As a member of Generation X, I’m settling into my years like a forgiving pair of jeans.
Currently, the smallest American generation, Gen Xers (1965-1981) are sandwiched between the population behemoths of Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Millennials (1982-2004). Our numbers are understandably few. We were born after the invention of the birth control pill in 1960 and during the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. All things considered, I’m surprised we’re here at all.
While not quite ancient history, we grew up in a much different time. Changes in the American economy and a shift toward women’s liberation meant more moms in the workforce. The recession in the 1980s saw a swelling number of dual income households. Both parents holding down jobs would prove beneficial during the economic boom in the 1990s.
My birth cohorts might recall when MTV actually played music videos. Watching the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and Aerosmith collaborating with Run DMC, telling us to “Walk This Way,” we witnessed music changing forever.
Rotary phones made way for the cordless variety that had retractable metal antennas. The crack epidemic brought urban America to its knees. President Ronald Reagan said “AIDS” for the first time on May 31, 1987.
The internet was an unrefined, crude novelty. The connection was via land line and required patience. The dial-up sound, those random beeps and that white noise hiss, was the melodic soundtrack of a technology in its infancy. The ubiquitous “You’ve got mail!” greeted some 35 million America Online subscribers. Like a bawdy roadside motel, we paid for Internet by the hour back then. Now relics of the past, Prodigy and Compuserve were our other links to the information super highway.
In 1994, many of us attended the 25th anniversary of the famed Woodstock Music Festival. It was largely a bust but historic nonetheless.
During the 1990s, Halloween in Madison, Wisconsin was uncensored and hedonistic. Mifflin Street Days, which also consumed our state capitol, was in full glory. Summerfest was as much midway as it was music.
Coffee shops used to be loud, boisterous and abuzz with activity. Now, they’re a cross between a library and a morgue. The Coffee Trader on Downer Avenue was a haven for intellectual discussion. We gabbed about the paranoia of Y2K and the 1996 California Proposition 215 that legalized medicinal marijuana.
Going to the mall was an actual thing. In fact, it was our version of Tinder (Tinder is gross by the way).
Generation X was socially spoiled rotten. Milwaukee had movie theaters – lots of them. Across the street from Dretzka Park was the Starlite Drive-in. There was the Mill Road Theater, The Villa Theater, Northtown Cinema, the Budget Cinema on West Good Hope Road and the multiplex at Northridge Mall. Oh, and who could forget that 800,000 square foot shopping center that anchored the bustling north west side.
All of the aforementioned are now closed. The Target on 85th and Brown Deer Road? Closed. Walgreens on 85th and Brown Deer Road? Closed. Starlight Roller Rink on North 76th Street? Put your black booted, pink wheeled, speed skates away. Starlight is closed too.
A recent Milwaukee Record story discussed the last remaining artifact of Johnson’s Park. The towering T-Rex statue was a decades old, recognizable monument. It recently sold at auction for a measly $11. Both Johnson Park on North 76th Street, along with Bonanza on 91st and Fond du Lac Avenue, featured everything from bumper boats, bumper cars, batting cages, an 18-hole mini golf course, a gigantic slide and go-karts. Oh, the sweet, sweet go-karts. Both places of family fun now relegated to history.
If you were a Milwaukee Gen-X teen in the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, you had as much nightlife as your parents.
There was the Tijuana Yacht Club, Zippers, Club Marilyn, City Lights, Bailey’s, Club Bermuda, Amen’s, Club Safari in Sussex and the Club House on Highway 100. And please don’t forget about Nitro’s, which occupied the building that used to house Joey Buona’s (formerly Brett Favre’s Steakhouse). Nitro’s was a tri-level, 1,500-person capacity discotheque that catered exclusively to teenagers.
Two other popular teen dance clubs of the era, The Attic West on Silver Spring Road and Blue Suede Shoes on South 27th Street, are now both strip clubs: Silk Exotic and On the Border, respectively.
If those options weren’t enough for young Gen Xers, we could cruise Highway 100 until curfew. Curfew was set by your parents as law enforcement could not have cared less.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, things aren’t like they used to be.
My affection for this loveable oaf of a city is abiding, doting even. I recall things about this municipality that the Millennial generation knows absolutely nothing about.
Teens don’t have the freedoms nor the options that we took for granted. We control-alt-deleted childhood. We restrict them. We criminalize them. There are police in the schools now. Zero tolerance policies expel grade schoolers for having a fingernail clipper in their backpack. All we can do is share stories of a different, more youth-friendly time. It was a Milwaukee that showered young people with affection and freedom.
Even if we returned to providing seemingly unlimited recreation for children and young adults, everything would be so regulated and politically correct, the activities would be soulless.
Heroin is the current generation’s cross to bear. Everything is divided now – especially our politics. I recall a time when it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican. However naïve, I remain optimistic. It’s a shame that “better” has now become a relative term.
These were the chronicles of “yours and my happy days,” the original latchkey kids. The generation with no name – simply known as X.