ELEGY, 1991

J.A. Bernstein

Zappin’ it to you, the pressure’s everywhere Goin’ right through you The fever’s in the air, oh, yeah, it’s there — Debbie Gibson, “Electric Youth”

Let me talk for a moment about the kind of people who owned a Sega Genesis. It’s not that they were bad, not inherently. And it would be an overstatement to say that all of them were the products of recently divorced parents indulging their unassuaged guilt. Nor did they all wear Reebok Pumps, particularly the Hexa-Lite Omni Zone II’s with the patented Energy Return System™, Phylon midsoles, and midnight-black trim. Finally, while it’s true that most were inclined to take perimeter jumpshots while hooping in the gym during lunch, rather than drive the lane and risk the wrath of tall defenders (or perhaps they were protecting those Pumps), one could not claim they all wore their pants backwards, à la Kriss Kross, lived on East Lake Shore Drive in a WASPY, glass penthouse overlooking the frozen lake, or dined on weekends at the Saddle & Cycle Club, where, it was rumored, they subsisted on Beef Wellington cutlets and rubbed tonsils with hot girls named Kim. No, let’s set aside these suppositions and focus on the game: a black console we were never ourselves fortunate enough to play but did witness on occasion, especially at the homes of said gentiles, to the extent we hung out.

It’s also probably not coincidental that the name of this gaming system, Genesis, overlapped with what was arguably the most coveted porn mag, if not the most forbidden, in late-1980’s Chicago. It was also the name of a phenomenal rock band, one whose lead singer would make seminal and borderline nihilistic contributions to period-defining classics like the early-Miami Vice. Finally, the name overlapped with an important biblical narrative, one about which we knew little but with which we would come to associate surreptitious trips to the middle-school library stacks during lunch, where we would procure musty textbooks on Renaissance art, all of them depicting the early-creation narratives in florid, unswaddled display, displays that represented our earliest glimpses of flowering nipples and curlicued pubes.

Perhaps the most latent avatar of our imagining was a sunless and dour nine-year-old named Scott, a boy who lived alone — he was rumored to have stepsiblings, as well as a father we never saw — in a terrace-fronted penthouse on a floor all his own at the easternmost corner of the most prestigious address in the Midwest. That he would grow up to a nurse a lingering heroin addiction and inherit a small bank remains unconfirmed. That he was a confirmed star in our circles remains undisputed, as does the presence of that shining black console and screen, one replete with titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage II, and the effervescent Mortal Kombat, which we had only glimpsed in arcades. There was also an adjoining CD system outfitted with a glossy, black case, almost like a miniature spaceship in which Scott would place a clear, crystalline disc, after which whirring graphics would appear — more like register, truthfully — as if dreams themselves have been transposed: a shiny, green palm candescent against a milky blue sky, the earthy triangles seeping from a carpet of grass, the scintillant hedgehog whirling like some phantasm roused from the void. And the music, the sound, was too much, as if one had entered the very bowels of the gaming system itself and borne witness through saturnine ears.

What we were then doing at Scott’s home I can’t say. We were never exactly close, he and I, never ran in the same circles, even in a small (private) school such as ours. It’s also undisputed that his mother made “elephant ears” that morning, a fried, doughy treat, lightly dusted with sugar, whose chewy texture I can still taste. In fact, it was hard to say what was more puzzling: the sweeping view of the lake, with all its lunar stillness, from an angle I had never descried (one could almost see the proletariat scrambling beside it, trapped amidst the traffic-clogged lanes); or the peculiar gumminess of those sizzled ears, which in fact resembled severed ears (for years I would wonder of the beast from which they were shorn, imagining him roaming South Lake Shore Drive, shambling and mute, like some Yeatsian creature). What I recall most about that room, that lighted glass box, with its frosted panes aglow with our breath, is that spectral, blinking figure on-screen, with its indigo comb, and the way Scott would cradle his palms, as if bent in supplication to some primitive warchief who gallivanted briskly through air, curling, as necessary, into his effluvial ball, undistracted, it would seem, by the smeared powder on Scott’s chapped lips. He thrusted the controller, flicked off the screen. “We should go outside,” he explained.

It was as if he had endeavored too much at this mystical adventure and had resigned himself to duller things.


“My mom says I have to get out.”

Well, fuck her, I wanted to add though knew better than to say. An actual Monet graced their walls.

“And later Noah’s coming over. Mitch Edmonds, too. They’ll want to play while we’re here.” That I would not stick around then — for reasons I don’t know — hardly came as a shock to my soul. “Or we could play basketball at Saddle,” he noted.

