Friday, July 28, 2006

20 Years Ago

I tend to think of the mid-1980s as one of the grimmest times I’ve lived through. Horrible as the current times are, there was something about the second Reagan administration where hopelessness loomed over the world greater than any other time that I have lived through. Though I was working as a journalist through that time and was well aware of many of the dark things that government was doing in the world, I think it’s the time I most tuned out from global headlines and political discourse. It just seemed that no matter how hard you tried, it was all for naught.

When the 1980s dawned, I was filled with optimism. I thought there was no way in hell that Reagan could ever win, and just beginning my career fresh out of college I was sure I’d be leaving Oklahoma in a matter of months for New York. Over the course of the first two year of the 1980s, I was on an upward arch professionally, moving from an entry level reporting job, on to an advertising job with a movie theater circuit and on to a job with a publishing firm that was up for sale to a major east coast firm. I was sure that once the sale went through I’d join the mother-ship firm in Boston and my career would go the way I’d envisioned it from childhood. Surprise, as a junior staff member, I was one that didn’t make the short list and in August 1982 joined the ranks of the unemployed during one of grimmest economic periods in Oklahoma since the Dust Bowl. Several dozen banks would fold during the years ahead. Although my period of unemployment was mercifully brief, I took a job at a suburban newspaper that was soul-robbing and degrading.

Not only was it located in a suburb where a bizarre religious sect called The Church of the Nazarene dominated the culture, but the paper where I worked was owned by a psychotic couple. Not only were they inept business managers and editors, they acted out their hatred for life and each other on the floor of the paper every day. It was a wretched little rag when I entered that was the scourge of the state press association and consistently was ranked as one of the worst papers in the state.

Through this grim period, I managed to invest 80 to 90 hours to transform the paper into one of the top three suburban papers in the region, winning various state and regional awards. The period would feel different had it taken place in a more pleasant time and place. But the town itself - -Bethany, Oklahoma – exemplified all the nastiness of the values that now dominate the U.S. political culture. I saw politicians emerging like tiny vermin in a Petri dish to go on to state and national office. While many of my friends were dying, I saw AIDS paranoia spewing out of the crabgrass and penny loafers clicking around the malls.

During this time, I briefly connected with a couple of friends named Monica and Renee who posed for these photos during the fall of 1986. We’d both lost a number of friend sand gravitated to each other for a season with the delusion that we could rediscover a sense of frivolity and happiness that seemed so bountiful barely two or three years earlier. I remember being especially attracted to Monica whose father had photos of Malcolm X and Huey Newton on their living room wall. He was civil but considered me to be an inappropriate playmate for his daughter. She and Renee wanted to have no association with anything remotely African American.

When Monica was a contestant for the Miss Black Central Oklahoma State University, she baffled the audience by performing a scene form Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” for her part of the talent competition.

Our friendship ended after less than a year when they swore off gay friends because they felt they could handle no more loss. It was a sad time, but I went into another state of denial and escape, fearing that this was my fate for the rest of my life. Fortunately , this sad period would be over in less than two years.

But I often go back to the mid-1980s and know that it could always come back. Although it is now the past, I know that it lingers out there like a dark sickness that could fly through the window at any moment.



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