R5 Gen X marks its spot – on Westchester

X Saves Westchester  

Once thought to be slackers, Generation X makes its mark on the county.

 The other night I was walking home from the evening commuter train when one of my neighbors, Brian Cuff, approached me with a terrifying proposal. Our village was gearing up for its second annual spelling bee, a spirited event that rallies support for the Friends of the Irvington Library, and Brian wanted to know whether I’d compete in the bee as a member of the team representing our neighborhood association. My automatic reaction was panic. I wobbled. I could actually feel the equilibrium draining from my knees. I groped around for excuses—aw, dude, that sounds very cool, but, um, I’m pretty sure that that’s the same day I’m supposed to be off reporting a story in Saskatchewan. But Brian was crafty and persistent, and it quickly dawned on me that there was no justifiable way I could get out of this thing.

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My anxiety had nothing to do with spelling. Frankly, I can claim to be a formidable speller, having made a living as a writer and editor for 20 years now without once feeling the need to use the “spell check” function on my computer. No, if I had a rash impulse to flee from the bee, I’d attribute it to something broader, something that’s embedded in my socio-cultural wiring. Which is to say: I’m a Generation Xer, and as an all-too-typical product of my demographic cluster, I tend to flinch when I’m asked to, you know, join something. In this case I was supposed to stand up on a stage representing my neighborhood association, and I wasn’t even sure what the association did. I had never attended a single meeting.

In the mass media, Generation X is best known as “those weird, cranky kids who showed up after the baby boomers.” There are roughly 46 million of us (age 30 to mid-40s), and we’ve transformed the face of global business with companies like Google and Craigslist and YouTube and Amazon, but still it’s pretty much impossible to read a story about Generation X without scraping up against a word that continues to cling to the hull of our ship like a barnacle: slackers. Of course, it’s silly to think that all of the men and women born somewhere in between the release of Spartacus and Star Wars are lazy refuseniks, but it’s easy to see why the “slacker” stereotype persists. Philosophically, the baby boomers put an emphasis on brotherhood, sisterhood, and gigantic group hugs—all of that Woodstock-scented everybody-get-together-try-to-love-one-another-right-now malarkey—so, inevitably, Xers did everything they could to dodge that. If boomers believe in changing the world through “the power of we” or whatever, Xers are seen as being too sarcastic and detached to open a lemonade stand together. (Hence Xers feel compelled, as I do here, to attach the word “whatever” to the tail end of any phrase that comes across as cringingly earnest.)

The irony, though, is that even right here in Westchester County, plenty of my Gen X comrades do subscribe to the notion of making the world a better place. They’re just reluctant to get all high and mighty about it. Instead of hatching utopian schemes, members of the slackoisie are inclined to do the slow, quiet work of world-changing at the neighborhood level.

Toward the end of Alternadad, his hilarious memoir about the travails of punk-rock parenting in an age of Gymboree and Build-a-Bear, Gen X author Neal Pollack is slightly taken aback to find himself not just supporting but leading a group of grass-roots activists as they join forces to clean up their grotty precinct of Austin, Texas. “Everyone had an interest,” he discovers, “in making this a nice place to live.” Of course, Westchester was already a nice place when my wife and I moved north from Manhattan in 2000, but over the past few years, as more and more of our fellow Xers have begun to migrate here to raise their families, the county seems to be getting even nicer. And by “nice” I don’t mean “quiet and safe”—although, yeah, I’ve come to appreciate “quiet and safe” more than I used to when I was 25 and beer-sampling my way through Eastern Europe. I mean: creatively vibrant. Look around and you’ll see that Generation Xers are importing their indie-coffeehouse sensibility into this classic American suburb, and that’s something to be thankful for.

Consider the annual Harvest Festival at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, where, thanks to the missionary zeal of Gen Xer Dan Barber and his crew, my children can spend a day riding around on hay bales, marinating in great American bluegrass music, and learning what it means for their food to be local and organic. Consider the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, which is being re-energized by executive director Jerri Lynn Fields, and the Spoken Interludes series at the Trinity Bar & Grill in Harrison, which is put together by local novelist DeLauné Michel. Thanks to these two tireless Gen X patrons of the written word, Westchesterites can, instead of sitting at home eating spicy yellowtail rolls while paying bills and watching Project Runway, head out to literary readings with top-shelf writers like Aimee Bender, Billy Collins, and Jay McInerney.

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A few weekends ago I was scanning the wedding announcements in the New York Times when I stumbled upon the following sentence at the end of an item about newlyweds Katherine Applegarth and Matthew Simons: “The bride is also a founding member of the Suburbia Roller Derby league of Westchester County, using the name Rat-Tat-Kat. The bridegroom is a D.J. known as G-Funk, playing at bars and clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.” Wait—roller derby in Westchester County?! Applegarth and Simons turned out to be 31 and 35, respectively, but I didn’t need to glance at their ages to figure it out right away: Yes! More Gen Xers giving suburbia a sharp elbow to the ribs!

While I can’t pretend I’m doing anything even remotely as cool as what Dan Barber and Rat-Tat-Kat are up to, it struck me in late January, as the date of the Irvington spelling bee crept closer, that if I wanted to live up to that whole credo of “doing something positive for the community,” I would have to outgrow my demographic disengagement and get up there on stage. And when the big night arrived and I wandered into Irvington’s lovely Town Hall Theater, I was stunned: the room was packed. Tickets were sold out. This local spelling bee, it turned out, was a huge deal. For a few minutes I tried to summon up my usual Gen X snarkiness, but the mood in the hall was one of such neighborly warmth and good humor that I found myself utterly disarmed.

There were 20 teams in competition, and each one had three players. Our team was called SPANglish, a pun on the Spiro Park Association of Neighbors, the same community group that I’d been so clueless about. I shook hands with Brian, our captain, and introduced myself to our fellow teammate Charlotte Isler, an adorable older lady who lived right down the street from me, even though we’d never met.

Then something strange began to happen—something that a couple of sarcastic Gen Xers like me and Brian could never have envisioned. We took our places on stage and laughed uproariously together as strange words passed by in a blur. Amaryllis. Kinkajou. Splanchnic. (Were it not for Charlotte, a medical writer and book author, Brian and I would’ve been lost at sea with that last one.) Purlieu. Saprogenic. Marmoreal. What was happening was this: somehow, in spite of some seriously brilliant competition, we were winning the bee. We were nailing every word. When our emcee, Jon Scott from Fox News, floated the mysterious fascicle, Brian and Charlotte and I looked at each other in bemused bewilderment. (I’m still not sure what the word even means, although I gather it has something to do with a section of a book.) We decided to wing it. Brian jotted down F-A-S-C-I-C-L-E on our Magic Marker board, and within moments the three of us found ourselves standing on stage hoisting a trophy into the air.

For a week or so I basked in the bizarre glory of walking down

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Main Street

and having random people congratulate me, but that wasn’t the best part of the experience. No, really. As a Gen Xer I’m trying not to get all weepy and Oprah Winfrey about this, but (gulp) the best part of the spelling bee was watching my neighbors coming together, cheering each other on, supporting the local library, and getting all fired up about words. A few days after the bee, I got an email reminding me that SPAN had a meeting coming up. This time, I think I just might go.


Jeff Gordinier is the Editor-at-Large of Details magazine and the author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking.

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