This isn’t a post to proclaim that the past was better than the present. It definitely wasn’t (and never is). But boy, the past sure was different.
Then again, it always is. Which is to say, we’re currently living in a “future past” that one day we’ll look back on with a similar sense of befuddled wonder. For example, “Our phones maxed out at 120 GB storage,” or, “We used two quarts of water to flush the toilet.” It will be something. Trust me.
I grew up in the 1970s. Bellbottoms. Energy crisis. Vietnam.
We lived in the suburbs of a mid-size city in the deep south. We moved out there when I was maybe six. Surprisingly, I still remember a lot about it.
We had one telephone. It had a long curly cord for maximum mobility and was attached to the wall between the kitchen and living room. Or “den” as we called it. The actual living room was a space we never so much as walked through unless company came over. But not just any company, fancy company. Like church people. My mom had an organ in the living room, but for the life of me I can’t recall her ever playing it.
In the center of the “living room” was a light green sofa with velvety fabric and intricate, colorful embroidery on the back pillows. We kept this sofa covered in plastic and only removed the plastic when that fancy company was expected. I always felt bad for that sofa. Like a museum piece in a fun house.
Back to our den. It had a sliding glass door to the back porch on one wall, and the other walls were covered in brown wood paneling. (It felt like real wood.)
Our den had wall-to-wall orange shag carpet. Not just orange carpet, but shag. Shag shag. Like 2-3 inch shag. It was so deep that stuff would literally get lost in it. The carpet even had its own rake. A plastic version of an outdoor rake that we’d use to “fluff it up” (and find stuff.) The best part about that rug was how it felt to walk on. Then of course I’d freak myself out thinking about all the foot dirt and, well, ew.
“Rake the rug, Jimmy. And take the plastic off the couch. We got company coming.”
The entertainment center was the main event in the den. It was made of oak and was probably 3.5 feet high and five feet across. It had a big tube TV in the middle, and speakers that flanked the tube. It also had a dial that “thumped” each time you changed the channel. By hand. The dial had 12 numbers, and one for UHF, even though we just had four channels. On top of the entertainment center sat rabbit ears for fine tuning, and a switch to adjust the antenna (wired behind the paneled wall) on the roof. And get this, it had a record player under the lid on the top of the right side.
But the thing I remember most about that den was the painting over the couch. It featured a matador and a bull. The composition was closely cropped to frame an intimate moment between man and animal. The bull is charging with his back to us. The matador’s is looking down at the bull and his face if covered by his black montera. In his right hand he holds a lance adorned with red ribbons–poised to strike. On the back of the bull’s neck, between its shoulder blades, are three other ribboned lances deeply embedded into his skin. The bull is making his final charge. He is covered in blood.
Um … why???
Turns out my parents were going through a “Spanish phase.” Which I think was a thing in the 70s. They probably saw the painting at Sears and just had to have it. For much of my youth I’d avoid even looking at this brutal high art. It may as well been Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which would haunt me years later. But when I would look at the matador painting, I’d stare deep into the brushstrokes and conjure ways that the bull survives and runs free across the fields of Spain. Mostly this thinking involved the bull gorging the matador in sweet revenge, and then plowing his way through the crowd to freedom. I’d always have him relaxing under a cork tree at the end of these daydreams. It just felt right.
Sometimes I still think about that painting. And that bull. And that shag carpet. But mostly, the past is beginning to fade. As it always does.