I left college as another standard-issue self-obsessed 21-year-old, unleashed upon the world with a black turtleneck and a bad haircut and ironic quotation marks around just about anything I uttered.
I had just been given a liberal arts degree and a $16,714 receipt for college loans. I drove west--to Los Angeles--in a car on which I owed $11,118. I had no firm idea of how to pay any of that back. I had $703 charged on my Visa, including my purchase of the Pixies album "Doolittle," which offered this dose of self-pity: "Drive my car into the ocean/ You think I'm dead/ But I sail away/ On a wave of mutilation."
It had been my plan to drive straight off a cliff as well. That I meant that figuratively, not literally, may have qualified me as one of the more upbeat members of my graduating class. The commencement speeches that year had a subtext of doom and gloom. The job outlook was fuzzy. The economic indicators were lopsided. Nothing had happened yet: There was no e-mail, there were no gourmet supermarkets, no cell phones, no Kurt Cobain. Everyone--everyone hip and young, it seemed--was moving to Prague to start an alternative weekly newspaper. Nobody knew what to do. Everything had been done.
I lived in an old hotel that had been made into cheap studio apartments for drag queens and waiters and other aspirants, near downtown L.A., right next to MacArthur Park, which wasn't melting in the dark but rather being dug up noisily by earth-movers and 'dozers, to create a subway that, in the end, no one would really ride. There was no air conditioning in my apartment and one evening, after a 111-degree afternoon, I lay in the claw-foot bathtub in cold water, eating Fudgesicles and letting the sticks float around me.
The next morning, I was labeled.
We all were, on the cover of Time magazine.
Right in the middle of that magazine cover photograph--standing prominently in a group of five young adults under the headline "twentysomething"--was one of the coolest girls I knew at college, plucked from absolute obscurity.
She would be burned permanently on my brain as the prime specimen of what came to be known, for better and worse and most of all forever, as Generation X, those born between 1964 and 1981. (The moniker would come six months later, as the title of a novel by the very Zeitgeisty Douglas Coupland, who will spend the rest of his days explaining himself.)
I remember it happening, the instant, the sharp intake of breath as I saw her there, so beautiful and smart-looking in a black tank top and hoop earrings: I was sitting at someone else's desk at work (I was too far down the food chain to have my own desk) and saw the cover of the latest Time peeking out of the morning stack of mail.
"Twentysomething," it read: "Laid back, late blooming or just lost? Overshadowed by the baby boomers, America's next generation has a hard act to follow."
The concept made me groan, but ahhhh, to look at her.
We all knew an Interesting Girl in college, and in my crowd, that was Sonja Henderson. Do I even have to say she was an art major? She was outspoken and sometimes moody and had a wonderful laugh. She would come into the art studio or the student newspaper office, find some work space, put on a cassette tape that always seemed a thousand times more exotic than whatever the rest of us were listening to, and a couple hours later she would have created something sumptuous and monochromatic on a canvas, or on a layout spread. She also sculpted. She would instigate raucous, hilariously vindictive arguments about unsolvable issues, monologues and diatribes lubricated with cheap wine or Bud Light. Usually she was right and that was the problem. Sometimes, when you spend too much time with Interesting Girl, you can no longer abide her spirit. You can't take the drama. And anyway, she left school and moved home to Chicago to, as they say, pursue her art. We missed her.
I wasted that entire morning calling everyone. My friends all did the same. "Have you seen it?" one of them hissed with delight. We'd all seen it--Sonja as newsstand idol, and generational icon. It was upending. This wasn't just epilogue, it was a beginning: One of us was on the cover of Time.
For months, there had been an acute longing among my demographic to simply exist. No one had put a finger on anything that was about to happen, but we were all aware that a big prize was in store for whoever could. Maybe it would be a novel. Or a certain rock album. There was hesitation. A fringe comedy troupe had begun performing episodes of "The Brady Bunch" onstage, line for line and movement for movement, denying and yet reveling in the joyous and then mournful vibe of it. Was this the elusive thing, the theme of post-boomerdom somehow? No, but it seemed close. What were we--these youngest of the brood, the leftover Bobbys and Cindys of the American clan?
At some point we stopped asking, but in the summer of 1990 we were obsessed only with the asking. I fixated on people my own age or who looked about my age: I'd pick them out on the streets or in other glass office buildings; I'd read their names in celebrity birthday lists, or news stories, always trying to figure out what they were or weren't made of, where it was all leading.
Anyhow, the Time story was all wrong. We were supposed to never have promising jobs, or decent salaries, or our own homes to live in. Then Generation X would collide head-on with an Internet-fed economy no one expected. We learned to sell our own shiftlessness, became the darlings of innovation, unlearned paradigms with the best of them and skateboarded to work. Some of us turned out to be nice people, even. The resultant explosion, nine years later, is a dazzling and hype-filled narrative of money and motion. If we were stereotyped to slack and fail in 1990, we are now stereotyped zillionaires on the covers of the very same magazines. Both ring true, and both ring false.
Where is Sonja?
Two years ago, I managed to track her down in the San Francisco Bay Area, teaching school and working on her sculptures, her laugh as cynically joyous as ever, no more sure of herself or her future than when Time magazine first posed the question. Do I even have to say she abhorred labels? She always did.
The friends who were part of that circle have gone their separate ways. Some of the relationships died quietly, others imploded painfully. We no longer talk, no longer keep up. We drove off figurative cliffs in opposite directions. Last I heard, nobody was rich.
I remember the morning I turned 22 and was ready to leave L.A. so that I could keep searching for a future I was not entirely set on having: A woman in front of my apartment building had been struck by a car. Waiting for the ambulance to come, I remember sitting up on my futon bed and craning out the window to see what was going on down there, and the sound of her lying on the pavement of Wilshire Boulevard, screaming to death. She looked about my age.