top of page

1994 Was a Prison of My Own Making 25 years ago was yesterday and a million years ago.

By Caity Weaver

May 14, 2019We tend to recall the past not on its own merits but in terms of what it lacked in retrospect. Virtually the entire period of planetary existence is lumped into the condescending unit “before Christ.” Our hominid ancestors are described not as astonishing animals that harnessed the destructive force of fire, but “prehistoric” — people who didn’t know how to write.

In 2019, we remember 1994 as a time not with answering machines, a digital Encyclopaedia Britannica and the IBM Simon, but before Google, before texting and before iPhones.

Why are we remembering 1994? Good question. It’s one I asked and was asked many times over the course of my experimental week attempting to live in 2019 like it was 1994. The best answer I got from my boss — that 1994 was 25 years ago — is, generally, not a sound enough reason to begin operating outside the norms of contemporary society at great personal inconvenience, but then again, few workplaces are as accommodating to caprice as The New York Times Styles section, in any year. Creative forces beyond my control had designated spring 2019 as the time to revisit Generation X. How are they doing? What are they doing? What do they remember? And what do they love?

The answer is: 1994.

Why? Because it was 25 years ago.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

I was four years old when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, an iconic 25 years ago. I consider myself an average American, which is how I know the average American spent 1994 eating Dunkaroos in the back seat. Yet some Americans were not in the back seat: They were in the office. They were in brand-new restaurants that opened in 1994. They were in phone booths, not necessarily to urinate. They were smoking cigarettes — not on domestic flights under six hours, thanks to a then-recently-passed draconian law prohibiting this, but just about everywhere else. When they gazed at their hands, they saw not a bewitching black glass rectangle that would show them anything from anywhere in the world, but appendages resembling twin opaque flattened jellyfish with stick-like tentacles — i.e., hands.

My assignment was to attempt, for one week, to live, 24/7, as if it were 1994. Or, rather, to pretend to inhabit a version of 2019 in which the evolution of technology and culture had ceased 25 years prior — an idea that melded the elegance of Einstein’s notions about time’s illusory nature with the perplexing militance of a living history flash mob of one.

How to Plan a Time Travel

Under the terms of the exercise, I would 1994-ify everything within my purview. For instance, while I would not be required to pantomime working at a phantom New York Times office inside the dual-level bowling alley and entertainment complex that now occupies the site of the newspaper’s 1994 operations, I would avoid catching B trains to work since they did not stop at my neighborhood subway station in 1994. To the extent possible, I would use only products invented in or before 1994. I would dine exclusively at restaurants that opened that year or earlier. My irrational need to receive constant updates on all current events and internet gossip (normally fulfilled by compulsively checking my Twitter feed and remaining in round-the-clock text message communication with friends checking their own slightly different Twitter feeds) would have to be satisfied by the newspaper, the radio and network news.

Read more about the tech, music, style, books, rules, films and pills that scream Gen X.

Aside from figuring out how to get from anywhere to anywhere (which, I eventually discovered, was sadly nearly impossible in 1994), the most taxing element was preparation. At work, my primary tools would be paper — a kind of very, very thin, stiff, dry, fragile fabric for writing on — pens, and my landline desk phone. As a Styles section reporter working in 1994, I almost certainly would not have had personal internet access at work, so I would reduce my 2019 computer to word processor functionality — no email. I would also relinquish access to my workplace’s warren of internal online chat rooms, 29 of which I am currently a member — three of which might be described as having at least some relation to my actual job and two of which are dedicated to revealing locations of free food and leftovers inside the Times building.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

1994 would extend to my personal life too. The day before my new year began, I made a list of those acquaintances with whom I had interacted at least twice over the past three weeks — about thirty in all — and emailed them a note explaining that, while I would be unreachable for the next week by email, text message, instant message, Instagram direct message, Twitter direct message, tagged tweet or tagged Instagram comment, I was not in danger, in rehab, or even out of town, and I would love to hear from them by phone (including at my work extension) if they were inclined to talk or make plans. (Few were.) I transformed my iPhone into a landline by disabling notifications for every application except calls, and leaving it plugged into a wall outlet in my kitchen. I printed out seven pages of phone contacts because I did not know any of my friends’ phone numbers, nor indeed the phone number of the man I have been dating for four years and am engaged to marry.

