At my recent 25th reunion at an East Coast college, my friends and I were amused by one of the commencement forums called “Rung by Rung: Alumni Reflect on Their Journey to the Top.” Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love to hear from content-experts in their fields, but the idea of reflections on the (often) cut throat journey to the top featuring people who went to work for Wall Street firms after college, made millions of dollars and never looked back felt so 1998 to me. This Minnesota girl would rather swim through milfoil in Lake of the Isles on a hot August day than sit on a panel with that name. For our next reunion, I might ask to moderate a panel called, “Midwestern Mid-size Managers More or Less Make Ends Meet.” We might as well give those graduating seniors a taste of reality.
After 25 years, I was proud to see that my nerdy friends became college professors, teachers, computer scientists and policy wonks. The more suave in our group got their law degrees. The “Rung by Rung” panel was comprised of those students we called the beautiful people (BP) — those who somehow managed to live in off-campus apartments with fireplaces in historically significant buildings, eat in restaurants, go to parties with JFK Jr. and wear fashionable clothing.
At the reunion I talked to one of these BPs whom I had always found to be nasty and slick as an oil spill (especially when, after an unfortunate party sophomore year, he and his friends tormented me by blasting the Rolling Stone’s “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” from the dorm window). Now graying, he joined the conversation I was having with someone else and I learned that, rung by rung, he had become a bigwig at Goldman Sachs and eventually ran the firm’s London office. He said he was now “retired” which, he explained with an insincere self-deprecating laugh, the British called, “tending his garden.” Guarding his buried treasure is more like it.
During college I aspired to be a BP, to go to New York or D.C. — to live in the bright lights and fast lane. So I’ve always felt a bit sheepish that by Labor Day weekend after my graduation in 1985 I was settled back in my hometown. I tried to leave Minneapolis — I really did — but this city is such a seductress with her offer of arts jobs, affordable places to live, plenty of young professionals who loved the outdoors and live music, the lakes, thunderstorms and the endless sky.
To compensate for my unadventuresome return, I rented an apartment in a seedy building near Loring Park. I became friendly with — but not a customer of — the drug dealer next door. Then, late one night, one of his associates knocked on my door and “offered” to walk me to a near-by ATM machine so that I could withdraw cash to help my neighbor post bail*. I declared defeat and moved to a duplex in Uptown — blocks from where I lived as a child.
At the reunion I discovered that a majority of my good friends — kids from Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, New York, and California — had bought homes very close to where they grew up. None of us is making millions on Wall Street but perhaps we were the lucky ones who had a place in this world to where we were happy to go home.
(* Three months after I moved he tracked me down and paid me back.)
Jocelyn Hale is executive director of The Loft Literary Center.