SYNDICATED COLUMN: Dirty Laundry

Child Abuse Isn’t Just the Poor’s Problem

Three million times a year, we beat our kids so badly that someone calls the cops about it. There’s really no way to know how often Americans pound the stuffing out of their children, since these ritual assaults are as mundane as doing the laundry. What’s remarkable about child abuse is that it’s in the news at all–normally, anything that affects children is a rock-bottom priority.

In the last month, we’ve read about 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, who was murdered by her mom on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The killing seemed anticlimactic after years of enduring such abuse as having her head used to mop her apartment floor. Then there was Tazar Carter, a 15-year-old boy sold to Detroit crack dealer-pimps by his mom. By far the most spectacular story involved 0-year-old Elijah Evans, whose father’s girlfriend brought him into the wonderful world of Chicago suburbia by amateur C-section–while stabbing his mother to death.

Now that baseball is dead, America’s national pastime is assigning blame. Who could have prevented these tragedies? In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani graciously accepted partial responsibility for Elisa’s death. New Yorkers now sleep better knowing that their city’s leader is roaming the projects, checking up on parents to make certain they’re not forcing their kids to eat their own excrement. Newt Gingrich blamed the unorthodox birth in Chicago upon “a welfare system which subsidized people for doing nothing,” the criminal justice system and lousy schools. Now class, turn to page 76 in your textbook. Today we’re going to learn that carving into pregnant women isn’t cool.

The common factor in media and political reaction to these horror stories is their link of child abuse to poor minorities living in inner-city squalor. Even liberals promote this alleged causal relationship. They blame Republican cuts in welfare programs for a recent spate of parents who chuck their kids out of high-rises after they’ve cried one too many times, as if welfare were a substitute for good parenting.

If child abuse directly results from lower-class dysfunction, all that remains for liberals and conservatives to discuss is how best to eliminate poverty. But who knows whether drug use, child abuse and indolence aren’t just as common among the middle-class and rich?

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the ‘80s, I met many kids from successful, white suburban families who’d been brutalized as children. They’d been whipped, burned, raped, molested, and traumatized by means comparable to the most heinous tabloid stories datelined in South-Central or Bed-Stuy. About half of the students I lived with in the dorms did coke at least once a week and pot twice as often. Sometimes I’d be invited to their parents’ expensive houses in the surrounding suburbs, only to be appalled at the filth and squalor inside these outwardly-tidy homes.

In their post-college years, many of these Ivy League-educated white men–who enjoyed every possible advantage in the American rat race–wallowed in indolence and sloth worthy of the most debauched slum-dweller. But rancid behavior among America’s élite goes unnoticed and unreported. Unlike the poor, whose collective butts belong to the state by virtue of their monthly tax-funded checks, no social workers check up on the children of the bourgeois. Cops don’t randomly search rich kids in the streets. When things go too far in a wealthy white household and little Jenny “falls” off a chair and hemorrhages to death, there’s a nice funeral and a tiny obit buried behind the sports section. Laziness among the best and the brightest is called “slacking,” not a drain on the economy. Journalists don’t ask any questions, sociologists don’t count any statistics, and politicians don’t wring their hands about the hopeless problems of the permanent overclass.

It’s not pleasant to think about, but we live in a society that values violence and rewards abuse. Kids getting hit by parents who think of them as personal property is only the first act in this lifelong drama. We’re taught from the first day of school that bullies earn fear and respect. The message is the same in the projects and in the boardroom–intimidation begets prestige.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a country won by slaughtering Native Americans is still wallowing in ultraviolence less than a century later. Nonetheless, we can’t go on like this forever. It’s easier to wage class warfare against the poor than to try to phase out our national jock mentality. But initial steps should be to recognize that social pathology doesn’t just belong to the poor, and kids don’t belong to their parents.

(Ted Rall, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, is author of All the Rules Have Changed (Rip Off Press).)

Memoirs of a New York City Taxi Driver

It was all I could do to keep myself from fucking up the guy with the Knicks sweatshirt at the restaurant table next to me.

“Can you believe these guys want a fare increase?” he asked.

“Fucking A!” his friend with the Syracuse baseball cap farted.

“None of ’em understand English; they never know where they’re going.” Such brilliance from someone wearing a vinyl “Cats” jacket.

I refrained from breaking the Heinz 57 bottle over his head. How could these morons know anything different? They’ve never been held up. They’ve never driven twelve hours through pouring rain – without windows. They’ve never driven a taxi in New York. Some people are blessed with perception, but most people need experience to make them complete. I know I did.

In The Beginning
I started hacking in 1984, when I was 21. I’d just been expelled from Columbia Engineering for either disciplinary or academic reasons – my dean couldn’t decide which – and my girlfriend wasn’t returning my calls. It was a shitty summer for a would-be idler. It was overcast, grimy and there wasn’t a ray of sun for the beach-bound. My back rent was piling up, and the housing judge told me he wouldn’t grant me any more delays at my next court date.

I needed a job.

I’d taken the hack license test a year earlier on a lark. I was one of those geeky out-of-towners who gets caught up in the idea of New York City and develops an obsessive need to know it inside-out. I’d heard of other kids at college who made good money, sometimes as much as $300 a night, driving a hack. I liked the idea of not having some asshole boss breathing down my back about how long I spent in the shitter.

I spotted an ad for drivers in the New York Post and showed up for “shape-up” at the Dover Garage at 6 pm. Dover is known to TV viewers as the place they show in the opening credits of the “Taxi” sit-com.

A degrading experience straight out of The Bicycle Thief, a shape-up involves waiting around for one to two hours in a dingy garage hoping there’ll be a beat-up piece-of-shit taxi left over after all the regular drivers – full-timers who pay by the week and part-timers who have been around a while – pick theirs up first. There’s no guarantee this loitering will pay off, although looking earnest and waif-like, a trait I’d perfected as a child, seems to pay off. After two fruitless waits, I was issued my first cab.

Problem gamblers are created by their first experiences: A big win the first time out leads to a lifetime of attempts to replicate that happy incident. My first time out in a New York taxi got me hooked. I drove all night, until 6 am, taking out an hour for a cheeseburger deluxe-and-a-Coke, chatted with some devastatingly cute club girls, got some big tips. I went home with $250 in balled-up, greasy fives and singles – all of it tax-free.

The Faceless Man
The biggest concern of a cabby is safety. New York police don’t investigate cabby murders, you’re not allowed to pack a gun and most cabs don’t have effective safety barriers. You’re on your own, and have to look out for yourself as effectively as you can.

I took a number of precautions, particularly because I drove night shift. Other drivers were my main inspiration. For instance, my colleague Alex took out cab No. 1L88 one night. He stopped at a burger place under the then-elevated West Side Highway, which ran along the Hudson River. Upon his return, an assailant was waiting for him in the back seat. The second he was attacked, Alex reached under his seat, found the tire iron he kept there and swung it backward as hard as he could, hook side first.

“There was this tug,” Alex said, “so I pulled back. I heard a tearing sound.” Then he heard a horrible scream, the back door opening and someone running away. When he turned around, there was blood all over the rear windshield and the back seat. There, in the middle of the seat, was a flap of skin with eye and nose holes. It was the mugger’s face.

I saw 1L88 when it came in the next morning. There was still blood smeared across the rear windshield, but that hadn’t stopped Alex from picking up fares all night.

“I wasn’t going to lose an entire shift fee over that douche-bag,” Alex said.

After that, I always carried a tire iron under my seat.

Control Freaks!
I was the king of my cab. Women in particular were interested in altering my personality during the perhaps six minutes we spent together in my ‘84 Caprice Classic. Inspired by a sequence in the film Stripes, I dealt with a woman fare who insisted on smoking all the way to Kennedy Airport by ejecting her in the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge. Another time, I picked up a woman at the Palladium nightclub who plopped in and announced:

“We’re going to Brooklyn!”

While Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) rules specify that cabbies must take passengers anywhere they want to go within the five boroughs that comprise New York City, reality is a different thing entirely. When you pick up 45 people a night, you quickly detect patterns in human behavior. Of all the possible destinations in New York, Brooklyn may the worst for a taxi driver for the following reasons:

-No matter what the fare, Brooklynites only tip one dollar.
-Most sections are incredibly dangerous.
-There aren’t any decent highways, so getting back to Manhattan takes forever.
-It’s impossible to get a fare back.

For cabbies, time is money. You’re shelling out $100 for a 12-hour shift, so you need to make $8 an hour before you start to see a dime of profit. If you’re dicking around Bed-Stuy with some deadbeat fare for a dollar tip, you would have been better off sitting in a diner sipping coffee. If the city really wanted to ensure cabbies would take people to Brooklyn, they’d make it a double-fare zone. Until then, Brooklynites should get accustomed to subway gangs.

I told the Palladium woman to get out of my cab. She yelled at me and took down my hack license number and taxi company name. In the Eighties, cabs had a fake company name on their doors for this express purpose – this night I was apparently an employee of Asparagus Cab Corp. A few weeks later, I was summoned to Taxi Court, deep in the fluorescent bowels of TLC headquarters at Times Square. My boss wrote a letter certifying that I hadn’t driven that night and advised me to show up in my best Brooks Brothers suit.

“That’s him! That’s the creep that wouldn’t take me to Brooklyn!” the plaintiff spat at me.

I stared at her quizzically as if examining a bug.

“I’m sorry about what happened to her, Judge,” I said. TLC judges like to be called “judge.” “But whoever turned her down wasn’t me. I always go wherever I’m asked.”

“Liar! Fuckhead!”

“I wasn’t driving that night.”

“It was you, you fucking liar! Scum!”

“A lot of these passengers, they think all cabbies look alike, your Honor,” I closed. “While I am distressed that some vile driver refused her request, I cannot accept responsibility for this offense.”

Case dismissed.

Two Jobs, Two Lives
Like most part-timers, I drove around half-asleep most of the time. During the day, I worked full-time as a trader/trainee at Bear, Stearns & Co., the brokerage firm run by New York’s cheapest CEO, Alan C. “Ace” (he gave himself the nickname) Greenberg. Ace paid his clerks $10,000 a year. This way he could afford to pay himself $20 million.

I’d work like a demon from 8:30 am to settle my trade tickets so I could skip out at 5:30 pm and rush to the garage. I drove from 6 pm to 6 am, caught an hour nap at home and went back to work. I made more in one night of taxi driving than I did in a week at Bear Stearns ($160 after taxes), but I needed health benefits and a desk job that might lead to something better. One night I was so dead tired that I drove forty blocks – two miles – down Seventh Avenue completely asleep.

One evening I picked up an older, graying suit. He asked me to talk about myself. He recognized my voice; he turned out to be one of my day job clients. Appalled at my shitty salary, he offered me a job at his firm in eastern Connecticut, but I never followed up on it.

