What was life like for teenagers on Long Island in the late 1970s?
April 26, 2016 2:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm brainstorming a YA novel that would be set in a wealthy Long Island suburb in 1979. What was life like for teenagers then? Anecdotes, stories, and book or movie suggestions welcome.

I was born in 1983 so this is outside my lived experience. I'm very concerned about getting the little details of daily life right--what was leisure time like, what did you eat in the mornings, did you drive to school or walk or take the bus and where did you make out and what were the different cliques? I'd love book or movie suggestions (fiction or non-fiction) that really capture the feel of life then but personal anecdotes appreciated as well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Judy Blume's Then Again, Maybe I Won't!
posted by listen, lady at 3:54 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine grew up there a few years past your timeframe, so this may or may not translate. He talks a lot about liking punk rock and getting picked on by the hegemonic metal heads at his high school, and about taking every chance he could to go to the city and catch shows at cbgbs while his older sister was doing tons of blow with Twisted Sister.
posted by 7segment at 4:05 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Watch Grease.

I grew up in NJ in an fairly affluent, though rural, town. We had school buses, but after about sophomore year, it wasn't cool to ride them if you had a choice. Getting a driver's license (age 17 in NJ) was a big deal. Getting car was a bigger deal. Riding a bicycle meat you didn't have a car, so not cool. In every high school, then and now, there is some activity or club which draws the best students. In mine, it was the band. In my kid's, it was the drama club.

Serious girl friends wore the BF's letter sweater (if he was an athlete). Or wore his class ring on a necklace.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:18 PM on April 26, 2016

Came here to say Then Again, Maybe I Won't.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 5:06 PM on April 26, 2016

I grew up in NJ and agree with SemiSalt. Girls would lay out tanning at every opportunity. If my older sisters were any indication, long straight hair was still in. Also, the cars the rich kids had were like, Mom's old BMW. The cars the rest of us had were junkers.

Keep in mind that the drinking age was 18 then, too.
posted by cabingirl at 5:31 PM on April 26, 2016

Sneaking into NYC without your parent's knowledge or permission to see a concert is definitely plausible as a plot point.

Everybody congregating at the Dairy Queen.
Probably not completely too late for drive-ins. It was before the "Plex" style of movie theater. More likely one screen, seating for hundreds.

Sitcom Happy Days is from that era, at least at the beginning.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:33 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Ice Storm takes place in the largely equivalent Connecticut suburbs right across the water. It's a few years earlier than your target, but there are still probably details you could mine?
posted by nobody at 6:10 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

//Sitcom Happy Days is from that era,//

Huh? Happy Days is set in 1950s Milwaukee.
posted by COD at 7:04 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In '79 I was six; visiting my older, wealthier LI cousin and her young-teen friends meant exposure to:

- Leif Garrett, and his many posters (his big hit, which I heard on a 45 rpm single, was "I Was Made for Dancin'")
- Andy Gibb, and his many posters (several different singles on 45; I think the big album was the year before, but record labels used to release singles over a longer period of time)
- Impassioned arguments over who was better/cuter/more talented, Garrett or Gibb; that there was something like a 2-3 year age difference between them was cited as significant evidence both pro and con in every debate (Garrett's acting career, likewise)
- these celebrity posters, which were from teen mags like Tiger Beat, while clipped photographs were from Seventeen; such magazines were pored over
- teen magazines in general; everyone had a subscription to Seventeen (and one girl had a subscription to Young Miss, as well, which was considered an inferior publication), but Tiger Beat was purchased at the stationery store
- Pukka shell necklaces, not unusual for that period, but also cloisonné jewelry, which may have been specific to this particular group
- The Special K "pinch an inch" advertising campaign; these were girls were barely in their teens, but were already weight-obsessed and constantly repeated the slogan while pinching one another's waists, and they did eat Special K cereal (usually with cut-up bananas and lots of sugar spooned on top before milk was added)
- the Judy Blume coming-of-age novel 'Forever,' with its fascinatingly un-sexy sex scene, which I would not read for another seven years because the book was grabbed out of my hands
- Those clackety Dr. Scholl's wooden sandals
- astrology. They were obsessed - their own signs, and which sign was compatible with ___ sign, the signs of the celebrities they followed, and on and on. One of my cousin's friends was born on a "cusp day" and suffered for it. In addition to the teen mags, I think Star (a tabloid; for some reason considered classier than the National Enquirer but not as polite-society, might- found-on-the-coffee-table acceptable as, say, People magazine) ran an astrology column; a few of their mothers bought Star at the grocery store and the girls got the issues when they were done with them
- Star was also important because they were all obsessed with the TV show "Dallas" and the tabloids had the best coverage on that subject (TV Guide ran pieces, too, just not as juicy)

PhoBWanKenobi, this question is giving me such intense nostalgia I can practically smell the Love's Baby Soft and Jean Nate'.

