.’-great song. I remember 8-track tapes and how annoying it was when the tape pulled out and you had to wind it back in.
The only people who had mobile phones were the pimps. They had the big bricks in their huge Cadillacs. When people walked down the street, they were looking up, not down at a phone in their hands. The only people who talked to themselves were the drunks, now everyone looks like they are talking to themselves with their hands-free devices and those little things in their ears. I used to be scared of people who walked alone, talking to themselves, now I just assume they are talking on their telephones.
Television consisted of three channels plus the UHF channel. Our TV was black and white with two knobs. No remote controls. And there was always something to watch. Now we have thousands of channels and nothing to watch. We used to stand by the TV and readjust the antennae, to improve the picture quality. I vaguely remember not being allowed to watch TV in the afternoon, and my Mom always knew if I had just by the angle of the antennae. Our favorite shows were “One Day at a Time”, “Welcome Back”, “Three’s Company”. We would watch B-rated scary movies on WGN late at night during our sleep-over (after we had tired of attempting to levitate one another and séances). I remember the sign-off signal and that particularly high-pitched tone on the channels when it went off-air.
I remember when one of our friends had a microwave installed in their home. We were all quite fascinated by it. In fact we made the trip to her house just so we could watch the bacon brown in the microwave. She was the friend whose Mother had a beautifully decorated living room that none of us were allowed in. The furniture was covered in this thick plastic and there was one of those plastic runners down on the carpet that you had to walk on to get through the living room. Funny thing is, I never actually saw anyone using that room, ever.
I watch my boys do their homework and I think back to how difficult it was to gather research for a paper back when I was in school. Does anyone remember the card files at the library? I do. I loved them. I could pull the draw out all the way and they would never fall out. Doing research for a paper required walking to the library, going through the card catalogue and writing down the numbers and then praying and hoping the one book that was the be all, end all answer to your search was in the book stacks. Then once all the books had been gathered you would have to lug them all the way home. Now my boys have any library around the world available to them at their finger tips. Of course even after the paper had been written there was the tedious job of typing it. At that point I think we had onion paper, you know the really flimsy, crinkly paper, that didn’t withstand a great deal of manipulation or White-out. And if you messed up on the alphabetizing on the reference page, the whole thing had to be re-typed. What a nightmare that was.
When my boys complain about their school work and how time-consuming it is, I want to tell them about what we went through when we were kids. But I know they would get that glazed-over, blank look on their faces if I did. It’s kind of like when my Dad used to tell me about the kids that went to his Grammar School, how they were sewed into their clothes for the winter. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing. And all I could think was how awful they must have smelled by the following spring. If I tell my boys about going to the library and dragging home pounds of books, I’m sure they would ask if it was uphill both ways, in the snow and was I barefoot.
I remember the first day MTV aired. I also remember the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live with Gilda Radner, Jim Belushi, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. That was a funny show back then. It was a bit racy by our standards but hilarious.
When the Exorcist aired, there were rumors flying around about people having heart attacks in the movie theaters because it was so frightening. Needless to say, we were too chicken to go see it. And after going to see Saturday Night Fever me and my best friend went home and practiced our dance moves.
Thinking back on all of that, really dredging the silt in my memory banks, those times were very exciting. Everything was a little more difficult, but we didn’t know anything different. We weren’t inundated with unfiltered information. The only information was what was on the nightly news and most of the time we didn’t watch that.
I see my boys now with their cell phones constantly attached to their hands, and I know they don’t have any idea they are carrying the computing power of what used to fill up entire room. I see them with their laptops and the ability to cut and paste and store and upload and download and convert into different formats, all so easily down and they never give it a second thought.
But what I don’t see is the excitement of things being new, of things being the first ever. I don’t see the enjoyment of spending time with friends, really spending time, not just being next to friends. I don’t see the appreciation of lazy summer days, dreaming up fresh things to do and experience, or having to go out on limb and talk with someone new, because that always present cellphone has now become a social crutch (if you can’t mingle or think of something to say, just look at your phone). So, with all of that being said, things seem easier now, but life was so much simpler back when we were kids. When we spent time with our friends, we actually spent time with our friends, not with a gazillion random people out in cyberspace. We had conversations with each other and probably made too much noise, but we were alive and in the moment. And one final thought – does staring at a cell phone in the dark lead to myopia?