The Age of Innocence

Yesterday I heard someone use the expression “party like it’s 1999” – and unless I was grossly missing something, she meant it without irony. Back when this expression was in common use, of course, 1999 was in the future, and I always associated it with the abandon and debauchery of the ultimate New Year’s bash. During my childhood in the ‘80’s, the year 2000 seemed impossibly far away, and the way we would celebrate it when it did arrive took shape in many people’s minds as a sort of Platonic ideal of a celebration – an ideal that no flawed human partier could ever expect to live up to. But of course it also meant something else: the way one celebrates right before the end of the world. While the end of the world has been foretold with such frequency that it has started to seem comic, there was a true strain of fear and hope within some religious traditions, especially fundamentalist Christianity, that Christ’s second coming would begin shortly after the beginning of the third millennium after his birth. I wouldn’t have known about this analogy as a child, but now the expression “party like it’s 1999” reminds me of a hurricane party – the old New Orleans Cajun tradition of drinking and celebrating on the levees during hurricanes in defiance of both civic authorities (which would have issued evacuation orders) and divine wrath. In 2005, of course, the entire world watched as many of these hurricane partiers paid for their hubris with their lives.

If I had to identify a single year as the best of my life, it would be 1999. I was twenty-three and in graduate school in the Arkansas Ozarks. At the outset of the year, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex near the university in which the cockroaches blended in perfectly with the faux-wood paneling. I was often awakened from sleep by my downstairs neighbor berating and/or beating his wife and children. I took the abuse seriously and called the police when it got violent, but I also wrote poems about these neighbors – good ones. If offered a deal in which my downstairs neighbor would undergo a complete change in personality and never hit or scream at his family in exchange for my never being able to write well again, I know which one I would have chosen – and the choice does not reflect well on me, I’m afraid. In addition to taking classes at the university, I taught two sections of freshman composition each semester. For the most part I was happily ignorant of what a bad teacher I was. At every opportunity – in the department office, in coffee shops and bars, over the phone, at parties – my friends and I read snippets of our students’ essays to each other, in which they referred to the “Salivation Army,” identified Satan as the primary force behind gun control in the United States, and listed a local preacher on their Works Cited page as “the world’s second foremost authority on Communism.” One of my classmates spent most of the year spiraling into a psychotic break for which she was eventually hospitalized; to me, her declining mental health was nothing more than a series of anecdotes to tell and retell at parties. Once at a party to honor a visiting novelist, this classmate provoked the guest of honor into an argument about whether bisexuality was a legitimate sexual orientation and – when he said it wasn’t – proceeded to lambast him with details about her own sexual encounters with both genders. At the time, I thought I would never grow tired of laughing at that memory.

When I moved to northwest Arkansas at the end of 1998, this guy was running for mayor of the town up the road. As we waited for a chronically late professor to come to class, my classmates and I passed newspaper articles around and hooted at the absurdity of a mayoral candidate who wanted to build a wall around his city, close the public schools, educate children in single-sex camps where they would learn survival skills, and cane homosexuals in public. I do think I would have found the situation less funny if I thought this man had a chance to win the election – but still, my fundamental reaction was delight at sharing the world with such fabulous absurdity.

During that same year, a graduate student a couple of years ahead of me began dating a professor in the department. Over the Christmas break, she traveled – alone – to visit her parents at their home on an island in the Pacific. Her professor-boyfriend couldn’t accompany her because the island where her parents lived was somehow strategically important to the United States government, and no one could set foot there without a high-level security clearance. (Her parents were dentists. We always put air-quotes around that word when we told the story.) Immediately upon her return after New Year’s, she and the professor got married. (After we learned that it only cost $30 to get a marriage license in the state of Arkansas and another $30 to get a marriage annulled, it became a joke within the first-year class that we should all go out and marry each other. We thought it would be a great joke to be known as the MFA class that all went out one day and got married.) Shortly thereafter, they announced that she was pregnant. Then, in May, the news spread that she had stabbed him in the hand while he was sleeping, and he subsequently shoved her through a plate-glass window. At that point, her professor-husband went into hiding and a group of professors who sided with the student in the dispute split up and went looking for him vigilante-style, with guns.

