What we tolerate in our youth
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
July 12, 2017
The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I studied abroad in the Loire Valley of France. My classmates and I—young, short on cash, high on ambitions to glimpse as much of this wonderful country as possible, and emboldened by cheap American bluster and ignorance of the potential consequences—regularly rode public transport without paying for it. I once spent the entirety of the TGV trip between Tours and Paris (about the distance of Philly to NYC) shut in the bathroom, the Brothers Karamazov spread out on my lap. In the capital, we all hopped turnstiles in the Metro and pretended not to speak French when we were caught (most of the time—a startling amount of the time—it worked).
That was 15 years ago. It has been a very long time since I have been tempted to do anything like that. I thought about this a few days ago when, coming back to the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand from my mother-in-law’s home outside of Paris, streams of—this will make me sound not at all fun—rowdy youth of all backgrounds insolently scaled and hopped the exit barriers. I was profoundly aware that I now viscerally disliked the sight of it, just as I’d viscerally disliked the spectacle of a pack of beer-swigging white teens belting out soccer-hooligan anthems on a recent train trip south.
In the first case, what was done was mildly illegal; in the second, merely disorderly. But as my wife correctly pointed out, laughing at my annoyance, what I’m watching is also transitory—one day, these kids will look back on these little rebellions romantically. One of the hallmarks of getting older is an investment, above all, in order. Society depends on it.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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