40 doesn’t feel old to me like I always thought it would. Except for a few things:
- This year’s bumper crop of gray hairs.
- The cracking joints – occurring during any and all movements, where they used to be limited to things like deep squats. I sound like bubble wrap. My husband calls me “Creaks.”
- The number of “when I was a kid” stories I find myself telling the young people.
You know the classic old-person line: ‘”I used to walk 3 miles uphill in the snow to get to our one-room schoolhouse” or “We didn’t buy toys, we whittled them.”
I now have endless variations on that, but from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
When I talk to anyone under the age of 20, I find myself telling them old-timey tales of the following:
They were 25 cents. Same with Archie comics.
Used to be big machines that you stood at and had to put a quarter in to play. They were in places called “arcades”, where young folk, along with some older perverts and drug dealers, would gather.
You could also find video games in bars, record stores, restaurants like Beefsteak Charlie’s, and upstairs at Baronette Card Shop, around the corner from our house. A pervert-free zone, as far as I remember. Then again, perverts are the kind of thing you block out.
At Baronette’s, as we called it, I played Ms. Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and Tempest with money I stole from my mom’s wallet. Oh, I was a real ace in my day! You should’ve seen me jump my Mario guy over those flaming barrels.
I’d stay there all afternoon into evening, while the theme from “Arthur” piped through the speakers. I wouldn’t leave until Harvey, the owner, yelled from downstairs, “Laura Belgray, your mother’s on the phone and says the Chinese food is on the table.”
New York City.
At one time, the streets were paved with dog shit. It was the land of opportunity-to-step-in-caca. There was no pooper scooper law till the 80s. And when it was passed, people used an actual Pooper Scooper. It was a plastic stick that you fastened a sandwich baggie to on the end.
Kids as young as nine went everywhere by themselves. We took the bus and the subway, and walked around without any parents or nannies – even though the city was full of rapists and muggers (and dog shit). Boys got mugged more than girls. They would carry extra cash, called “mugging money,” in case someone with a knife wanted some.
There was no such thing as “raping money,” though.
And the subway? Let me tell you about the subway. It was the most dangerous place of all. Like a high-speed clubhouse for the muggers and rapists. And every inch of it was scrawled with graffiti. The outside, and the inside — a reminder that Bad People lurked nearby, and they were feeling creative.
There was no air conditioning, so in the summer everyone riding it stank, and ladies fainted from the heat.
Researching term papers.
You had to go to the library, where you’d look up your topic in the “card catalog.” At some point, there was a thing called the Dewey Decimal System, but I forget what it was for. If you could check the books out, you’d take them home. If not, you took notes there in the library, by hand, on index cards.
Writing term papers.
You’d write 5, 10, maybe 20 pages, all by hand. Just like the scriveners used to do before the printing press. A sloppy first draft, then a neat second draft, in script. There was stuff to cover your mess-ups called Whiteout, used also for typing mistakes. I preferred erasable pen.
The erased parts always left a blueish smudge, but it was better than the bumpy, slick texture of the Whiteout. Your ink was always darker where it went over the Whiteout, and if you tried to write over it before it was dry, that made a goopy mess of your paper and your ball point.
Sometimes, maybe your mother or someone would type the paper for you. The typed papers always got better grades, especially the ones with those clear plastic covers. They came in all different colors, and attracted lots of static-y dust.
They were mailed to your house. Not emailed. Mailed. And printed on little booklets of stiff, thick paper. In fact, cleaning out my desk drawer, I just found a Delta ticket from 1996 with a post-it note on it from my mother:
“Dear Laura, want to call and see if they’ll let you use it at a later date since we didn’t go? Seems crazy to let them keep the money.”
Yes, it does. I’ll call them right away.
Now, these are for foreign tourists whose cell phones don’t work here, and junkies. Mostly junkies. They use the pay phone to call their dope dealer, or just stand there jerking the change lever over and over, hoping some coins will come out.
But until the late nineties, pay phones were the only way you could contact people to say “I’m on my way,” or “Can you come get me? My car has a flat” or “I swear, Mom, I’m not out on the street. I’m at Beth’s house and we’re in our pajamas.”
Yes, I know, cell phones were around before the late nineties. But the only person I knew who had one was Trevor, AKA Uncle Porkchop, on All My Children. He was a cop, so he had to have a cell. It was as long as a banana.
I didn’t really *know* him, but that’s how it is with your favorite soap. They’re all your friends. Or your children.
Nope. Not till some time in the 80s. So you could say, “Oh, I didn’t know you called,” and it might be true.
These were literally tapes. Cassettes. You’ve probably seen photos of them. If you made someone a mixtape, it meant you really loved them — because a mixtape took all night, maybe days, to make. You had to press “record” just at the right time, or else you’d cut off the beginning of the song, or miss the end of the song. Sometimes you’d accidentally record a chunk of a song you didn’t want, and not discover this till later when it was already sandwiched in there. Then, you’d have to go back and record everything all over again.
A tape player that fits in your hand? Unbelievable! We’d surely seen everything there was to be invented. What was left?
If you wanted to look really exclusive and chummy with a friend, and make other people feel left out, you’d use your Y-jack to plug in a set of dual headphones and listen to the new Depeche Mode or Squeeze tape together. Most effective if you bobbed your heads to the beat in sync.
Things you wrote on paper during the summer, maybe sitting in your bunk at camp, and mailed to your friends. But not to your mother, until the counselor made you. I mean me. Sorry Mom. If we’d had email I would have written, for sure.
Our school got computers in 1980. It was very exciting. There were two of them, with dark, greenish screens and light green font. Though it wasn’t called “font,” it was just “letters.” We lined up and took turns programming the computers to say “Hello” 100 times in a column. I remember the last command was: “RUN”.
TV whats? I used to fantasize about having a special superpower that would let me change the channel from across the room. We had to get up from the couch to do it — by turning a dial right on the TV. The dial had 13 numbers on it. One for each channel. But there was no channel 6, 8, or 10. Rip off.
A circle or color bars on the screen, coupled with one long, high-pitched, continuous ringing sound. That’s all there was to sit and watch till Little Rascals came on at 6am.
My family got one in 1982. Before this, if we missed something on TV, then we missed it for good. Or had to wait a year, as in the case of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. I cried for days the year I realized I’d missed that.
The VCR was a godsend, because I was able to tape Facts Of Life Go To Paris the time it conflicted with Thanksgiving dinner.
We didn’t used to get our milk in cartons from the supermarket. It came in bottles, and a milkman delivered it to our door.
OK, that’s not true. I’m not that ancient. But my parents are.
OK, now I feel old. CREAK.