Talking 'Bout My Generation

In July I spent a few sleepless hours—between 5 and 8 a.m., as the early robins tuk-tuked in the hedgerow outside my bedroom window—googling to figure out if the jerk I met in a cafe in Budapest circa 1994 was Sebastian Gorka.

The cafe in which I met a monumental jerk 25 years ago was called Picasso Point. It was on the Pest side of the river, and it was open late into the post-communist night. The years I lived in that sooty city, heavy with stone fruit and violets, we bounced from cafe to club on the high rubber heels that were in fashion in the 1990s, buoyant with the helium belief that freedom was spreading, never caring about careers or retirement plans, never dreaming in a million years that both the States and Hungary would before long be under the thumb of bug-eyed nationalists. 

Picasso Point was brightly lit upstairs, its tables filled with university students talking about Rimbaud and drinking fröccs (wine and soda). In the basement was a dance floor, where I can remember spinning to She Moves in Mysterious Ways and thinking U2 wasn’t really all that bad. The guy who may or may not have been Sebastian Gorka was a native English speaker who had come to Central Europe with his dad. I don’t know why this exhange has stuck in my mind over the decades. Him: “America has too many immigrants. America for the Americans.” 

Me: “America for the Americans? Are you serious?” 

Him: “People come in illegally and take jobs and take advantage of the free schools and the welfare system.”

Me, smoke rising from my crown: “Why do you get to decide when it’s time to shut the door? When did your family emigrate to the West? My family has been in the same town in the States for 13 generations, since the 1640s, and maybe we should have locked the door around 1800, so people like you couldn’t come in!”

 

Although I will admit that it is pleasurable to hold in my coat pocket—and jingle sometimes like coins, privately—the brag that my kids are the 14th generation of our family to live within a circle of about three miles, I dislike talking about it. The argument with the jackass in Picasso Point lo those many years ago was the only time in my life I’ve ever whipped out my currency and thrown it in someone’s face. I find that sort of generations-counting to be odious. Odious

Still, I-Got-Here-Sooner-ism is something East Enders indulge in all the time, to justify what they are doing or why they are more entitled to an opinion than someone else. You know what I’m talking about: “I’ve been summering here since 1975, and I have never been asked to wait to the left side of the counter for my sandwich before!” 

Once, I overheard an indignant moviegoer objecting to the selection of chocolates at the East Hampton cinema: “I’ve been living in Amagansett since the 1970s, and I don’t understand why you no longer sell Charleston Chew!”

We all need to stop saying these things. First, because it’s obnoxious. It’s just not cricket to imply that a time-stamp of arrival conveys special rights (whether the arrival port in question was Montauk “before it got ruined” or Ellis Island). Second, because it is illogical. If being the third-generation owner of a cottage at Flying Point bestows on you the right to be a bigger blowhard than the first-generation renter of a Farrell mansion, how much of a blowhard do I get to be? Does a member of Shinnecock Nation get to stuff a sock in all our mouths?

The concept of an “old family” or “real American” is a delusion anyway. Our country carries the burden of a fantasy that white WASPs are the most apple-pie, and it has damaged our national psyche. As a historian called Keith Arbour points out on Page 86, the preponderance of white Americans descend from immigrants who came three or four generations ago—while most black Americans’ Americanness goes back 250 years or more. Black and brown Americans built Mount Vernon and the transcontinental railroad and drove cattle on the Chisholm Trail. 

How long have you been here? Who cares.

Bess Rattray

After nearly two decades toiling in the Manhattan media trenches as an editor for Vogue magazine (followed by a few years' interlude as a volunteer firefighting captain in Nova Scotia), Bess Rattray returned home to East Hampton in 2015, and in 2017 took over as editor of The Star's magazine, EAST.