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Yuppies in Eden


Perhaps the ultimate symbol of the yuppie era, not mentioned in the book, was the Baby Jogger. In a 2003 valedictory to the yuppie, Tom McGrath lauds “the glistening spoke-wheeled stroller that made its debut in the eighties. So many elements of yuppiness were present all at once in the Baby Jogger: quality time with your child, exercise, and a technologically advanced, ridiculously expensive thing everyone else could admire.”

Like hippies, yuppies were baby-boomers rebelling against their parents. But the yuppies weren’t rejecting their parents’ politics so much as their parents’ taste and budgetary constraints. Yuppies seemed to be apolitical. Urbanity, one of their namesake characteristics, was a reaction to the suburbs, where many of them had grown up. Their epicureanism was presumably a reaction to the canned, frozen, and processed food that most of them had grown up on. As for their signature ambition, well, BMWs and 5,000-square-foot raw loft spaces didn’t come cheap, even in 1984. But of course there was more to it than that, even in the cartoon version, since the self-improvement ethic extended to the physical realm as well. It’s hard to believe now, but there weren’t all that many gyms in Manhattan in 1979.

My first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, came out in September 1984, although it was set a few years earlier, in a grubbier, less prosperous New York. No one was more surprised than me when The Wall Street Journal described me as a spokesman for the yuppies. The protagonist of the novel was a downwardly mobile fact-checker and aspiring novelist, and unless I’m mistaken, he didn’t eat any raw fish in the novel. His best friend, Tad Allagash, was a likelier yuppie, an adman with entrée to all the right places, an uptown boy who knew his way around downtown. And they both did a lot of coke, a.k.a. Bolivian Marching Powder, which was to become the emblematic drug of the eighties, what acid had been to the sixties.

For a brief period, coke seemed like the perfect drug for bright, shiny overachievers. We knew that heroin was hopelessly addictive and speed killed, but coke seemed harmless. It helped you stay up all night, and the next day, if you felt a little comedown, it was a far more effective pick-me-up than a double espresso. Not long before the first DIE YUPPIE SCUM graffiti appeared, a friend of mine pointed out an ad in the Village Voice for something called Cocaine Anonymous. This was a source of great mirth for us. It was as if we’d stumbled across an ad for Cash Anonymous or Caviar Anonymous. (Back then, the idea of sex addiction would have sent us into paroxysms of hysteria.) We simply didn’t think it was possible to have too much of this particular good thing. In part, this was a function of limited budgets, my friends being in the arts and publishing. We weren’t buying eight-balls. But even those who were thought they had discovered the secret of perpetual motion. Even when John Belushi died, in 1982, we could tell ourselves that it was the heroin rather than the coke in his speedball that had stopped his heart. The decade would be pretty well advanced before we would notice that it was possible to have too much of a good thing. For some reason we imagined, for a while, that there was no payback. All at once, coke was everywhere: Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Seventh Avenue.

Who do you think Basquiat sold his $50,000 canvases to, his fellow junkies?

Coke was the perfect metaphor for a culture of runaway consumption, for a culture based on credit that believed in an endless postponement of consequences. Cocaine was literally a treadmill; there was no end point at which fulfillment was reached, where the exact right number of lines had been consumed. Fulfillment was always one line away. And eventually many of us learned that what went up must eventually come down, a lesson that was brought home on October 19, 1987, when the stock market came crashing down after a long and exhilarating bull run.

A few months after Black Monday, Newsweek declared the yuppie extinct, and various commentators have been writing obituaries ever since, the most powerful of which was a novel called American Psycho, published in 1991 by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis’s send-up of the materialism of the era is exhaustive to the point of feeling almost definitive. Patrick Bateman is the Über-yuppie whose hobbies just happen to include torture and murder. His taste is impeccable, and taste was the hallmark of the species. If someone asks, as my son did recently, “What is a yuppie?,” we need only point to Bateman:

“I worked out heavily at the gym after leaving the office today but the tension has returned, so I do 90 abdominal crunches, 150 push-ups, and then I run in place for twenty minutes while listening to the new Huey Lewis CD. I take a hot shower and afterwards use a new facial scrub by Caswell-Massey and a body wash by Greune, then a body moisturizer by Lubriderm and a Neutrogena facial cream. I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crêpe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool trousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass.”

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