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To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895


Privilege sneaks up on you even (especially) when you aren't aware of it. Annie wasn't used to sophisticated political or social analysis when she went to college – who is? – but she thought of herself as downtrodden. Her daddy was dead, her momma was a part-time waitress with a modest insurance windfall and a drinking problem, her high school classmates leaned heavily to the redneck and the pregnant, and she herself knew altogether too much of Slim Whitman's and too little of J.S. Bach's music to feel at home in the eddicated classes.

She was also white, smart, healthy, off to school and on her way out. Which direction was more or less up for grabs. There were very intelligent kids in her class, headed for academe and/or DC. There were very rich kids in her class, not cattle-ranch rich but Beverly Hills rich, the kind who thought they were middle-class because their families didn't have Rockefeller money. There were of course very ordinary kids, your basic half-bright booboisie, backbone of the system, bending a bit at the time what with the draft and the civil rights movement and all, but ultimately prepared as everyone knew to straighten up and bear their mortgages like men or their babies like women, according to plan.

And then there were the college hippies. If you took them seriously, which no one did, themselves theoretically included, they were every parent's nightmare. They were throwing away their big chance, which wasn't always quite as obvious as they would have liked, perhaps because it wasn't always quite as true as they believed. There are two ways to be a young adult: ask your parents for help or tell them to fuck off. The latter was then in vogue.

Vietnam kept the boys in school (solidarity, novelty, boyfriends and all the usual reasons kept the girls) with the stick of lost draft deferments to go with the carrot of a general good time. This clouded the issue and encouraged conceptual dropping out, a performance art form that gained quite a vogue. Naturally, this also gave the temporary bohemians the excuse they craved for completing their education – I'd drop out, man, but it's just too heavy – but the difference between real rebels and adolescent actors was obvious right up front to those involved. In this they were ahead of their parents, some of whom were out- and even en-raged by trivial and passing fashions, while others were tolerant of what turned out to be harbingers of serious rejection that would hurt and baffle them in the years to come.

Annie learned to date in college, a major advance. In high school she was socially inept but she got a fresh start by leaving town and plunged right into the Sexual Revolution. The pill was on the market and STDs were something that used to happen before penicillin. The meaningful relationship soon became the snide synonym for the quick fuck but like all clichés it grew out of a seed of truth. If you dated you probably screwed and if you didn't like the date you didn't do it again. The horrified grown-ups assumed that the screwing was the goal or the payment or in the worst case both (nympho hooker), but the dogma was that the screwing was basically a by-product of life, desirable healthy fun, no more no less. The truth, of course, was in between, reality with its usual dull liberal tinge.

Annie dated a rich kid for a while and even visited his people in L.A. They liked her very much (this they said) and thought she would fill in some of the time before the heir looked for a wife quite adequately. This they would never have mentioned (unless it became absolutely necessary) but they used some kind of family telepathy to convey the concept to the youth in question. Annie was too smart not to pick up on the message, and he was too callow to admit it to himself, let alone her, so she dropped him in a moment of cold fury. He stared at her like the stuck pig he was, and she learned her place. Which wasn't what he thought it was.

She was ashamed of her own family, however, and mostly kept them quiet. It wasn't the money directly, because her cash in hand was well within normal limits even if her expectations were on the low side, it was straight class issues. She soon realized that a girl like her was expected, not just by her mother but also by both professors and classmates, to grab the opportunity to better herself and with the endearing dysfunctionality that was the core of her personality she responded by asking ... why? She hated her background but she hated worse being told to hate it. One solution was simply to conceal it.

Paradoxically, this lumped her in with the middle-class rebels, where she hid easily enough but lost her origins anyway. Some would say she embraced exactly what she was trying to avoid, only in a decadent variant. Oh well, life with the misfits was generally more appealing. The dope was good too.

Especially the acid. Most drugs are avenues of escape, either by oblivion (downers from booze to smack) or by emotional distance (tobacco, cocaine and uppers in general); d-lysergic diethylamide tartrate 25 (pleased to meetcha, don't be formal, most people just call me LSD but my friends know me as acid) was designed for introspective inquiry (by whom is a question that the great Dr Hofmann, who stumbled on its interesting properties way back in 1943, would like an answer to). When Annie got over her first reluctance, and made her first good connection, she jumped right in.

