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In Our Time: Stiffened Giblets

Excerpt from In Our Time by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 1980 by Tom Wolfe. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

For me the 1970s began the moment I saw Harris, on a little surprise visit to the campus, push open the door of his daughter Laura's dormitory room. Two pairs of eyes popped up in one of the beds, blazing like raccoons' at night by the garbage cans . . . illuminating the shanks, flanks, glistening haunches, and cloven declivities of a boy and girl joined mons-to-mons. Harris backed off, one little step after another. He looked as if he were staring down the throat of a snake He pulled the door shut, ever so gingerly.

The girl in the bed was not his daughter, but that didn't calm him in the slightest. For an hour we lurched around the campus, looking for Laura. Finally we went back to her room, on the chance she might have returned. This time Harris knocked on the door, and a girl's voice said, "Come in." Quite a cheery voice it was, too.

"Laura?"

But it wasn't Laura. Inside, in the bed, was the same couple—except that they were no longer in medias res. They were sitting with the covers pulled up to about collarbone level, looking perfectly relaxed. At home, as it were.

"Hi," says the girl. "Can we help you?"

Their aplomb is more than Harris can deal with. He takes on the look of a man who, unaccountably, feels that he has committed the gaffe. He begins to croak. He sounds ashamed.

"I'm Laura's . . . I'm looking for my . . . I want . . ."

"Laura's at the library," says the boy. He's just as relaxed and cheery as the girl.

Harris backs out and closes the door once more . . . every diffidently . . . At the library we find his missing daughter. She has long, brown Pre-Raphaelite hair, parted in the middle, a big floppy crew-neck sweater, jeans, and clogs. She's eighteen years old and looks about twelve and is not the least bit embarrassed by what her father tells her.

"Daddy, really. Don't pay any attention to that," she says. "I mean, my God, everybody used to have to use the kitchen! There was a mattress on the floor in there, and you used to have to jump over the mattress to get to the refrigerator-sort-of-thing. So we made a schedule, and everybody's room is a Free Room a couple of days a month, and if your room's a Free Room, you just go to the library-sort-of-thing. I mean, the kitchen was . . . so . . . gross!"

All Harris does is nod slowly, as if some complex but irresistible logic is locking into place. In the time it takes us to drive back to New York, Harris works it out in his mind . . . the kitchen was so gross-sort-of-thing . . . That's all . . . By nightfall he has dropped the entire incident like a rock into a lake of amnesia.

By the next morning he has accepted the new order f things as the given, and in that moment he becomes a true creature of the 1970s.

How quickly we swallowed it all over the past ten years! I keep hearing the 1970s described as a lull, a rest period, following the uproars of the 1960s. I couldn't disagree more. With the single exception of the student New Left movement—which evaporated mysteriously in 1970—the uproars did not subside in the least. On the contrary, their level remained so constant, they became part of the background noise, like a new link of I-95 opening up.

The idea of a coed dorm, with downy little Ivy Leaguers copulating in Free Rooms like fox terriers, was a lurid novelty even as late as 1968. Yet in the early 1970s the coed dorm became the standard. Fathers, daughters, faculty—no one so much as blinked any longer. It was in the 1970s, not the 1960s, that the ancient wall around sexual promiscuity fell. And it fell like the walls of Jericho; it didn't require a shove. By the mid-1970s, anytime I reached a city of 100,000 to 200,000 souls, the movie fare available on a typical evening seemed to be: two theaters showing Jaws, one showing Benji, and eleven showing pornography of the old lodge-smoker sort, now dressed up in color and 35 mm. Stock. Two of the eleven would be drive-in theaters, the better to beam the various stiffened giblets and moist folds and nodules out into the night air to become part of the American Scene. Even in the rural South the typical landscape of the 1970s included—shank to flank with the Baptist and United Brethren churched and the hot-wax car wash and the Arby's—the roadside whorehouse, a windowless shack painted black or maroon with a shopping mall-style back-lit plastic marquee saying: TOTALLY NUDE GIRL MASSAGE SAUNA & ENCOUNTER SESSIONS.

The wall around promiscuity was always intended to protect the institution of the family. In the 1970s one had a marvelous, even bizarre opportunity to see what happens to that institution when it is left unprotected. The 1970s will be remembered as the decade of the great Divorce Epidemic; or, to put it another way, the era of the New Cookie. The New Cookie was the girl in her twenties for whom the American male now customarily shucks his wife of two to four decades when the electrolysis gullies appeared above her upper lip. In 1976 Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio, one of the most powerful figures in the House of Representatives, was ruined when it was discovered that he had put his New Cookie, a girl named Elizabeth Ray, on his office payroll. It was this bureaucratic lapse that was his undoing, however, not the existence of the New Cookie. Six months before, when he had divorced his wife of thirty-eight years, it hadn't caused a ripple.

