As someone born in 1996 — a Millennial-Gen Z cusper — this story isn’t mine. The person whose story it is though, isn’t here to write it, so I’ll have to give it a shot…The first fries I had when I was a kid weren’t from McDonald’s but from The Odeon, that unholy bastion of coke-fueled debauchery the media class mingled with Wall Streeters. The Odeon, famous for celebrity sightings and its iconic, neon-lit chrome facade, lights up the cover of Jay McInerney’s ode to downtown in the 1980s, Bright Lights, Big City. On that cover, the brasserie sits in the shadow of the World Trade Center, bright and gleaming, still relatively new to the City skyline. Despite being over the border in the Financial District, The Towers, like the Odeon, were a signature sight of Tribeca, the then up-and-coming neighborhood where my parents moved when I was a baby.
It was while listening to Lili Anolik’s podcast “Once Upon a Time…at Bennington College” that I became fascinated by Gen X, the 20th century’s neglected late middle child, which for personal reasons I will make clear, I view as having begun a couple of years earlier than usual, in the early, as opposed to the middle, 1960s. The podcast centers on three famous American novelists of that era: Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem, classmates all of them, lumped into the Brat Pack along with Jay McInerney and a couple other young downtown literary types of the day. In the podcast, Anolik follows the three writers’ shared years at Bennington College in Vermont; their stories at that odd, idyllic campus unfolding and tangling over the course of the first half of the 1980s.
My mother, like many icons of her generation — Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith — died young. Her death wasn’t a murder or a suicide though, but rather a late-stage lymphoma diagnosis. She died, aged thirty-eight, at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, just six weeks before 9/11, never knowing that in the months that followed her death, her neighborhood and nation would be changed forever. In his 2011 essay, Zelig of Notoriety, Jonathan Lethem writes about where he was and whom he was with the preceding night: “Bret [Easton Ellis] and I were out on the town on Monday, September 10, 2001, well into the early hours of the following day. We began at Balthazar, then moved to a party at a concocted ‘speakeasy’ behind Ratner’s Deli, called Lansky’s Lounge. If you need a symbol of pre-9/11 excess, I offer my whereabouts that night in the spirit of disclosure to the prosecution.”
How fateful that the two authors were out together into the wee hours of that morning nearly twenty years after they first parted ways at that little college in Vermont. What more poetic end to the world Gen X knew than to spend it with Bret, partying at Balthazar and a club at the back of an East Village kosher dairy restaurant, since lost to time. In just a few hours, the sky would fall and thousands of New Yorkers would be brutally murdered. My mother, Sally, gone just six weeks at that point, was the last young person (in my mind, at least) not to own a cell phone, not to know about social media, not to know what the internet would become. Much like the narrator of Bright Lights, she was a member of the final generation to work in magazines back when they were still magazines, or afterwards, to work in book publishing when it was still the glamorous industry it once was. She was the last person, in my life, to only know ‘The Before Times’.
She was, as Easton Ellis put it in his 2011 article Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire, the last young person not to know the world ‘Post-Empire’. In that piece, he posits that recent American popular culture can be cleanly divided into the Imperial (e.g. Anderson Cooper, Bruce Springsteen, Fran Lebowitz, Madonna) and the Post-Imperial (e.g. John Mayer, Kanye West, Eminem, the Kardashians.) Even if you skim the article with phone in hand and AirPods in ear, in true Post-Empire fashion, you’ll know just what he’s talking about for having lived it. In a notable article for Vanity Fair, Generation X Might Be Our Last, Best Hope, Rich Cohen, journalist-chronicler of the underside of the American dream, wrote of his generation, that they are the “last Americans schooled in the old manner, the last Americans that know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds.” They are the last generation to have reached adulthood when the Empire was still the Empire.
In Bright Lights, McInerney’s narrator is (spoiler alert) fired from a grueling and dispiriting job as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Sally also worked in magazines, then still a viable career path for a young college grad. She was a reporter, and later an editor, at Sports Illustrated. Although I’m not convinced the timeline makes technological sense, I remember her bringing me to their midtown office as a kid, where I first heard the clacking clamor of typewriters, as if we’d just stepped back in time. These days, Sports Illustrated, like most of its print magazine kin, is nearly extinct. Even the swimsuit models, once the magazine’s primary revenue center, have been rendered irrelevant by somehow hotter girls on Instagram whose pictures come out thousands of times a day, not once a year. The magazine’s office, incidentally, has since moved downtown to the building formerly known as Two World Trade, across the street from where the Twin Towers once stood.