Those were the days when a dude who thought he was pretty darn progressive could say that he wouldn't mind if his old lady slept with someone but he'd feel betrayed if she took acid with another guy. Annie understood – this is a woman who heard Mick Jagger bitching, "Look at that stupid girl" and not only wasn't offended but identified with the singer by the simple expedient of transposing the sexes – although she wouldn't go quite that far. The amazing chemical intimacy of acid was simply too important to restrict. But for a deep reluctance to force anyone anywhere to do anything any time, she would have been right out there advocating spiking the water supply. Tripping was good for you. This basic lesson she learned in school and kept for the rest of her days.

What tripping is not good for, it is generally agreed, is being a good little worker bee. This was a looming problem as graduation approached, solved for some by graduate school (which took care of that old draft problem too), for some by genuflection to the mercantile economy, a repulsive option to potential lawyers and aspirant hippies alike, and for others by a fashionable embrace of voluntary poverty. For a lot of young men, this usually became a convenient cover for food stamps, low-rent dealing and living off their girlfriends. ("But honey, I couldn't live with myself if I cut my hair just to get a job.") The women did admittedly find it somewhat easier to get hired – clerking, waitressing, stripping and generally being exploited left and right. It was tolerable for a while, as long as the hours were short.

Annie picked up a righteous job at one of the brand-new natural foods stores, where they didn't pay much but actively wanted the help to identify with the customers. She shared a house on the west side of town with a fluctuating population of three to five others, sharing more or less all of the little they had. There were no prospects exactly, but the living was fair even if the options seemed few. She would have settled back into something no doubt, but for the next cataclysmic accident. Her mother died.

This was a blow, more of one than she had expected, but it sure did bust open the opportunities. Belle had become an awful old drunk by then, just about holding down a lunch-time shift at the diner. She resented her daughter's inattention and grumbled at her over the phone, but occasionally admitted, in the evening when alcoholic truth had crept up on her but not yet taken her down, that she was proud that the girl had graduated and happy that she had gotten away. In later years, Annie came to feel sorry for her mom, and to wish that she had known her better; then real memories would water down the sentiment, and she would feel sorry for herself yet glad she wasn't tied down to the old bat.

The shocking fact of being orphaned, at a time when everyone she knew had two parents alive, usually married to each other, set Annie apart a little; there was no one left to judge her, no one to react against. She was legally adult and effectively alone. If you prefer, legally alone and effectively adult. Ready or not, olly-olly-ox-in-free.

There is a privilege to the long childhoods of the soi-disant middle class, growing and finding themselves for twenty or thirty years, but the children are tied with gossamer to beds of down. They cannot lose the knowledge that supporting their struggles for self-realization are the hidden reinforcements of forgiveness and cold cash that they expect from the family that nurtures them like orchids. Helpless, Dylan pointed out, like a rich man's child.

Yeah, sure, say the poor if they have time to think, trade you in a heartbeat. Damn right.

Annie at twenty-one had been cut loose and given one big chance. There was no net below her tightrope now – she had never really expected one – but there was padding in the form of Belle's estate. She sold the house, with some interference from her repulsive Uncle Homer, and stubbornly insisted with a great stone face on bringing the cash out of the county. Graduate school, she muttered vaguely, to keep him quiet, maybe next year.

And started making plans to travel.

Seeing the world was a classic fantasy, but all too few fulfilled it. The rich kids were of the opinion that they couldn't afford to waste their precious time; the poor kids knew damn well they just didn't have the cash. Given daring, deprivation and possibly petty crime, either could overcome the obstacles but neither normally would. So those who did gained a cachet not to be scorned. They were winners in the officially unacknowledged competition of counter-culture status-seeking, flinging aside the pettiness of wage slavery for the freedom of the road. Traveling was a worthy ambition in itself, a goal you were lucky to attain, a source of respect and envy.

Annie's privilege was Annie's curse: the freedom of a balloon comes only when you loose the tether.