Here’s the situation: I still have no idea what it means to be cool. And here’s the question: Does that even matter? Consider the following interaction during last week’s Dandy Wharhols show at the TLA in Philadelphia.
Another overly-priced Yuengling down the hatch and the the first of the two opening bands had just finished its set. The time had come to journey to the bathroom. I left my sister to stand guard over our spot at the TLA’s rather crowded bar and shuffled my way through the peculiar gaggle gathered to see The Dandy Warhols—an amusingly thrashed together collection of the in-the-know XPN faithful and the dangling remains of Philadelphia hipsters (of both the post- and pre-Iraq-war variety) sitting in ironic Indian style poses and sleep-stained, painted jeans. Tired eyes, all of them. Disclaimer: Of this scene I was far less cynical than my tone here would imply.
When I pushed open the door to the men’s room I almost hit a man with its swing. His inky black hair was slicked back and curly behind the neck, shining in time with his maroon leather jacket and complimenting to his rather sensible goatee. He was standing close to the entrance and smoking a cigarette over the sink; and what immediately struck me was the coolness with which he did this. Not cool in the way 1950s America once made smoking seem dangerous and sexy, but cool like a man standing on the top floor of a burning building roasting a chicken on the murderous flames while he composed one last love letter to the woman who stole his heart in Paris ten years prior. In other words, he was in no hurry and showed no signs of care for potentially getting caught. I suppose this means I still find disregard for authority cool, which probably also means I am still, in fact, young. In thinking this, I too felt cool, even though I had looked down at my black and white Chuck Taylors several times that night and thought, “Who the hell am I kidding. These are so 2004!”
I apologized to the smoking man—who looked to be in his late 30s—for the interruption, and made my way to the urinal. We were the only two in the small bathroom, and for some reason, as soon as I sidled up to the fount I cleared my throat. Suddenly, I could not have been less cool. In the seconds it took me to do this, I felt myself being transformed from a young man sharing this little corner of world rebellion with the smoking man to a thoroughly prickish dullard. A square. A jamoke. For only the most unscrupulous of individuals, I thought, would be so lame as to send an anti-smoking message by way of a high-pitched, faux cough of disgust to a man lighting up in a concert bathroom—even though this was not my intention in at all. I really just had to clear my throat at that moment. But I knew the man would probably interpret the act as my way of saying, “Um, excuse me, but I am highly offended by your obviously insatiable need to smoke, and the fact that you choose to invade my small, inescapable space with your odious addiction is beyond the pale, sir!” My Chucks might as well have been brown, laceless boating shoes. I might as well have just pissed on the floor like a child.
“I’m sorry man,” the smoking man said before my last throat-clear was even finished. He had an accent (Spanish, I believe) and spoke with even more cool, languid disregard than he smoked. “I’ll be done in a moment.” I immediately told him not to worry about it; told him I didn’t care in the slightest that he was smoking in the bathroom and that were I savvy (cool?) enough to have brought a pack with me to the show I would most likely have joined him on the spot. Go right ahead, I said. Smoke away. Enjoy it. Love it.
And this is when the smoking man started his speech.
“Fuck this place, man. Who are they to tell me I can’t smoke if I want to? Who the fuck are they.” This last line he uttered as if maybe I actually had a literal answer to the question. Like, Oh yes. I know exactly who they are, friend. Michael and Janet from Pine Street. Those non-smoking, oppressive bastards! Let’s ditch this concert and go show them a thing or two! Put a goddamn cigarette out right in their self righteous little eyes! “If I want to smoke, I’m going to fucking do it. And fuck them. They can’t tell me I can’t smoke at a fucking concert. Fuck them.”
I nodded my coolest nod, as if to say, Right on sir. Fuck them indeed.
Finishing, I made my way to the sink, where the Spanish smoking man was dipping the remains of his fag in a small, still pool of someone else’s handwash. I explained to him that I completely agreed. That I had always thought it was absurd for the powers-that-be to create laws making it illegal for free citizens to willfully partake in a thoroughly legal substance. That there was no difference between this concert venue and someone’s living room. And then, feeling proud to have shared this moment, I smiled a cool, rebellious smile, and made my way to the door. That’s when the smoking man put his arm around me.
“You know what I mean then, my man. You get it. You’re cool.” With a strange man’s arm wrapped around my shoulders in a cramped bathroom, I actually didn’t feel quite as cool as he made me out to be. Lest you think the discomfort had anything to do with a vibe of homophobia, rest assured, that was not the case. No. What made me uncomfortable, what usually makes me uncomfortable in these sorts of situations, was that the smoking man was overselling the moment; that his coolness was now coming into question because he couldn’t just let the moment happen and pass. He had a need to make it last, like a drawn-out ending to some twisted episode of “Full House” that concludes in a sweaty, smoke filled concert bathroom. I listened for the swell of heart-string orchestration. Waited for Danny Tanner to make a cameo in the stall behind me.
Thankfully, someone else entered at that moment, breaking the connection. So the smoking man and I walked back into the lobby, still crowded with stereotypes and cynicism and the thudding of break music over the speakers. I looked toward the bar for my sister but couldn’t see her. As I started to walk back in that general direction, the smoking man stopped me again. “You like the Dandy Warhols?”
“Yeah,” said. “They’re pretty cool. I dig it.” This, even though I was honestly still unsure how I felt about the band, even after having listened to them for almost three years now. But what was I going to say? That I thought they were underselling themselves? That they continually seemed to resist being the great band they should be because of their unreasonable obsession with shoe-gazer tracks that seemingly serve no purpose in the grander scheme of their better pop repertoire? That would have been very un-cool.
“They’re alright. But do you know the uh…the Brian, uh, the Brian Jonestown Massacre? Like in that movie?” He was thinking of the documentary Dig and I told him so. “Yeah! Dig! The Brian Jonestown Massacre. They are the best band, man. The uh, the Anton Newcomb…he’s the fucking shit, man. His music is…his music is the genius because he makes the Sixties sound mix with today’s sound, man. Right? Am I right?”
Sure, he was recycling the same things everyone has said about the Brian Jonestown Massacre since they first burst onto the scene in the early 90s. Sure, he was bringing up a rather passe comparison between that band and the Dandy Warhols (so 2004 man!). And sure, he was taking up valuable beer drinking time with a conversation I had already had with many friends and acquaintances over the last three years. But I let my cynicism slide because the smoking man clearly cared about this music, and he clearly cared about how I felt about the music. To do anything else but shoot the shit with him would have made me no better than the disinterested hipsters I clearly, if only internally, lampooned since I first entered the TLA.
“Yeah man” I said. “You’re totally right.”
“Fuck yeah!” he said. “I know I’m right.” And then the smoking man put his arm around my shoulder one last time. Then he smiled and said, “Enjoy the show.”
He walked off into the crowd, not to be seen for the rest of the night. And while the Dandy’s were slightly less than impressive (I still don’t know how I feel about this band!), I think I learned another lesson in being cool, although I’m still trying to figure out what that is.