What, so he could show me those Pumps?

His mother came and went, glasses of milk in-hand, and soon we were sent towards the snow — or, at least, the leather plush of his Mercedes, from which we could glimpse passing drives.

If you experience any of the following symptoms while playing a video game — dizziness, altered vision, eye or muscle twitches, loss of awareness, disorientation, any involuntary movement, or convulsions– IMMEDIATELY discontinue use and consult your physician before resuming play. _ — SEGA-CD User’s Manual, 1991_

Scott, as I recall, had a patrician air about him, a kind of indolent grimace that shone wearily beneath his clear eyes and curled hair. His hooked nose was long and slightly pointed along the end, not unlike a squat hedgehog’s, and he always a wore black, puffy jacket from North Face whose lustrous sheen I still see.

In the few photos that exist of that era — this is long before digital, when the few shots we kept were smeared behind plasticized sheets — Scott is smiling weakly, one of four in our group, our arms cajoled into hugging one another and gathering close beside a trio of aluminum zebras outside Sedgwick Park. It was snowing fiercely that day, as it used to do in Chicago, back in the Holocene, and all of our faces look rapt, except for Scott’s that is, as if he knew something then we did not: something about cruelty, forlornness, and worse, as if the world would have its way, and then some.

He knows where he’s taking me Taking me where I want to be I’m taking a ride With my best friend _ — Depeche Mode, “Never Let Me Down Again”_

The Saddle & Cycle Club, to which Scott would repair that afternoon after dropping me off at my home — the exact reasons for my departure remain unclear — remains far less vivid in my imagining than he, if only because I was more familiar with its turf, and the mystery of it was much less impenetrable. Comprising six acres of swampland and shrub, which had been converted to a short lakeside golf course in 1898, the club has always been a fixture among the Old Money set of Chicago, harking back to an era when they hadn’t yet relocated to the North Shore, the suburbs were inaccessible, and elite urban schools were not mixed. A few fixtures of this era still remain: The Racquet Club on Dearborn, the Chicago Club on Michigan, and, though hardly exclusive, Le Coq D’Or at the Drake, which still serves, beneath a spread of leather seatbacks, oak-paneled walls, and Rousseauesque muraling that would make even the most equable Frenchman cringe, a hearty tomato-roux soup accompanied by a crystal decanter of sherry.

I had visited the Saddle Club twice, both times for birthdays, at which we had eaten baked fish. The trout, as I recall, was overcooked, and the white-painted, French-windowed room in which we sat gleamed with the aural chandeliers, after which they toasted to forebearers and uncles long passed. Why in the world would one want to come here, I had wondered each time. There were no basketball courts, and all the patrons were forced to wear white — both times I had argued with my mother about the itchiness of my wool sweater. Is this hell? I had asked.

The families of upstart Jews in Chicago, much like my own, tended to frequent the East Bank Club on Kinzie downtown. Basically an old warehouse repurposed for tennis and squash, the club was among the first — perhaps the first — in Chicago to anticipate the trend towards wellness, something that those who drank sherry and ate roux forsook, and early on replaced a crumbling tennis court blacktop with treadmills and overhead screens. (This was a bit like the Studebakers opting to replace horses with internal combustion engines). The era also coincided with the ascendance of the Bulls, and, it was rumored, none other than Michael Jordan had appeared on occasion to shoot hoops with scrimmaging whites. Why in the world he would choose East Bank for that purpose continued to elude us, though in retrospect seems to make sense. Oprah Winfrey cut her hair there, and the Cobb salad they served was expertly, intricately chopped, with the seared bacon bits served à la carte. This was the oasis of New Money in Chicago and where, I admit, I hung out.

Except no one there owned a Sega Genesis, nor would they, it seemed. It’s hard to devise a master conspiracy behind this. The gaming system costed $189, or $400 in adjusted terms, hardly an unmanageable price for partners at Jenner Block, Winston Strawn, Mayer Brown. Nor did it require hidden codes of the sort gleaned from Nintendo Power or smuggled at militarized sleepaway camps. (Yes, one could ROM-hack it, as more capable classmates would do, but it wasn’t the kind of recondite knowledge that remained opaque to enterprising, uppity Jews.)

