The Day I Turned 30

Walk-Dont Walk sign for pedestrians

December 27, 1973—my 30th birthday. It was partly cloudy, quite balmy for Manhattan in winter. I’d been living in what the previous tenant had called a “squalorific slum apartment” on the Lower East Side, paying $75 a month in rent and working part-time to support my political work—which in that year consisted of producing the first weekly lesbian radio show in the U.S., and possibly in the world. That day found me strolling along a few blocks west of those digs, thinking about the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” and realizing that it now meant me.

That slogan began as a flip remark from Jack Weinberg of the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement. It caught on, especially with columnists who wanted to ridicule the left. I can’t imagine that any genuine activists really subscribed to it. Many of my associates—in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement, and the anti-war movement—were quite a bit older. Even so, I thought that it was reasonable to be skeptical of older people: once they had established careers, had children to support and mortgages to pay, they wouldn’t jeopardize their livelihood by supporting causes their bosses disapproved of.

Yet lots of people who weren’t politically active were forced to take sides when their own lives were affected. One day my father, a lifelong Defense Department employee, found out that the government was shipping troops to Vietnam. He’d never heard of the country, so a colleague had to show it to him on a map. “That’s French Indochina,” he said. But it wasn’t, not any longer. When he came home, he told my brother to stay out of the war. “Vietnam never did anything to the Jews. If you want to go to Canada, I’ll support you there.”

Four years earlier—in 1969—I’d had a generational confrontation with Margaret Mead, the celebrated anthropologist. She was 68 then. I’d been working full-time as a secretary at Barnard College. During my lunch hour I went to a small meeting of students and some faculty, probably to discuss future careers for students after graduation. Dr. Mead was also in attendance. At one point, she said, “The problem with young people these days is that they don’t listen to their elders.”

“We’re not listening,” I replied, “because our elders are sending our brothers to kill and die in Vietnam.” Dr. Mead was silent. She never spoke out against the war.

What we all learned later was that the same caution is often true of the younger set. Once the war was over and the draft abolished, the vast majority stopped demonstrating and went about establishing their careers. Most people fight when it affects them personally. Only a small minority dedicate their lives to working for social justice. These days the slogan of generational warfare is “OK Boomer.” To me it makes as much sense as “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Returning to that birthday in 1973: I had crossed the over-30 threshold. But I’m not over the hill, I told myself. I jumped up and grabbed a walk-don’t walk sign and started doing pull-ups. The first was easy. So was the second. On the third, the sign detached from its pole and came down on my head, leaving me sitting on my butt on the curb, my eyeglasses shattered, and a flap of skin partly sliced off the bridge of my nose.

I picked myself up hastily and rushed home before a cop could arrive and charge me with destroying city property. Cleaned and disinfected and put a bandage strip on the skin flap to hold it in place. The wound healed with a thin layer of New York soot embedded beneath the skin, a smudge of blue-black particles that the peroxide hadn’t managed to wash out. The following year I left New York, but over four decades later that piece of my youth is still there, somewhat faded, like an old tattoo, like my accent, softened around the edges but still on display for all to see.

2 Responses to The Day I Turned 30

  1. Susan lewis December 6, 2019 at 9:11 am #

    It gets my gall when people generalize about teens and millennials.

    • Martha Shelley December 6, 2019 at 9:26 am #

      I’m not sure I understand your comment. Who is generalizing about teens and millennials here? My point is that any generalizations about large swaths of the population, including the ones I quoted (“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” “OK Boomer”), are foolish.

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