Long story short: they reconciled eventually, the baby was born full-term in August (but you already did the math on that, didn’t you?), and the student eventually divorced the professor, leaving him to care for the child of some stranger whose security clearance was higher than his. But these details were not the important ones. What mattered was that she stabbed him in the hand! While he was sleeping! And he shoved her through a plate-glass window! While she was pregnant! And the professors were driving around with guns! A group of my classmates actually made up a song about it, which we sang every time we passed her house.

Why was 1999 the best year of my life? Apparently because I had not yet taken on the responsibility of being kind.

What else happened that year? My friends and I went here, often in the middle of the night. After dark during the Christmas season, this place set up a drive-through Nativity scene made of Christmas lights. Laughing hysterically the whole way, we drove slowly from station to station: first the angel appeared to Mary, then Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, then they were told there was no room at the inn, etc. At the end of the circuit stood a skinny, shivering man, smoking a cigarette and holding out a bucket for donations. We couldn’t get enough of it.

We also went here, where an eland with an upper respiratory infection wiped its snotty nose on my windshield and we found severed emu feet in the parking lot when we got out of the car to explore the petting zoo. Once, by accident, we discovered the Jerry Van Dyke soda fountain – not to be confused with the Jerry Van Dyke film school, which was next door. I found references to both online but no current website to link to, unfortunately. Apparently Jerry has moved on to other endeavors since 1999. Once, a classmate asked me to cover one of his freshman comp classes for him while he was out of town, and here’s what he offered in return: “I’ll buy a bucket of chicken, and we’ll eat it in the car while I drive you to the Jerry Van Dyke Christmas parade. We can throw the bones out of the sunroof.” To this day I think I would do almost anything in exchange for that reward.

On another occasion that year, I went to Hot Springs, Arkansas with a classmate to teach poetry to elementary school students through our university’s Writers in the Schools program. We received a stipend for the trip, but we were expected to pay our expenses for the two-day trip out of our own pockets in advance of receiving our checks. My companion on this trip was an older woman in her fifties who had lived in the area for years and had just quit her job as a nurse to return to school and study poetry. I had absolutely no money as we set out for Hot Springs – and as it turned out, neither did she. And I mean that we had no money – we couldn’t even have pooled what we had to pay for a cheap hotel room. Credit cards maxed out, everything. I remember thinking that it was okay that I, at twenty-three, had no money, but Christ, what was this woman in her fifties doing gallivanting around with a completely empty bank account? On the drive, we discussed our options. It turned out that while my travel companion didn’t have any money, she did have connections in the Hot Springs area. She made a few calls from a pay phone at the side of the road and arranged for us to give a poetry reading at a coffeehouse and pass the hat for donations. We ended up making about $22 total and managed to eat off those dimes, quarters, and singles for the remainder of the trip. It was the first time I had ever read my own poetry in public – and, while I would never want to do it again, I do like the fact that I can say I once gave a poetry reading in exchange for food money. After the reading, my classmate arranged for us to stay overnight with a friend of hers. She slept in the house with him (did they “sleep together” or only sleep together? I don’t know, but I have my guesses) and I slept in a defunct van in his front yard, covered by dirty blankets that smelled like donkeys. Her friend had no electricity or running water. For the next two days we taught in the local elementary school and gave ourselves sponge baths in the restroom of a local Denny’s.

