It was 1980. I was six years old and living in New York City when this rosy-cheeked smiling old man was elected President. All I knew was that he beat the peanut guy with the funny teeth.
My father told me that our new leader was an ex-sportscaster nicknamed ‘Dutch’ who later became a movie star and played the great Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. That was good enough for me and I nodded agreeably when he told me that I would be part of “the Reagan Generation.”
It was cool to have a sportscaster in the Oval Office but I didn’t think “the Gipper” would have any real effect on my life of freeze tag and Nerf football. I was wrong. I was only six, but it became jarringly clear what the ‘Reagan Revolution’ would mean to the fun and games that filled my days.
I didn’t know what a budget cut was but huddled homeless families were all of a sudden as much a part of my street as mail boxes and pretzel vendors. Every walk to school meant seeing a woman beg for change as children my own age huddled underneath her arms. She would fiercely scope every face for eye contact, while her kids stared at their feet almost shaking with shame.
I didn’t know what a “shuttered VA hospital” was but I remember how the sidewalk seemed to sprout men in their late 30s caked in dirt and swaddled in army jackets. They sat on the subway grates, dog tags swinging from their necks, howling to no one about Viet Nam, and scaring the hell out of me.
I didn’t know about AIDS–at the time ‘Ayds’ was a trendy diet candy. But my mother worked in an HIV clinic back when it was known as “The Gay Plague” and I remember her coming home in tight lipped frustration that there was no money for beds let alone research to combat what was killing many of our friends including the father of a buddy.
I didn’t know about wars in Central America and how they were funded. But I saw crack cocaine bleed the city and hollow people out from the inside, emaciating the Viet Nam vets and homeless moms alike.
The one thing I did know about was sports. But it was hard to play when the rims were being taken down from the neighborhood courts and the rec. centers were torn up and replaced by boutiques. It was hard to play when my mother wanted me nowhere near the park as the sun set.
This President Reagan seemed through my young eyes to be feasting on our city’s despair. He seemed to grow in stature, more powerful and ruddy cheeked with every homeless body and empty vial. The former depression-era sports caster was doing a play by play of my city falling apart. Like his old days when Dutch described lively action from an empty radio station, creating his own reality of sights and smells from wire reports, he would come onto TV and describe with optimism a world that for me was increasingly bleak. It became clear that it wasn’t my city at all, but his. I was just living in it.
By the time his two terms ended, I was 14 and furious at the world around me. I still played sports. But the time for games was done. Both political parties are coming together this week to praise Ronald Wilson Reagan. I would prefer to bury him.