Celebrities
The vast majority of my passengers were businessmen and young couples. I only encountered notable people a few times. One night I drove Roseanne Arquette to her apartment in the trendy Chelsea district; she was really nice and unassuming. She even gave me the phone number of her realty and recommended her quiet, tree-lined block as a great place to live. Another time I drove Jimmy Breslin and an equally rumpled companion through Central Park to the Upper East Side. He was a nasty, rude son-of-a-bitch. He reeked of beer and didn’t tip for shit.

I ran into Woody Allen – literally – near NYU. His limo pulled out of a side street right in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time and creased his front fender. As the limo driver and I finished inspecting the minor damage and decided not to report it, the Woodman (I recognized his glasses) hopped out of the back and started screaming at me: “You stupid fucking asshole! Pull your head of your ass, cocksucker!”

I took the high road, never responding to his tirade. When he had finished, I looked at him straight in the eye and said: “You haven’t made a decent film since 1973.”

Near Death Experiences
Getting mugged is a fact of life when you’re a cabby. Criminals know that you carry as much as two or three hundred bucks at any given time, so you have to take precautions. Whenever I happened to be on the West Side of Manhattan, I stopped by my apartment building and dropped my spare cash into my mailbox. I kept my crowbar handy, and applied for a gun permit.

Nonetheless, the best thing you can do is screen your passengers. I quickly learned that picking up black people wasn’t a good idea. Racism had nothing to do with it; it’s just that most blacks in New York live in shitty neighborhoods. The odds are that your passenger will leave you in peace with a nice tip, but stopping at red lights at intersections where all the lights have been shot out at two in the morning is another matter entirely. Early in my career, I dropped off a well-dressed black couple in Bed-Stuy, arguably the most dangerous area in the city. A block later, I was surrounded by a pack of guys with two-by-fours. I escaped by flooring the gas and aiming at the biggest one.

New Yorkers follow patterns that make screening easier. The leather-clad club girls on Second Avenue in the Village at 1 am are going to Brooklyn – always. The fur-bearing crones hailing you outside Lord and Taylor’s department store hail from the Upper East Side, a sure bet for a Depression-era 20-cent tip. Men tip better than women, poor people better than the rich, West Siders better than East Siders, West Villagers better than East Villagers, Wall Street businessmen better than Midtown ones, Queens residents better than Bronx ones. I tended to receive good tips because I was young, white and clean-cut. A lot of people acted as if they’d happened upon King Tut’s treasure when they entered my cab. “Hey! You’re white!” they’d smile. “Hey! You’re racist!” I’d reply, wondering at my own reluctance to pick up black passengers.

Passenger screening improves your odds for safety and profitability. But when you pick up 45 fares a night, 3 nights a week, 50 weeks a year, it’s unavoidable that one of those 6,600 people is going to fuck you up.

In my case, it was a young white guy on 101st Street, a dozen blocks south of the Columbia campus. This was in 1989, at the height of the weekly cabby murder era. For the past several weeks, a serial murderer had been leaving dead drivers in their cabs along the West Side Highway. The latest one had been robbed and shot in the back of the head at 97th Street a week earlier; I saw the execution scene on the front of the Daily News.

This guy looked like Charlie Sheen in a white shirt and tie. It was ten at night. Probably going to see his girlfriend. Nothing to fear.

We’d driven four blocks when I felt the gun against my right ear. “Pull over and give me your money.”

The Daily News photo flashed across the windshield. We were at the same exact corner. The dead cabby hung out the open driver’s side door into a pool of blood. He’d been a husband and father of two in Rosedale. I immediately knew that this was the guy who’d killed him. His voice was terribly calm, self-assured, relaxed, bored. This was routine business.

I sucked in a huge gulp of air. I let it out: “FUCK YOU!”

I floored the gas and headed down the street, running lights and honking my horn.

“Pull over! Give me the money!”

I had nothing to lose. If I complied, he would rob and kill me. I’d never been as certain of anything in my life. I decided to take him with me.

“You chose the wrong cab, you fucking asshole! Bet you didn’t know you were going to die, did you? Better get used to it, shithead! You’re going to die tonight! You’re going to die! I’m going to hit a building! I’ll drive off a pier!”

I continued in this lunatic vein all the way down the street, veering over to the wrong side of the street, while my attacker kept screaming for me to stop and give him money, that’s all he wanted, he’d leave me alone afterwards, all I had to do was pay him the money, I had nothing to worry about.

Our balance of power had dramatically shifted by 50th Street. Now he was begging me to let him out. I was searching for something to slam into at an angle that would hurt him more than me. Finally, I relented.

“Let me out! Forget it! You’re nuts!” He was really scared.

“Throw out the gun first.” He did. I slowed down to 20 or 30.

“Jump out! I’m not slowing down anymore!”

He opened the door. When he jumped, I swerved to the side of the street and sped up. I heard a deep, sonorous “bong!” and kept driving.

After composing myself, I circled the block and returned to the spot where my attacker had jumped, a half-hour later. Two EMS technicians were busy loading up my assailant.

I rolled down my window casually. “What’s up? What happened to him?”

“Guy got tossed from a moving car. He’s really bad. Hit his head on a lamp post. Ugly.”

Incidentally, the wave of cabby shootings along the West Side stopped.

Price-Gouging for Fun and Profit
Driving a cab is a miserable job. Whole nights go by without decent tips. There’s nowhere to take a piss, except for dark Chelsea streets and diners where they’re nice to cabbies. You suck up vast quantities of exhaust and come home reeking of gasoline vapors.

So it’s only fair that natural disasters and human desperation often compensate cabbies with big windfalls. New Year’s Eve is a prime example of this. Although not as common as it was when I was driving, the practice of driving around with the “off duty” light guarantees vast profits. I charged $20 “off the meter” to go cross-town on New Year’s, $50 to go north and south and refused all outer-borough fares with a vengeance.

It is also possible to make your own opportunities. My niche was cruising the grimy streets of Alphabet City in the East Village on rainy weeknights where there are no cabs to be found. Trendoid club kids hailed me, wanting to go to the nearest subway station – a $3 or $4 fare – and I’d charge $5 per person for a group of four people. They’d always say “no way.” I’d drive away slowly. Invariably they’d start yelling, “No, wait! We’ll take it!” They were terrified of crossing Thompkins Square, which at the time was a homeless encampment.

The Drowned and the Saved
Hacking is a test of survival. Looking back at the many cabbies I knew who died during the brief period I drove is to realize that it could easily have happened to me. Sasha was a miserable asshole. He had too much facial hair in places where there’s not supposed to be any and a habit of cutting the shape-up line. So maybe it was his fate to get held up in East Harlem in 1985. Two muggers shot him through the back of his head, causing him to veer in front of a truck coming off the Triborough Bridge. They escaped the wreck, but got pummeled by a crowd of pedestrians until the cops came.

My friend Dave, who had attended Columbia with me, worked at the same garage. We were supposed to have breakfast together after our night shifts on a Sunday in July 1986, but he never showed up. The street cleaners found him Monday morning, when he refused to move his car to the alternate side of the street. He was slumped over the wheel on a side street in East Harlem, a block away from where Sasha died. He was an English major, a freelance artist, a really nice guy, who always said everyone was entitled to taxi service, regarding of where they lived. His face had fallen over his slit throat.

Joe was a friendly guy who sometimes drove me home for free after my shift. One evening he was driving in the West Village, where there are a lot of intersections without traffic signals. He had the right-of-way, but a semi-truck going the other way ran a stop sign. His cab was cut neatly in half. He walked away from the accident without a scratch, but his two young women fares died instantly. He returned to the garage with a glazed look and demanded his deposit back. No one ever heard from him again. There’s no way he doesn’t think about that now. A few months after the accident, the city put up a traffic signal there.

The Last Detail
My last shift started badly. My first fare was a loud salesman who asked to go to Queens. He tipped me $3 – $3 short of decent – and I headed to nearby Kennedy Airport to get a fare back to Manhattan. I waited for three hours for a flight to come in. The principle of time investment – I’ve already waited x time, if I leave now, that time will have been wasted – tripped me up. Eventually an Air Jamaica flight came in. My fare, a large, loud woman, demanded to be taken to an address in Queens. I didn’t know where that was, and was asking her for directions, when a TLC inspector walked up to her.

“Is this driver giving you trouble?” he asked her.

“No!” I said.

“Yes!” she replied.

“Listen, sir, all I’m trying to do is ask her where she wants to go. She doesn’t know where she wants to go. How can I take her there if she doesn’t know where she wants to go?”

“Is he refusing you?” he asked her.

“Yes. He is refusing.”

“No! I’m not refusing! Christ, will you please listen to me? She–”

“Refusal of service. Two hundred bucks.” He started writing out a summons.

“This woman doesn’t understand English! How can you take her word for anything?”

He kept writing. The woman grinned at me.

He wasn’t going to listen. I was already negative thirty bucks for the night, and this was really going to fuck me over. Nothing was going to stop this idiot from writing this summons. I had no choice.

I leaned back and punched him in the cheek as hard as I could. He fell backwards. I flung the woman’s bags from my trunk to the ground and drove off. I saw people running over to him in my rearview mirror.

Barely a hundred yards further, a lanky black guy hailed me on the airport loop road. I picked him up.

“Where to?”

“The city.”

Things were going to be all right after all.

Traffic was tight on the freeway, so I opted for a local road for a short stretch. Then I felt the knife on my throat. I pulled over.

“I only have twelve bucks.”

“I’ll take it.”

I handed over the money and watched the kid run off among the weeds and broken glass. He found a hole in the chain-link fence and disappeared. I drove back to my garage, asked for my deposit and took the subway home.

Back to School
Six months later, I applied and was accepted back to Columbia, this time as a history major. I finished a year later, in 1991, worked a series of day jobs, in Columbia’s admissions office and as a financial analyst for a San Francisco consulting firm, until I was able to survive on a cartoonist’s income. I moved back to New York in late 1995. My wife and I often take cabs, especially late at night. I always ask my drivers how business is. They open up when I talk shop and mention that I drove during the Eighties.

Not much has changed. Cabbies aren’t getting killed left and right anymore, but street crime in general seems to have abated – for now. Nobody really cares about cabbies, and they know it. They view it as a temporary shit job to tolerate until something better comes along.

I know it doesn’t help, but I always tip too much. I have to.