Other venues to which Scott absconded, unbeknownst to me at the time, included the Yacht Club on Monroe, whose scalene burgee was narrowly imprinted on coffee mugs lining his shelves; the Conrad Hilton on Michigan, where he periodically trained for a “cotillion,” or something; the Fourth Presbyterian Church, a gothic-looking fortress on Chestnut; and the McFetridge Center, a Brutalist ice rink up north, along Irving Park, where he evidently labored at hockey, a sport as foreign to me as badminton, bocce, croquet. The trunk of his Mercedes was habitually stuffed with the sticks and gear of this affair, and the smell I still associate with them — pine tar and resinous oils — comes back to me now, along with the scent of those seats.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the family crest, emblazoned on tartan and handsomely ensconced above the wooden fireplace mantel, overlooking the bookshelves and couch, in the family living room under Scott’s lair. This room itself was dusky, despite the glare flooding in from the lake, and adorned with glass sculptures and vases, along with other heraldry items, including what I believe to be a cane. That a medieval suit of armor stood beside the door remains a rumor; I can confirm the presence of enormous glass bottles with ships — frigates, cutters, cruisers — bursting with mizzens and masts, as if entire worlds were concealed there, and all of the WASPS they contained. I remember starting at one puzzledly while Scott’s mother handled my coat, though in retrospect it was probably a maid.

The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. _ — Milton Friedman, Why Government is the Problem, 1993_

To call Scott’s mother enigmatic would be like saying that David Bowie, circa Aladdin Sane, had something of a plastic personality. If Bowie subsisted on a diet of bell peppers, milk, and cocaine, as my favorite biography of the period alleged, I never saw Scott’s mother eat, much less voice a human word to anyone — possibly to the retriever they had, though even that wasn’t much within her keep, from what we saw, occupying doormen, valets. Whereas other parents had bathrooms we could habitually peruse, inspecting, as needed, and as desired, the most pertinent contents of their medicine cabinets, laundry bins, shelves, there was nothing to avail ourselves of in Scott’s quarters — a fact I found both exhilarating and sad. Upon relinquishing a coat, we were escorted upstairs to his penthouse, only to be relieved of said duty upon departure from the place, where an elevator lumbered and clanked. It was one of those ancient, caged, brassy contraptions with an actual, hand-cranked wheel, plush velvet on the walls, and a grinning doorman who was neither expected nor permitted to speak. The one time I saw Scott’s mother looking at him — the doorman, that is — it was with an unspeakable air, a kind of deferential silence that relayed darker things, quiet times vanquished and swept. Perhaps the only discernible feature of her aspect was the pearl earrings she wore without end, alongside a variety of knitted suits from St. John, nearly all of heavy fabric and resplendent with age. Silk scarves accompanied her, as well, and she never touched anything — not the door, not the handrail, nor even my jacket, which, in retrospect, she didn’t take.

In a 1985 interview in Time Magazine, Lee Katzin, one of the creators of Miami Vice, acknowledged that “there is a certain laxness about narrative matters” in the show. Added Katzin: “The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.”

The concept of “New Wave” remains something of an amorphous term in music history. According to AllMusic.com, the genre initially encompassed everything that followed punk rock, though it would later come to entail a “love of pop hooks, modernist, synthesized production, and a fascination for being slightly left of center.” To that end, it would describe everyone from the Human League to A Flock of Seagulls. Giving way in the mid-Eighties to bands like the Smiths and R.E.M., who were more guitar-centered and mainstays of college radio, New Wave began its descent in ‘84 (bottoming-out, perhaps, in U2’s spare and understated, 1991 album, Achtung Baby, which remains, in my assessment, the only great album they’ve made. And I admit I had a boy-crush on Bono, as likely every healthy twelve-year old did). Yet New Wave’s influence on the Nineties was clear, not least of all in acts like Weezer and Blur, who certainly employed the stylish visuals, if not the moody groans, of electropop keyboards and beats.

For a child growing up in an upper-middle class household, as I was privileged to do, in late-1980’s Chicago, New Wave did not exist as a defined set of bands as much as a collection of images. Try as I might, I cannot recall the first time I watched Miami Vice, where Jan Hammer’s intro theme growled, accompanied by pastel bikinis, windsurfing boards, flamingos, breasts, Bentleys, green palms. For a child on the verge of puberty, this was too much. Even more harrowing, in my recollection, was the haunting sound of “Crockett’s Theme,” along with the saxophonic lament — more like a dirge — of Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City.” For years, I would imagine myself as an adult, living alone in some featureless building, glancing out at the darkening waves of the Hudson, Lake Michigan, Pacific, smoking a long cigarette. (That I would instead come to inhabit a modest ranch house in rural Mississippi, cluttered with toys, kids, and cribs, comes as no surprise now). But I like to think of the period and the dreams it inscribed as a kind of existential imagining, a portrayal of a world that once was, where commodities were everything, expression was mute, forgiveness was nonexistent.

