Peak Suburban White Kid

Journalist Steve Rushin looks back on the golden era of the suburban white kid.


I grew up in the seventies, when caucasian children were dressed as Native Americans come Halloween, put on Greyhound buses, alone, for hours, and learned about sex by scoping their fathers’ dirty magazines. I think about it a lot. So does Sports Illustrated journalist Steve Rushin, who spent his Minnesota childhood locked in dusty pickup baseball games and out of his house by a mother anxious to keep things clean at whatever cost. Now that he’s a father, Rushin looks back in amazement on his own experience growing up unconstrained by authority, unconfounded by unrealistic expectations, and unburdened by any perspective on his privilege. Pop culture was great. TV was fun. Sports heroes were bigger than life. You could get where you needed to go on a bicycle.

Rushin explores that what it meant to be a suburban white kid with a Schwinn and a dream in his new memoir Stingray Afternoons. We spoke about what it was like growing up back in the golden age of suburban whiteness, how culture changed, and very real trade offs of progress.

Why do you think the 70s were such an amazing time to be a kid?

To me, a big difference between then and now is the rise of 24-hour cable news. When I was a kid in Bloomington, Minnesota, if a child was abducted in Phoenix or something, you didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t on the local news. Now anytime something like that happens you know about it. It’s worse if it happens in your state because there are alerts on your phone, or on the TV. It makes you feel as if it’s happening all the time everywhere.

I think that’s part of why almost everything my kids do is adult supervised. You pay a fee, they get a t shirt, and it’s formal organized activity. Almost everything when I was a kid was completely disorganized. Roughly 95 percent of the baseball I played was on my friend Kevin’s driveway, against the garage door. And 95 percent of the sports that my kids play now have formalized practices.

Yeah, sandlot pickup games seem to be a thing of the past. I’m very lucky. I live in a time capsule in a way. It’s this little neighborhood development, built around kids in a very specific way. There are no fences so kids can walk through people’s yards. It’s a holdout by design and, yeah, kids throw the football wherever. But I think it’s unusual. It’s a thing I had to seek out.

It’s funny you mentioned running through the yards. I lived at the edge of this subdivision, and I would cut through all the backyards to get to my friend’s houses. I knew which house had a dog and which had a fence. You’d see somebody’s underwear or bra hanging on a clothesline. But last night a friend and I were walking to the liquor store and the fastest way to do it was to walk through a yard in this little complex. And we were like, ‘Is this guy gonna come yell at us?’ I’m a 50-year-old man, but it’s just such an unusual experience now to be cutting through some stranger’s backyard. I did it every day as a kid. I don’t recall anybody ever saying anything. Now, you’re reluctant. Somebody’s gonna come out and have the legal right to shoot you or something.

Yeah, there’s a palpable sense of danger associated with strangers. Strangers used to be people you hadn’t met and now it feels like there’s a more ominous overtone. I’m sure our parents were naive, but those of us that made it through were probably happier for being left alone and not having a social calendar.

There’s a whole concept of “the play date.” The “date” part just drives me crazy. It was “Go play,” and now it’s “My mom will call your mom even though you live five doors down.” I understand it. Everybody’s doing it that way so that’s the way it is.

As you were writing this book, exploring this past playground you had as a child, were there times you closed your laptop and saw your kids and thought, “Man, how can I give them that?”

For two years while writing the book I listened almost exclusively to the seventies on seven on satellite radio. My 12-year-old daughter said to me once ‘Dad, I like more seventies music than contemporary music,’ and her friends kind of think that’s hilarious. She’s really into contemporary music as well. She saved up money and wanted to get Harry Styles’s new album and ended up buying the vinyl. She said ‘Dad, there’s so much cool stuff in here, there’s this 12-page booklet.’ I said ‘Yeah, this is how you used to listen to music.’

While I was working on the book I got a working, retro-fitted banana yellow rotary dial phone with 40 feet of coiled cord you have to untangle, and the kids thought that was so cool. They wanted to make phone calls on it and dial the phone. The first phone call we got, I picked it up and it was an automated robo-call from our local doctor’s office asking to press one to confirm an appointment.