(C) 1995 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved

Fatal Defenestration: Men Who Love Gravity Too Much

“I want a world without gravity.”
-Jim Carroll, 1980

My first time happened in Boston. It was in a double on the 12th floor of the Hotel Essex across a sprawling boulevard from South Station. It was a shitty room in a shitty hotel in an even shittier neighborhood, but the Columbia Marching Band was picking up the tab for this, my first and last football game. I played the kazoo in the game against Harvard. Anyway, directly next door a party out of a Steve Guttenberg movie raged on for hours. I knocked on the door, hoping against all of humanity’s accumulated reason and logic for an invitation. A disheveled cheerleader appeared. Behind her I could see the early planning stages of a standing-room-only orgy.

“What?” she squawked, looking through my head at the water fountain in the hall.

Back in room 1214, Mike was waiting for me. “Good news,” he said. “The people next door ordered beers by credit card, but they delivered them here!” After we polished off the first case, I staggered over to the window and leaned out into the night. “I can’t believe I’m drinking stolen beer with another guy,” I said. “Maybe we should check out the party next door,” Mike suggested. The 12-inch dance mix of the Go-Gos’ “We Got the Beat” was thumping through the wallpapering along with occasional squeals and grunts. “Forget it,” I said.

I watched idly as a car passed twelve stories below. A random thought flitted through my muddled brain – what if I just let go? – and I opened my hand. The bottle fell away and plunged towards the street. Ka-whap! Then I got an empty and waited for a car to come into range. My aim was perfect – just a slight flick of the wrist outward to clear the sidewalk – but the car sped up at the last second. My glass bomb missed by two car lengths.

Finally, a black sedan rolled slowly down the block. Crash! Direct hit on the roof!

Flashers came on and the car took off, did a U-turn and pulled in front of the hotel. Two more cruisers raced towards us from the opposite direction. I yanked the shade down.

I told Mike that the cops were coming. We tore our clothes, stashed the beer in the closet, killed the lights and jumped into our respective beds. A few minutes later, we heard the cops knocking down the hall. “Boston Police! Open up!” We didn’t answer, but our neighbors did. Mike and I listened at the door as the revelers proclaimed their innocence. We felt sorry for them as the cops called them liars. We chuckled as they were led away in handcuffs.

Despite my auspicious start, I didn’t really come into my own as a defenestrator until my sophomore year. It was 1982, and Columbia was still male-only. Thanks to a corrupt work-study student in the housing office, I became one of the eight guys admitted into a new experimental housing exchange with all-female Barnard College. The trouble was, the women all thought we were just there to get laid – which was not untrue – so for the most part we were ignored.

Fortunately, I soon found a friend in Chris, a fellow engineering student whose fifth-floor room in the Brooks-Hewitt-Reid complex overlooked Claremont Avenue.

One night over Chris’ expensive pot and my cheap vodka, I told Chris about Boston. I quickly convinced him that his room would prove ideal for nocturnal gravitational experiments; the foot-wide ledge running along his floor would provide excellent cover from victims attempting to pinpoint our location. Unfortunately, Woolworth’s only carried regular balloons, the kind people pin to walls at parties, so I got those instead of proper water balloons. I returned to the dorm, went to Chris’ room and tried filling up the first balloon in his sink. We were so drunk and stoned and horny and dumb, we never noticed how fucking huge they were, or that each one held a full gallon of water.

We were both physics students, so naturally we relied on a stopwatch to evaluate average walking speeds. We applied the standard s=1/2 at2 formula (where s is distance, a is the 32 feet/per second-squared rate of acceleration of gravity and t is elapsed time) for the time required for an object dropped six floors (street level was two floors below campus level) to hit the street. Soon we determined the exact crack on the sidewalk where a target should be at the point of release to ensure a direct-hit.

Hitting something as small as a human cross-section from so high up isn’t that easy, particularly when it’s subject to unpredictable variations in velocity and vector direction. The successful defenestrator must be able to identify a target, extrapolate future positioning, compensate for wind resistance and direction, execute the launch and return to visual cover in less than a few seconds. Moreover, the most rewarding aspect of the experience is in the face of the victim; much like the George C. Scott character in Firestarter who examines his victim’s eyes just as they’re about to die, there’s nothing quite like the mix of surprise and discomfort of someone getting creamed with a huge water balloon. Sticking around to watch that reaction increases the possibility of apprehension, of course, but pleasure always entails risk.

It doesn’t take long for even the most inept exploiter of gravity to become proficient, but we became so incredibly accurate that we would often shock ourselves. At first we contented ourselves with scaring the shit out of our pedestrian victims by hitting the sidewalk directly in front of them. The ritual backsplash and the walkers’ ensuing yells at no one in particular soon became dull, however, so we eventually developed an elaborate system of social evaluation to justify hitting actual human beings with objects weighing more than five pounds from absurdly high altitudes. This system was: we hit jocks. We hit jocks walking alone, we hit groups of jocks and we hit jocks walking with their girlfriends (collateral damage was unfortunate, but rare).

It’s impossible for the uninitiated to fully comprehend the idiotic destructive glee derived from a successful launch. The jock in question walks blissfully down the street, planning to pick up a slice at Pizzatown or fill out his syllabus at Bookforum and head out for an evening of beer or sex or whatever. But before he can even get to the corner of 116th Street, his night is ruined. He’s soaked to the bone, humiliated, broken. There’s nothing to do but scream at an invisible nemesis like a wounded wildebeest and go home, wet and alone. For the perp, on the other hand, the situation is all win. Snug and warm at home, surrounded by candles and Pink Floyd and booze, a sink full of loaded water balloons promises an evening of effortless fun at the expense of loathsome athletes.

Inevitably the search for cheap thrills caused Chris and I to develop more intricate schemes. We developed a one-two punch approach, wherein Chris would stay in his room and I would commandeer a window in a communal restroom 20 feet down the hall. I would deliberately drop a tiny balloon directly in front of our prey. He’d instinctively back up and smile to himself, confident that his lightening reflexes and catlike motor skills had saved him from disaster. That’s when Chris would drop his mondo monster balloon smack on the top of his head while I observed the whole thing with binoculars. The thick jockile head would drop forward as the first splash appeared, then snap back up as the rest of the balloon’s contents fell back upon his face. The body trembled with the impact. It was great.

There were many splendid achievements in our year-long bombing campaign – the guy reading the newspaper as he walked, only to have it flattened into wet pulp by a perfectly aimed balloon, the Hispanic guy in a white suit we drowned in leftover spaghetti sauce, the orgasmic victory of a medium-sized water missile dropped through the open sunroof of a Porsche – but we loved rainy days best of all. When the streets filled with black umbrellas, we set aside our traditional respect for womanhood and nerddom. We indiscriminately bombed the young and the old, the slight and the athletic – and it was awesome! A properly-placed one-gallon balloon would collapse the umbrella on its owner, breaking it but providing sufficient protection to keep their owners safe from harm. Best of all, they never suspected a thing. They never looked up or yelled – they simply assumed that the world’s largest raindrop had fucked up their day.

We ballooned in this manner for roughly 6 hours a day over a period of 9 months, but amazingly, we were never caught. Sometimes to break up the monotony, we’d lurk on the roofs of the School of International and Public Affairs and the Law School, but in New York, location is everything. No one ever walks around Amsterdam Avenue at night. Varying our venues transformed us into legends. Graffiti in the Columbia restrooms asked: “Who ARE the mad ballooners?” The Columbia Daily Spectator carried an editorial deriding the “vicious sociopaths” whose campaign of aerial terror had forced an entire campus to look up as they walked.

As time passed, it became more and more difficult to find stores that we hadn’t cleaned out of balloons. Woolworth’s sold out, the bodega on 107th Street sold out, the kid’s section at Sloan’s sold out. That’s what led us to the Atomic Balloon.

I found the A-balloon at the old May’s on 14th Street. It was one of those round red bastards, about two feet in diameter when filled, with a long elastic band tied to the nipple. Kids hold the rubber band and pound away to train them for kicking asses once they become teenagers.

In any event, I didn’t realize what it was, or how fucking massive it was, until I got back to Hewitt Hall. Chris’ sink was too small for the thing, so we filled it up in the bathtub and tied it. It weighed perhaps 50 pounds and it was wiggly as shit. The two of us didn’t have a prayer of extracting the beast from the tub.

“It’s too big,” Chris said. “We’ll have to kill it.” He took out his knife and stabbed it repeatedly, but it didn’t work. The rubber was too thick and flexible and wet.

“We can’t leave the damn thing here,” I pointed out. “If someone finds it, they’ll know we’re the Mad Ballooners. It has to go.”

There was only one solution. Chris went to get our mutual friend Ken. “Ken,” he confided, “Ted and I have a problem. We need your help.”

Ken and Chris and I struggled with the monster balloon and worked it towards the open window. Outside, the night was cold and crisp; the nearest pedestrian was five blocks north on Seminary Row. “Just clear the building and drop it on the sidewalk,” I instructed, “we don’t want this thing taking out someone’s open window.”

We made a running start and let go. A second later the loudest noise I’d ever heard reverberated down Claremont. The guy uptown stopped and looked. Professors living across the street came to their windows. Below us, the roof of a red Cadillac had been flattened into its seats. Shards of red rubber floated in a pool of water in the crater in the roof. The Caddy rested a foot too low; evidently the car’s axle had been broken. A small tree had been totally defoliated by the atomic balloon’s lethal trajectory into the car, leaving leaves everywhere.

The next morning I watched my statistics professor exit a building across 116th Street. He walked across the street in a daze, tried his keys in the door lock and gave up. He stood there for a minute. He took one of the maple leaves plastered to the hood, carefully folded it in half and put it into his back pocket. Then he walked away.

The next year I moved into East Campus, a 20-story high stack of second-rate drywall built on a solid foundation of rats and building code violations overlooking Morningside Park and Central Harlem. Chris lived on 4; I lived on 10. Soon we were back in business.

Chastened by our experience with the Atomic Balloon and aware of the exponential effect of five extra flights of stairs on the stuff we dropped out the window, we scaled down to actual water balloons – I found a mail-order outfit that never suffered from stocking problems – and ice cubes. East Campus was a whole different ballgame: Few pedestrians, but a lot of taxis. Also, the winds were fearsome, making it impossible to target accurately. Our crowning glory was knocking a poodle unconscious as it was being walked by its owner, a balding man wearing a pink biking shirt; other than that, we didn’t hit shit. Naturally, that’s when we got apprehended.

I came home one afternoon to find my suite crawling with pear-shaped university security guards. “Someone reported hearing paramilitary jargon coming from this suite,” the chief security guy, a wiry fortysomething said. Whenever Chris and I prepared to drop something, we’d spat out a melange of Star Trekisms and NASA shit like “engage cloaking device” (pull back the curtain) and “confidence is high – fire! fire!” “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” I said.

“What about all the water on the sill?” he asked. “It’s raining. The window’s open,” I noted.

