Last weekend in Nashville, my sister discovered in her attic the newspaper equivalent of a time capsule.
“You might want this,” she said as she dropped a dusty, three-ring binder in front of me on her kitchen table. In 1992, my mother (now deceased) had made a scrapbook of my “Life Stories” columns from The Chattanooga Times.
I’ve never been one to fuss over old clips, but I spent about an hour flipping through the notebook. More than anything, it struck me that the collection of columns was a snapshot of life in America 19 years ago.
Chattanooga was just emerging from the early 1990s recession and was entering, well, the Age of the Aquarium. For historic context, think glamour photography at the mall, the early ascendancy of talk radio, Japan phobia, 8 percent home mortgages and a new guy running for president named Bill Clinton.
As I looked through the binder, I found myself wondering how the people in 1992 would have fared if fate had dropped them in the 21st century.
Then: I interviewed Bob Denver, former star of “Gilligan’s Island,” at Southern College (now Southern University). He was perhaps the most recognizable television star in the world, with the possible exception of Lucille Ball. Yet, at age 57, Denver was scratching out a living wearing a floppy white hat and signing autographs for college kids. He made no money from reruns of the show, he told me. (He died in 2005.)
Now: If Denver had been on a hit television show today he might have been as rich as, say, Jerry Seinfeld. Even if he had somehow managed to miss out on a “Gilligan’s Island” rerun payday, anybody with his level of fame today would be a big, big star on reality TV. At the very least he could have hosted “Survivor: Redemption Island.”
- Then: I interviewed Stephanie Schanzer, a 23-year-old actress who was visiting Chattanooga as a cast member in the touring musical “Oh! Calcutta!”, which was being staged at Memorial Auditorium.
Schanzer had a couple of nude scenes in the play, which caused a few raised eyebrows — nothing serious. I asked her if there was anyone whom she didn’t want to see her performances. “I don’t think I’d want my dad to come see it,” she said.
- Now: Daddy’s little girl would not be cavorting nude in Chattanooga today. There’s not a venue in the city that would book a stage performance with nude scenes now.
Why? It’s a toss-up as to whether the city is simply more conservative now (it is); or whether nudity has lost its shock value (it has). Simply put: The road of popular culture forked and left the naked lady in the median.
- Then: I interviewed a North Georgia couple — 20-something and childless — who had just bought their first house. It was a two-story Victorian-style house in a subdivision just off Interstate 75. They paid $118,000 and put $15,000 down from savings. Their combined household earnings were $60,000.
They were nervous. They looked at about 15 houses before settling on their starter home. The column was about how lower mortgage rates were making homeownership possible for a new generation of young adults.
- Now: Fast-forward 30 years. A hypothetical 2011, 20-something couple would watch HGTV for six months before ever contacting a real estate professional. During this time, they would learn to reject all houses without granite kitchen countertops in neighborhoods less desirable than where their parents live.
They would eventually hit the street looking for houses in the $300,000 range on household income of $90,000 (no money down), only to be told that mortgages on those terms went out in 2009.
After seeing what was available in the $180,000-range — houses with unfortunate countertops (ugh!) — they would resign themselves to renting a one-bedroom apartment in North Chattanooga while purchasing a large, drooling dog.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 757-6645.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...