My generation was probably among the last to grow up offline, unconnected. The internet didn’t happen until after I was already out of college. It actually specifically “happened” during the two year period between 1995 and 1997 while I was in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I remember coming home and hearing a foreign language, with talk of URL’s and HTTP this and WWW that. Every TV commercial suddenly featured an encouragement to “go online and find us at dubya dubya dubya dot…” One of the first things developed on the internet was the chat room, and instant messaging platforms like ICQ. Ways of interacting socially online, anonymously. It was like virtually cruising.
Our past time when I was in high school, much like that of our parents before us, as documented by Ron Howard in American Graffiti, was cruising. Not surfing the web, but physically cruising around in our cars. Each town had its own cruise zones. As we lived far out in the countryside not near any major towns, that meant driving to a nearby town to cruise. Pittsburg, Kansas had its strip, cruising up and down Broadway from the Sonic Drive-In to the Meadowbrook Mall. Up and down, back and forth all night long. Car loads of guys looking for car loads of girls. Sometimes you would park and get in with some of your friends and cruise with them for a while. Sometimes you would chat with girls at a stop light and pull into the Sonic to chat for a while. But mostly, for shy boys, it was a night full of driving back and forth with a couple of friends, listening to music.
I never cruised too much in Pittsburg. Mostly because I worked in Lamar, Missouri, and it was a long drive across the border to Kansas. Most of my cruising was done on the Lamar square, and Lamar was where most of my friends lived. Lamar, like many American small towns, was built around a town square centered around the courthouse. Like a very miniature beltway, there was an inner loop going clockwise around the courthouse and an outer loop going counter-clockwise, with parking spaces between the two. I worked at the Wal-Mart in Lamar during high school, enriching the Walton clan on the backs of 16-year old minimum wage labor. Most of my wages ($3.85 per hour) went toward gas to pay for my cruising, and to pay for the 45-mile round trip from home to school to work. Fifteen miles to school in the morning, another fifteen to work in the afternoon, and fifteen more back home at night. After work we would go to the square and cruise. Going around and around the courthouse, making lap after lap like drivers in the slowest endurance race ever. Sometimes you would see a friend and pull into the inner spaces to chat. If it was warm you would get out and stand around. If it was cold you would sit in your cars, chatting through the windows. Then back into the race, round and round again.
The culmination of the weekend during the summer months was the drive-in movie. We would cruise until just before dark, and then drive out to the movie. Nobody cared what was playing, we were only there for the social scene. Everyone would take a lawnchair and we would sit outside of our cars, talking and socializing. The movie always had a break in the middle for intermission. Which was mostly a chance for the operators of the drive-in to make some money selling concessions. After the movie it was a procession of cars going back to the square to cruise. Sunday night was the most popular movie/cruise night for high-school kids.
Today’s generation has grown up with different social interactions. I have no idea if kids still cruise. I don’t want to be the creepy old guy driving around on a weekend night to find out, even for the sake of literary research. But I assume that most social interactions these days are electronic. Through internet or phone, instant message or online gaming. Cruising is now virtual. Chatting with invisible strangers. Less chance of getting beaten up by some muscle-bound thug for looking askance at his girlfriend, but also less chance of hooking up with an actual girl.
I don’t know what this will mean for the future. Whether future generations will be better or worse at social interaction remains to be seen. I feel like cruising is now part of a bygone era. Many towns have enacted “no cruising” laws. Gas is too expensive to waste driving around in circles nowadays, anyway. So maybe it’s not entirely a bad thing to bid farewell to this practice. But I’m surprised that no one has invented a cruising simulation game yet for nostalgic aging Gen-Xers. Where we could all meet up virtually on-line and recreate the experience of meeting up in person. Because the future is electronic.