I am getting ahead of myself though. Before New York and magazines and the Odeon and Balthazar entered my mother’s story, there was Vermont. While Bret, Donna, and Jonathan were getting high and laying the groundwork for what would become their emblematic American novels at Bennington College, my mother was an undergrad in another school in Vermont two hours north at Middlebury, Bennington’s more academic, preppier older sister. There, she played saxophone in the Ripton Blues Band, which paid homage to the Blues Brothers with their skinny ties and wayfarers. A product of their time - they looked just like their counterparts down at Bennington - the real life Classics students who inspired Donna Tartt’s wildly popular novel The Secret History.
There’s a picture of Sally in her Ripton Blues days that I adore. In it, she’s surrounded by her bandmates, all cute, young guys. She’s wearing Ray Bans and throwing her head back and she looks beautiful and charming and fun. She looks like the ultimate ‘cool girl’. For five short years, I got a glimpse of the cool girl in that photo before the curtain came down. For five short years, we lived together in an apartment downtown, in sight of the Twin Towers. Like the Brat Pack writers of that era, Sally loved Elvis Costello. She emulated his style, both in and out of the band. Ellis named his first novel after the Costello song “Less Than Zero” and its 2010 sequel after the album “Imperial Bedroom”. Jay McInerney, for his part, named the main character of his 1988 novel The Story of My Life, Alison, for the song of the same name on Costello’s 1977 album “My Aim is True”.
You can guess where I got the name for this piece. According to Sally’s bandmate and friend: “Elvis Costello was a very big influence and presence in those years, for me, and Sally especially. Just enormous. I had a cassette tape — yes, a cassette tape — of “Imperial Bedroom” that I played so much I’m surprised it didn’t disintegrate. Elvis Costello was always on the college radio station, WRMC, and playing on speakers set up in dorm room windows.” He was the soundtrack to 1980s campus life. Costello is honored in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as “one of the best and most consistent songwriters of his generation [who] took the legacy of folk music and broke it wide open against the ragged edges of punk.” Although solidly a Baby-Boomer himself, his music is Gen X to the core — soulfully grieved and aggrieved by the state of the world, which he transforms into art through a perfect balance of irony and sincerity.
All of this is meant to say that my mother’s generation was ideally prepared for present times. Having grown up in the Empire, those who’ve survived have a perspective my cohort, and all those younger than us, will never know. Their predecessors, the Boomers, those zealous ideologues, can’t really comprehend the nihilistic new Gilded Age America we Millennials and Gen-Z’ers inhabit. Their cultural and aesthetic references had already ossified by the time 9/11 reared its ugly head. It could be a remnant of grunge, or of coming of age during the AIDS crisis, but Gen X seems to understand the dark humor and anomie of our times better than Boomers or Millennials. “Everything means less than zero,” Costello croons; nothing matters, yet because life is short, we might as well have a good time while we’re still here. As he told Rolling Stone in their 1982 cover story on him, “There is a song on ‘Imperial Bedroom’, ‘The Loved Ones’, that is the hardest one to get over”...it’s like saying, ‘Fuck posterity’; it’s better to live. It’s about, fuck dying in some phony, romantic way like Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas. Somebody in your family’s got to bury you, you know?”
There is apparently an aesthetic sensibility known as ‘Dark Academia’, inspired most notably by Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, which is wildly popular in certain rarefied corners of the internet. Characterized by the prep school stylings of the 1930s and 1940s, and centered on literary writing, Gothic architecture, and Classical Languages, it’s an unexpected turn in the social media age. There may be kids these days who are into the world Tartt built based on her years at Bennington but the collegiate intellectual environment she portrayed in The Secret History is dead and buried. Likewise, the current iteration of the cool downtown Manhattan crowd may go in for martinis and seafood towers from Balthazar and the Odeon but it is driven by nostalgia. The riotous, half-ruinous, economically heterogenous, bohemian Manhattan of the twentieth century is long since over. It already was by the time any of us got there, at least as adults. By birth, I am a Millennial but spiritually, I aspire to that vanished Gen X coolness. Maybe it’s because, even though I barely experienced them myself, I miss those old days of Empire…or maybe it’s just that I miss my mom.
Emma Burger is a writer and healthcare professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021. You can find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, The Whisky Blot, The Chamber Magazine, or on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com.