This past weekend found me enjoying the springtime weather in Salt Lake's Sugarhouse area, which, for you out-of-towners, is the closest thing to a Bohemian district we have in these parts. Back when I was a student at the nearby University of Utah, it was a run-down pit: eight or ten square blocks of decaying bungalows, boarded-up storefronts, seedy coffeehouses, and leftover head-shops run by guys who hadn't gotten the memo about the '60s being over. It was the place you went if you wanted to have your fortune told or your nose pierced. It was probably also the place you went if you wanted to score some weed, although I personally wouldn't know about that. That was never my thing.
I loved Sugarhouse back then. I loved the mildly disreputable atmosphere, and the heady smells of patchouli and tobacco and old-building mustiness that wafted from open doors. I loved to shop in the weird little holes-in-the-wall where you could buy a statue of Ganesh or a cheap "pre-owned" paperback of On the Road. And I loved to watch all the exotic people: punks, metalheads, flower children, gypsies, derelicts. To a kid from the white-bread suburban frontier of the straightest city in America, it was deliriously cool.
Today, Sugarhouse is changing. The chain stores are moving in and the civic boosters are eager to push the palm readers, tattoo parlors and fly-by-nighters out. (I was greatly distressed to see that one of my favorite old haunts, Experienced Books, is now empty and shuttered. C'est la vie, I suppose.) The forces of gentrification haven't won yet, though -- there are still plenty of hippies and goths roaming about, even if they do have to share their sidewalks with yuppies who buy their clothes at the Men's Wearhouse next door to the Barnes and Noble.
I don't know how other people-watchers categorize me when I'm in the area, but as I sat at an outdoor table at Sugarhouse Coffee on Saturday, sipping my cappuccino and reading City Weekly, I thought I could pass for one of the cool kids.
At least that's what I thought until I overheard one of the two teenage boys at the next table over say something about "that Billy Joel t-shirt." I knew I was probably the only person in a ten-mile radius wearing a Billy Joel t-shirt, so they had to be talking about me. My first reaction was blindly defensive ("What's wrong with liking Billy Joel?"), swiftly followed by a wave of self-doubt ("There's something wrong with liking Billy Joel?") But then my Ego Protection Grid came on-line and pumped a soothing dose of Grumpy-old-man-ism through my veins ("Damn kids weren't even born when Billy recorded An Innocent Man, let alone Glass Houses or The Stranger, so what the hell do they know?")
I would've left it at the "damn kids" stage if I hadn't made eye contact with one of them. To my surprise, he was looking at me with neither steely derision nor that flavor of mocking pity that teenagers reserve for parents and other terminally un-hip species. His expression was something like... approval? Maybe even... admiration? Could it be? A kid who obviously wasn't any older than I was when I first discovered Sugarhouse, and who was probably younger, didn't think I was an old fogey for displaying my allegiance to a retired rock 'n' roll piano player who did his best work in the late '70s? This warranted further investigation.
So I nodded in the timeless gesture of masculine greeting and said, "How's it going?"
The kid and his friend nodded back. If they were embarassed at being overheard, they didn't show it. The one I'd locked eyes with spoke next. "We were just checking out your shirt. Did you really see Billy in concert?"
"Yeah. The farewell tour in '99."
The kid glanced briefly at his companion and both flashed large smiles. "Wow," he said, "I wanted to go to that one but it was too expensive."
I was starting to smile myself. "Well, I got lucky and managed to find some cheap tickets. I was sitting way up in the nosebleed section, but they had the Jumbotron running so you could actually see the man's face."
The kids were delighted. They started peppering me with questions about the show: what songs had Billy played? Was that the only Billy Joel concert I'd seen? Was he good live or was he one of those "studio-only" types?
I answered as best I could -- 1999 was a long time ago when it comes to remembering specific playlists -- and then I started asking questions of my own. It turns out these two boys were seniors at Skyline High School, and Billy Joel isn't the only "oldies musician" they like. As one of them adamantly proclaimed, "We think our generation's music sucks." He then went on to explain how he figures it's all about looks these days instead of actual music, and how Janis Joplin wouldn't have a chance if she was just getting started because she was ugly as a stump, and what a damn shame that'd be because Janis had such a killer voice.
I was amazed these kids had even heard the name "Janis Joplin." Janis died in 1967, two years before I was born, a good twenty years before they were. That they'd actually listened to her music impressed me. That they liked her music gave me a curious sense of hope. Maybe everything isn't as disposable as I've been thinking lately. Maybe some things do last.
Talking with those two kids made my whole day.
And as I drove home, back to my no-personality suburb where I don't even know the names of most of my neighbors, I reflected that going to Sugarhouse for the afternoon had been the best thing I could've done for the sour mood I've been in lately. Because it's a place where people walk instead of drive, and where quote-unquote weird stuff thrives, and where lots of different types of people mingle at coffeehouses with sidewalk tables.
Yeah, I still love Sugarhouse.Posted by jason at April 5, 2005 11:13 PM