There is decline. There is fall. There are omens of these things.
You sense these omens, much like the Chinese farm animals that go berserk just before the earthquake. With the millennium coming, with real estate prices softening, with the population aging, you will be sensing more and more of them.
Little things. But unmistakable.
A veteran Redskins quarterback opens a restaurant with his name on it. An established actress like Mariel Hemingway gets breast implants. An aging shopping mall seems to be all shoe stores, and then a wig store appears.
Somewhere, you hear something. Footsteps? A clock ticking?
Your husband heads for the hardware store and your best friend sees him in a phone booth. Suddenly, it feels like a small wind on the back of your neck. Your boss starts bringing his kids into the office a lot, a whole lot, and uses them to Xerox stuff for him. He's already felt the wind on his neck.
Donald Trump (or any real estate developer) denies rumors of financial woes and insists he's selling off properties because he wants cash to "go and bargain hunt." A network advertises a new series as "critically acclaimed" -- witness the late "Capital News" on ABC. You notice these things. You know that sooner or later, you'll think of them and say: I knew right then. I saw it coming.
Actresses who aren't Jane Fonda do exercise tapes -- Debbie Reynolds, Raquel Welch. Dan Rather wears a sweater to read the "CBS Evening News." Rap music gets an NBC special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. A politician's friends start saying loudly that if you only knew him in private, one on one... . Actors publish poetry -- Suzanne Somers, say. A poet tries acting -- James Dickey in "Deliverance," say. Television talk shows, particularly the political sort known as "food-fight journalism," can be dangerous -- only the doomed argue with Pat Buchanan, says Hunter Thompson. And whatever it meant when that swimming rabbit attacked Jimmy Carter's canoe, it wasn't good.
A presidential campaign is in trouble, says political columnist Mark Shields, when congressional candidates from the same party "say they'd love to be with him at the rally but they have a taxidermist appointment or their nephew is graduating from driving school. Any candidate is in trouble when he says he wants to spend more time with his family. That means the polls are running 2 to 1 against him."
You know the girl of the year has already peaked when she's the big guest at the White House correspondents dinner -- Fawn Hall, Donna Rice, Marla Maples. Or is it that the White House press corps has peaked when its big guest is the girl of the year?
Democratic consultant Carter Eskew says a secret art of divination has arisen in Washington with computers. Big guys and players get on the keyboard "and they do Lexis/Nexis searches for their own name." If they don't find it in the last month, they can expect headwaiter snubs, although with the downtown restaurant business falling apart, what difference does it make?
And what good can it augur for Washington that the downtown restaurant business is falling apart?
Whatever it means, it's not nearly as bad as the pheasants people have spotted inside the Detroit city limits. A nasty sign for New York was when you heard the phrase "gold coast" to describe the condos across the Hudson River in Jersey City.
Sometimes you should shrug these things off.
Just because the flight attendant is laughing uncontrollably, there's no certainty that the plane is going to crash. The fact that you can't find your car keys doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's. And why do Washingtonians tend to feel something terrible has happened to their neighborhood when a congressman moves in?
Still, something inside you knows that it means little good when your child comes home with a tattoo, or, worse, comes home with half a tattoo. And perhaps you should worry about your job as a spot welder if the president of the Weldspot Corp. gives a lecture on competitiveness to the local Junior Chamber of Commerce, or, worse, he offers to sell the company to the employees.
Bad love omens:
When you fly out to see him, and you don't want to get off the plane.
When the girl you're driving home starts chewing bubble gum; when she makes a call on your car phone, asks for someone named "Todd" and tells him what you bought her for dinner; when she tries to sell you an Amway dealership.
When middle-aged couples buy big new televisions and start watching "Doogie Howser" together.
When either spouse keeps quoting a shrink during arguments, or uses words like "space" or "growth," or in any other way talks like a rock musician explaining why he's leaving the group to start a solo career.
Celebrities occupy a special place in our divinations. If you are one, you know you're in trouble when:
You find yourself appearing on more than one Christmas special.
You appear on "Hollywood Squares" and people think that's what you're famous for.
People talk about your "great courage" or refer to you as a "survivor." If they say you're "one brave lady," you're ready to move on to the next omen, which is the People magazine cover story full of references to God and Betty Ford.
All that's left is the Polident ads, recliner ads and, finally, becoming an ironic nostalgia curio in a John Waters movie, like Troy Donahue or Joey Heatherton.
You worry about musicians when they go to a Latin sound, like Linda Ronstadt and Talking Heads' David Byrne. You know something is ended when they do reunion concerts with the old group.
When TV actors get into politics, you may not be seeing them in a prime-time slot for a while: "Lou Grant's" Ed Asner, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s" Robert Vaughn. And, in one of the great career collapses in Hollywood history, General Electric Theater's Ronald Reagan. Is it possible that Clint Eastwood's acting career had peaked just before he became mayor of Carmel, Calif.?
When writers get into cultural exchanges, or, worse, become PEN presidents, watch for their books on bookshelves at Ikea.
When tennis players have babies (John McEnroe) or even talk about having babies (Chris Evert), don't plan to watch them in the finals. When any athlete over 30 says: "As long as it's fun, I'm going to keep on playing," watch for his coach to say: "Hey, he's family" just before he gets put on waivers.
You have learned that any trend is headed for ridicule and oblivion when it appears on the cover of Time or Newsweek. The hot new food -- sun-dried tomatoes, blackened anything -- has cooled when you see it at Bennigan's, then your company cafeteria.
So many things are dying or dead when New York City turns them into institutions: any artist under 40 who gets a retrospective show, novelist Jay McInerney, a social life that revolves around nightclubs.
You know any business is shaky when the trade publication that covers it gets a new name, as in the National Thrift News, a journal of the savings-and-loan industry, becoming the National Mortgage News.
And you. What about you?
Aren't you the one who threw the party where the guests kept lining up to use the phone? Have you begun to hate reading the alumni news because of all your classmates getting rich and famous? (Years later, of course, the tragedy will be complete when you find yourself eagerly opening it to see if they've died of something unpleasant.)
It is a particularly nasty portent, of course, if you've read this far. And we will not even discuss what it means if you read it in a clipping that your mother cut out and mailed to you.