Also that year, I disobeyed the town’s tornado sirens and climbed to the roof of a seven-story building with a few others (mostly professors) while campus security was herding people into the basement, and we watched through binoculars as the tornado cut through the countryside and touched down about four miles from where we stood. I learned to bet at the racetracks and became an aficionado of Jack Daniel’s. I won awards for my writing and felt like a total badass – at a time when I thought that feeling like a badass was the best thing that could happen to a person. One late afternoon, when a classmate and I were waiting in my office for a student who never showed up, a man walked in with a backpack stuffed to the brim and asked us, “Y’all write poetry? Short stories?” We said that we did. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Then he proceeded to unpack his backpack, which was full of porno magazines dedicated to oversized male breasts. He began to pass the magazines to us and point out his favorite images while we dissolved into hysterical laughter and ran out of the room and up to the department office – not to get help or call security but to tell the story of what happened. That’s what 1999 was about for me – stories. It didn’t matter if bad things happened to real people with real feelings; all that mattered was the chance to arrive at the bar or the party with the juiciest story.

During a hike with friends at Devil’s Den State Park, I slithered down into a cave between two nondescript rocks only to find that the cave went on seemingly forever. When we finally reached the sandy bottom of the cave, where we could lie flat on the sand with the cave’s rock ceiling just an inch or two above our noses, we counted to three and turned off our flashlights, letting ourselves lie in silence in a place that seemed to have no reference points: no up, no down, no exit signs. I remember feeling as if I were in space.

Over the long Martin Luther King weekend at the beginning of 1999, I drove with three friends to New Mexico and visited the Roswell alien museum, Carlsbad Caverns, and other sites. On the last morning, which happened to be my 23rd birthday, we woke up before dawn and drove to White Sands National Monument, the site of the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. The place was empty in the early hours and extremely cold. The combination of the freezing temperatures and the pure white color of the gypsum sand made me feel as if I were standing on an enormous snowbank. Once the sun began to rise, we took pictures of ourselves jumping off low cliffs and sliding down sandy hillsides, our bodies casting grotesque shadows in the surreal light. Somewhere I have a picture of the numerals “1999” carved into the sand. It was finally here: the year that we had been told all our lives would end in an enormous party and possibly the end of the world. We didn’t really believe that, of course, but here we were in the impossible cold in the place where the first nuclear bomb was ever exploded, and it was fun to pretend. I remember thinking that the awe we felt at the year “1999” was similar to the way drivers feel when their odometers get ready to click over from 999999 to 000000. During those young-adult years I spent an enormous amount of time in cars – my own and those of others – and on several occasions I was present for the great switchover from a row of nines to a row of zeroes. While capable of being caught up in the excitement of these automotive milestones – and I’ll even admit to a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when my own Toyota Tercel reached its hundred-thousandth mile – I also often wondered why we were so captivated by this process of resetting. Was it that we wanted to be tricked into thinking our cars were new again? Were we in awe of how far we ourselves had traveled? I finally concluded that we are simply a zero-loving people. We love the idea of starting from scratch.

While I was watching tornadoes and writing poetry and running away from perverts and singing songs about domestic violence, several factions in the world as a whole were preparing with gusto for the arrival of the third millennium. What I found so fascinating about the whole Y2K phenomenon was the way it so perfectly merged the obsessions of religious fundamentalism and the secular cult of technology. I lived about an hour away from the town of Harrison, Arkansas, which was popularly referred to as the nationwide center of the fundamentalist Christian millenarian movement, which taught that the year 2000 would herald the beginning of the apocalyptic battle between the resurrected Christ and the Anti-Christ as foretold in the book of Revelation. What this meant in real terms was that religious wackos from all over the world were flocking to Harrison and to a number of other tiny mountain towns nearby to stockpile propane and toilet paper and wait until the end of the world. The stores in the area ran completely out of canned food, flashlight batteries, and other items essential to survivalists. At the same time, though, people who understood (or thought they understood) computers – some equally as fanatic and extreme in their beliefs as the fundamentalists – foretold that because computers had been initially programmed to process years in two digits (just 99 instead of 1999, etc.), the transition from 1999 to 2000 would be read as a transition to 1900 (since the computers were programmed to think of “19” as the prefix for all years), and since computers were not yet invented in 1900, they would do some kind of crazy sci-fi short-circuiting thing that no one really understood but everybody feared. Among the many possible catastrophes that we were warned might happen were the disappearance of all financial records including bank and credit card balances, the disappearance of everyone’s medical and birth records (since everyone younger than 100 would be assumed not to have been born yet), and (my favorite) the automatic firing of all of the world’s nuclear weapons. I always pictured it as a global version of any number of scenes from Back to the Future in which Michael J. Fox runs around in a panic trying to avoid having sex with his mother as a teenager and checking to see if his hand has disappeared.

