Sex, Fear and Videophones: It’s the Them Decade

You hear talk in New York about the 70′s being back.

Consider the evidence: The economy sucks. A certain spirit of sexual wantonness has seized the population. “Hooking up,” on its face, sounds a lot like cruising, and that old line about getting laid now because we might not be here tomorrow, victims of a nuclear nightmare, actually seems more convincing than it did during the Brezhnev era.

Your one indispensable piece of technology is a … phone. It may be a cellular, but it’s still just a phone. It does what phones have always done.

Let’s not even talk about clothes. If the fashion biz ever tires of referencing shearling jackets, flared jeans, glam rock and old-school sneakers, it’ll be front-page news, at least to the people who run Diesel and Puma.

But, of course, the real story has less to do with 70′s style than 70′s politics. Once again, we live in wartime. Let’s not forget that Vietnam didn’t end until 1975, five years into the Me Decade. Sesame Street hit the airwaves in 1969, the same year that Nixon authorized the secret bombings of Cambodia, effectively snuffing the peace-sign 60′s and inaugurating a new decade of deception and conspiracy (the Summer of Love segues into The Parallax View , with a brief stopover at Hamburger Hill ).

For New Yorkers like me, in our mid-30′s, this stuff is formative. My earliest political memory is one of a war being lost: that desperate helicopter evacuation during the fall of Saigon.

New Yorkers want to restore the 70′s because they seem so much more benign than what we’ve seen so far of this new century. It makes sense that we’d seek refuge in the comfortingly manageable anxieties of the Me Decade, because in those days New York was cool but cuddly-tough, not terrifying. The city attracted a peculiar combination of mad striving and astonishing innocence.

People who chose to come here then-before Soho even had indoor plumbing, much less Louis Vuitton-were an intrepid, brave, foolhardy, romantic lot. If you’d come to Manhattan in the 70′s, you went back home with some swagger. You could hack it, you could face the daily quagmire of living in a city drained of hope, but persevering. Sticking around was the ultimate act of defiance.

It took balls to live here. No other city tried as hard to break you, day after grinding day. In summertime, it was soggy and it reeked; in wintertime, it froze solid and everyone huddled inside, with four TV channels and a rotary-dial phone to pass the hours. In between, the entire population, as has been pointed out, got by on $10,000 a year, regardless of occupation. Thwarted ambition was the rule. Success operated according to a more bohemian definition.

I’ll be the first to admit that, post-9/11, I’ve yearned more than once to set the Wayback Machine on the Ford administration. I never got along all that well with the crime-free, supermodel-thronged, paper-billionaire-spawning New York of the 90′s. For me, the whole point in coming here was to grow some spikes. That’s what New York invites, and that’s the inverted romance of the place, its famously gritty allure.

Just my luck that, by the time I showed up in the late 1980′s, all the filth and smut and invigorating grime was on the way out, replaced by a New Age of glistening prosperity characterized by innovative policing, Silicon Alley and Total Request Live . When all the hookers have disappeared from Times Square, replaced by mobs of milk-fed teenagers from suburban Milwaukee jockeying for a glimpse of Carson Daly, who needs guts to stick around?

Now, of course, to think we’re reliving the 70′s amounts to wishful thinking. The enveloping darkness, the gloom, the menace-it’s all here with a vengeance this time. The local economy actually seems worse . We might have a hundred cable channels, but all anyone watches is CNN.

In the 70′s, as New Yorkers nervously awaited news that the Red Brigades or the I.R.A. had popped a prime minister or offed a royal, they pondered their own scuzzed-out environs with a sort of prefab fatalism: Well, if it comes here, at least we’ve been readied by circumstances . New Yorkers were basket cases back then-the country’s poster population for urban decay-but they were arrogant basket cases. Son of Sam couldn’t shatter our egotism. The blackout of 1977 was an excuse to party.

So long, Me Decade. Hello, Them Decade.

Them , as in: Who are they? Why do they hate us? Why do they want us all dead?

Nobody has time for dedicated Me-ism now-not when you wake up to the news that another 150,000 troops have been deployed to Kuwait, that five dead servicemen were discovered in a shallow grave on the road to Baghdad, that challenging a tyrant a world away invites car bombs, not garlands. It’s hard to concentrate on a disco revival when you lose sleep because a madman might have snuck a rogue nuke into the hold of a container ship bound for the Port of New Jersey.

Jokes are no solace. You can’t create something like Saturday Night Live , that defining cultural product of the 70′s, when the President of the United States doesn’t take pratfalls, when he delivers instead trancelike speeches about why we must march to the Middle East to kill Them before they kill Us. A three-martini interlude at Elaine’s will not gaily anesthetize you to the real-time videophoned horrors of techno-war against Them. Fear is sexy, but fear is also fear. Sex may be a liberating response to it, but you still have to think about their dirty bombs after your dirty talk.

The Me Decade advanced the cause of runaway self-love, an innocent response to shattered national self-esteem, as an antidote to paranoia. In the Them Decade, self-love has been replaced by self-preservation (inflatable kayak, anybody? Iodine pills? Where do you put the safe room in a studio apartment?) and self-destruction, of a sort not recommended during the recreationally intoxicated Me Decade. Could there be a worse time to ban smoking in bars? This is wartime, and we’re trembling even without the nic fits. We need tobacco with our booze. We don’t need it to feel better; we need it to stave off the nervous breakdown.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I long for the Technicolor rumble of a graffiti-encrusted No. 4 Train, or some real pornography enjoyed the old-fashioned way, in a booth that smells like bleach, not huddled in front of an iBook. That would be infinitely preferable to the war porn we’re nightly beamed from the front. When the recent interminable winter’s snow finally melted and the uncollected trash was revealed, I said, Thank God-this continues to be a stinking, filthy, rotten place where only the strong survive.

Well, we’d better be strong. The Me Decade is a fading memory, and yes, we all look back fondly on it. Thirty years from now, we won’t miss the Them Decade, trust me on that.