I ONCE heard comedian Bill Cosby do a hilarious routine about how unhip he thought his father was when he was growing up.
To his horror, Mr. Cosby said he had come to view teen-agers in the same disdainful manner that his father had viewed him, his friends and the music they enjoyed.
As a youth, I swore that I would never grow cranky, talking endlessly about how things were better when I was young. Much to my chagrin, the very thing that I vowed would never happen has come to pass: I am a cranky middle-aged, African-American male who frequently waxes nostalgic about "the old days."
Over the past six months, I've spent a lot of time discussing my youth with the 30 young African-American males whom I have worked with in a local AIDS education program.
Program participants are Baltimore youths who have been convicted of serious crimes, served time in juvenile detention facilities and are on probation. They enroll at the suggestion of their probation officers.
Interestingly, the teen-agers aren't bored by my stories (that's partly because they haven't had an adult male share in depth personal history with them). They crave to know more details about what it was like to grow up in the '60s.
In a turn of events that serves to underscore the sad state of inner-city living for today's youths, these teen-agers tell me that they wish they had been born at an earlier time, or at least that societal conditions were more like they were in 1969.
Initially, they were amazed by some of the simplest things that I shared. For example, they found it hard to believe that 30 years ago, I used to regularly walk from West Baltimore to East Baltimore without worrying that someone would try to shoot me.
Of course, their reality is very different. They live under the threat of the gun 24 hours a day. Matters that were settled with fists when I was 16 are often resolved with gunfire now.
As I listen to their horror stories, I begin to understand why they long for simpler times. As a youth, I was occasionally threatened with guns and knives, but such incidents were exceptions, not the norms of my existence.
Like them, I grew up in a neighborhood mired in poverty, but jobs were more plentiful then.
A generation ago, Baltimore had 30,000 summer jobs for youths through the Neighborhood Youth Corps. These days, the city is lucky to provide 5,000 such jobs.
Employment is a major concern for my students, who face a more severe poverty than I am used to seeing. They need jobs not for luxury items, but to help their families buy food.
Every time I talk to my young students I feel deep sorrow for them. They will never know the sense of safety I enjoyed. They will not share the optimism that things are getting better.
They look like the males I grew up with, but their reality is as grim as much of the hard rap music that they love.
All of this has left me questioning why my generation, which enjoyed so much has left so little for those who followed us in the ghetto.
We left them worse social conditions and less hope than the generation that lived through segregation left us. When I look in the mirror these days, I ask myself what have I done each day to make life a little better for my inner-city warriors who try so hard to be tough on the outside. My mirror is not so kind some days.
R. B. Jones is a Baltimore writer.
Pub Date: 1/11/99