“We know about you dropping that typewriter on the motorcyclist,” he said, grinning inanely. “He had to have a couple dozen stitches. Hope you’re happy.” We hadn’t done any typewriters – but, come to think of it, why not?

The next day, Chris and I were expelled from the university housing system in perpetuity.

My ballooning days were far from over, though. I moved in with my girlfriend into a four-story walk-up in the middle of the barrio at Amsterdam and 101st Street. It had to at least tie for the noisiest place in New York City; there were a police station, fire house and public junior high school, playground and public pool across the street, not to mention a bus stop and a couple of loose steel plates in the middle of the intersection. Amsterdam was a truck route, but the worst thing was the light synchronization – traffic hit greens all the way from 72nd Street only to screech to a collective halt for an inexplicable red at 101st. The Frederick Douglas housing projects provided a steady supply of truants and guys screaming “hey yo” at all hours of the night just because they could. But all of that shit paled in comparison to the chaos surrounding the bodega on the first floor of our building.

The place barely even bothered to stock food; its main business was over-the-counter drug sales. If you walked in to get milk, the cashier would shake his head over your cluelessness. A hive of young men loitered ominously , transacting business with intensity rivaling the commodities exchange, their brethren double- and triple-parked on both corners to watch for cops. Subtlety was not the byword of the operation; these guys were up until 5 every morning howling at the top of their collective lungs, fighting and blasting the same rap song over and over. Every night passed in a fog of annoyance and revenge fantasies.

I called the police repeatedly, but nothing ever happened. Then, one Saturday morning, I happened to be at Woolworth’s to buy potting soil when I walked past the freshly rejuvenated party balloon section. They had something I’d never seen before: black balloons, perfect for nighttime bombings.

That evening I filled up a washbasin with black balloons, each filled with scalding hot water (it was the middle of winter at the time) and waited in the bedroom with all the lights off. The field of battle was tilted heavily in my favor; my targets were stationary and dimwitted, thus eliminating the need for that old standby s=1/2 at2. The thugs were like fish in a barrel; all you had to do was point and drop. A convertible pulled up with its speakers pulsating the then-ubiquitous (s)hit “It Takes Two.” I targeted the one guy in the back seat with a choice shot slightly behind the center of the head, straight down the back of the shirt.

“Shit!” the guy yelped. But amazingly, he didn’t move, or even look up. I assume it was considered bad form to abandon one’s manly stoic stance. The guys in front ignored him. I dropped two more; one hit his lap and the other missed. There’s no way it didn’t hurt like a bastard.

“Fuck! Shit!” the hapless drug dealer said.

“What the fuck?” the driver said, never turning around.

“It’s wet back here!” said the guy, who was, in fact, very wet.

“What do you mean, wet?”

“I said, it’s wet here!”

“Shut up, wank,” the man in the front passenger seat commented casually. I let loose with a barrage on all three. Boom-boom-boom!

“Motherfuck! It is wet here!” the driver concluded. “Let’s go!” The car pulled off. Nobody looked up.

I had a corner apartment, so I went to the living room. Sure enough, the same assholes pulled up a minute or two later and parked in front of the hydrant. I let them relax a few minutes while I went to reload. The fire escape blocked the view from the street; anyway, my window was already closed by the time the first balloon hit the ground. I hit the loser in the back seat with a balloon the size of a grapefruit. Boosh! “Shit, man! This whole place is wet!”

“What! Here too?” the driver asked, stupefied.

I chucked the remaining dozen balloons so hard that the guys in the car clipped some hood’s foot as they pulled away. “I kill you, man!” the foot guy yelled as I dropped a big one on his left shoulder. He promptly turned around and slugged another guy in the jaw.

My one-man campaign to clean up the Upper West Side continued for about six weeks. The more stubborn villains required something effective; for this I relied upon Rolling Rock bottles wiped clean to remove my fingerprints. Finally, the dealers were gone. Bruised and scalded, they relocated their operation to 104th Street, where they became someone else’s problem. The trucks hit the metal plate and the sirens shrieked as they passed beneath, but I finally enjoyed the semblance of actual sleep for the first time in what seemed like forever. My mood favorably changed, I vowed to hang up my career as a mad ballooner once and for all.

Then, one night during the summer of ‘95, I awoke to the sounds of someone puking outside my window. I was living in Berkeley, California, where the right to act like an utter asshole supersedes everyone else’s rights not to be subjected to such aforementioned assholism. I got up and peered out the window of my third-floor apartment. There, directly below, a car had pulled over. The driver’s side door was open, and a DUI’s head was busy spewing chunks all over the front of my building. Between our indolent super and the fact that it never ever rains in California, I knew that I’d be smelling puke forever.

I got a Sierra Nevada bottle from the recycling bin and woke up my wife. “Think I still have the knack?” I asked her. It was a little tricky – my quarry was wedged in a tight spot. I’d need a slight upward flick of the wrist to clear the lemon tree to the right. Butthead was still hurling upon my return. I triangulated carefully, compensated for the slight ocean breeze coming off the bay, flicked upwards and hoped for the best. It was terrible. Instead of the drunk’s gourd, I took out his rear windshield. He floored it and took off, clipping the rear bumper of a parked car on the way out.

“I can’t believe this!” I told my wife. “I did everything perfectly!”

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” she murmured. “You’ll always be my mad ballooner.”

(C) 1995 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Now for the Disco President

About this time every four years, articles bemoaning the early start of the upcoming presidential campaign begin peppering the editorial pages. Never mind that this writing actually serves to launch the orgy of militant moderation that passes for electioneering in this country.

This year we can dispense with all that. The 1996 campaign has ended before it began.

We already know that the Republican nominee, and probable victor, will be Bob Dole. The legendary meanness and nasty disposition of the man from Kansas hasn’t escaped the notice of even the most moronic American voters, but his third attempt at the Oval Office is sufficiently well-funded to succeed.

Nonetheless, there’s always been something creepy about Bob Dole. He’s like your best friend’s mean father, or Humphrey Bogart’s evil twin. He’s even got Dick Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.

Clinton may be able to put up some resistance. After all, he is the President. He could have the CIA reveal that Dole once rented “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Carnosaur 2” on the same night. But the man from the Ozarks isn’t likely to break his impressive run of political ineptitude. After all, his buffoonery made him President, even if history students will have trouble remembering him in another twenty years.

Because we’ve been stuck with him a long time, Dole enjoys the advantage of familiarity. Granted, his early career is mysterious because his contemporaries are all dead of old age. What is known is that Dole became Kansas’ first senator after statehood. Although he first made his mark as Gerry Ford’s vice-presidential running mate in 1976, it’s unlikely that those jowls did Ford any good.

In 1980, Dole overcame his image as a has-been and ran for president. He was defeated in the Republican primaries after his involvement in Shea’s Rebellion came to light. The Federalist, a newspaper of the period, called him “a meane guye.” In 1988, by then a has-has been, Dole ran again, but lost due to accusations of conflict of interest relating to the Social Security Administration. Now geared up for ’96, Dole looks not like the has-has-has-been that he is, but rather a shoo-in.

Generational demographics ensure that Dole will become our oldest president ever when he takes office at the age of 73, according to the Gregorian calendar.

His secret? He’s surfing a wave of 70’s retro.

Lava lamps and platform shoes are back. Clogs, disco, hip-huggers, Aerosmith and Earth Day have again taken America by storm. The logical next step is to embrace a politician who first came to prominence during the era of gas lines and disco fever.

Dole’s politics are vintage Nixon-Ford. His alternating hawk-and-dove Bosnia policy mirrors Nixon on Vietnam. Like Ford, he’s obsessed with preventing inflation, but has no idea what to do about it. Maybe he’ll recycle some of those old “WIN” buttons. Dole’s transparently opportunistic anti-Hollywood rant recalls Nixon’s finest moments. Don’t be surprised if historians catch Dole tossing expletive-deleteds around on his tapes while criticizing films he hasn’t seen and songs he hasn’t heard.

But most importantly, Dole’s got the look of the 70’s politician–wide, loud ties, greased-back hair and $200 polyester suits. He could take the part of the Silent Majority-style vice cop in any blaxploitation film.

In short, Bob Dole is the Man.

Perhaps most telling of all, Dole seeks the presidency as his due rather than as the greatest favor the American people can bestow on a fellow citizen. That’s why, like Freddy Krueger, he keeps coming back–he refuses to die until he gets to the launch codes. He undoubtedly hopes to relive a Nixonian imperial presidency (but without the tacky finale).

Bill Clinton has flirted with the Me Decade in some respects–his hair and affection for Fleetwood Mac come to mind–but overall he’s still a 60’s kind of guy. In the final analysis, he lacks Dole’s super-action boogie-down credentials.

The requirement that candidates be at least 35 to run tends to generate presidents who are anachronisms. When white guys come to power, we have to relive their ancient youth. It is a happy coincidence that we live in a place where everything is always getting worse, so we’re always feeling nostalgia for some period when things were lousy, but still better than they are now. The cleverest politicians manage to tap into our obsessive nostalgia at election-time.

In 1980, we craved the quaint boredom and genteel racism of the segregated 50’s. Reagan capitalized on this Happy Days mentality. Clinton, a man who ran as JFK reincarnate, dragged us into the Sixties. Draft-dodging, extracurricular sex and pot became pressing issues as The Wonder Years generation seized control of the White House. Now we have The Brady Bunch Movie. After Bob Dole is elected, the ascendancy of the Seventies will be complete. At the current rate, we’re gaining one decade every eight years; our presidents should catch up with us around 2064.

“Hello? Mr. Frampton? This is your President. How would you like to perform at my inaugural?”

All The Rules Have Changed

My second collection of cartoons, including work from 1992 to 1995 along with a few old pieces from my mid-1980s pasting-stuff-up-on-lampposts period, is rare and hard to find. All the Rules features editorial and full-page cartoons not published elsewhere. Author-editor Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun, The Circle) was then my editor at Might, and a friend, and he agreed to design the front and back cover.

Rip Off Press published All The Rules in the middle of the Great Comics Distribution Meltdown of 1995. Only a few hundred copies were distributed before the remainder of the print run was pulped.

Alternative Press Review called this book “a great collection of stuff – from cynical to radical, from witty to nasty, but all coming down hard on corporate America and the layers of illusion it promotes and sells as reality. Rall’s is a topsy turvy world in the worthy tradition of the Ranters, antinomians and Luddites of other eras.”

Copies occasionally show up in used bookstores and on eBay.

Cartoon Collection, 1995
Rip Off Press Paperback, 8.5″x11″, 96 pp., $9.95

SYNDICATED COLUMN: And For Our Next Trick

The Affirmative Action Debate Exposed

There is a most conspicuous absence in the affirmative action debate. That glaring omission is what both the proponents and foes of what passes itself off as affirmative action agree not to discuss: how affirmative action actually works and what its purpose really is.

