The author, at 15, with pie, in Woolworth’s.In 1984, I was 15 and always eager to learn something new about the human experience. For some reason, the photo booth at the Central Avenue Woolworth’s in Albany, New York, was my preferred venue for these lessons. Where could I document the creepy JFK mask I’d built? Where could I destroy stuff? The photo booth, that’s where. One day, I saw a guy get pelted with a cream pie on TV. What does that feel like? I wondered. That weekend, I bought my first pie and got a ride to Woolworth’s.
An odd thing happened as I headed for the booth, clad in my yellow raincoat and clutching my pastry box. An angry, overweight black woman charged over so quickly I momentarily assumed she was the store manager or an undercover cop.
“Whatchu doing?” she demanded.
“Getting my picture taken,” I said.
“Mmm-hmm,” she said suspiciously.
Since there was nothing more to say, I stepped into the booth, drew the cloth curtain, deposited my quarters, and pied myself. And once again, I learned something new about the human experience—getting socked in the kisser with a coconut cream pie is a lot scarier than it looks on TV. For one thing, the filling gets up your nose and you can’t breathe. For another thing, the angry, overweight black woman stood just outside the booth, demanding to know what I was doing in there.
“Whatchu doing in there?” she yelled.
Experiment completed, I cleaned my face as best I could and emerged to wait for my pictures to slide out of the machine’s little slot. My new guardian waited right along with me, not even pretending to browse through the nearby bargain bins. After what seemed like several hours of mechanical churning and gurgling gestation, the booth delivered my photo strip. I quickly retrieved this before she could see the pictures, but the angry, overweight black woman simply snatched the strip from my hands and scowled at the evidence. For a strange moment I stood there baffled, unsure if she was going to give me back my photos or not. I was just a kid, with no apparent recourse. I didn’t know that she wasn’t the store manager or an undercover cop, and I definitely didn’t have the disposable income to go out and buy another pie. There was a long, awkward pause, and then she finally grunted and relinquished my property.
“Thanks,” I said, meekly.
For years, that misplaced courtesy has haunted me as a signature moment of teenage cowardice. Only recently have I understood that the thanks was, in fact, quite warranted. I owe this woman a tremendous retroactive debt for providing such a ready-made analogy for my adult life. I know now that there is an angry, overweight black woman lurking over everything I do. Her name is The Internet, and she will not rest until every self-inflicted pie strike has been chronicled, archived, and exposed for all to see.
A dozen years later, I found myself on a flight to Anchorage. My band had booked several shows in Alaska, and the trip had the feel of a tremendous Jack London adventure for boys. After the first craggy peaks of landfall appeared in the window, a thought came to me.
“We could do anything at our shows up here, you know,” I said to our guitarist. “No one would ever know. We could recite one of Hitler’s speeches, or whip out some Karen Finley–style performance art. How would anyone ever find out back home?”
This was, of course, an oversight. For people reading this in the latter decades of the 21st century, you should understand that the internet was already alive and kicking by the mid-1990s. Cyberspace wasn’t quite the rollicking have-virtual-anonymous-sex-with-anyone-in-the-world type of deal you’ve come to know and love, but it worked just fine if you wanted to email people or shop for a limited range of Christmas gifts. And it was already quite efficient at disseminating gossip. By the Clinton era, I was well aware of the existence of bulletin board systems. And yet I just couldn’t imagine a future that included any serious version of an internet. Androids, laser cannons, teleportation: sure. But online banking? Please. It’s a fad, whispered that little voice in my head. Pay it no mind.
By the end of the decade, I knew better. In 1999, my grandmother emailed that she’d run my name through a search engine and had been “shocked at some of the language.” Assuming she’d uncovered my public incarnation as Wacko Band Jerk, I set about drafting an emergency email explaining the nuances of satire and the finer distinctions of ironic racism used in the service of antiracism. I gave up an hour in. “Pay it no mind,” I wrote feebly and without further explanation.
If I’d really been honest with her and myself, I would have written a far different letter.
Dear Grammy, I would have written.
Sorry for the shocking revelations, but honestly, who could have predicted the rise of a global computer network? I’m no scientist, and I’m guessing even most scientists were blindsided by this one. It simply never crossed my mind that the different compartments of my life would someday have to merge. It’s best to think of me like one of those poor CIA officers who didn’t foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union—a victim of circumstance. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m not the only one. The Christmases of ’95, ’96, and ’97 resonated with the anguish of musician friends who visited home and found themselves ambushed by AOL or AltaVista. Honey, we typed your name into the internet, come look! Ten years later, another wave of shame washed through my social circle as YouTube stitched together a far more incriminating tapestry of onstage indiscretions. My former drummer G., of Manassas, once bared his man ass as a video camera rolled somewhere deep in the audience (worse, he was sexy dancing, not mooning). Years later, his sister called. “Whersh that video of yer ass!” she slurred drunkenly. “I need the link so I can show my girlfriends!” G.’s dilemma seems symbolic of the fix all of us early-90s hysterics now face in the modern era. His ass was aimed at the specific people at that specific performance, no one else. By any legal or moral framework, he had a reasonable expectation that waggling a bare caboose in 2002 would not equal global humiliation in 2008. Whatever the founding fathers envisioned for this great nation, I guarantee you: A video of my buddy’s ass wasn’t it.
This current generation may labor under the illusion that it has some stake in the shame. Perhaps some of you post–Gen X 20-somethings suffered a twinge of regret when a relative or employer found something they didn’t like on your MySpace page. But social-networking mishaps are still just mishaps. Forgetting to Photoshop over a nipple is akin to forgetting to lock your car or leaving your sunglasses at a bar. It’s petty. In no way does it equal the shame of having old skeletons thrust into the public spotlight. And it really doesn’t equal the shame of having fresh skeletons—skeletons yanked from a parallel and previously classified facet of one’s life—thrust into the public spotlight. My particular subset of Gen X, the Screwed by Search generation, is closer to the silent-film stars of the 1920s who weren’t able to make the jump to the talkies. All of us have been bushwhacked by technology.
And even that isn’t quite the correct analogy. Really, there is no precedent for the Screwed by Search generation. At best, my little group will have to settle for being the precedent for future generations. Our traumas will serve as reference points only later in this century, maybe by people who get embarrassing tattoos just a few years before X-ray vision is perfected, or who paint I HAVE HERPES on their roofs, for a lark, just a few years before flying cars go into production.
You know who must be really burned up about all this? Saint Peter. For all of human history up until the 1990s, there was but one search engine. It belonged to the Lord, and Peter was the fellow who accessed its mighty database when you arrived for judgment.
“Let’s look at a few moments from your life,” Peter would say evenly, standing on a cloud bank before the Pearly Gates, your entire eternal future now hinging on several brief and out-of-context scenes. Then he’d type some keywords into another cloud bank and suddenly there you’d be, emblazoned on a mighty, heavenly cloud-bank video projector, saying something dumb onstage with your band.
“I’m a little shocked at some of the language,” he’d say, smiling politely.
You’d smile politely too. Then you’d find yourself hoping he doesn’t show that video of your ass.