I bought a genuine 1994 Radio Shack television set with a built in VCR on eBay. It arrived broken. A Radio Shack cassette tape recorder also purchased on eBay also arrived broken. 1994 was not that long ago, but everything from 1994 was broken, or seemed so. I fretted that the 1994 Sony Walkman I received was also broken because no music emanated from it when I turned it on, but then I discovered that the Walkman merely demanded headphones before it would play (static-clogged radio stations or a tape of loon calls I bought at a thrift store for a quarter). I worried that the alarm clock I bought as a stand-in for my phone alarm — a rotund plastic polar bear sunbathing in a lounge chair at what nearby signage indicates is the North Pole, holding a bottle of Coca-Cola in each hand, set atop a circular red digital clock base printed with the Coca-Cola Company logo — was broken, because I couldn’t get it to sound. The problem turned out to be a missing battery; it had been so long since I’d used an electronic with a battery cartridge I was intended to be able to open (or locate) that I’d almost forgotten to check. (I do suspect the artifact may still have been broken, because, although I eventually got it to sing “Coca-Cola’s always the one! Whenever there is fun there’s always Coca-Cola! Yeah!” on repeat, the bear never rotated slowly, the way it allegedly did on all the other 1994 suntanning-bear-enjoying-two-bottles-of-Coca-Cola alarm clocks for sale on eBay.)

Because I couldn’t bear the idea of giving up even a single week of planning my wedding, I bought the 1994 Special Celebrity Wedding Issue of People magazine (which featured Marla Maples — married late December 1993 to the “tycoon” Donald Trump — on the cover) as well as the 308-page 1994 “Bride’s All New Book of Etiquette.” (Page 213: “‘Don’t DJ’s show up at parties in jeans, wearing gold chains?’ Simply specify that you would like the DJ to wear formal attire.”) I ordered the cheapest cookbook from 1994 I could find, which was titled “Cooking Light Cookbook 1994.” I borrowed a 1994 Zagat from a co-worker.

To help me identify buildings it was safely 1994 to go into, I acquired “New York, a Guide to the Metropolis” a walking tour book published in 1994 that is still recommended reading (by the government of New York City) for individuals hoping to obtain an official sightseeing guide license. For entertainment, I bought the books “The Celestine Prophecy” and “Prozac Nation.” And for exercise, I purchased guided aerobic VHS tapes on eBay.

Because of a 1994 Times trend story about humans using horsehair products, I purchased Mane & Tail shampoo and conditioner (which seem to be sold only in humongous horse sizes) at my local drugstore, as well as L’Oreal Paris True Match Foundation (debuted 1994), Maybelline Great Lash mascara (1971) and Noxzema Original Cleansing Cream (1914). I bought a 1,188 page 1994 manual with the deceptively simple name “Using the Internet,” which featured chapters like “BBS, UUCP, and Other Polled Services” that were incomprehensible to me, a person who exists more on the internet than in real life.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

The toughest thing about going to 1994 would be leaving behind my fiancé, Taylor, particularly as I would still be living in our shared apartment. Taylor was proud of my journalistic ambition — “This can’t affect my life. This cannot affect me. I’m not getting paid,” he said when I revealed the assignment — and he would, in many ways, bear the brunt of it. For a week, he and I would be unable to enjoy one another’s company while watching streaming and OnDemand TV programming in stunning 4K resolution, which made me realize the majority of our free time is spent enjoying one another’s company while watching streaming and OnDemand TV programming in stunning 4K resolution, the picture quality of which is sometimes so crisply detailed it borders on hallucinatory. All of our social plans would have to be decided in advance, since he would be unable to reach me unless I happened to be near the kitchen, at my desk at work or already with him. Most annoyingly for both of us, Taylor (along with everyone I encountered) would be banned from using his smartphone to inform me of the time, the forecast, directions, invitations, addresses, phone numbers, recipes, news he had learned from digital sources and the easily researched answers to any of my spontaneous questions.

But back to the whole reason I agreed to the 1994 endeavor: cognitive dissonance that leaves me unable to calibrate effort and reward. In this instance, it manifested as a willingness to give up most of the things I enjoy about my life in order to buy Dunkaroos with company money.

A Day in the Life of 1994

I had long since stopped seeing Dunkaroos (with that distinctive kangaroo mascot whose job or obsession it is to dunk small tasteless cookies into inch-deep depressions of chocolate icing) in grocery stores, but it was on Amazon I confirmed that the fertile green Earth I inhabited as a child is now a post-Dunkaroo apocalyptic wasteland. Currently, there is one product labeled “Dunkaroos” — in a highly unfamiliar and suspect Dunkaroo font — available on Amazon for the heart-attack-inducing price of $19.98. This appears to be an imported Australian variety of the snack distributed by a different company. (General Mills discontinued the original product years ago.) I investigated the possibility of purchasing Dunkaroos on the Dark Web, and discovered to my horror that three people in Australia had recently been charged with running a syndicate that moved roughly $12 million worth of drugs “disguised as candy” across the country. I envisioned myself ripping the foil from a pack of hard-won Dunkaroos and finding only LSD tabs inside. I couldn’t handle that kind of letdown. I resigned myself to purchasing only regulation 1994 Gushers and Fruit Roll-Ups. And then also the fake Dunkaroos, which were terrible.