I barely knew Scott McCormick — let’s call him Scott McCormick; I’ve changed his name here to be safe, and also because he represents more of a composite of several characters in my mind than any actual person I knew, as would his mother, who seems more of a persistent image, or type — and can’t really tell you at what point I began to realize that his parents would separate for good. I do know that he was widely regarded as the most popular child in our school, to the extent such things could exist in sixth grade. He was also something of an enigma in that I failed to understand how a child who barely spoke, who rarely uttered a single word, could command all the attention of kids in our class, male and female alike, while undergoing what I took to be a grave dissolution in his homelife, one that might well have involved his own mother — she was reported to drink a lot, though that I never saw — and the aforementioned stepsiblings, one of whom went on to be, I should probably report, a leading actress of the mid-to-late Nineties.

I can tell you that I never visited the penthouse again, confined, as I was, to my own meager, carpeted lot, upstairs on Concord Lane, where I ventured at Mario 3, watching mustachioed figures flitter down shapeshifting pipes, all the while lamenting the sadness of my game, the stillness, the slow bits, the pipes…

And if you have a pair of THE PUMP ™ Omni Zone Basketball Shoes, you can inflate the lining to give you extra ankle and mid-foot support. THE PUMP ™ from Reebok. The world’s most advanced athletic performance shoe you fill with air. If only Congress could control inflation this easily. _ — Reebok print advertisement, 1990_

Scott only left our school in 1992, a vague year, as I recall, and one marked by the ascendance of Clinton. The concept of Democrat didn’t register much in Chicago, since a Republican hadn’t mayored the city since “Big Bill” Thompson in ‘31. (Bill himself had been openly allied with Al Capone, and roughly $1.8 million–$27 mil today — was posthumously discovered in lockboxes bearing his name). Indeed, everyone we knew growing up, with the possible exception of Scott’s parents, was an out-and-out Democrat, and it was only later we would come to realize the wide chasm that existed within the party lines, mainly between those who had backed Harold Washington, the progressive Black mayor in ‘83, and the more reactionary stalwarts of the Machine, who reinstated another Daley in ‘89. Presidential politics mattered little, and it was widely known that Kennedy’s vote had been rigged, not that it would have changed much, at least in our sphere.

When a van arrived to pick Scott up from school that afternoon, we knew something was awry, as the normal, W126 S-Class sedan, with its black-pearl shade and concomitant driver, had been replaced with a crude Town & Country minivan of the sort the Full House clan might drive. His own mother peered out from the wheel, with her hard, cold, malevolent stare, as if less embarrassed by the woodgrain appliqué and crystal Pentastar hood ornament than the fact that she was present at all, embracing it, even, defiant and unconsumed by the unmitigated state of her loss. (The rumors would pertain to a savings and loan scandal, though there had also been references to drugs, especially in relation to a stepsibling, who may or may not have been treated abroad). When Scott left the school grounds that day to begin his new life overseas, or wherever it was he departed to — an early boarding school was mentioned out east — we had already begun to speculate about travails in his family, not the least of which sprang from the divorce. This was not unusual in our community; most of my friends’ parents were remarried or divorced, and nearly all of them were astonishingly rich, at least in comparison to mine, as I later, and only grudgingly, discerned. (My folks had a single Nissan Maxima station wagon and, later, a small Lexus, which clicked).

The last image I have of Scott’s face, as he bade adieu from that van, or whatever it was that transported him — possibly a grated bus, for all I know — was the sullen sheen of his eyes, which hadn’t changed much in twelve years, and the peculiar curve of his grin, less indolent than counseled, as if bludgeoned with words into place, resigned there, composed, and firmly set against fate in that peculiar and enduring WASP way.

“He’s a lucky motherfucker,” is all Mitch had to say.

“Boarding school dudes get sucked off.”

“By one another,” someone added.

Mitch wiped his face, glaring out into the cold. His own jacket, an L.L. Bean down with tricolor padding and a frosted hood he never wore, glinted in the sunlight, what little of it remained late that day. “And that fucking family, what a damn mess.”

“The mom’s kind of hot.”

“Let’s go skate.” And so we rode skateboards, as we’d do then, purling off into the snow.

From: Miami Vice, Season 1

[Calling from phonebooth] I need to know something, Caroline. The way we used to be together… I…I don’t mean lately, but before… It was real, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it was. You bet it was. Sonny, what’s wrong?
Nothing, Caroline. [Hangs up]