Since the inception of affirmative action programs in the 60’s, no one in the media has ever attempted to clarify exactly how the mechanics of these policies operate on a day-to-day basis. Sure, college admissions offices and employers who engage in preferential acceptance and hiring practices let minorities, women and other “disadvantaged groups” in ahead of white men when all things are equal.

The problem is, in real life, things are never equal.

Affirmative action theory dictates that a black female high school senior from Newark with a 3.75 GPA and 1300 SAT stands a better chance of admission to Yale than a white male Choate student with the same grade average and test score. Actually, these cases come up once in a blue moon, and even when they do, there are other factors to help distinguish two competing candidates. Was that 3.75 in home-ec or AP physics? In what extracurricular activities did they participate?

These policies have always been shrouded in mystery. College admissions officers weigh their applicants’ GPAs and SAT scores in accordance with their ethnicity and gender. For example, certain West Coast universities want fewer Asians and more blacks, so they multiply Asians’ scores by a number less than 1 and those of blacks by a number over 1. Despite the lies of admissions officers, the vast majority of these decisions are determined almost exclusively by numeric indicators.

I learned about the mechanics of affirmative action firsthand as an office assistant at one of Columbia University’s undergraduate admissions offices from 1992 to 1994.

Earned grades and test scores were multiplied by numeric factors that actively helped minority applicants. Some of these arithmetic gymnastics were more discreet than others. For example, high school graduates were given a higher percentage score than transfer students with a few years of college who had earned the same raw scores. Transfer students are a whiter lot than straight high school graduates. A less subtle method was routinely admitting minority students with GPAs in the 2.4 to 2.8 range, whereas whites with scores under 3.0 almost never gained entrance.

Financial aid was awarded like this too. The general scholarship fund at Columbia is composed of numerous specialized scholarships that are matched up to each student. The lion’s share of the money is automatically allocated to minority students that specifically exclude whites, although no funds are awarded exclusively to whites at the expense of other groups.

Most Americans suspect that affirmative action works this way, but policy-making alchemists guard this secret as rigorously as police departments deny the existence of traffic ticket quotas.

In any situation where there are only a limited number of slots and an excess number of qualified applicants, one person’s advantage is another person’s disadvantage. Cut it any way you want, but that’s simple math, and it’s an equation that white male applicants understand intuitively.

Instead of simply admitting that whites and men get hurt by affirmative action and that this is the price they pay for the sins of their racist and sexist fathers, the proponents of affirmative action have become experts in deceit. Rather than having the moral courage to say that these policies are imperfect–but necessary–remedies for centuries of systematic discrimination, these lying wimps try to sell the dubious proposition that life is not a zero-sum game, that granting an advantage to one person doesn’t have to penalize someone else.

Is it any wonder whites are screaming for an end to affirmative action?

On the other side of the debate, Republicans and their core constituency–racists who would bring back slavery if they had half a chance–find themselves pushing class-based affirmative action as a logical replacement of race- and gender-based programs. Here we have the party that claims to have killed off the Soviet Union pushing the idea of an America deeply stratified by Marxist-style class divisions. Not only have they abandoned their vision of a society composed of an enormous Über Middle Class, they’re actually favoring redistribution of resources to even out those class differences. Live 32 years, and eventually you see everything.

The scariest thing about the new Leninist-GOP approach is how reasonable it sounds. Why, Newt Gingrich intones, should the black daughter of a wealthy brain surgeon get into Harvard or Merrill Lynch before the white son of a West Virginia coal miner? Why indeed? If their class-based affirmative action plan wasn’t just a thinly-disguised intermediate step before eventually eliminating all preferences in order to keep their country clubs minority-free, I’d be right there with them at the barricades.

Meanwhile, no one considers the idea that the need for any kind of affirmative action could be eliminated. This would involve pouring money and social attention into inner-city schools. It would mean governing minority neighborhoods as if they were actual communities rather than occupied enemy territory. And it would require a drastic reversal of the 30-year-old trend of stripping income from the poor to hand it over to the richest 1% of Americans.

On second thought, maybe we’re stuck with smoke and mirrors.

The Last Six Minutes of Doomed Flight 411

You May Have Wondered What Happened – Or It’s Entirely Possible That You Were Preoccupied At The Time, Which Is Perfectly OK Then – In Any Event, Well, Here’s

THE LAST SIX MINUTES OF DOOMED FLIGHT 411

As everyone now knows, doomed Flight 411 never made it from Pittsburgh to Dayton on June 3rd. At 5:05 p.m., just 60 miles short of an arrival gate packed with family, friends and hangers-on, the experimental Boeing 797A minijumbo-jet smashed into a large high school near the southwest corner of the I-270 Columbus bypass. Authorities are still mystified by the crash, which claimed the lives of 14 crew members and 206 passengers, for a grand total of 220 innocent victims of whom a great many were as close to innocent as possible during a historical epoch in which ethics are considered arbitrary. Killed virtually instantaneously were an Indiana state representative, a promising starting quarterback for a two-year technical college in Mexico and the best-selling author of a series of books on beekeeping. (Miraculously, no one was at the high school at the time because state budget cuts had eliminated extracurricular activities.)

Despite painfully reconstructing the remains of the fuselage, which was consumed in a fireball that could be seen as far away from the crash site as the westbound lanes of Interstate 70, an FAA spokesman recently told a press conference: “As far as we can tell, Flight 411 never suffered any trouble in flight. In fact, scientifically speaking, it should still be en route to Cox International Airport right now.”

The mystery surrounding the disaster in no small part stems from the fact that rescue workers and investigators were unable to locate either the data or voice recorders – the notorious fluorescent-orange “black boxes” that are specially built to withstand the stress of impact – on Flight 411. That riddle came to an end one month ago, when this correspondent happened upon a charred metal hunk being offered for sale by a drunken derelict on the gritty streets of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Immediately recognizing the cockpit voice recorder for what it was – and what it was was a hunk of history, a grim epitaph to mass death – I spent a tax-deductible twenty dollars to obtain the answers – finally! – to what caused the crash, and how its victims spent their last six minutes on the Planet Earth that they all loved so much.

Following is an exact transcript of the last six minutes of doomed Flight 411. What you are about to read is a disturbing, yet poignant reminder of what we’re all capable of when everything we know is about to come to a gruesome end. For if the philosopher is correct, an entire universe of perception dies when a person dies, and when more than 220 people die, an equivalent number of universes probably die with them, if that’s the way it works.

The principal voices on the recorder include pilot James Shapiro, 44, a veteran of the 1980s bombing of Tripoli, co-pilot Edward Schevernazdve, 35, no relation to the president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia and engineer Tom “Tommy” de la Renta, 27, of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Flight 411 was to have been Tommy’s last since the engineer’s job was to be downsized by airline restructuring.