The first thing I noticed at midnight when the clock struck 1994 was the sudden silence in the room. The second thing was the deafening volume of my inner monologue. I was getting ready for bed, performing the half-dozen mostly mindless tasks that, because they occupy my hands, normally provide a treasured window for listening to an audiobook or podcast. As I smeared surprisingly solid and burning Noxzema cream across my cheeks, however, all I could hear were my own thoughts. Tedious thoughts. Thoughts about what I was doing at that very moment, what I would do in the seconds that followed and how loud my inner monologue was. I can’t live with this woman for a week, I thought, and it reverberated through my head like a shout.

A couple days into the experiment, I would realize something even stranger: I no longer had any inner monologue at all.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

Every day in 1994, I woke up — “Coca-Cola’s always the one!” — and listened to the local jazz radio station while getting dressed in one of the 1994 period ensembles generously lent to me by a co-worker (a beige power suit with prominent shoulder pads one day; a silver vinyl miniskirt the next). About 20 minutes into my first morning, I learned from NPR that Julian Assange had been arrested in London, which is normally the kind of information I’d receive seconds after opening my eyes, while scrolling through my phone in bed half-asleep. In addition to providing brief news summaries, the radio was my primary source of weather forecast information. It was incorrect every single day, but never more so than the morning I embarked on a 35-block pilgrimage to visit Manhattan’s four remaining pay phones (all on the Upper West Side) and was forced to spend 20 minutes standing under scaffolding, filthy city rainwater soaking the pages of my handwritten observations. (“Pigeon in second booth.”)

There were challenges indoors as well. At work, I discovered I had no way to access my voice mail because I had never set it up. (Since I never give out that phone number — since I did not even know that phone number — I had always figured I would not receive important calls on it.) I dialed the office helpline to ask for assistance resetting my PIN, and received the good news that a temporary password link had been sent to my email address.

“I can’t access my email right now,” I said.

“You’re locked out of that too?” the gentleman helping me asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s on purpose.”

Because I had presented him with a unique problem — not a person who was unable to access the link, but a person who refused to — we remained at an impasse for several minutes.

Reality Bites

People accepted “I am in 1994” as an excuse to varying degrees. The most common response was a burst of disbelieving laughter, followed by a declaration that that person was “actually kind of jealous” of my technology fast. A few people ignored the construct, continuing, I discovered later, to send me important, time-sensitive information in formats I was temporarily unable to receive (in effect creating their own false version of 2019 in which I was not inhabiting a false version of 1994). One person seemed to think I was lying to get out of looking at a dog’s Instagram account.

The most time-consuming task of my week was identifying places to go, and figuring out how to go to them with paper maps. I spent hours methodically calling restaurants listed in the Zagat (under “Fireplaces,” for instance) to see if they still existed. They don’t. Or, anyway, most of them don’t. The majority of numbers just rang forever, although one call was answered with the confusing but chipper greeting “Hello, ‘Live’!” I had dialed a Chilean restaurant from 1994, and had reached an employee of “Live with Kelly and Ryan” at her desk.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

In the weekly allotment of time I normally spend half-browsing the internet while half-watching TV, I read three books. (“The Celestine Prophecy”: Didn’t expect it to be a guide to turning myself invisible. “Prozac Nation”: Exhausting. “The Bean Trees”: Introduced me to Coca-Cola cake.) I reorganized my dresser and my closet. Taylor and I went for walks. One evening, I even cracked open “Cooking Light” and prepared my sweetheart a complete meal called “Dinner for Your Sweetheart,” which was disgusting.

I should have known it would be, because while light cooking is not a radical concept, many of the dishes depicted in this book were unrecognizable to me, a townsperson from the future.

What is neon green and white and perfect for “Lunch After the Workout”? I still couldn’t tell you, despite scrutinizing the recipe. (Vichyssoise?) What is my “favorite ice milk”? What is “ice milk”?

As I set to work preparing the bruschetta and “vegetable-cheese” linguine the recipe described as “an elegant yet easy meal that’s simple enough to make after a day at work” (when “it’s just you and your beloved”), I learned that nutritious cooking in 2019 is a distant cousin of the 1994 version. Vegetables were sautéed in cooking spray. I was prohibited from adding salt to the pasta water, yet instructed to spread a thick mixture of goat cheese, Parmesan and “nonfat cream cheese product” over each slice of bruschetta. Because the linguine ingredients did not include salt, butter, olive oil or even garlic, it wasn’t clear to me what was supposed to add flavor to the pasta; the final answer appeared to be nothing.

(Also, despite appearing in the “Quick & Easy” chapter, the recipe included a chocolate meringue dessert — topped with chocolate frozen yogurt and chocolate syrup — that, per the instructions, required over three hours to execute.)