I have four kids. 12, 10, 8, and 6. I’m conscious of changes. I want my kids to have the positive experience I had, but, as far as replicating my childhood, it can’t be done.

Do you think they have the sense, when they hear stories about your childhood, that they’re missing something or got the fuzzy end of the lollipop or whatever?

I think they find some of the lack of tech as something I missed out on. But I think they definitely would have liked to free roaming around the neighborhood until it was time to be called in for dinner. I told them about going to your neighbor’s house, knocking on the door and asking if ‘Bobby, can come out and play.’ I think they’d prefer that. I’m not one of these people who say, ‘Everything was great back when I was a kid.’ Not at all. But that specific loss of freedom is a major loss for youth culture and society in general.

You’re a sports guy, and it seems like a lot of the experiences of your childhood revolved around sports. What was it like growing up a fan in the seventies and how is it different today? Do you think it’s a product of the fan experience changing or players–and you know plenty of them–changing? I get the sense that they were rough dudes, but they could still be heroes because the public lacked a direct line into their lives. There wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle, there wasn’t Twitter—

And there wasn’t this ubiquitous wallpaper where you saw it all the time. Sports were more special. The NFL became hugely popular, I think, in large part because it was just on weekends so people weren’t just completely sick of it. But those guys also lived in our town. Athletes felt local. Rod Carew was the one great player on a terrible Twins team in the 70s, but he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the cover of Time magazine, he was on the network news chasing 1977, and that made me feel somehow part of it, because Bloomington was in the national news, and the Bloomington dateline was on eight piece stories in the newspaper.

Do you think the experience now, with kids having more access to their sports heroes, is a good thing or a bad thing?

They only have more access in a pretend way. They come through social media or a video feature on their phone. I think they are less accessible in a broader sense than they’ve ever been. The guy making $25 million a year is not even emotionally relatable. In the seventies, on the backs of all these baseball cards, there was a little cartoon and a one sentence caption. A lot of that was what the guy did in the off-season. ‘Here’s Lou Brock, Lou owns a flower shop in St. Louis!’ or “Larry delivers mail in the offseason!” and then there’d be the guy in a baseball uniform with a mail bag over his shoulder. You’re never going to see that on anybody’s card anymore. They’re part of an alien culture now.

What were the downsides? Let’s not go crazy with our nostalgia here. I mean obviously, things have gotten better in some ways. What’s better now? What’s the worst?

Oh my gosh, so much stuff is a lot better now. I think there’s probably a happy medium somewhere between ‘Go out and play all day and don’t come back until dinner,’ and the helicopter parenting. It’s probably good to know where your kid is. And things like not wearing seatbelts, who has nostalgia for that? I mean we were free-roaming around the back of the car, sleeping across the hump that concealed the drive-train. The vibrations would put you to sleep. I would ride on my mom’s lap in the shotgun seat of the car so that I’m essentially serving as her airbag. People actually have nostalgia for that stuff, but of course, it’s infinitely better and smarter that we’re not doing that nonsense today.

I also remember people would finish their McDonald’s and throw the bag out the window on the interstate. In my memory, it wasn’t even all that frowned upon until the Iron Eyes Cody anti-littering commercial campaign. The fact that became so iconic in part was because it was necessary. People had to be told by public service spots, ‘Hey, don’t throw all your trash out the window or into a stream.’

Being a parent was different too. Obviously, neither of us were parents in the 1970s, but I suppose that if I was it would have been different and I do look back with a twinge of jealousy because modern juggling just feels more involved.

When my dad came home from work he wasn’t getting calls. Occasionally he had the briefcase out in the evening and he’d be reading through memos, tearing them in half when he’d read them. But there wasn’t this constant looking at a phone, answering emails, all hours of the day and night.

One thing that I regret about my parenting and about this time of our culture is that I spend too much time looking at my phone when I’m with the kids. My dad would read the paper after dinner while watching the network news, and that was it, in like 30 minutes. And now it’s just this constant feed in your pocket and you feel kind of under siege. In the seventies when the news arrived once a day in your driveway, you just ripped the band-aid of bad news off at once and then braced yourself for 24 hours later. Now, it just feels like 24 hours of bad news streaming in your pocket, so I think that’s kind of a big picture thing that has changed for the worse.