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Recently, while watching a movie set in New York in 1949, I felt such a wave of nostalgia.

Of course, as I was not yet born in 1949 and never have lived in the Big Apple, I can't actually remember what I was missing.But I was so touched by scenes of subways ummarred by graffiti, street corners free of drug dealers and park benches clear of old ladies clinging to shopping carts filled with filthy rags and aluminum cans.

I was jealous of old people who must still have sweet memories of sitting in friendly parks on warm nights - not just in New York, but in all cities.

I wonder what it must have felt like in Atlanta to have been able to work an evening job, maybe in a downtown theater or restaurant, and then walk home peacefully, saying hello to passersby instead of tensing up.

While I envy my elders, I feel sorry for younger people who have had to grow up in a world even meaner than the one I remember. At least I was able to get through my early years without ever hearing the words cocaine or Uzi.

Imagine how harsh life must have seemed to the girls starting classes last week at the University of Florida. They should have been thinking about making friends, exploring libraries and figuring out whether it is possible to enliven dormitory life by popping corn in a coffee carafe.

Instead, they were worrying about a serial killer stalking the area. Talk about a soul-numbing introduction to higher learning.

And it's not just big cities and universities that are being crushed by crime, cruelty and acts of violence. Wealthy suburban schools struggle with teen suicides, date rapes and drugs.

Rangers at the Grand Canyon now strap on bulletproof vests because so many visitors have pulled guns on them.

I can't help wishing that just for a day, I could ride a time machine back to an America where park police just worried about litterbugs, tourists wandered around cities after dark and girls started the school year with pillow fights, not police updates.

I certainly don't want to sound as though I romanticize the past. I know perfectly well that in 1949, most blacks were disenfranchised, women were discriminated against openly, gay people had little choice but to cower in closets and many children were crippled by polio.

No, I don't want to go back to a world without strong antibiotics, cheap air fares, chemotherapy, racially balanced police forces and frozen yogurt. I would miss my microwave. My feet need Reeboks.

In fact, I'm not really the nostalgic type at all - I believe in better technology and social progress. I'm glad people now tell Oprah Winfrey about problems that used to get covered up.

But I have to admit that, in terms of day-to-day peacefulness, this present is not pleasant and the future doesn't look promising. Today's drugs, crack babies, lousy schools, divorces and teenage pregnancies virtually ensure a continuation of crime and social tension into the next century.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could keep all the medical, social and technological advances we have made in the last 50 years, but somehow find our way back to a gentler, more polite way of living?

I guess I'm not really longing for the past; I'm just nostalgic for a future I doubt I will ever see.

Marilyn Geewax is an editorial writer for The Atlanta Constitution.

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