I graduated from college twenty years ago this month. I’d like to say that, back then, I was fresh-faced and optimistic, ready to take on the world, but that’s not true. I was twenty-two, heavy-bearded, skinny, generally pale, and still lived with my mother. I had a dead-end job at a veterinarian’s office and drove a 1983 Toyota Celica hatchback, which my insurance company regarded as a “sports car,” even though it had slung a rod during the only road trip I ever tried to take it on. (The seal on the large back window had also rotted, and the rain that collected in the spare-tire well sloshed around every time I turned.) Let’s just say that the world was not my oyster— and I knew it.
After walking across the stage in AUM’s gymnasium in December 1996, my three realities didn’t really mesh well together: a degree in English, which many people in the Deep South regard as a prime example of useless erudition; five or six years of work experience doing menial labor in a variety of settings; and an unrepentantly surly attitude about how my life had gone so far. So I took those skills into the one field where they would be appreciated: the bar business.
My first job after college was working the door at an all-night jazz-and-blues bar called 1048. A friend worked there as a bartender, and she called the week I graduated to ask if I wanted a job. Somebody had just quit, and December was always busy with college students coming home for the break. They needed somebody right now. So, in addition to my vet’s office job, I started spending every Friday and Saturday night from 9 PM until 2 AM standing in the cold, taking up five-dollar bills, and arguing with people whose friends had gotten in before the bar reached capacity. For my trouble, I earned $35 and two free drinks. It felt like Heaven.
By the spring of 1997, I made two big career moves: a space had opened up for me to barback inside, and I found a job as an inventory clerk for a beeper company making $6.50 an hour, a full dollar-an-hour raise from my vet’s office job! I also upgraded from my 1983 Toyota hatchback to a 1980 Ford F-100 stepside with a three-on-the-column and a wooden bed. (I claimed to be “restoring” the truck, but the truth was much simpler: I didn’t know what to restore, or how.) All that hard work in college, reading Chaucer in Middle English and explicating John Milton, was really paying off. During the day, there were beeper serial numbers to be checked against reports, and at night, there were beer coolers and ice wells that needed filling. I was moving up in the world, from cleaning up kennels and cages to cleaning up spilled drinks and peanut shells.
Though, my parents didn’t see it the way I did. My mother complained that, when I came home just before dawn, the smell I brought with me – a combination a cigarette smoke, stale peanuts, and spilled beer – woke her up. And not exactly pleased with how I was utilizing my education, my dad called one day to say that he had friend who was willing to talk to me about a job driving a wrecker. I could tell that it was time to get my own place.
Though I was only a part-time barback at 1048, the year that I worked there gave me a real-world education to go with the book work I’d done in college. In the bar business, I learned what sons-of-bitches people could be. I witnessed a garden variety of depravity, dishonesty, and debauchery. I was working one night when a bar brawl broke out, the kind you see in the movies. And as exciting as it could be, I also found out one very harsh truth: big fun has big consequences. Some of the heavily lauded rioters from those days are now dead, or sick enough to be close.
I also got an education in beer, one of my true loves to this day. Before the microbrew craze of the last decade, 1048 was one of the only places in Montgomery that carried a variety of beers. Beyond Miller and Bud products, the most adventurous choices that most restaurants offered back then were Sam Adams, Corona, or maybe a Rolling Rock. At 1048, you could get Samuel Smiths, Red Stripe, Shiner, Blue Moon, Anchor, Newcastle, Guinness, Boddington’s, Abita, and Sam Adams seasonals— most of which you can find in a grocery store these days. It was the first time I had ever seen a beer with a cork, instead of a cap. Each night that I worked, rather than giving my two comps to the flirtiest girl at the bar, I’d save them and try two new beers. (I didn’t care anything about wine, and whiskey was above my pay-grade back then.) Rather than sulking home drunk and broke after every shift, I was saving my money and taking advantage of my freebies.
Today, I hear about young college grads who supposedly can’t find jobs, but I’m inclined to think that they just can’t find jobs that they want. When I finished college, I knew that life was going to suck— but it was going to suck in the best possible way. My first apartment, which my having two jobs allowed me to afford, was a two-room wasteland that had been a sunroom on the back of a large house. In the kitchen, only the broiler worked, because the previous tenant had heated the place with the oven; she did that, I found out in the winter, because the wall heater was vented into a crawl space that allowed the wind to come in and blow out the pilot light. One day, when I tried to figure out how the roaches were getting in, I found their entryway in a kitchen cabinet— there was a hole about one-foot-square in the wall! But, you know what: the place was mine, I was paying for it, and no one could fuss or complain about anything I did there. And that felt like Heaven, too.
I would never want to return to being the bitter and confused young man that I was back then, but I do think back fondly to those days. It was a time before smart phones, when we had to leave the house and find out for ourselves what was going on. It was a time when meeting a certain person at a certain place and time meant something, because there was no texting “on my way” or “sorry, running late.” To get to know a girl, I had to look her in the face and talk to her, all nerves and embarrassment, hoping, right there in front of her and everyone else in the bar, that she didn’t make me look like a fool. There was less room for subterfuge— your face at that moment was your profile pic.
I heard recently that Generation X was the least supervised generation in American history. Largely left to our own devices, we learned to handle things— even things we really weren’t old enough to be handling. At the vet’s office, if a snarling dog was trying to bite my hand, I had to handle it. During my time keeping inventory, I learned to keep my mouth shut when I gave a missing-beeper report to a person I was pretty sure had stolen it. And as a barback, I had a job to do: with an empty bus pan, I’d have to work my way through a room jam-packed with drunks, with music too loud for anyone to hear me talk, and clear the empty beer bottles off the tables before they piled up, fell over, broke, and cut somebody. In all of those cases, whining that wasn’t fair or that it was too hard, wouldn’t have done a damn bit of good. No one cared if we found the tasks entertaining, and no one felt it their duty to “reach” us.
The mid- to late 1990s were a really good time to be young, the way I recall it. Even though I was stuck, because of socio-economic circumstances, in Folmar-era Montgomery, Alabama, the times felt like good ones. Sure, I was an overeducated manual laborer with a beat-up truck, a shitty apartment, and two low-wage jobs, but something about that garage-band way of life felt right. I sometimes tell my millenial students that I grew up back when ‘alternative’ was called that because it was an alternative to the mainstream. My generation understood what Michael Stipe meant when he sang “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I . . . decline!” Even though Kurt Cobain died in 1994, what he stood for kept going for a little while longer. And what he stood for was what got me through college and the bleak period afterward: an artful defiance of circumstance.
Though now I use the Internet as much as anyone, I still think that it and prevalence of digital devices destroyed the smug toughness of my generation. When I was coming up, if someone said I couldn’t do something, I did it just to prove them wrong. Today, if you tell a young person that he can’t do something, he tells his parents and they report you for bullying. Over the last twenty years, gaining the ability to solve problems by poking our index fingers at a business-card sized screen has just destroyed something in us— something that was omnipresent twenty years ago, something that was ugly but vital, difficult but challenging, hard but necessary.