Also, you might want to look into 'gypsy moth' infestation. I have a hazy recollection of a lot of adult discussion in the late 70s/early 80s focused on how bad the moths were going to hit Long Island that year, and whether the new pesticides were any good or would using them just kill the birds or the beneficial insects and subsequently drive up the mosquito population, what an insult to injury, and how the moths were never that bad when DDT was an option... I remember outbreaks ruined more than one pool party, but 1979 might not be the right year.

On preview: COD, Happy Days was set in the '50s, but it was a popular show when it premiered in the '70s and everyone knew the catchphrases and characters. I told one of my friends just the other day not to be such a Jenny Piccolo (meaning, troublemaker).
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:14 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Rich kids on LI belonged to country and beach clubs -- and sometimes lived in entire towns -- that were all/nearly all Jewish, Catholic or WASP; white ethnicity was a big part of your life. Jewish kids went to 7 week sleep away camp. The 70s were when divorce got respectable -- LOTS of dads living in apartments on the Upper East Side. Servant culture had not rebounded, lots of well-off moms doing their own housework, dads doing their own yardwork. NYC was high crime and even more scary in perception than that reality -- going into the City was seriously risky / transgressive for a kid.

Read: Cameron Crowe's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, though it won't get the ethnic angle. Watch - Desperately Seeking Susan.
posted by MattD at 7:21 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Plenty of drive-ins were still around on LI in 1979--the one nearest me closed in 1988. Most were gone by the mid-80s, though.
posted by Pryde at 7:24 PM on April 26, 2016

Paula Danziger wrote contemporary teen novels set mostly in NJ.

Jody's father in Norma Klein's It's OK if You Don't Love Me lives in a wealthy tri-state suburb.

Mark Spitz's How Soon is Never
posted by brujita at 7:34 PM on April 26, 2016

Best answer: Graduated high school in 1980 I was there during the time you are talking about. If you lived on the north or south shore of the island, which is where most of the rich folks lived, as a teenager you likely had access to a boat and spent time on the water in the summers. On the south shore you would take the boat to the either Jones Beach or Fire Island depending on where you lived. Some upper middle teens would have a clam boat and spend the summer digging clams in the Great South Bay to sell. In the Winter hanging out at Mall. Some parents would allow kids to drink in the basement family room. The belief being that we were going to drink anyway so it was better the kids have supervision then be out god knows where doing god know what. Smoking pot, it was rare for teens to anything harder, and going to concerts was popular either local or in the city. Cliques Jocks vs Potheads, Disco vs Rock, Popular vs Nerds there were also some who drifted between cliques. FM radio was big rock stations of the time WLIR, WBAB on the island and WNEW, WPLJ in the city, I could not tell you what the disco stations were. Parents would listen to AM radio WOR, WINS.
posted by tman99 at 8:10 AM on April 27, 2016

Best answer: The telephone was SO important. I used to have long conversations sitting on the floor by the kitchen wall phone -- there was just enough cord so I could keep talking and still get a Coke out of the fridge. You could play with the twisty cords and sometimes accidentally get them untwisted at some point. Wonderful rotary phones gave you a chance to back out when calling that cute guy you had a crush on -- should I dial this last digit, should I? Other family members took messages for you when you were out. You took messages for other family members. Answering machines existed, but not everyone had them, so sometimes you'd call somebody and the phone would just ring and ring and ring. My older sister would never get up to answer the phone, but she'd holler "PHONE!" when it rang, as if the rest of us couldn't hear it. If you held the hook down and then picked up the phone and GENTLY let the hook back up you could eavesdrop on conversations (this worked better on wall phones -- it was harder to get your finger under the receiver on desk phones, and if you made noise you'd get caught). Your mother maybe didn't like the sound of that boy who was calling. Other people need to use the phone, would you please get off? Busysignalbusysignalbusysignal.
posted by JanetLand at 8:13 AM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Bikes. In Nassau county you could not drive until 18. So having a bike was you method of transportation. In Suffolk county you could get you license at 16 or 17.

Long Island was segregated at the time, no longer live there so don't know what it is like now. The town you lived in was generally identified as being Black, White or Hispanic. Being Hispanic back then generally meant your family was from Puerto Rico.
posted by tman99 at 8:27 AM on April 27, 2016

Check out the film Over the Edge, although it wasn't set on Long Island, it's the right time and an amazing soundtrack if you want the edgier music. Cheap Trick, The Cars, Van Halen etc
posted by drinkmaildave at 10:10 AM on April 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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