Those stinking winds of change

When it comes to change, we humans are persnickety. Visits with my father to his old neighborhood on Staten Island, New York, invariably raised his bitter lament about a deli that had become a high-rise apartment complex. I felt obliged to comfort him by repeating what he said earlier in our trip. “Isn’t that the deli where they wouldn’t sell you a sandwich because you were black?” A sardonic grin crossed his lips. “Oh, yeah.”

Back on my old stomping grounds recently, in Jamaica, New York, I passed by my old school. Upset at the padlocked gates, razor-wire fence and rubble-strewn playground where a nine-year-old’s first kiss was rebuked, I was about to go into my own lament when my wife quipped, “Didn’t they beat you up all the time on that playground?” Do the Kennedys have heavy karma? “But, still,” I replied.

Every generation hopes the old neighborhood will stay the same, that the subsequent generation’s music, dress and cool—transcendent thought actualized in a cultural hodgepodge—will sound, hang and swagger exactly the way its own sounded, hung and swaggered. “Every generation puts a hero on the pop charts,” says a Paul Simon song. And the young all seem to muster that Little Orphan Annie blank-eyed stare when confronted with what came before they were born.

I once tried to share with my grandson that, in my day, yada yada yada…ten miles…uphill… yada yada yada…worst blizzard of the century…yada yada yada…Timothy Leary and a talking dormouse in my pocket. “This dormouse got a name, yo?” Ask Alice. “Granpa, I’m hungry, yo.” You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant…yada, yada, yada…Arlo Guthrie. “I was thinking more like McDonalds.” No generation has a corner on the profound or the ridiculous.

Dare we remember the Twist, the Shing-a-ling or the Monkey, dances of the 1960s? Then, the Second American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and catalyst for much of the decade-long turbulence, compelled the music to take itself more seriously. Male braggadocio on The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” (1966) gave way to “trigger happy policemen” on Marvin Gaye’s gritty “Inner City Blues” (1971), which gave mainstream cover for rap precursor Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971), that raged at the crass commercialization of America’s tug-of-war with its demons. But the revolution did not stop Sly and the Family Stone from exhorting folks to “Dance To The Music” (1968).

What’s the matter with kids today? Out-sized jeans that hover provocatively around the derriere revealing a blush of boxer shorts or worse are a current symbol. Bell-bottoms, making a comeback from my day as an antidote to hip-hop chic, demanded a splay-legged walk, sort of like Paul Bunyan traversing a row of pine trees. Droopy-britches, however, must be hiked up every few steps, while the wearer presumably espouses the DMX rap, “I’m about to lose my mind up in here, up in here,” a mélange of Marvin’s pathos, the Last Poets’ polemics and Sly’s Eros. Don’t follow the crowd, waxes the admonition.

Alas, to part with the crowd might send the prodigal child down the path to discover, say, that barring women from pastoring a Baptist church is steeped more in male prerogative than grounded in spiritual truth. Further along, this prodigal child might notice that traditions separated from their origins by centuries sometimes make for whopping big myths. Or, that cultural shifts are as natural to the planet as tornadoes–that life is temporary, so why stress over leaving a trail of non-biodegradable permanence, especially when it distracts from the joy in the moment.

Removed from the crowd idealism returns, and the prodigal child becomes, we fear, a veritable lightning rod for hated change, a potential Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi or Barack Obama. Perhaps what we really mean to say to that child is: Follow the crowd to the store where they sell those droopy-britches, but don’t go in.

Written by: Malík B.