I dressed the noodles. I arranged strips of wet peppers into heart shapes on the pieces of bruschetta, as directed. I summoned my sweetheart.

“What do you think?” I asked as we ate the warm-paper-flavored meal.

“It’s not bad,” said Taylor. “It’s like they made something inherently kind of unhealthy, flavorless.” He advised me to add some of the leftover goat cheese to my linguine.

“Is it good?” I asked, watching him do it.

“Not really,” he said with a shrug, “but it gives it a taste.”

I told him dessert would be ready shortly after 11 p.m.

Back to the Future

While I will stop at nothing to avoid making or receiving a phone call in 2019, phone conversations in my private 1994 provided valuable lifelines to the loved ones and entertainment news from which I had been cruelly severed. I felt adored when Taylor called me one morning at work to ask if I’d “heard the big news.” (“No!” I exclaimed. “I bet you didn’t!” he said, and hung up.) I teared up with gratitude when I arrived home to a friend’s detailed voice mail explaining that the television host Wendy Williams was filing for divorce, and how it was going. Contributing to my isolation was the fact that calls made from inside The New York Times office appear to originate from a spam number ending in “1234” — a detail I’d forgotten to warn people about beforehand, which resulted in most of my outgoing calls being ignored. The only person I ever managed to reach on the first try was my cousin, because she assumed I was a telemarketer and was going to let her baby daughter field the call since she enjoys babbling at the phone.

By the fourth or fifth day of 1994, I’d stopped impulsively grabbing at empty spaces on my desk for my cellphone, but my reflex to quickly Google things never deteriorated. I began compiling my questions — a list of itches to be scratched at a later time — and spent the final day of my week at the Brooklyn Public Library, to see what percentage of answers I could find in books. About 17 percent, it turned out. While I was not able to learn the location of the nearest FedEx, the best-selling compact mirror of all time or the name of a green Chanel nail polish I had recently seen in a discount store, I did learn the ingredients in Coca-Cola cake, where Josephine Baker was born (St. Louis), and what happened to Joan Lunden after 1994.

Photo Illustration by Tala Safie/The New York Times

I had been introduced to the concept of Joan Lunden only a few days prior, via her 1994 workout tape “Workout America.” It opens with a clip montage of Ms. Lunden horseback riding, bungee jumping, ice climbing, fly fishing, ice skating, playing baseball, and, again, horseback riding, before cutting to her on set in a TV studio where she observes, “Boy, is life fun these days!” Then: “Hi, I’m Joan Lunden. You probably know me best as the co-host of ‘Good Morning America.’”

I had not known Ms. Lunden was ever a co-host of “Good Morning America.” I had simply purchased her tape online because it was released in the correct year for my irreverent assignment. But, marching in time with Joan and her friends, alone in my living room, I discovered the only thing about 1994 I truly enjoyed: workout videos. I loved the inane prerecorded affirmations. I loved learning individual dance routine components and putting them all together at full speed. I loved the way Joan said, “and my personal favorite, papaya” when describing her refrigerator “filled with melons, and berries, and my personal favorite, papaya.”

I copied down the Dewey Decimal number for her 2015 book “Had I Known,” and located it on a shelf. The subtitle took the wind out of my sails — “A memoir of survival.” In the first pages, I learned that Joan had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. The news made my silly assignment feel stupid. Impudent, even. Joan had seemed to delight in her health on the tape in 1994. Twenty-five years later, it was a success to be surviving.

I left the library to head to dinner with someone I had never met at a place I had never been. On the subway, I realized I had forgotten to bring the notebook where, earlier in the week, I had written the restaurant’s address. I’m used to jotting everything down (typing it in the Notes app on my phone) because I have a terrible memory. I sat up in my seat and considered the situation.

Apart from my initially cacophonous inner monologue, plus an hourslong stretch while looking for the phone booths when I could not stop thinking about the 1950 Lionel Hampton rendition of “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” my mind was dead quiet for the majority of 1994. I wasn’t bored. I was just thinking in a very straightforward way about whatever I happened to be doing at that moment.

Out of this silence, out of some long-since-condemned corner of my hippocampus, the address surfaced. I was startled. I’d assumed my memory was an oubliette. All this time it was actually a sunken living room with built-in custom storage?

I pictured my frantic brain. In 2019, it spent its days firing off repeated ALL CAPS bulletins of basic information into a nonstop podcast din. Could the mental screaming from day one have been the remnant of an adaptation — a way to break through my usual torrent of technology-enabled stimuli? Maybe the quiet hadn’t replaced my thoughts. Maybe my thoughts had just relaxed into their natural hushed state. 1994 was the time before the commotion. Or that seemed plausible, anyway. I couldn’t look it up.

Read the full story on The New York Times


bottom of page