The Breakfast Table

The Conspiracy Against ’80s Babies

Dear Liza:

I was also pretty amazed by those reports about Ivy Leaguers not knowing when the Civil War happened. And I think the juxtaposition of those stories with the Harry Potter media onslaught is fascinating. Once again, our kids are getting mixed coverage: While the history-quiz stories labeled them as dummies, the big refrain of the Potter news is that kids once again like reading. After they’ve blazed through the Potter books, the logic goes, the younger generation will be turned on to all kinds of other writers: from J.K. Rowling to J.S. Mill, J.G. Ballard, A.J.P. Taylor, a lifetime of learning. Is it true? Would those contemporary Ivy Leaguers know more about the Gettysburg Address if, say, Roald Dahl had written better books in the mid-’80s? Will the Potter generation–the Potter Field, let’s call ‘em–someday be able to quote Lincoln verbatim?

Or maybe there’s just a media conspiracy against ‘80s babies and in favor of ‘90s ones. You would know that better than I, though, because, to answer your question, I don’t have young children. And I thank God for that every time I look at the flecks of paint cascading off my apartment’s wall. In nice bite-sized pieces, the chunks pile up on the floor every time I open or close my back door. I’m glad I only have a vacuum to clean them up–rather than, say, a dog or a cat or a baby. Not that I dare complain. If I moved, that apartment would be snapped up before you could say “gentrification.” Stories like the one in the New York Times yesterday about tight housing markets are a cliché by now, but they’re true.

Even if I get more time to read at home, I get neither the Metro’s reading-time nor people-watching time on my bike ride to work. Which I’m pretty happy with. I know I’m not the daily-ride expert that you are, but I have to say as a D.C. native that I pretty well loathe the subway system here. Aside from the most obvious point–that it is a soul-crushing vortex of depression where there really aren’t any overheard cell-phone chats more interesting than “we’re pulling into Clarendon”–Metro is more or less a commuter-rail network for the suburbs, more like the Long Island Rail Road than the IRT. Its arrival several blocks from my D.C. neighborhood has made my public transport options worse, not better: The cross-town buses have been cut way back (since, after all, I can ride the green line all the way downtown, and then back out across town), and the main lines to downtown haven’t gotten the new trips they need. All that for hundreds of millions of my tax dollars!

One thing that always galls me about our District municipal elders is that they brag about the subway ad nauseum as something so very much better than that filthy New York system, but its main accomplishment is making it much easier for you to live out the Orange Line. Then there’s that silly way the system has lately been renaming stations to include neighborhoods vaguely near the station-stop. Instead of actually serving the whole city, they just pretend to do so: My parents live near American University, and I work in Adams-Morgan, and if you take a train from Tenleytown-AU to Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan, there’s a hefty half-hour walk on each end. Urban mass transit it ain’t.

But I will say that I absolutely love the way our daily papers here cover the Metro, which in recent months has been beset by an array of technical problems. It’s an intensely local beat, not about esoteric municipal politics that no one cares about, but rather about an experience–taking the train–that nearly everyone can relate to. It makes me feel, for a minute, that Washington isn’t a place whose papers are dominated by transients. Who knows: Maybe your sick passenger will show up in the paper (the Washington Post, not the Financial Times) tomorrow morning. At the very least, there’s a better chance of that than a story about a delay on the 42 bus.