As someone born in 1996 – a Millennial-Gen Z cusp – this story isn’t mine. The person whose story it is though, isn’t here to write it, so I’ll give it a shot.
The first fries I had when I was a kid weren’t from McDonald’s but from The Odeon. That unholy bastion of martinis, coke-fueled debauchery, and the media class. The Odeon, famous for celebrity sightings and its iconic facade, lights up the cover of Jay McInerney’s ode to downtown in the 1980s, Bright Lights, Big City. On the cover, the brasserie sits in the shadow of the World Trade Center, bright and gleaming, still relatively new to the city skyline. The towers, like the Odeon, a signature of Tribeca – the then up-and-coming neighborhood where my parents would move when I was a baby.
It was while listening to Lili Anolik’s podcast “Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College” that I became obsessed with Gen X – the 20th century’s neglected middle child, the forgotten generation, the disillusioned youth of Prozac nation. Her podcast centers on three famous writers of that era: Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem. Classmates, all lumped into the Brat Pack along with Jay McInerney and a couple other young downtown literary types of the day. In the podcast, Anolik follows the three writers’ shared years at Bennington College in Vermont. Their stories at that odd, idyllic campus each unfold and tangle over the course of the first half of the 1980s.
My mother, like many of her generation – Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith – died young. Hers wasn’t a murder or a suicide, but a late-stage lymphoma diagnosis. She died at 38 years old at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, just six weeks before 9/11. She never knew that in the months following her death, the neighborhood, and the world, would be changed forever.
In his 2011 essay “Zelig of Notoriety”, Jonathan Lethem writes of where he was that night and who with: “Bret [Easton Ellis] and I were out on the town on Monday, September 10, 2001, well into the early hours of the following day. We began at Balthazar, then moved to a party at a concocted ‘speakeasy’ behind Ratner’s Deli, called Lansky’s Lounge. If you need a symbol of pre-9/11 excess, I offer my whereabouts that night in the spirit of disclosure to the prosecution.” How fateful that the two of them should be together into the wee hours of that morning, nearly twenty years after they first parted ways at that college in Vermont. What more poetic end to the world Gen X knew than to spend it with Bret, partying at Balthazar and a club at the back of an East Village kosher dairy restaurant, since lost to time. In just a few hours, the sky would fall and thousands of New Yorkers would be brutally and senselessly murdered.
My mother, Sally, gone just six weeks at that point, was the last young person (in my mind, at least) to not own a cell phone, to not know about social media, to not know what the internet would become. To not know the innumerable ways in which that one September morning would alter the course of history forever. She was the last young person, much like the young narrator in Bright Lights, to work in magazines back when they were still magazines. To work afterwards in publishing when it was still the high-flying, glamorous industry it once was. She was the last person, in my life, to only know the Before Times.
She was, as Bret Easton Ellis puts it in his 2011 article “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire”, the last young person to not know the world Post-Empire. In that piece, Bret posits that American culture and its participants can be cleanly divided into Empire (Anderson Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, Fran Lebowitz, Madonna) and Post-Empire (John Mayer, Kanye, Eminem, the Kardashians.) While I beg to differ on Madonna, I take his point completely. Even if you skim the article with phone in hand and AirPods in ear, in true Post-Empire fashion, you’ll know just what he’s talking about for having lived it. In his 2017 Vanity Fair piece, “Generation X Might Be Our Last, Best Hope”, Rich Cohen writes of his generation, that they are the “last Americans schooled in the old manner, the last Americans that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.” The last generation to reach adulthood while the Empire was still the Empire.
In Bright Lights, our narrator is (spoiler alert) fired from a supposedly grueling and dispiriting job as a fact checker at the New Yorker. Sally also worked in magazines, then a viable career path for a young college grad in the market for her own apartment in a neighborhood we’ve since collectively resigned ourselves to calling Nolita. She was a reporter and later an editor at Sports Illustrated. Although I’m not convinced the timeline makes technological sense, I remember her bringing me to their midtown office as a kid, the clamor of typewriters deafening, as if we’d stepped back in time. The excitement, for a little girl, was unparalleled. These days, Sports Illustrated and its print magazine counterparts are nearly extinct. Even the swimsuit models – once the magazine’s primary revenue center – have been rendered irrelevant by somehow hotter girls on Instagram whose pictures come out once a day, not once a year. The magazine’s office, incidentally, has since been moved downtown to the building formerly known as Two World Trade, which is across the street from where the Twin Towers once stood and was severely damaged in the attacks.
I may be getting ahead of myself though. Before there was New York and magazines and the Odeon and Balthazar, there was Vermont. While Bret, Donna, and Jonathan were getting high and laying the groundwork for what would become their great American novels at Bennington College, my mother was at school in Vermont just two hours north. Middlebury College. Bennington’s preppy older sister. There, she played saxophone in the Ripton Blues Band, who paid homage to the Blues Brothers with their skinny ties and wayfarers. The band was a true product of their time. They looked just like their counterparts down at Bennington. The real life Classics students who inspired Donna Tartt’s now wildly popular novel A Secret History.