4:59PM – ALL INSTRUMENTS NORMAL
CO-PILOT: I’m thinking that maybe at this point we should have some clever repartee reminiscent of the tipping sequence at the beginning of “Reservoir Dogs.”
ENGINEER: Who are you talking to? There are three of us in here.
CO-PILOT: It’s rhetorical. You, him, whatever. Listen, the bonobo is dead.
PILOT: No shit. Really?
[FLIGHT 411 MOVED INTO THE DAYTON AIR TRAFFIC VECTOR AT THIS POINT.] DAYTON TOWER: Welcome 411, go to 15,000, clear to descend 13,000 in 2. Runway assignment later.
CO-PILOT: Roger Dayton, go to 13,000.
DAYTON TOWER: Negative on 13,000, remain 15,000, clear to descend. Hey, I take it you heard about the bonobo.
CO-PILOT: Yes, of course – it was on the “Today” show.
PILOT: Bonobo?
CO-PILOT: It’s a large, streamlined sear bird of the family Sulidae, called gangets in northern waters. They have heavy bodies, long, pointed wings – no, wait, that’s a booby. This thing doesn’t have bonobos.
PILOT: Technology sucks.
ENGINEER: Oh, sure, blame the South Asians. I should report you.
PILOT: I have nothing against those people. Honestly! I think it’s just great that the same agile hands that weave enormous carpets at the age of 12 become computer coders at the age of 21. It’s splendid, poetic even…
[INTERFERENCE HERE–FAA SAYS ITS LEON PANETTA MAKING “SOME SORT OF OBSERVATION,” OR POSSIBLY CHASTISING AN UNDERLING FOR SOME OFFENSE, REAL OR PERCEIVED.]…Julian calendar, and that’s about it, period, end quote.
CO-PILOT: Could we please change the subject? It’s getting a tad tedious, and to be honest, I find the atmosphere, involving three sweaty guys cramped together in a poorly-ventilated metal cabin flying through space at hundreds of miles per hour, both confining and uncomfortable, both at the same time.
ENGINEER: Exactly.
CO-PILOT: Quit agreeing with me all the time. Anyone who thinks it’s perfectly OK for leap years to come every four years, except at century’s end, and then with the exception of every fourth century’s end, is, in my opinion, less than ignorant. Of course, that’s what you get for attending Colgate.
ENGINEER: Absolutely. Right-o.
CO-PILOT: If that chick told you she’s a third Hispanic, she’s a total, like, liar. That’s all I want to say. No offense.
STEWARDESS: Excuse me, but some of the passengers in first-class say they smell smoke.
PILOT: What are you doing in here?
[HERE STEWARDESS ENTERS THE CABIN.] PILOT: Oh, there we go. Why, hi there, Brenda the Stewardess! How have you been?
BRENDA THE STEWARDESS: Why, never better, Mr. Pilot Guy.
PILOT: Do you have something to report?
BRENDA THE STEWARDESS: All conditions normal, sir.
PILOT [ON PUBLIC ADDRESS]: All righty, folks, this is your captain speaking. We’ll be passing over the Great Teton Dam, the Pyramid at Cheops and the TransAmerica Pyramid during our flight path today. Drinks are complimentary in the bathroom, $4 in the confessional.
5:00 PM – ALL INSTRUMENTS NORMAL
CO-PILOT: Going down to 13,000.
ENGINEER: I thought we had another minute.
CO-PILOT: I swear to God, one of these days someone’s gonna kick your fucking ass. Goddamn douchebag! Sorry…something about being inside a cockpit makes me want to curse without provocation.
ENGINEER: Come on, you mondoscumfuck – I’m ready for you! I’ll eat your fucking heart! Oh, sorry about that.
[COMMERCIAL BREAK: PepsiCo/Mountain Dew (30 seconds); Lorillard Brands (1 minute); Jamaica Tourist Board (30 seconds); UPN Network Promo for “Moesha” and “Martin” (45 seconds); Committee to Re-elect the President ’72 (1 minute)] PILOT [ON INTERCOM]: When you last left the flight data recorder, our flight engineer had threatened to assault our co-pilot. But while you were gone, both men shook hands, became friends, and admitted a certain amount of sexual tension. They’re now shopping for a home together, assuming they can pull together the necessary financing.
ENGINEER: Hey! I thought we weren’t going to mention any of that.
PILOT [STAGE LEFT, LEANING OVER TO CHECK FLASHING RED LIGHT]: Hmmm…”total cabin depressurization.” Is that bad? [HE SOUNDS CONCERNED.] ENGINEER: Fuel looking good, E&M fine. Maybe it’s a hole.
PILOT: If you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up. And apologize to – hey, what’s your name again?
ENGINEER: Who do you want to apologize? Him or me?
DAYTON TOWER: Hey, you’re at 13,000! I’ve got you tracked on an intercept course with an A-400. Pull up! Pull up!
CO-PILOT: Why go up just to come back down again thirty seconds later? Oh, wow.
[FLIGHT 411 PASSES A TWIN-ENGINE CESSNA BY 3,600 FEET; NO COLLISION OCCURS.] CO-PILOT: Dayton Tower! This is mayday! We have impact with target! We’re going down! Ohmyfuckingchristshitfucklickassdamndamndamn!
PILOT: You are soooo gay.
[LAUGHTER ERUPTS IN COCKPIT] 5:01 PM – ALL INSTRUMENTS NORMAL
[AT THIS POINT, FLIGHT 411 HAS INADVERTENTLY ENTERED AIRSPACE CONTROLLED BY WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE IN VANDALIA, OHIO.] WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE TOWER: Target at 31,000, vector 4-2, please identify.
CO-PILOT: [STILL GUFFAWING, CHUCKLING, GIGGLING, CHORTLING AND CACKLING ALSO] Wright-Patterson, this is Consolidated Amalgacorp Airlines Flight 411. Dayton has us on their screen.
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE TOWER: Unidentified target at 31,000, we repeat, F-16s are en route to intercept. You will, repeat will, be shot down unless you land immediately at the nearest available landing strip and surrender to military personnel.
CO-PILOT: Um, Wright-Patt, it’s time to like, stop it.
PILOT: I think they’re just funning. You know those Latinos, they like their beer. Every night, it’s tall-boys this, tall-boys that. (pause) All this racist shit is making me thirsty. [SMACKS LIPS FOR EFFECT. HIS COMRADES RESPECT HIM, YET THEY FRET THAT HE MAY BE UNSTABLE. THE CO-PILOT, FOR THE FIRST TIME, RESOLVES TO KILL HIM AT THE FIRST SIGN OF TROUBLE.] WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE TOWER: The President has authorized termination of your unauthorized flight. You have entered restricted airspace. We have you locked in. This will be your final warning. May God have mercy on –
ENGINEER: Yo, Eddie – you’re on the wrong channel.
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE TOWER: Roger on that. Redirecting launched missiles.
DAYTON TOWER: We just lost an L-1011 twelve clicks north of you. We don’t know what’s going on, they just dropped off radar. Ta-ta, cactus boys!
CO-PILOT: I’m gonna miss that bonobo. That’s for sure.
5:02 PM – ALL INSTRUMENTS NORMAL
PILOT: Look at all that corn. Amber waves of –
[COMMERCIAL BREAK: STATION PROMO FOR “ANNE FRANK 2–BACK FROM AUSCHWITZ”
VOICE-OVER: “They thought they’d gotten rid of the little Dutch girl once and for all…but they were wrong! It’s 10 years later, and Not-So-Little Orphan Annie is back for revenge! Catch Anne Frank 2, this Sunday at 8 eastern, 7 central.”] ENGINEER: I know I’ll [I’LL IS EMPHASIZED WITH GRAVITAS] be watching.
PILOT: As will I…I wanna see German heads roll!
[HERE THERE IS A 12-SECOND GAP ON THE TAPE] CO-PILOT: I don’t know what to tell them! Just go back there and figure it out!
UNIDENTIFIED STEWARD: I’m filing a grievance with the union.
PILOT: Attention, passengers, this is your captain speaking. We have just suffered a temporary decompression problem. We are going to be landing in just a few minutes. Please remain calm and prepare for a possible crash landing–[INEXPLICABLY, WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR LEON JAWORSKI APPEARS, THEN DISAPPEARS]–oxygen masks are right in front of you.
ENGINEER: We’re bleeding fuel. I think we have a freeze-up.
PILOT: Someone’s gotta go out and find what the hell’s going on.
ENGINEER: I’ll go!
CO-PILOT: No – I’m on my way.
ENGINEER: Dayton Tower, Dayton Tower, this is Flight 411, we are doomed, we have an emergency situation, we have smoke in the cockpit, we request immediate clearance.
DAYTON TOWER: We copy that. Go to 8,000 and prepare to land.
ENGINEER: Mayday, mayday! [THIS STUFF IS REALLY DRAMATIC, O.K.? PLEASE PUNCH UP, MAKE MORE RANDOMLY AMUSING –Eggers] 5:03 PM – ALTITUDE, VELOCITY FALLING
ENGINEER: What’s going on out there?
CO-PILOT: Looks like a bomb went off. There are bodies all over the place. I saw a baby – it – I thought it had been blown to bits, but it was just puke. Five rows – gone, just gone. There’s a ten-foot hole in the fuselage.
PILOT: Where – [STATIC] GERALD FORD: Our long national nightmare is over.
NEIL ARMSTRONG: One small step for me, one giant –
DEBORAH HARRY: It’s great to be back home at the Mudd Club!
[POSSIBLE RADIO INTERFERENCE – BROADCAST OF PRESLEY’S “IN THE GHETTO” PLAYS FOR 17 SECONDS HERE] ENGINEER: Pull up, pull up, pull up!
5:04 PM – ACCORDING TO FAA INVESTIGATORS, FLIGHT 411 CRASHED AT THIS POINT, KILLING ALL 220 PEOPLE ABOARD. AMAZINGLY, THE TAPE CONTINUES:
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you sure your parents won’t be home?
[18 MINUTE GAP APPEARS HERE] CO-PILOT: Oh, wow.
ENGINEER: Pull up, pull up, pull up!
DAYTON TOWER: Flight 411, this is Dayton. What is your status?
CO-PILOT: Give it a rest, willya?
ENGINEER: Aw, man…what a fucking bummer.
PILOT: Hey, I think we’re still recording!
CO-PILOT: Cummerbund.
ENGINEER: Think of it – for the first time in the human experience, we have the chance to inform those left behind about what comes next! We have the Big Answer to the Biggest Question of all! We know everything!
PILOT: That’s true…hi, everyone! Welcome from beyond the grave! Oooowoowoowooooooo –
CO-PILOT: Hey, look! There’s Billy Squier! I love his work!
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]

(C) 1994 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved

White Weddings: Selections from the New York Times Weddings Announcements

Kelly Edwards, Steven Still
Kelly Edwards and Steven Joseph Still were married last evening by Cantor Pierre Aronson at the St. Regis in New York.

Mrs. Still, 30, is a founding partner in G2 Resources, an exclusive brokerage firm in Greenwich, Conn. owned by the investment bank of Goldman, Sachs & Company in New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. Her father is a limited partner in the investment bank of Goldman, Sachs & Company in New York and a former chairman of its international operations.

Mr. Still, 31, graduated from Yale University and received an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business and a law degree from Villanova University. He is a senior managing director of Lazard Freres & Company, the investment bank in New York. He is also a senior managing director of LazardÕs asset management business, where the bride has recently accepted a position. His father is chairman and chief executive officer of Lazard Freres & Company.

Linda Peters, Ronald Ford

Linda Barbara Peters, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Blayne Y. Peters of Edison, New Jersey, was married in Central Park yesterday to Ronald C. Ford, Jr., the son of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald C. Ford. The Rev. Jerry Clement performed the ceremony at Strawberry Fields, the memorial to the singer John Lennon where the couple met.

The bride, 23, is an Office Assistant Grade 6 at the New York Public Library in Chinatown. She graduated from Pace University where she received a bachelorÕs degree in communications and marketing, but was unable to pursue a journalism career because she failed to sleep with the appropriate editors in the New York area. Her father owns AAA 18th Street Associates, a newsstand on West 18th Street in Manhattan.

The bridegroom, 29, is a humorist and a writer whose books include “The Cactus Chronicles” (Penguin), a chronicle of his amusing experiences with desert succulents that won the National Book Award in 1994 and lost the National Book Award to a Holocaust memoir that later turned out to have been entirely faked; “How to Make a Lot of Money and Then Lose It All In Some Stupid Way” (Random House, 1996); and “Why I Hate My Fucking Dad” (Times Books, 1998). He attended Harvard University but was forced to withdraw one year before graduating because Congress felt that giving tax cuts to rich bastards was more important than funding higher education. His two previous marriages ended in divorce, one after he contracted herpes from his wife and the other after his wife contracted herpes from him.

His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald C. Ford, were low-level civil servants in the State of New Mexico’s child-welfare oversight division until it was phased out by governmental restructuring.

Kristina Welsh, John Latoni

Kristina Welsh, the daughter of Bernice and Gunther Welsh of Parsipphany, New Jersey, was married yesterday to John Latoni, the son of Elaine and Jacob Latoni of South Orange, New Jersey.

The Rev. Kevin N. Herrick performed the afternoon ceremony at the First United Methodist Church of West New York, New Jersey. Last evening, a Buddhist ceremony was performed at the Chateau Splendide in South Orange.

The bride, 27, and the bridgegroom, 30, are currently in their fourth year of a two-year training program at AMZ Inc., the check-clearing company where they work in soul-crushing clerical positions that make them both physically ill at the thought of their spending the rest of the lives in such a place. They received associates’ degrees from Hackensack Community College, he because he spent his high-school years getting stoned which caused his SATs to be so lousy that he couldn’t get in anywhere decent and her because her fucking father was too cheap to dip into his enormous savings to send her to one of the several Ivy league universities to which she was admitted.

Ms. Welsh, who is keeping her name because she some of her friends told her it would be a good idea for her career, has no contact with her parents.

The ceremony cost $16,000, nearly half of which was put on credit cards that don’t have a prayer of ever being paid.

Pertella Friedrich, Jonathan Trauber

Pertella della Friedrich is to be married today to Jonathan Michael Trauber at the Municipal Building in Manhattan. Rabbi Harvey M. Trauber, who is not related to the bridgegroom, will officiate.

