Everyone else is busy looking forward to what 2016 will bring, so for my first post of the year I thought I’d go retro-hipster on you and look back to the 1970s. I see a lot of these crappy posts on Facebook like, “Only 60’s/70’s/80’s/90’s kids will remember…” But they’re filled with the same points again and againOften the re-poster is lazy and just changes the decade without altering the list, which results in crap lists that make no sense in a world where childhood lasts less than 20 years. and it’s often obvious stuff you could pick up from watching (say) “That 70’s Show”. But That 70’s Show is to the 1970’s what the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is to dying of scurvy on the high seas in 1675.
So I thought I’d try to dig deep and come up with a bunch of details from the time period that don’t make the usual lists, and maybe a few that don’t make it into movies based in the time period.
There were always cigarette butts EVERYWHERE, like leaves in autumn. The wind blew them around and usually they wound up between sidewalk cracks, or in the gutter where the street meets the curb. There were also lots of matches mixed in with these.
People tried to fix the cigarette litter by adding ever-more ashtrays to the environment. This was based on the faulty assumption that people threw their cigarettes on the ground because they couldn’t find an ashtray. The truth is that people threw their cigarettes on the ground because they didn’t give a shit, and because they enjoyed the sensation of flicking a used butt away. It was perfectly common to see some guy lean against the wall beside an ashtray and flick his cigarette into the street when he was done smoking.
Before you get mad at those folks, remember that a lot of them died of cancer.
Having a big smelly pile of ash and butts was kind of unsightly, so upscale places would try to fill ashtrays with something nice that would absorb the smell. Some were filled with small pebbles. Others had very fine white sand. This mostly hid the butts and ash, but (and I’m speaking from personal experience here) they were basically irresistible for kids to play in. This also blurred the line between ashtrays and not-ashtrays. Eventually every vaguely container-like object between shin and waist height became an ashtray. So in your typical waiting room you’d always find a few butts around the base of the potted plants.
The ubiquitous cigarette smoking infused the world with a particular smell. And I’ve never seen a movie or television show that really captured the particular look of sunlight entering a smoke-filled bar or restaurant. The smoke tended to gather near the ceiling and catch the light, letting you watch the air currents of the room in real time.
In addition to the cigarette litter there was a constant scattering of bottlecaps and pull-tabs around every convenience store, bar, and vending machine.
Television was filled with awful, awkward, uncomfortable advertising defined by low production values and dreadful jingles. Stuff like this:
The 50’s and 60’s are almost adorable in their advertising, even when using beloved cartoon characters to sell cancer-causing products. No, especially then. The absence of cunning and cynicism makes them feel like a modern-day parody of themselves. But that naivete is gone in the 70’s, replaced by the feeling of having a creepy old guy try to convince you he’s got some candy in the back of his van.
I remember a strange layer of non-painful static electricity that hovered an inch away from a television screen that had been on too long. Once you turned the TV off, you could trace patterns in this field and listen to it crackle.
Nobody could make speakers worth a damn. In-store music always had a strong tinny quality to it. So did most televisions and small radios.
Also mostly forgotten now: The sound of a radiator as it warms up and cools down. Yes, it’s basically just the pinging of metal expanding and contracting, except the tube-like nature of a radiator kind of gave it a musical quality. Radiator-heated rooms also had a particular smell that I’ve never been able to nail down. It was the smell of “heated metal”, sure. But I’ve boiled a lot of water on the stove in my lifetime and I’ve never smelled “radiator room” since they faded from use sometime in the early 80’s.
For whatever reason, department store flooring was shoddy. Floors were a little uneven. You couldn’t feel it, but you could see the distortions in the way light bounced off the linoleum.
Automatic doors weren’t sleek and silent like today. They made noise that varied between “mechanical murmur” and “heavy-duty power tool”.
Nobody ever wore seatbelts. Nobody. That’s not a big deal, since the seatbelts were mostly worthless. They were lap-belts, meaning they held your waist to the seat so you wouldn’t go flying through the windshield. A nice gesture, except that left your head to continue traveling forward until it found something to run into. But don’t worry, they planned for that! The dashboard was made from firm, stiff plastic with lots of pointy corners, enabling it to endure all the damage your face could dish out.
We’re used to seeing classic 50’s cars as gorgeous, restored museum pieces. But in the 70’s the only 50’s cars you saw were shitty old junkers covered with rust holes and mismatched paint. This is something movies still get wrong today. In the movies, everyone has showroom-fresh cars. (Because those are the only cars you can still find.) But back then the regulations were much more lax, meaning vehicles would stay on the road longer. It wasn’t unheard of to see cars that were missing a frame panel, or a bumper, or had rust-holes the size of a baby.
Maybe it’s my failing olfactory system, but I remember gas stations having a far more pronounced odor. Maybe it was the kerosene. Maybe it was the leaded gas. Maybe it was the more pungent car exhaust of the day. Whatever it was, it gave gas stations a particular aroma that has since vanished from the earth.
There were attendants everywhere. People to pump your gas, bag your groceries, and carry your goods out to your car. There was a cashier at every register every day, unlike today’s world where 8 out of 10 lanes are closed unless it’s Black Friday.
So that’s what I remember. It’s also why you don’t often hear me talking about the “good old days”. Screw those days. They sucked.
Here’s to the future.
 Often the re-poster is lazy and just changes the decade without altering the list, which results in crap lists that make no sense in a world where childhood lasts less than 20 years.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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