Hanging out with the college crowd at the café

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, June 12, 2010

A fine rainy day in Minnesota, and of course we should be discussing regulation of banking and the credit-default-swap market, but something in me wants to walk under a big black umbrella to the café for a skinny latte and eavesdrop on the college crowd, who, despite the lousy job market, seem as ebullient as ever. I live near an art school where you can learn conceptual sculpture and also near a community college where you can major in auto body repair, so the café draws all types. School’s out in a few days and the cool winds of freedom are blowing. Just the other day I heard a cool young man talk about maybe heading out to California, maybe L.A., maybe San Francisco, he wasn’t sure. His buddy said, “How you getting there?” and Mr. Cool said, “Hitchhike.”

I was thrilled. That’s how we used to talk back in the day, back before college kids were weighted down with a ton of debt. We talked about sticking out our thumbs and escaping from our stolid lives into a beautiful new swashbuckling life, probably out West, out where people do that sort of thing. I haven’t seen a hitchhiker in ages, just the occasional old guy my age with a cardboard sign (“Wounded vet. Homeless. Please help. God bless you. Have a nice day.”). I wanted to turn to Mr. Cool and say, “Do it, kid. Don’t get old, regretting the big adventures you didn’t take.” But I didn’t want to scare him.

I was at the cafe last night and caught a conversation between two girls about whether one of them had dated a particular boy or was just hanging out with him, an interesting piece of semantics. Texting the boy on a cell phone was what distinguished hang-out from date: She had flashed him a friendly “What’s up?” and he being nearby met her for a dish of ice cream, and they migrated to a party at his friend’s house and thence to his grandma’s, where he is currently living (and driving Grandma’s BMW), his parents having cut him loose financially since he quit school to become a writer. There was audible eye-rolling on the word “writer.” She didn’t want to date him because he was too screwed up, so it was only a hang-out situation. I wanted to know more about the BMW guy who lived with Grandma — think of it! Unconditional love plus a luxury automobile with a perpetual full tank of gas — but the girls drifted away and left me sitting alone, staring into my latte.

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I live in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old neighborhood, and it seems to me that Dexter Green in “Winter Dreams” would’ve lost interest in the wealthy Judy Jones if there had been cell phones in 1922 and he could’ve texted her and hung out with her instead of worshipping her from a distance and making her a symbol of all that is Noble and Beautiful. Hanging out would’ve shown Dexter what a nobody she was and saved him the trouble of disillusionment.

Or Holden Caulfield. A cell phone would’ve made “The Catcher in the Rye” a denser and funnier book, Holden roaming around, flashing messages to Sally Woodruff and Jane Gallagher and Phoebe and Sunny, instead of brooding about who is and who is not a phony.

Meanwhile, the bankers are scheming to gouge higher interest rates out of the young and naive, while speculating in high-risk realms, while avoiding regulation but counting on the feds to rescue them in time of trouble. This acrobatic act requires the extensive use of lawyers and wizards, which means long meetings and 12-hour workdays and plenty of homework, all in hopes of early retirement at 55 with enough cash to go traveling on and transform yourself from stolid drudge into a beautiful adventurer. But 55 is a little late for transformation. And having money gets in the way of it. Sorry. All you can do is hang out on the periphery of transformation, as I do. The young are swarming like fireflies, flashing messages like mad, and personally I am rooting for the BMW boy who is screwed up (always an asset for a writer) and wants to maybe write a novel about a dropout like himself, which could be a huge best-seller and earn him enough to be able to afford a reclusive life in New Hampshire, and those two girls will be telling people for the next 50 years how they used to date him. You just wait and see.

Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.