Ways of life that as late as 1969 had seemed intolerable scarcely drew a second glance in 1979. In 1969 I was invited to address a group of Texas corporation heads on the subject of "the drug culture." The meeting was held on the back lawn of the home of one of the group in a pavilion with a hardwood floor below and striped tenting above, the sort of rigging that is used for deb season dances in the fall. Why these eighty or ninety businessmen had erected this edifice to hear a talk about the dopers I couldn't make out . . . until one of them spoke up in the middle of my talk and said: "Listen, half the people here already know it, and so I'm gonna tell you, too: my son was arrested two nights ago for possession of marijuana, and that's the third goddamned time in ten goddamned months for that little peckerwood! Now . . . what are we gonna do about it!"

This was greeted with shouts of "Yeah!" . . . "Mine, too!" . . . "My daughter—four times, goddamn it!" . . . You tell 'em, Bubba!" . . . "Form a mully-foggin' committee!"

Somehow I knew at that moment it was only a matter of time before the smoking of marijuana was legalized in the United States, and it had nothing to do with medical facts, juridical reasoning, or the Epicurean philosophies of the weed's proponents. It had to do solely with the fact that people of wealth and influence were getting tired of having to extract their children from the legal machinery. That was getting worse than dope itself. By 1979 it had come to pass. My book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had been about a man, the novelist Ken Kesey, who had been arrested twice in California for possession of a few ounces of marijuana. Facing a probable five-year jail sentence, he had fled to the jungles of Mexico to live among the dapple-wing anopheles, the verruga-crazed Phlebotomus, and Pacific Coast female ticks. That was in 1966. Today, on sunny days in Manhattan, one can see young office workers sitting on the Contempo Slate terraces out front of the glass buildings along Park Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas wearing Ralph Lauren Saville Pseud suits and Calvin Klein clings, taking coffee breaks and toking their heads off, passing happy sopping joints from fingertip to fingertip, and goofing in the open air. In New York, as in California and most other states, possession of a small amount of marijuana has been reduced to a misdemeanor and, in effect, taken off the books, since the police, with the tacit consent of the citizenry, usually ignore it.

As the moral ground shifted, like the tectonic plates of the earth, matters of simple decorum were not spared, either. To me the most fascinating side of Watergate was the ease and obvious relish with which men and women on both sides of the Senate hearing room table and the bar of justice, the sheriffs as well as the bandits, the winners as well as the losers, capitalized on the event in the form of book deals and television commercials. The Watergate book was one of the decade's new glamour industries. For the losers—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Magruder, McCord, Hunt, Nixon, John Dean, Mo Dean—it was a matter of paying the lawyers. The old motto of the big-time criminal lawyers was the same as the highwayman's, i.e., "Your money or your life," meaning, "Before I'll defend you, you have to sign over to me everything you own, including your house." In the 1970s that changed to "Your book contract or your life" (a matter that appears to be an underlying source of conflict between Patty Hearst and F. Lee Bailey). And the winners? His Honor Judge Sirica, His Probity Leon Jaworski, His Jurisprudence Samuel Dash . . . How piously they cranked out their best sellers! . . . It became perfectly okay, quite the acceptable thing, to cash in on your life as a guardian of integrity and the law. A job such as special Watergate prosecutor had a book-publishing value of $900,000 at the very least—provided prominent people were found guilty and their reputations were ruined. Presumably Jaworski never thought of that ahead of time, and it should be pointed out that he shunted his portion of the profits from his book into the Leon Jaworski Foundation, whatever that may be. But there was no law that said you had to suffer an attack of scruples, and precious few of the boys did.

Least of all, the great Capitol Hill hero of Watergate, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. His choral comment during the Senate hearings—"I'm jes' a plain ol' country lawyer . . ."—became the very voice of probity. So in the 1970s, how should such an Elder of the Forum spend the honored years of his retirement? Why, sitting in front of the television camera, of course, collecting money for saying, "There are lots of places where folks don't know me at all . . . I recently got me an American Express card. With this, maybe they'll treat me like somebody important, though I'm jes' a plain ol' country lawyer from North Carolina. The American Express card. Don't leave home without it." Ave atque vale, Defender of the Constitution!

Selling off chunks of one's righteous stuff via television commercials became not merely acceptable but conventional behavior for famous people in the 1970s. In 1969 the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, delivered, via television, a cosmic symploce measuring the stride of mankind itself in the new age of exploration. In 1979 Armstrong was on television, in a Sales Rep sack suit delivering Cordobas, Newports, and Le barons for the Chrysler Corporation. Non sibi sed patriae, Apollo!


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