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I was home alone with the chicken pox when the phone rang.
The caller introduced himself as Walt Harrington. He said he was working on an article for the Washington Post Magazine about twentysomethings in D.C. group houses, sort of a Washington version of MTV’s The Real World. He had heard that I had an interesting house, and he wanted to talk to me about it. I had time on my hands, and was only too happy to oblige.
The lineup has changed since Harrington’s call, but at the time, my Dupont Circle house consisted of a third-year Georgetown medical student, 25; a first-year Georgetown graduate student, 25; a managing project editor at the International Human Rights Law Group, 24; two health care consultants working at the Advisory Board Co., both 23; an international strategy consultant working in Arlington, 23; and myself, an editorial assistant at a legal publication, 22. Since one of us left in January, we have added a 25-year-old who writes for a science magazine.
Harrington didn’t sound too impressed. His main problem was that we were “too prosperous.” After all, those consultants must not be faring badly. Ditto the students who could afford tuition for medical and graduate schools.
Until this fortuitous call, I had no idea I was doing so well for myself. After all, as an acquaintance once pointed out, my salary amounts to less than the price of a used Range Rover.
But Harrington also said he was looking for something more unique for his piece—say, a Ph.D. scraping by as a bike messenger. No such luck. He said he would be in touch if he decided to use us.
My housemates didn’t seem too disappointed that I had botched the interview. That night, in front of the kitchen TV set, we brainstormed about ways we could have been more interesting, more “slack.” Jon, the medical student, reminded me that both of the Advisory Board contingent were about to quit their corporate jobs. One was forsaking the Beltway altogether to live with friends in San Francisco. Still, there was no way around it: We had way too many boring male career types in the house.
In the next couple of weeks, my chicken pox went away, as did any chance that we would be among the chosen few for Harrington’s piece. I admit that the Post‘s snub particularly galled me, and not just because I wasn’t getting my name in the paper. Harrington’s approach bothered me. He seemed to be shopping for just the right subjects, confirming a preconceived idea of twentysomethings as uniformly eccentric people drawn to society’s fringe. It was the same “Generation X” media stereotype that got so much mileage after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Anything that didn’t fit this paradigm was dismissed as not newsworthy.
Most of the people I know in Washington don’t fit. We moved here to bulk up our résumés as congressional aides, interns at nonprofit organizations, consultants. Sure, this is a transient city—but only in the sense that when people my age get sick of their jobs, a lot leave for graduate school or cash in their D.C. experience for more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
But to hear Harrington talk, the richest angle on my generation could be investigated by trolling Dupont Circle after hours, grilling every messenger in sight about the status of his dissertation or his luck in securing a tenure-track job.
My fears were confirmed on Feb. 19, when the Post Magazine ran “Housemates,” subtitled, “Growing Up in the Question Mark Generation.” Harrington’s crew sneered at me from the dour, blue-toned cover photo. Was this Washington (D.C.) or Washington (Seattle)?
Harrington’s group looked like the same assortment of affluent suburban expatriates who made my life miserable for years. In high school, these beatnik wanna-bes dismissed me as “soft” because I liked Elvis Costello and Crowded House, while they dropped names like the Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. As an editor for my college’s literary review, I had to plow through reams of their shitty poetry and masturbatory journal entries about their wild summers in Greece. Now, in their current incarnation as the representatives of Generation X, they hog all the attention. Sleepwalking through jobs at Kinko’s and the Gap, they patronize anyone who strives toward a steady career and anyone who actually aspires to the suburban comforts they make such a point of rejecting. Anyone like me.
Harrington never found his Ph.D., but he did find uniformly eccentric people. There were not one but two rock musicians, a stripper, an aspiring furniture designer, and a waitress thinking about teaching elementary school. In addition, Harrington thoughtfully included a third-year law student at Catholic University—a sop for those readers still wondering whether this story really took place in Washington.
As described by the author, “the Mount Pleasant gang” bonded around a series of shared experiences. They struggled daily to make ends meet, working at low-paying jobs while figuring out what they really wanted to do with their lives. Most of their parents were divorced and all were from affluent families. Growing up, they found solace in punk rock.
My personal favorite was Gregg, whom Harrington portrayed as the group’s conscience. Gregg frets about how lame it would be if his rock group, the Delta ’72, sold out to a major record label. He regards religion with the amused fascination of one who knows better. Gregg even provided theobligatory Gen X quote: “This is kinda like the Question Mark Generation. Who am I? What is my niche?”
Particularly irritating was an awkward pause technique Harrington used when he wanted to portray someone as particularly introspective. “[Sarah, the stripper] had a special disdain for the suburban kids who became retro-hippies, big fans of the Grateful Dead, but drove around town in their parents’ BMWs. “I knew that wasn’t the point of it,’ she says. [Pregnant pause marked by paragraph break.] And, “I didn’t fit in.’ ”
I have a hard time believing that these people wanted to come off as obnoxiously angst-ridden, self-consciously alienated, and victimized as Harrington seemed to want them to be. But the article left almost no room for perceiving them beyond the media stereotypes of disaffected youth.
I read the piece in one sitting. Then I read it again. Then I decided to get drunk at the Fox and Hounds.
Judging from the handful of twentysomethings at my table who had read Harrington’s piece, it hadn’t exactly struck a chord.
One friend called it “totally weak.” Others sitting with us agreed: Harrington’s portrait was nowhere near representative of D.C. group houses. You don’t come to Washington to be a slacker—that’s what New York, San Francisco, and Austin are for. If you are here, you’re usually pursuing exactly the kind of goals that the residents of Harrington’s house are so critical of.
The next morning, still disgruntled and now vaguely hung over, I leafed through the Post Magazine, re-reading Harrington’s lead sentence: “Imagine them all in a snapshot that is framed by this particular moment in time.”
Though he was referring to “the Mount Pleasant gang,” I’d like to think that the snapshot metaphor applies to articles like “Housemates” as well. Maybe, despite efforts by reporters like Walt Harrington, Sarah, Gregg, and company won’t continue to pass as mouthpieces for a generation. Harrington may have gotten his snapshot, but the bigger picture is still waiting for someone with the ambition and imagination to see it.