There’s a picture of Sally in her Ripton Blues days that I adore. In it, she’s surrounded by her bandmates, all cute, young guys. She’s wearing Ray Bans and throwing her head back and she looks truly beautiful and charming and fun. She looks like the ultimate cool girl. For five short years, I got a glimpse of the cool girl in that photo before the curtain came down. For five short years, we lived together in an apartment downtown, the Twin Towers the signature of both the neighborhood and the city itself. For five short years, I lived in the Empire. And then, within hours, it was over. The towers collapsed in on themselves, leaving a miles-wide debris cloud in their place.
Like the Brat Pack writers of that era, Sally loved Elvis Costello, and she emulated his style in and out of the band. Bret named his first novel after the Costello song “Less Than Zero” and the book’s 2010 sequel after the album “Imperial Bedroom”. Jay McInerney, for his part, named the main character of his 1988 novel The Story of My Life Alison, after the song of the same name on Costello’s 1977 album “My Aim is True”. You can guess where I got the name for this piece. According to Sally’s bandmate and friend: “Elvis Costello was a very big influence and presence in those years, for me and Sally I think, especially. Just enormous. I had a cassette tape – yes, a cassette tape – of ‘Imperial Bedroom’. I played so much I’m surprised it never disintegrated. Elvis Costello was always on the college radio station, WRMC, and playing on speakers set in dorm room windows.” He was the soundtrack to 1980s campus life. Costello is honored in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as “one of the best and most consistent songwriters of his generation [who] took the literacy of folk music and broke it wide open against the ragged edges of punk.” He’s Gen X to the core. Angry and discontent at the state of the world, yet able to sublimate that destructive impulse into art. Aesthetic, compulsively listenable art.
All of this is to say, my mother’s generation was built for these modern times. Having grown up in the Empire, those who’ve survived have a perspective that my cohort and younger will never know. Their cynicism is a well-honed reaction to the naive earnestness of those massive generations on either side of them. Their aesthetic preferences, centered on the abject (grunge) and the decadent (Brat Pack) in equal measure, feel fitting for end times. Boomers for the most part, those zealous ideologues, don't understand this new nihilistic world we’re living in, and many of them won’t have to. A blessing, in many ways! Their cultural and aesthetic references were already ossified by the time 9/11 reared its ugly head. The Empire/Post-Empire categories would never have been intuitive for Kurt Vonnegut the way they are for Bret. Unlike their Gen X younger siblings, boomers mostly don’t understand that anyone who wields a large internet following is as much doing absurdist performance art as they are just living their lives in the public forum.
It could be a remnant of grunge, or of coming of age during the AIDS crisis, but Gen X seems to understand the dark humor in end times better than boomers, millennials, and zoomers alike. “Everything means less than zero,” Costello sings. Nothing matters. And yet, despite having watched the kids around them die too young, his music has a light, poppy veneer. Life is short, he reminds us, so we might as well have a good time while we’re still here. “There is a song on ‘Imperial Bedroom’, ‘The Loved Ones’, that is the hardest song to get over,” Costello told Rolling Stone in a 1982 cover story. “It’s like saying, ‘Fuck posterity’ it’s better to live… It’s about, fuck being a junkie and dying in some phony romantic way like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. Somebody in your family’s got to bury you, you know?”
The aesthetic sensibility now known as dark academia, inspired most notably by Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, is wildly popular in certain corners of the internet. Characterized by the prep school stylings of the 1930s and 1940s and centered on writing, Gothic architecture, and classic Greek, it’s an unexpected turn for the social media age. Maybe kids these days are into the world Tartt built based on her years at Bennington because the intellectual environment she portrays is dead and buried. Colleges, in her view, exist to teach ancient Greek and Latin. They were built for young scholars to study Classics with the seriousness of their predecessors at early-20th century Oxford. This academic tradition hardly exists anywhere anymore, and almost certainly won’t twenty years from now, when my generation’s children are in college, if college itself still exists.
Like the college set, looking back to the institutions of the last millennium for aesthetic inspiration, so too do the 20 and 30-somethings of lower Manhattan. Maybe the current iteration of the cool downtown crowd goes for martinis and seafood towers from Balthazar and the Odeon as much as ever because we’re a society in decline, and they know they might as well have some fun while they still can. Maybe New York is over. Maybe it already was by the time any of us got there. By birth, I consider myself a millennial. But spiritually, I aspire to a Gen X coolness. Maybe it’s because even though I barely experienced it myself, I know that in some ways, I’ll miss the days of Empire. Or maybe I just miss my mom.