by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 10, 2001
PRINCETON, N.J. -- After a year of pretending that we were already in the 21st Century, we now are, apparently with universal agreement, in the 21st Century. And thank goodness for that.
It will no longer be necessary to go through the routine of explaining that a one followed by a zero, known in higher mathematics as "ten," is the end of the first decade, not the beginning of the second.
But why is there such consensus now when a year ago those of us who knew the truth felt like the brainy members of an exclusive club?
Two answers suggest themselves. One, there was money to be made on the Millennium Bubble, the delusion that any year with that many zeroes had to be the beginning of something big. If you had sitting on a railroad siding behind your clothing store a boxcar loaded with tee-shirts reading BRIDGE THIS TO THE 21ST CENTURY! you did not feel like carrying that inventory, with the threads slowly reverting to their normal beige, for 12 months.
There might have been other monetary motives, but I have personal knowledge of this one as a fact, having got it from the proprietor of Soup's Indubitable Duds ("Dress Like You, Like, Like!") who does not desire further identification.
And, two, it was probably a good idea to practice the thing for a year. Not only necessary, but fun. I admit that I myself got a kick out of writing in this very space that some event of the month before had taken place "toward the end of the last century." There were plenty of people around in my boyhood who used phrases like that (accurately) about their personal lives, so when I was able to do it (inaccurately) I felt almost as if I had finally grown up.
So. Now that we're finally here, how is it for you? Good, I hope. As for myself, the mere numerals 21 have left me feeling more or less as I did when I woke up on June 1, 1950. I was at last 21 -- that magical age. I was now a man in every legal sense. I could ignore my parents. I could wear a zoot suit, a Nehru suit, a birthday suit. I could even vote.
Unfortunately, I was also at that precise moment on a barge on the Rhine, working my way back upriver to Mainz. My concerns were to keep my Dutch bicycle, made for sedate Sunday outings on ideally flat paths along tulip-lined canals, and therefore goalless and with an immense chainwheel, from being mocked into extinction by my fellow bargemen, who called it a Sontagsfahrrad, a slur so vicious that I cannot translate it in a family newspaper.
The other was to keep Fraulein Schultz, an employee of the barge company enjoying a free trip to see her mother, from putting her hands all over my now irresistibly mature body. Der Himmel ist voller Baskengeigen! (The heavens are full of Basque violins!) she kept saying, apropos my new age, Einundzwanzig, which seems to have, at least in German, a fatal sexual allure.
She was probably no more than twice my age, though to the infinitely prejudiced eyes of my new manhood she looked like an obscenely fit octogenarian. I forget how exactly I finally discouraged her. I think I admitted to latent dyslexia, which so terrified this typically hygiene-mad German maiden that she transferred her attentions to another bargeman forthwith.
Remind me, please, reader, of why I am disclosing all this to you. Oh, yes. Twenty-one.
Well, later that same year, on a different river altogether, there was another ... but I digress.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of comparative Literature at Princeton University.