Ms. Friedrich, 28, who is keeping her name, is homeless and unemployed. She attended P.S. 97 in the Bronx before being expelled due to problems with drug abuse and alcoholism. Her parents were the late Mr. and Mrs. Frank Friedrich, founding partners of the law firm of Katten, Johnson, Friedrich & Bernadello of Los Angeles. They died when their Geo Metro was broadsided by a sports-utility vehicle on Interstate 80 in Sacramento, California, two weeks before the wedding. Emergency personnel who responded to the scene of the crash said that the wreck was the most gruesome they had ever seen. The burial was a closed-casket ceremony, and the will is still missing.

Mr. Trauber, 40, is also homeless and unemployed. He graduated from Tufts University and received a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. His father is Lionel Trauber, a senior vice president at the situation-comedy development division of CBS Television, and his mother, a former timber-company executive, committed suicide when she discovered her husband in her bed with a prostitute.

Linda Raines, Edward Moon

Linda Amanda Raines and Edward Ian Moon were scheduled to be married yesterday by the Rev. Henry Nixon at the Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany in Ryebrook, New York.

Ms. Raines, 21, is a student at the School of Visual Arts. Her parents are unknown, and she was raised in an orphanage due to the fact that Americans prefer to adopt babies from Siberia than older children in the United States.

Mr. Moon, 26, is an aspiring actor and singer/songwriter living under the illusion that he has talent. He quit his day job, as a nightwatchman at the Pathmark grocery store on Dyckman Street in Washington Heights, in order to focus on Òdeveloping a groove,Ó which basically constituted hanging out with his loser friends all day and every evening. He is the son of two parents, both of whom are so disappointed in him that they refuse to have anything to do with him, and this includes this notice.

The wedding was cancelled three hours beforehand when Ms. Raines came to her senses.

(C) 1994 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved

Marketing Madness: A Postmortem for Generation X

Dineh Mohajer, if you choose to believe Time magazine, is just like you. Two years ago, the 24-year-old California woman launched her own cosmetics company, Hard Candy, as a lark. Now she’s expecting $25 million in sales for fiscal ‘97. Assuming the quotes are accurate, this CEO-come-lately coasts on mental autopilot: “I function like an average human being of my age. I go to clubs, movies and watch MTV. It’s so fun! I’m a TV junkie. I need to go to Melrose Anonymous! Eating Cap’n Crunch and watching TV – two things I live for. Twice a week we have all-girls’ night. My best friends come over. We watch TV and gossip and scream and yell and do our nails.”

Time says this insipid make-up baroness is a typical of the 44.6 million Americans born between 1965 and 1976 denoted as Generation Xers. But Douglas Coupland, the Canadian author who stole either the name of Billy Idol’s old punk band or saw it in an obscure sociology text for his 1991 book (it depends who you ask) wrote that Generations Xers were “born in the late 1950s and 1960s – a camera-shy, suspiciously hushed known up to now as twentysomethings.” Mohajer was born too late to get into Coupland’s Gen X and he’s too old to get into Time’s. What the hell is going on here?

Authors and pundits and politicians love to generalize about Those Who Came Later (citizens born after the Baby Boom), but no one can agree on who these mysterious souls are. Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss (Generations, 13th-Gen) say that they’re the 79 million people born between 1961 and 1981. William Dunn’s The Baby Bust agrees with Time, Geoffrey T. Holtz’s Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind “Generation X” sides with Howe and Strauss, and Business Week calls them the 46 million humans born from 1963 to 1974. Not to be outdone, a recent press release from the BMG record label says they’re “young adults aged 16 to 24.”

I was born in 1963. Time classifies me as a Baby Boomer. According to them, my defining cultural moments include the hippie musical Hair and my first kiss at a drive-in (never mind that I was 5 when Hair came out, or that drive-ins were extinct long before I hit puberty). The Atlantic Monthly, however, presumes that I’m into Ice-T and Nirvana. If you’re 18 to 21, no one can agree whether you’re a Gen Xer or a Gen Yer (the name imagination-deficient marketing execs currently apply to Those Who Came Even Later Than Those Who Came Later). Gen Xers are pessimistic, alienated and angst-ridden, the myth goes, and Gen Yers are footloose, relaxed and idealistic. Which one are you? These days you need a program to keep track of your own generational identity.

The media’s obsession with generational generalizing is obviously silly, but consequential questions remain: Do generations – the notion that people share commonalities simply because of when they were born – exist at all? And if they do, does any of this shit matter?

Generic Generations
In Generations, Mssrs. Howe and Strauss state: “Intuitively, everyone recognizes the importance of age location,” but this is untrue of today’s younger adults. “I think generations are bullshit,” a friend who edits a well-known Generation X-oriented humor magazine asserts. “People are people; that’s all.” Everyone knows of exceptions to strict generational categorizations: Old Baby Boom-era punk singers like the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop are honorary Gen Xers; the San Francisco Bay Area is full of twentysomethings who wear the garish clothing of the Summer of Love and prefer Jim Morrison to Eddie Vedder. I often find that I have more in common with sixtysomethings than thirtysomethings.

Time’s Xer piece elicited wildly disparate response letters. “I don’t believe that a generation can be described as having a set of traits and a personality,” wrote Rob Glaser. “[Your article] is the most correct and comprehensive description of Generation X yet offered,” counters Michael Cathey. Both reactions reflect typical Xer attitudes towards stereotyping by age.

Nonetheless, people do share common reference points – particularly regarding pop culture and politics – based on when they were born. Not everyone my age grew up as latchkey kids or watched The Brady Bunch – but many of them did. Not everyone in college today obsesses over affirmative action or political correctness – but many do. Belonging to a generation doesn’t mean that you vote a certain way or listen to a particular band, or even that you think anything like your peers, any more than being born into a certain race or gender can predict your personality – but you are more likely to share certain formative experiences and attitudes about life with your age cohorts. When it comes to generations, exceptions don’t necessarily disprove the rule.

In the early 1970s, mainstream Americans (i.e., older adults) terrified of the “generation gap” between them and the then-emerging Baby Boomers lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Despite the fact that college-age citizens have always voted in low numbers, Boomers have acted to represent their political interests ever since. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as the first Boomer president, Americans have watched the political and cultural agenda shift toward issues that matter to people born between 1946 and 1964 (or 1943 and 1960, depending on who you believe). Gay rights, the environment and tax breaks for college tuition are all Boomer-oriented initiatives. Gen Xers (whoever they are) have seen little action on things that might matter to them. Topics like the crushing burden of student loan debt, global warming, and increasing the quality of entry-level jobs are so far removed from the political agenda that they might as well be in Albania. If you’re under 35 years of age, you have every right not to believe in the notion of generational politics – but you should be aware of the fact that those who are older are already practicing it.

You Are What You Buy
Generation Gap 2 began in 1987 when cartoonists and journalists coined the term “twentysomething” as a parody of the then-new disjointed Boomer-oriented TV whine-a-thon thirtysomething. Twentysomethings were the group of young adults then coming of age after college. (Historically, then, today’s Gen Xers are all in their 30s.) The term “twentysomething” became interchangeable with “Generation X” when Coupland’s poorly-written tome appeared in 1991. (This would make Xers 26-to-36 now.) Pundits posited other contenders to name the New Ones – “baby busters,” “post-boomers,” “posties,” even Howe & Strauss’ clunky “13ers” (because they’re the 13th American generation) – but the joint twentysomething/Gen-X identifier has stuck. Journalists and marketers view the two terms as permanently equivalent, making Gen Xers the first people in history not to age! Thanks to this journalistic medical advance, Xers will remain twentysomething long after their great-grandchildren have died of old age.

Gen X cultural icons – who included director Richard Linklater for his 1992 film Slacker and the band Nirvana for its 1991 album Nevermind, as well as such underground cartoonists as Nina “Nina’s Adventures” Paley, Tom “This Modern World” Tomorrow, and Ruben “Tom the Dancing Bug” Bolling – focused attention on economic dislocation, growing up in an age of budget cuts and McJobs, as well as the feeling that the old rules no longer applied (I titled my own book of Gen X-oriented cartoons All The Rules Have Changed). Gen X, whether it existed or not, was about opting out of the flexible morality and opportunistic hypocrisy then seen as characteristic of their Boomer middle-manager bosses.

Madison Avenue discovered Gen X in late 1992. With the oldest Boomers pushing 50 – well past peak buying age – and the economy in Bush-era doldrums, corporate executives realized that an economy in which consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product constantly requires a new batch of suckers. Newsweek published its “The New Middle Age: Oh, God…I’m Really Turning 50!” cover story on December 7th. On December 14th Business Week responded with “Move Over, Boomers: The Busters Are Here—And They’re Angry,” a detailed guide to businesspeople lusting after Gen Xers’ “$125 billion in annual spending power.” Since then, almost every mention in the mainstream media about the people who are anywhere between 16 and 41 years old (!) has been about how to sell them stuff. U.S. News & World Report’s February 22, 1993 “The Twentysomething Rebellion” (for them, Xers are now 24 to 34) picks computer companies and airlines as beneficiaries of the emerging Xer market, whereas Time likes Sprite and business schools.

In 1995 Coupland complained in Details about the advent of Xer marketing: “Those Bud ads where people rehash ‘60s sitcoms. Flavapalooza. Irony, which most young people use in order to make ludicrous situations palatable, was for the first time used as a selling tool. Kurt Cobain’s in heaven, Slacker’s at Blockbuster, and the media refers to anyone aged 13 to 39 as Xers. Which is only further proof that marketers and journalists never understood that X is a term that defines not a chronological age but a way of looking at the world.”

There’s certainly nothing new about generational marketing. During the late ‘60s and ‘70s advertisers appealed to the new Boomers to buy the same old products that their parents had; in fact, the 1992 Newsweek piece on Boomers includes breathless advice to sellers of hair transplants and plastic surgery to get busy with their new victims. With the notable anomaly of Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, the Boomers capitulated. They simply became their parents.

Xers have proven a far more difficult nut to crack; the latest wave of commercialism is hilariously desperate. Car companies run generic grunge music as background music to try to convince 28-year-olds that sports utility vehicles aren’t really just the latest version of the stationwagon. Nike sells its slave-labor-made sneakers with the DIY slogan “Just Do It,” while Xers roll their collective eyes. “No icon and certainly no commercial is safe from their irony, their sarcasm or their remote control. These are the tools with which Generation X keeps the world in perspective,” Marketing to Generation X author Karen Ritchie tells Time. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Fortune 500.

