On Campus
May 16, 2019, 06:29AM

Sing a Song of Sixpence

College graduates don’t need advice from “humorists” like Jason Gay.

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It’s the time of year when op-ed columnists, scratching their toes and desperate for something to write about, give up, say fuck it, and fall back on the evergreen of an open letter to college graduates. It’s an easy column to whip out—perhaps re-jiggering the exact same thread as five, 10 or 20 years ago—and it’s almost never successful.

Aside from his repetitive rants about spoiled Boston sports fans, I’ve generally found The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay (at that paper since 2009) as a fellow who’s worth reading. That’s not a small accomplishment today (does anyone even skim Jonathan Alter, David Horowitz, Eric Alterman, Bill Kristol or Howard Fineman, just five out of hundreds, anymore?), but he rarely, if ever, drones on about Biden, The Fed, Sanders, Jared, Robert Mueller, Barron, Trump’s impetuous trade wars or Elizabeth Warren’s white paper of the day. It could be he’s spoofed Mayor Pete—or will be playing catch-up over the linguist’s Alfred E. Neuman gaffe (and a gaffe it was, claiming at 37 he had to Google Mad’s icon; in all likelihood a reminder of Trump’s age)—since that’s about as political as he gets.

But Gay is increasingly trying to steal digital thunder from his inferior humorist at The New Yorker, Andy Borowitz, and that’s an ominous development.

In fact, Gay’s May 10 story, “Graduates, Are You Ready for the Most Important Secret in the Whole Wide World,” read like a Borowitz spoof, and it that’s the case, swell, even if it’s well-trod territory. But I don’t think so.

Gay’s revelation for graduates? “We’re really worried that you don’t know what you’re doing. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret, which is the most important secret in the whole wide world. If you remember nothing else from graduation, please remember this: Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.” Oh, and there were six avocado toast “jokes” thrown in; perhaps he was given a quota by a WSJ click-counter. I’d no idea it was still 2015.

I think Gay put on his serious smirk for that stunner, his nugget in the middle of a lot of bad jokes. And it’s a dumb statement, for a lot of young men and women have set plans upon completing undergraduate studies, whether it’s more school required for a desired profession, a job lined up six months ago, or an eagerly-anticipated schedule of just hanging out and having fun.   

Just like preceding generations of graduates.

Gay does take another stab at gravity, writing, “Talk to any successful person, in any field. Ask them when they were happiest, and I bet that 9 out of 10 will tell you they loved it most when they were in the chaos—battling, struggling, scuffling, trying to find their way. It’s the happiest time because they’re very alive.” That’s plausible: I look back, from time to time, at the late-1980s and 1990s, when, in middle age, I couldn’t wait to get to work every day—first at Baltimore’s City Paper and then New York Press—even when this or that fleeting professional headache might blot out a good mood. (Sometimes not so fleeting, like when I had to fire a salesman for flashing his dick at a co-worker.)

I’d drop the kids off at school, pick up the daily newspapers and weeklies, purchase two coffees at the local bodega and hunker down, working the phones and later punching out and receiving emails and faxes. As I’ve noted before, my late brother Jeff, taking time to visit me and our widowed mother the night before I’d drive down to Baltimore for the beginning of freshman year, was on the mark, saying, “You’ll have a terrific time in college, think you and your friends are pulling original pranks and capers (they’ve all been done before), but if, years later you refer to college as ‘the best years of my life,’ that’ll be really pathetic.” Jeff, a lifelong WSJ subscriber, passed away in 2012, pre-avocado toast and Brooklyn jokes, but he would’ve howled at Gay’s wan humor.

I’m on the abyss of mild incoherence at this point, but that’s part of a riff: I’m imitating Gay like he imitates Borowitz. So keep reading, or I’ll get the Cold S from my son Nicky, who runs our social media promotion at Splice Today.

More ridiculous Gay in his unasked for advice to, as nitwits say on Twitter, “the kids.” “Everyone here thinks you’re entitled. We all think you’re soft. We don’t think you want to make a difference. We think you want to waste your money spending nine dollars on avocado toast. ‘Who is this ‘We’? you ask. Me. Him. Her. Them. Everyone older than you—we’re counting you out, even before you begin. It’s a time-honored ritual: The previous generation dumps on the next one. Humans have been doing it since the beginning of time.”

I’m getting woozy now. Could be that I’m still half-frozen after the heat at our 1928 North Baltimore house (lovely lodgings, but a money pit for repairs and landscaping, not to mention penurious Baltimore City real estate taxes) conked out over the weekend. I don’t like to be cold. At all. I wear a sweater when it’s 75. Naturally, My Own Private Iceberg (1990s reference!) occurred on Mother’s Day weekend, so our regular plumber—or “drain surgeon” as he prefers—was unavailable. Forty-eight hours later, it took Jim Bush (advertorial for those who live in Baltimore!) about 10 minutes to fix the heating mechanism, what I think is the boiler, along with his young assistant, who’s maybe 20, but learning a lucrative trade, and they were on their way.

Jim gave me the “senior discount,” even though I’m still on the cusp of that mixed-blessings appellation, we shook hands and the pair scooted down the road. The house took seven or so hours in returning to normal, meaning I was watching the new season of Line of Duty in a state of the shivers, particularly rough when I ate my apple, chicken minestrone soup, pineapple and almonds.

Anyway, if Gay was even half-serious (it’s possible) about generations taking pot shots at their successors, he’s really full of shit. Because my sons are Millennials, I come into contact, and friendly banter, with a lot of them, and they’re not “soft.” Just grew up in a different American era. When I was a graduate (picture above, shot by Jennifer Bishop, in 1978), I complained about Jimmy Carter’s feckless presidency, the shitty economy and too many muggings on the streets of Baltimore. Today, the locals complain about Trump, overpriced “bistro food” and too many muggings and murders in Baltimore. Long ago, The Cure called it “Disintegration.”

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955


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