On Dashiell Hammett and masculine-coded spaces
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Most restaurant meals are consumed today as a celebration. We don’t generally need to eat restaurant food, and process of elimination leads to celebration as the remaining reason to go out to eat. But back in the before times, there existed entire categories of eating house whose sole purpose was necessity; their clientele was largely (though not exclusively) unmarried men, who were assumed to be unable to cook for themselves. Diners were an example of restaurants coded, in modern parlance, for unmarried men.
In recent years, the diner has become a themed restaurant as opposed to a functional one, replaced by fast food restaurants, which do not serve nutritious food, and fast-casual ones, which sometimes do. This is a shame, for reasons distinct from cuisine. Masculine-coded places are inherently valuable, and diners have declined drastically in America since Dashiell Hammett’s day.
I read a lot of Hammett, because not only did he write unabashedly masculine fiction, he included a treasure trove of physical description of his characters and their interactions with others, down to their nervous tics. Hammett was a Pinkerton’s detective before he became an author, and while his prose style does not display the lyricism of Raymond Chandler (who raised the hard-boiled detective novel to high art), Hammett had the advantage of having read people at both a professional and a survival level. He knew hard men firsthand, being one himself; the authenticity of his work is unsurpassed.
Reading novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (or better yet, Hammett’s novels and short stories featuring the nameless, phlegmatic Continental Op), is a way of reconstructing the masculine behavior and social structures of a bygone age. Everyone should have a hobby, and cultural archeology is a passion of mine; I excavate the past to determine how one should behave in order to be congruent with one’s nature, and thus minimize cognitive dissonance, which results from acting against it. I do not think everyone was happy between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War, but I believe most people were happier, because expectations were clearer across the board. Clarity of expectations reduces cognitive dissonance.
A much larger part of America today than in previous years exists in what anthropologists call a liminoid space, physically and teleologically. Liminoid spaces share characteristics of liminal, or transitional spaces, but do not involve the resolution of a personal crisis. One does not have a fixed social role in which there are clear expectations of one’s behavior in a liminoid spacelike a concert or a sporting event; they exist outside of society’s norms.
Eating at a diner, for me, then, is often disconcerting. It is a place with a role that was, historically, clearly defined and masculine-coded. Moreover, I spent my young manhood in and out of a particular diner which had remained so. When I go to other diners, which are now for the most part either themed restaurants that approximate diners or places whose purpose it is to serve celebratory meals rather than necessary ones, I realize how fortunate I was to have experienced such a special place; one that had retained both its form and its function.
After many years out of general social circulation, returning to the world was, for me, like being plunged into a mountain lake; freezing and shocking, but ultimately refreshing and even joyous. I went first to diners, which I had enjoyed when I was younger, and discovered that I no longer enjoyed them. Most diners are not like the one at which I spent my college years; they are liminoid places rather than definite ones. On the surface, this might seem like a match; those in transition from one social state to another (in my case, from drug dependency to independence) are liminoid people. But I did not want to be so, and that energy did not nourish me.
After some time, I found my feet, and an excursion as ordinary as going to a store that sells pocket knives on a weekend made realize for an entirely opposite set of reasons how fortunate I was to have been instructed by a man who had retained his form and function, and thus could transmit them to me. I feel comfortable when I walk through the doors of such unambiguously masculine-coded places. They take me back to the energy of the hobby shops of my youth, Bohemias of Men at which I used to spend my weekends. I could be assured of meeting others who shared my values there. They were comfortable, musty-smelling places lined with scratched glass cases containing this or that treasure, where we could ignore one another in quiet solidarity (or share small triumphs, if we felt so inclined).
When I first entered one I had not visited before, a few weeks ago, the inhabitants seemed so different from the men I remembered that I thought I had made a mistake. Then the clerk called me “sir,” respectfully, and I realized that there is gray in my hair now, and I carry the weight of years. It was only then that I understood that the places where I felt at home had not vanished without a trace.
I had disappeared, for more than half a decade. For those six years, I returned to Wonderland and grappled with the demons that had taken up residence there without my noticing, and made them mind.
But now I am home.
I am defining a celebratory meal here as a meal primarily eaten to increase one’s pleasure as opposed to a meal eaten primarily as nourishment, and I believe my assertion stands on sturdy ground; the majority of restaurant meals served today originated as either inexpensive interpretations of food served at parties or as “street food” which has been reimagined with expensive ingredients and techniques until it effectively becomes party food.
In a sense, they still are, although in my experience, the unmarried men to whom they cater belong to a different crowd than the working-men of pulp detective novels. Quiet restaurants have always been the domain of clandestine meetings, and men who meet clandestinely today trend older, and gay.
Regarding social norms: Liminoid people make me deeply uncomfortable, and I believe they make most men feel similarly. Leaving aside the uncanny-valley physicality of those who transition gender, people who are in between roles or identities have an energy to them that is disconcerting to those who are clear with regards to their own duty. It is unstable, drawing in the energy of those who are stable like a singularity; my contention is that liminoid energy belongs in a liminoid space and not outside of it.
Attempts have been made to reform the social expectations of the internet, once the ultimate liminoid space. I do not foresee success there. Either it will remain liminoid or it will die; the attraction of the internet for many users is and always has been its undefined, anarchic nature. Corporate and government-administrated spaces have encroached on that anarchy, but they are are walled gardens that attract the kind of people who have always gravitated to walled gardens. The counterculture has always chafed at such places; they counterfeit the Bohemias beloved by freethinkers.
I don't know how relevant my observations are to this essay, I'll share them anyway.
I have noticed that in any restaurant, the counter in the bar is the place where the single, often older men, go to eat. I took my mom to a fish house for dinner one, too busy afternoon and we had the option of sitting at the bar counter, or waiting a while for a table. Mom was game so we went to the bar counter.
An older gentleman, in a member's only jacket, clean, neat and polite sat down a few chairs from us. He ordered a steak and lobster dinner and red wine. He had the look of a long married man, and I began to think that he was widowed. I amusedly watched him struggle with the lobster and a sense of compassion arose in me. As we were leaving, I stopped to tell him to enjoy, what looked like a celebratory dinner. He immediately shared that his wife passed away one year prior to that day. I offered my deepest sympathy. In reply, he said "but I ain't dead yet," with a wink.
The spirit of the human, male soul. I love it!
Glad to hear it.
Having come home too, figuratively and in-reality, I find myself more confident in my masculinity than I ever have been. Part of that is getting older. but a lot of it too is about embracing my masculinity.
It is also true, what I heard is possible, I really am more attractive to women now than I ever was when I was confused about what it means to be a man.