Until recently, the shenanigans of clueless advertisers only interested those who subscribed to AdWeek. The last few decades, however, have seen the wholesale collapse of virtually every mainstream public institution. A 50 percent divorce rate and an average marriage length of two years has all but destroyed the nuclear family. Involvement in religious organizations – and belief in God – is way down, thanks largely to sex scandals in both Catholic and Christian fundamentalist churches. The public education system has been gutted by two decades of Reagan-Bush-Clinton budget slashing. Corporate consolidation and the demise of investigative journalism has led to widespread distrust of the news media. The emergence of a two-party political system featuring no significant differences between the two “choices” has reduced voter participation and led to unprecedented cynicism about government. Many branches of popular culture – movies, architecture, modern art, rock music and theater – are widely viewed as moribund and irrelevant to people’s everyday lives.

God is dead, rock stars don’t matter, movies suck. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a New Yorker or an Alabaman, into tongue piercing or the local militia, married or single, straight or gay. Having destroyed all their ideological competitors, corporations are the last remaining institutions to offer strong identities. The choice between Democrats and Republicans is infinitely less important to your quotidian life than the one between Apple and Microsoft. Everyone knows that the real president isn’t Bill Clinton – it’s Bill Gates.

In a land where no one believes in anything, you are what you buy.

When marketers tell you what to buy, they tell you what to become. Are you a hip-hop fan or a preppie? Do you like clear dishwashing liquid or Volvos? There’s no way to avoid the onslaught of TV ads, billboards and product placement that permeate our everyday lives, but it is important to realize what’s at stake. The marketers think that they know who you are based on your birthdate, your ethnic background and the fact that you subscribe to a certain magazine, and they’re determined to use that information to sell you their products. When they succeed, they change your identity – but what if they don’t have the slightest clue who you are?

You’re Next!
There is perhaps no better indication of the amazing lack of logic of generational marketing than the fact that no one can agree who belongs to what generation. But that will never stop some wanker editor – inevitably someone who’s not even a member of the generation being discussed! – from putting out a dozen-page spread on who you are and what you believe in during a slow news week. These “them versus us” pieces invariably seek to create neo-Generation Gaps where there are none. Even worse, they trivialize or ignore important issues that truly should be addressed in the public arena. Even Strauss and Howe’s latest stab at generational generalizations, The Fourth Turning, acknowledges: “Compared to any other generation born in this century, [Gen X] is less cohesive, its experiences wider and its culture more splintery.”

The development of Gen X media coverage provides an instructive tale for college-age Americans. Whether or not you consider yourself a Gen Xer, the corporate marketers will soon turn their attentions to you and, more importantly, your wallets. Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbook, Illinois, says that American teenagers controlled $103 billion in consumer spending during 1996. “Unlike Generation X, who are paying off college debt, Generation Y – these teens – don’t have any payments to hold them down so they can blow their money on whatever they want,” he drools. For example, Mountain Dew has signed a deal with the rap mag The Source and Black Entertainment Television, as well as ten record companies, to push their products to urban teens. Specially-equipped vans will visit the ‘hood in 13 cities, “spreading the word on the latest in urban fashion and distributing the newest music, T-shirts and Mountain Dew.”

“We know that our consumers see through commercialization and over-commercialization,” says PepsiCo spokesman Jon Harris. “Teaming up with The Source provides a great vehicle to connect with consumers in a meaningful way.”

To paraphrase Robocop, these days, meaning is where you find it.

The Great Generational Marketing Debacle

“Grunge, anger, cultural dislocation, a secret yearning to belong: They add up to a daunting cultural anthropology that marketers have to confront if they want to reach twentysomethings. But it’s worth it. [Xers] do buy stuff: CDs, sweaters, jeans, boots, soda, beer, cosmetics, electronics, cars, fast food, personal computers, mountain bikes and Rollerblades,” U.S. News said enthusiastically in ‘93. Details editor James Truman ‘fessed up: “They’re tremendously cynical because they know the media is most often trying to sell them something.” There’s another thing missing: Xers had lousy jobs and huge debt burdens. It’s hard to buy when you’re broke.

Despite the warnings, marketers sunk to the occasion.

The notion of Gen X as a sociocultural movement reached its zenith on film. Young adults thrilled to the Cinderella stories of former clerks who ran up their charge cards to fund their postmodern social commentary movies. Unfortunately, earnest efforts like ex-video-store employee Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Kevin Smith’s Clerks soon gave way to cynical Boomer-conceived Hollywood dreck like the embarrassing Winona Ryder vehicle Reality Bites and Smith’s politically-correct monstrosity Chasing Amy. When the remarkable Pulp Fiction failed to win the Best Film Oscar for 1994, though, the era of experimentation came to an halt. These days Hollywood is content to cast hopelessly attractive twentysomething stars in movies like Beautiful Girls and TV shows like Baywatch and Friends. Apparently the Boomers who run the studios think younger Americans aren’t worthy of dialogue as sophisticated as in Three’s Company – thus the marketing of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and MTV’s The Real World to people supposedly hip enough to know better.

Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide became the “where were you when it happened” moment for the flannel-and-pierced-nipple set, but no pop artist has since successfully claimed the mandate of heaven to rule his throne. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney issued memorable “albums of a generation” and Pearl Jam was the great pretender. The record companies have deluged the marketplace with an endless stream of recycled standard-issue female singer-songwriters ever since, as if winsome vocals à la Beck and Jewel were in any way distinguishable from Graham Parker and Joan Baez. Record sales have fallen to even lower levels than the 1987-1994 recession, and many execs remain convinced that young adults have simply given up on music.

Beginning in 1992, an unsavory band of political opportunists seized on the latest libertarian tendencies among many Xers (centered on their distrust of big government and a disdain for taxes and deficit spending) in order to form political-action organizations. Hillary Clinton look-alike Wendy Kopp (now 28) formed Teach for America to get white college grads to teach in inner-city schools and see herself quoted in national newsweeklies while collecting a salary well into six figures.

Insufferable wealthy pretty boys Jon Cowan (now 31) and Rob Nelson (now 33) founded Lead or Leave, a lobbying group that viewed the budget deficit as the single most important problem facing American youth (never mind that attacking the deficit means increased unemployment and less financial aid) and depicted the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) as the mortal enemies of all things young and beautiful. They proposed to take on the AARP by attacking selfish entitlement programs for senior citizens and by representing the issues important to the young as effectively as the AARP defended Social Security. They neglected to tell the gaggle of magazine and TV reporters who followed their every move that their organization was a shill for Ross Perot’s failed 1992 presidential bid. Their diminutive leader gone, Lead or Leave left, evaporating around ‘94.

The Second Wave of Inside-the-Beltway operatives includes such luminaries as Third Millennium’s Richard Thau, a man few Xers have heard of but who nonetheless claims to speak for them. “We grew up in a period with one instance of government malfeasance and ineptitude after another, from Watergate to Iran-contra to the explosion of the Challenger to Whitewater. We believe government can’t be trusted to do anything right,” Thau tells Time. One wonders if he knows that, at age 32, the same piece he’s quoted in doesn’t even consider him an Xer at all?

America’s other new Xer Poster Boy is The Sierra Club’s new wondergeek president, Adam Werbach. (Advisory: He’s 24. Doug Coupland would say he’s not Gen X.) “Gen X,” Time quotes Werbach, “responds to aggressively hip, visual and interactive messages. Want to fight oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge? Set up booths to sell black snow cones.” No wonder you need a 30 sunblock to walk to your car.

While a cadre of Xer posers brownnoses its way into assistant-to-the-assistant-whatever slots in the capital, real issues are utterly ignored. The vast majority of Americans believe, with good reason, that young adults only care about balancing the budget, saving the rain forests and stopping AIDS. The Big Issues – free trade, income redistribution, underemployment, crime, foreign policy – are matters for our elders to decide. The mainstream media and its Xer puppets have rendered tens of millions of people (let’s not get into how many tens of millions!) utterly voiceless. In the end young adults have become as mysterious and useless as voters as they are as consumers.

Generation X: The Next Generation
So what’s next for the generation that no one can figure out? First of all, it seems likely that for the next few years they’ll continue to be considered whoever happens to be in their twenties at the time. If you accept the idea that age groups are partially defined by the formative experiences of their childhoods, each batch of twentysomethings will be different. The American media is far too removed from ordinary people to track actual generations, much less artificial age segments in constant flux.

Second, the “real Xers” – as defined by a distinct range of birth years – will probably never be able to agree on what they stand for in any coherent manner. Unlike the Baby Boomers, who seem to agree that they enjoy getting divorced and not promoting their younger employees, Xer diversity is certainly not likely to emerge any time soon – so don’t look for any Xer political group to gain real support. It’s hard to lobby when you’re not sure you actually exist.

Xer refusal to argue for their common interests ensures that, even if they refuse to propose a solution, they won’t become a part of the problem. Today’s young adults can’t get it together – which is a damn good thing when you consider the fiscal and social fallout from older Americans’ refusal to sacrifice for their fellow citizens. When a 62-year-old woman recently gave birth to her own grandchild through in vitro fertilization, the first joke I heard about was: “Yeah, but will she vote for the school levy?” Remaining disorganized as an age group makes us better Americans. On the other hand, politics sinks to the lowest common denominator. Other age groups, as in the case of the AARP, do promote their narrow interests – usually at the expense of their younger counterparts. Now that Baby Boomers are having children in large numbers, they’re passing their demographic clout over the heads of today’s Gen Xers in a weird sort of generational leapfrog. We attended schools eviscerated by budget cuts in an era when kids weren’t a priority; now many schools have better computers than some offices. Still, I suspect that few Xers begrudge today’s children an education better than they received themselves. Xers may have been raised by selfish assholes who looked out for numero uno, but they turned out fairly decently.

In the meantime, the marketing madness goes on. The Harvey Entertainment Company recently announced its intention to begin licensing such “classic” characters as Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Witch. According to Harvey’s press release: “Our marketing strategy will simultaneously capitalize on inherent strengths of our classic characters in three key areas: entertainment-driven merchandising, the collectors’ market, and fashion. The synergistic market activity will have long-term value-added impact on Harvey and its licensees. Harvey Entertainment’s multi-level brand licensing strategy utilizes established assets, while building new assets through the creation of brand imagery and product design that are based on its world-famous characters. As Harvey’s classic characters are being successfully relaunched to a new generation of children as well as adults since Harvey is drawing on the ‘Generation X’ and ‘30-something’ young adults, who remember the characters fondly from their childhood.” And if cartoon characters aren’t quite what you’re looking for, consider actress-model Cindy Margolis, who is now being promoted as “something to believe in…the perfect spokesperson for this unique, new generation. These consumers are truly optimistic about their future and willing to take charge of their own destiny. She stands up for a generation that believes that by working hard, you can achieve what you’re going for. She delivers appealing, All-American looks and the straight facts, with a great attitude. Cindy is an advertiser’s ‘Dream Machine’.”

(C) 1994 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved

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