Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Masters of a Gentlemanly Quarter

Quite a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to get an invite to both the Explorer's Club and the Union League Club of New York City. This wasn't just any visit though; I got to drink alcohol, good alcohol, as a high school sophomore in what seemed to me the essence of classic swankster digs. Nothing to rave about in today's teenagers-are-extinct world, but this was big news for a Virginia boy of the pre-dotcom era. Before that weekend, I had never really experienced "The City" in all its gritty yet sartorial charm. To gain entrance to these prestigious institutions was enlightening, and I was even more excited to have my photo in the NY Times Sunday Style page. Imagine my excitement...I think I was brash enough to put this appearance on my resume for a while. Thankfully, gentlemen mature.

So I got my early hobnob career started by cavorting (however acneed) with the likes of a pithy Joan Rivers (not so much a hero) and a cognac-sipping, boa-wielding Jim Fowler (so much a specific type of hero). This was my also first foray into the rarified world of polished hardwood libruhrries, mandatory neckties in hallowed halls, Peary's original North Pole sled (c. 1900), and locks of John Brown's hair preserved in little glass display cases. It was like playing little adult at a secret Smithsonian sleepover. There's something vaguely comforting in dark natural materials, a smoky haze, and an air of unpolite sophistication that one sometimes finds amongst today's homegenous American Techno-wasteland.

The kids I hung out with that weekend were older, wealthier, and a lot...lighter. They seemed fluid and composed in these surroundings. I struggled to maintain my cool as childish eyes and brain sopped in the sights and sounds like so much gravy on crumbly biscuits. Bourbon and espresso at a Greenwich Village jazz cafe at 2am, mojitos and fresh Maine blueberries for breakfast, (window) shopping at Barneys...these were all things I'd kinda-sorta heard of, or seen in photos and movies, but never really experienced close up. Bryant's family were the only black folks I knew that did that type of thing, maybe because they're from Massachusetts? My main precursor to this visit was the tobaccanist haven Quartermaster Club at our local Air Force base, where my dad would take me as a kid to watch him play pool under chandeliers (!). I remember fancy glass bottles filled with potent brownish liquids, lots of cursing, and the *sssssp, sssssp* sound of swoopy wooden pipes in the capable hands of some some hip cats. Model aircraft hung above, and black-and-white photos of pilots and generals and other warriors dotted the walls. My attention though, was usually focused on rolling a ball around on the floor. The Virginia "city" I grew up in, Petersburg, is rife with history and the attendant dramatic architecture and ephemera. Most of the structures in the city were built in the years around the Civil War. My favorite library growing up was built as a mansion in 1859; it currently has a couple of ghosts. Edgar Allen Poe frequented a pub near the courthouse on weekends, where he'd occasionally be found passed out in the alley. The whole place seems locked in a period somewhere between 1840 and 1930.Everything in Petersburg is old, and this fact is not lost on anyone growing up there. So much so, you can't wait to leave. I left, but I find myself in frequent reminiscence. All of those memories came flooding back on that visit to New York.

Fast-forward to 2006. I'm still defining what "gentleman" is, and whether I might consider myself one. It's more than holding doors for ladies, using the proper forks at dinner, or saying please and thank-you. I'm finding it also includes some specific materialistic touches, such as dressing nicely (with pocket squares) and carrying umbrellas, lounging in large distressed leather club chairs, betting money you don't have on red-velvet pool tables, and eating below mounted elk racks placed strategically over the heads of diners in a fine restaurant serving mutton. Yes, the world of a true gentleman is imperialistic, violent, and extremely romanticized, probably even a bit racist and sexist. Yet, there's some truth and genuiness of character in the whole thing. Figuring out which parts I hold dear to the heart has been difficult, but it's being worked out, maybe with the help of an Oban's single-malt, neat, in glass, with no napkin.

Which leads us to Freeman's Sporting Club & Freeman's Restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Now here we have what just might be the epitome of a gentleman's store, situated above the epitome of a gentleman's restaurant. Anyone who goes from architecture school to opening a restaurant to designing tailored suiting made from heavy vintage wools in the manner of oh, Nicholas Biddle circa 1860 is alright with me. The fact there's a heavy cotton duck tent and a library inside the store, and that owner Taavo Somer drinks scotch there with friends serves as great inspiration for my own Gentleman's Quarters, a little piraty, a little intellectual. Though I've yet to visit, I can imagine they are pretty interesting places, as only uniquely themed New York eateries and atteliers can be. I've found a couple of places in Washington that fit this bill, not that I'm looking too hard. There's 18th Street Lounge (a former home of Teddy Roosevelt), the Oceanaire Restaurant (back room only), or the Earth Conservation Corps' Matthew Henson Center (no alcohol and closed to the public, but the photos are a nice touch, as are the bird cages).This weekend, I'll have to take a trip north to find out what we're missing. If only they'd answer the phone. On second thought, I wouldn't have a phone in my clubhouse either.


Blogger angel said...

A "bit" racist and sexist? What your talking about, in part, is a realm of exclusivity that DEPENDS on racism and sexism. The only thing that makes any club a club (literal or virtual) is that the door is closed to someone or another.
Maybe being a Gentle Man is not giving a shit about the crooked constructs laid out for you, but creating a kind, respectful path of your own.
But hang on to the lovely leather chairs and handsome suits... ha!

6:03 AM  

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