Wissot: I may not see certain social advancements in my lifetime, but they will happen (column)
I can still see the anguish on my parents’ faces. Their 14-year-old son was turning into a juvenile delinquent.
What were the signs? Vaseline-slicked hair. Wearing white T-shirts with the short sleeves rolled up to reveal more skin and muscle (only in my case it was just more skin). Tobacco stains on my fingertips from the packs of unfiltered Camel and Lucky Strike cigarettes I was sneaking off to smoke. Sitting on parked cars in my Bronx neighborhood talking to my best friends or making out with girls until the neighbors hollered for us to get inside our apartment building.
I was obviously headed for Sing Sing penitentiary in upstate New York. Funny thing, though: That never happened. I didn’t turn out to be a smashing success. But neither did I wind up in prison.
My parents’ fears were borne out of the fact that I was dressing, talking, acting in a way far different from what they both remembered about their own adolescence. How could that not be the case? They were products of the Depression-era 1930s when you worked hard for everything you got and had no time for idleness and amusements. I was the spoiled recipient of all their sacrifices.
I think it is natural for parents to worry that the next generation will not turn out as well as theirs; natural but not necessary. Parents worry their kids are going to hell in a hand basket if they don’t look and act like they did. Most adolescent behavior is window dressing.
I slicked my hair with Vaseline because that’s what I saw the “cool” guys on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” do. We all wanted to look like Frankie Avalon, Fabian or Bobby Darin.
I smoked unfiltered cigarettes because that’s what we saw James Dean and Sal Mineo doing in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.” I was a copycat wannabe. I was searching for an identity that the television programs and movies of my generation encouraged me to adopt.
I don’t think it is any different for the generations growing up today. Television and movies are no longer the dominant influence. Social media is. Mass media has been diced and sliced into smaller and smaller components of influence. What kids see on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram is more likely to effect how they see themselves than anything they might watch on cable.
I must admit I don’t identify with body tattoos, nose rings, nipple rings or garish hair colors. I’m more a Vaseline hair slicked kind of guy. But who cares what I think? I’m 73 years of age. I’m not inclined to put a tattooed mural of the Statue of Liberty on my back. For one thing, my wrinkled skin would not do justice to the beauty of our “Lady in the Harbor.” But the more important point is, it doesn’t matter what I think. As Leonard Cohen said in a track from his last album: “ I’m Out of the Game” (Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker,” 2016).
I’m happy my generation is leaving the game. It’s time. We leave it in the capable hands of Generations X, Y and Z (if I’ve left out an alphabet-lettered generation, please accept my apologies in advance).
I say capable because I have confidence that the generations that follow the baby boomers will do just what we did: succeed and fail.
I think the baby boomers made some progress in the areas of race relationships, gender equity, LGBT inclusion and environmental protections.
But as the backlash against these accomplishments by the current administration shows, social progress does not move in an irreversible linear direction. One step forward may be followed by two steps backwards until the predictable forces of reaction are tamed and subdued.
I don’t expect to see the time when being biracial does not connote difference, multicultural tolerance is normative, sexual orientation becomes as irrelevant as religious affiliation is now and everybody agrees that protecting the environment is the patriotic thing to do.
I’m really not sad that I won’t be here to witness it because I have confidence that it will eventually occur. Just as I became confident that guys with Vaseline-slicked hair aren’t destined to end up in prison.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.