Dangers of Golden Age Thinking

Alexandra Reinecke

It is a cold, damp day in Lamorinda and you are completing a rather innocuous excursion, the purpose of which stands somewhere between buying a package of Tollhouse cookie dough to eat in your car and stopping at Starbucks for a Pumpkin Spice Latte. It is Saturday and, having in the last five minutes become depressed again by the news on NPR, you have taken to driving in silence. You are thinking of what you have been hearing lately in the news cycle. You are thinking of the color red and of your fiscally conservative grandfather who may or may not support the candidate in question; you have not driven two blocks when you’ve begun to recount how Hemingway shot himself in the head with a rifle.

The NPR broadcast which has depressed you –this being the five hundred-sixteenth of many similar such broadcasts– asks the listener to consider what historical period Trump is referring to in his “Make America Great Again” slogan, and to submit a response explaining one’s selection of said era. The broadcast’s journalist, or broadcaster, or whatever, has a particularly anesthetic voice whose intonation suggests the kind of man whose weekly joy is to see the pumpkin sugar cookies his children have made for him and whose moral sense is grounded, more than anything else, on the sturdy habit of some or other self-prescribed “liberal” pastime, such as frequenting a local Chinese food restaurant for Saturday takeout. It had been while this voice was suggesting your “flying on over to Twitter” that you turned off the radio with a mild, though angry, over-exertion of force.

When you pass a fluorescent pink poster-board dampened some by the rain and advertising a “three family yard sale,” it is less out of any logical desire to partake in such a spectacle than the sudden stomach-churning realization that the world is going to pieces –so what the hell?– that you turn in to the scribbled street address affixed to the telephone post.

In the front yard of a strange, neo-Asian house is spread twenty or twenty-five-year’s of a house’s digested contents,  as though a trash bag cut open and spilled, with little to no dilection about the arrangement of pieces, across three white plastic tables whose surfaces –white and gray speckled– lend their shape and appearance to the vanilla middle of cheap ice cream sandwiches. Beside the step leading to the front door an attractive couple dressed in near-identical Patagonia fleece jackets watch the scene with the distant though acute eye of learned playground supervisors; a bored thirteen or fourteen year old, evidently the couple’s daughter for the shape of her mouth, is smacking lethargically the Velveeta orange and chrysanthemum yellow plastic of a Nerf gun against her sprawled calve.

There are some old plates, some Sesame street building blocks, a stack of square of christening lace or handkerchiefs; stacked in a pile beside a plate of evidently knockoff costume jewelry is a bit of lonesome chartreuse silk, a plush dolphin courtesy the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, a hunter green t-shirt with an image of a box of mint candies and the writing “junior tips” in the Junior Mints box font on whose back reads “Miramonte High School” and “homecoming 2005: don’t miss it!”

Despite the spread on the table, including some enticing star-shaped Barbie hair clips and the flowered cylinder of a once-aristocratic biscuit jar, it is a clothes rack that draws your attention. Your hands are subjected at once to American decades entrenched in lace and velvet and polyester and the extravagant roughness of sequin; there is 1900, a black dress with a high neck, and there the fluid empire chiffon of a 1910 in ice blue. A paper dry-cleaner’s hanger shrugs at the weight of 1920 in a gray beaded shift; the rose-printed drapery of the 1930s proclaims the invention of the zipper.

As you progress the high waist of 1940 announces the “New Look,” cinched gingham reminisces over 1953, a paisley shift heralds back the Kennedy’s. 1970 is wild in golden spandex, 1980 builds shoulder pads thick in monuments to Madonna. There the 90s light wash denim heralds a new century, and here the infamous Burberry scarf headlines the later Clinton years, and back again the sickly pink of 2010 slide along the metal with a screech.

You are drawn to each garment for its own idiosyncrasies; the black velvet of 1900 recalls an old plush bear, the empire chiffon a nursery curtain, the beads of the flapper dress the beads the piano teacher who taught you Mozart’s Third used to wear. Likewise do the roses on the 1930s gown recall the thicket at Nantucket, the paisley a favorite Spice Girls costume of Halloween past. There’s as much merit to the tackiness of the spandex as to the puffed shoulders, as much softness to the destroyed denim of 1990 as the burnt caramel colored cashmere of the following years. Even a pair of tight pink pants, the hue something between bubblegum and an overpriced resort drink, retain a certain glamour in the cold October air.

You pile these hangers on your arm so excitedly that when you find yourself five minutes later, you’re standing undressed down to your socks in a semi-neighbor’s garage with lines of metal indentations like bangles along your left arm. There is some privacy; there hangs, across the corner where you dress, a Blues Clues shower curtain reincarnated for the purpose. As you look over your pile on the floor, the decades fold, as cake batter folds into tray, in pinks and oranges and silvers and reds and cool ice blues against the oil-stained cement of these strangers’ garage.

A multi-colored panoply, psychedelic in hue but tranquil in nature, crosses before your imagination so that people waltz in and out of the space between your ears, as though your mind is a stage or a ballroom or an outdoor pavilion whose doors are open, as in celebration, from the great maroon waves of a brick esplanade to the more tranquil plane of the lawn. Each new group dons garments like those on the floor, and once each has walked a while they exit, each tired group picking up their dress tails with their prejudices and exiting resistance-less like the faceless figures retreating an ensemble.

When you try these garments on, however, and assess your somewhat cold and shivering form in the provided mirror, you find no splendor.

The empire dress hanging off your shoulder is suddenly the vulgar color of Crest toothpaste, the black velvet suddenly coffin-lining for a generation long dead. And so cascade the colors ignored in the Onassis paisley (there is a shooting, a hanging), and so shines the spandex’s drug-culture, and so lie the suit shoulders which exaggerated women’s working roles as more than .70 on the dollar, which is what they were. On the 20s dress shows the stain of merlot spilled before women had the vote. The rosettes of 1930 are pruned of the Depression, the gingham of the 50s pressed with the iron whose operator’s identity has been stolen with a new initial.

Nothing transfers completely, you decide, if at all, without having its essential nature lost in translation, and so you sit down. Concede. After returning the garments to the rack you make your way hurriedly back to your car. You think of the nostalgics casting their ballots red, and how in one of your favorite movies they warned about the dangers of “Golden Age” thinking. “That’s a stupid idea for an article,” you tell yourself. “Golden Age Thinking.” But when you are driving home, it is between two scalding sips of candle-flavored caffeine that you conjure the first line after such a theme to address the stupid NPR listener task.

It is a cold damp day.