To be honest, I kind of liked the idea of waking up and finding myself in 1900. Post-bubonic plague and Spanish Inquisition, but pre-almost everything else that’s bad. And think of everything we would know to do differently the second time around. Triple the security detail around Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Get Alois and Clara Hitler some basic family counseling so little Adolf could have a decent chance of growing up feeling loved. Find the young Stalin a nice job as a fry cook somewhere. If any century deserved to have its reset button hit, it was the twentieth.

I also didn’t mind the idea of the world’s financial records disappearing. Thinking myopically, as twenty-three year-olds are apt to do, I was more than happy to trade my bank balance (probably around $400) for the disappearance of all my student loan and credit card debt (somewhere around $70,000). I silently vowed to keep my mouth shut and take one for the team if that particular catastrophe took place.

On December 31, 1999, I was at my parents’ house in San Francisco. I had some kind of bad cold or mild flu and camped out on a couch in my mother’s den watching television. I had driven to San Francisco from Arkansas, covering some of the same roads my friends and I traveled that January, revisiting some wonderfully-named New Mexico towns like Cloudcroft, Las Cruces, Alamogordo. That December trip changed who I was as a driver forever. While once I was fearless and indefatigable and liked to do things like play the William Tell overture while driving down rural highways at a hundred miles per hour, on this trip I became permanently afraid. I can explain some of the reasons for this fear: in Arizona my car was hit by a tumbleweed in a windstorm, causing me to swerve off the road, and in California in the same windstorm I crossed I-10 from Blythe to Indio as sand blew in waves across the highway, obscuring the lane markers, and semi-trucks swayed and swerved on all sides of me for over 90 miles. Taken rationally, though, I don’t think these experiences were enough to permanently make me a fearful driver. I think something more happened on that trip – but I don’t know what, exactly. I remember telling a class of sophomores once that people don’t “grow up” in meaningful instants the way TV and movies and some literature would have us believe; what happens instead is that when these meaningful instants happen, we become aware of how much we have already grown – during the time when not much of any importance was happening. And I think this idea comes close to explaining what happened on that car trip. I became aware that I could die. I lived in a world where nuclear bombs explode in beautiful places, where emus sometimes have their feet mysteriously severed, where both college professors and evangelical Satan-fighters both sometimes roam the world with guns. Sometimes people find themselves without money or a place to stay, and no nice hippie with a van appears to provide lodging in exchange for sexual favors. Some perverts are not as harmless as the one who visited me in my office, and psychotic breaks are really not as amusing as I thought they were when I was twenty-three. Someday, the sum total of all the mileage I have traveled in my life will reset itself to zero, and I will not be exempt from this inevitability just because in 1999 I was young and smart and happy and good at writing poems.

I watched the world reset its clock on the west coast of North America, in one of the last time zones to experience the year 1999. This just in – it’s 2000 in Sydney and the ATM’s are still working, I heard a newscaster announce when I woke up. I opened the window and listened to the silence of the world: no errant nuclear explosions. The year 2000 hit Beijing, Moscow, Athens, Paris, New York – and nothing happened. That’s what I did that day: I sat on my mother’s couch blowing my nose, watching on a TV screen as this specter we had all feared for months, this monster, this – let’s face it – this totally nonexistent, arbitrary abstract concept – swept like Superman around the globe and did nothing.

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2 Responses to The Age of Innocence

  1. liz rossiter says:

    love your writing, bethany! love the stories and the observations – a joy to read.

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