I was sitting in a booth in an off-campus hangout, having a beer with some University of Connecticut students. I had just finished a show; they had been in the audience, and everyone was feeling mellow.
Tall, skinny student (after second beer): "Boy, things have changed around here since you did your last show."
He sounded wistful and a touch nostalgic.
Me: "How come? What do you mean changed?"
Short, fat student: "Art's just bugged because they don't do no streaking anymore."
Me: "No kidding. Were you an actual streaker, Art?"
Art hung his head modestly and sipped at his beer.
Short, fat student: "Was he a streaker! He was the best U Conn ever turned out, They used to come from campuses for miles around when they heard he was putting on a show."
Me: "Come to think of it, I haven't heard of streaking for a long time now, Seems like a million years ago already that Walter Cronkite was talking about streaking, and they had those news pictures of guys running through hedges."
Art (sadly): "Yeah, It was punks like that that gave streaking a bad name. With me, it was an art form. Every streak was an occasion. But it's all over now, and I sure miss it. Things are dead these days."
Me: "Both you guys are seniors. Do either of you remember the good old riots and demonstrations and student uprisings and all that stuff they used to have on the campus? The SDS and all that?"
Both (in unison): "How old do you think we are?"
Short, fat student: "My uncle was in the SDS. He tells me stories about it. They sure did some funny things in the old days, He's got a wife and two kids, and lives in Bridgeport."
I sipped my beer silently, deep in thoughts of my own. Yes, it is true. To today's students the riots, the uprisings, the library bombings are as remote and hard to believe as, say, the Boer War or the Whiskey Rebellion. No longer do they seem to feel, as students did back in the Sixties, that anyone under thirty was gifted with superior morality, incredible intelligence, and extraordinary sensitivity. The days of the mythical "greatest generation ever" are over. Todav's students have, in fact, discovered mortality. More than a few have gone home on spring vacation and found the old man out of work. Buddies have graduated with exotic degrees and wound up pushing hacks on the night shift, if they were lucky.
In. the process of rejoining the human race, the students have also learned a rare thing - how to laugh at themselves. The us vs. them humor of the Sixties is as dead as Joe Penner's duck and Allen's Alley. Today's student is very aware of his own frailty. It is significant to me that the biggest laugh I got during a show I did recently at Princeton was a takeoff on a Princeton graduate, twice divorced and out of work, returning to give the graduation address to the class of '75. Nervous, haunted, shaken by disaster, he implores them to stay in school. If necessary, hide under the desks, but, for God's sake, don't graduate! It's really mean out there!
The kids roared. Maybe because they know it's true.
Jean Shepherd is currently adapting his, novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, for the screen. He is also the star of Jean Shepherd's America, seen on PBS. ||
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