The Stork Club of our imagination

by Rob Horning

20 April 2006


Last night I went to 21, a restaurant in New York known for being expensive and for clinging to the old ways of pre-1960s culture, before television, etc, made youth culture the guiding light for everyone. It’s the kind of place where you’re expected to wear a jacket and tie—if you aren’t, apparel will be discreetly provided for you—and where there’s an attendant in the washroom to squeeze soap in your hand and make uncomfortable small talk while you urinate (breaking in my opinion what is a cardinal men’s room rule of silence). The waiters all have vaguely international accents and are overly assiduous; the lighting is dim but not dark (and the awful dining techno music never plays); cocktails are in their natural habitat. It’s basically an indulgence in anachronism, as much a fantasy world as Medieval Times, only catering to a different crowd. You get to pretend that adult night life still exists in Stork Club form, that the world so alluring and tangible in ‘50s films like The Sweet Smell of Success can still be accessed, even though the necessary social conditions have all fallen away. Sure, no slice of apple pie is worth $10.50, but we’re not paying for food, of course, we are paying for nostalgia made material, paying for the rare moment when we can get that dream out of our heads and into the world with enough verisimilitude that it seems—with enough martinis in us—plausible, normal, coextensive with the dreary particulars of our real lives and redeeming them.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice I felt conspicuous and bereft of the social capital I take for granted—the knowledge that lets me comfortably navigate an exchange with a waiter and a trip to the bathroom. Going to 21 stripped that away from me by transporting me back to a time when the rules were different. Nostalgia makes us think the rules are better, more traditional, more in tune with some golden age of adult propriety and pleasure—but I think the mores are probably just different, not superior or more genteel.

Anyway I think that physical places like 21 or Longwood Gardens—another place I’ve recently visited, where people indulge a fancy for Victoriana—have their online equivalent, oddly enough, in those role-playing worlds where one can exist socially by an entirely different set of rules—with interaction simplified in line with an idealized version of a scenario (life in the middle ages or in Middle Earth). A fantasy for existing in a different time, in a different way is given a space where it can occur and be mutually supported. I don’t know if the growth of the online spaces threatens the survival of the real spaces—it may strengthen their appeal, as it becomes more commonplace an expectation to be able to indulge yourself according to alternative codes of conduct.

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