By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
At the bottom of enmity between strangers lies indifference. - Soren Kierkegaard
There is no shortage of bars in New York City. In fact, there is even a multitude of types of bars, be they preceded by nouns like sports, coke, hookah, oyster, milk, etc., or by adjectives too varied to bother listing here. One type of bar, however, is forever to be derided, even by those who frequent it, often in an attempt to be ironic. I speak of the hipster bar, and, in this case, one of the most notorious: Union Pool (484 Union Avenue, Williamsburg).
Now a lot of older people have asked me, “What the hell is a hipster anyway?” This is typically followed by the addendum, “And why do people hate them so much?” Both the question and its subpart are typically answered with something along the lines of, “They’re obnoxious.”
Brusque though it may be, this seems to be about the only thing that a lot of young people can say of a hipster that doesn’t bring to mind that frequent parental admonishment concerning fingers pointing back at you. Personally, I’ve come to find that this is really the reason why there is no definition of a hipster beyond the superficial (they wear stupid clothes, they are constantly trying to be ironic, they grow idiotic facial hair, they are pretentious, etc.). Virtually no one will identify with them, especially if they share the same demographic and geographic profile, as well as the same basic preferences in terms of fashion, music, art, and how to spend leisure time. Because of this lack of self-reference, the term has become solely a pejorative; it can have no positive connotation because the urbane populations from Generation X and Y (or the Millennials, as we’re now being called, perhaps to imply that we should be in a mad state of panic over just how badly the previous three generations have fucked us with the double-dong of supply-side economics and “free trade” agreements), to whom the word can only apply, have used it to condemn what they don’t like about people who belong to their general demographic. The hipster has no distinguishing features because the conditions for being a hipster are entirely subject to what is not-I, even if the “I” in question appears, from many perspectives, to be virtually identical to the one being lambasted. In other words, to this third-party (let’s say from a small town in the Midwest, fifty, union), anyone who embraces a bohemian aesthetic, who is under thirty-five, who listens to bands that are not on the Billboard 200, who is college-educated, who lives in an urban area, who owns a smart phone, and who zealously participates in social media, whether by posting ephemera of Facebook or pontificating on Twitter, is ostensibly a hipster.
This is where the hatred really comes from: I don’t want to be considered anything like that douche-bag. And so that douche-bag is labeled a hipster; I, meanwhile, remain steadfast in my belief that my personal style, my tastes, and my preferences are authentic, and that the other is nothing more than a cheap imitation, a vast array of pretentions (“I drink PBR because it’s cheap; that asshole drinks it because…” or “I’ve liked [insert up-and-coming band] since before they were cool” or “I’ve been dressing like this since I was [insert arbitrary age]”). Furthermore, it is common to hear things like “I’d know about all of these bands, too, if I didn’t have to work forty hours a week,” which assumes, one, that the grumbler’s taste in music encompasses all that is not-obscure, and, therefore, anything beyond his knowledge must be sought out of the sake of obscurity; two, that this type of research requires at least forty hours a week; and, three, this person must be independently wealthy. The other, of course, probably thinks the exact same thing of me. We’re essentially two reflections that can’t stand the sight of one another because we both deny emulating bohemian archetypes: I am unique; anyone who looks and acts like me must be an imposter, a poseur, a hipster.
Union Pool, Williamsburg
That being said, going to a place like Union Pool, while certainly an okay bar in its own right, reveals why this hatred is both endemic and virulent. People do judge you there, typically for being judgmental. As hipsters are said to love irony (mustaches, kooky shirts, meaningless tattoos, reality television), this is only natural. In fact, the bar itself is still a draw to so many for this reason (“Let’s go to the hipster bar, even though we’re totally not hipsters”), as well as a far more carnal one. This latter reason is why it’s so often referred to as the Hipster Meat Market.
Or it was. When I lived in Greenpoint from aught-five to aught-eight, this place was where people went to pick up hipsters (male, female, gay, straight, somewhere in between…didn’t matter). When I walked in last Thursday, however, it was more or less just another bar. True, the people there were younger than average, but none of them seemed to have that look that has generated so much venom over the years. While there was the one guy with the ironic mustache, and the girl with the scarf even though humidity, prior to the twenty minute downpour that had preceded my entrance, was close to one hundred percent, and the dude who smelled like an old, wet sponge hanging out by the bathroom, these people didn’t really seem like hipsters. They were just people who looked how people between eighteen and twenty-five look now. I didn’t feel as though I was being judged. I felt as though no one cared who I was.
Just great, I thought; I spend two days writing an exordium on hipsters, and there aren’t even any fucking hipsters here. Well…I might as well grab a beer.
As seating at the bar was a little tight and all of the tables were occupied by clusters of people talking, laughing and lacking that ironic disposition that Kierkegaard so often spoke of, I was in a rush to get outside as soon as the rain subsided. By the time I had finished my first beer, my girlfriend, Josephine, had joined me and the rain had become a faint mist. We ordered a second round, High Life bottles (half the price of a good pint), and went into the garden.
The garden space is a massive expanse of tile and wooden benches; dim incandescent bulbs hang suspended in the air like fireflies out of a Victorian novel. Through another set of doors is a tenebrous venue that will not feature a band until well after we leave. Even though the rain had more or less ceased, the garden was virtually empty except for a few people milling about the stationary taco truck waiting for their food and a guy talking to the outside bartender, who served up cans of PBR, Bud and Tecate out of a shack that looked like it had been stolen off the set of a bad surf movie from the sixties.
Josephine and I quickly fell into conversation as opposed to observation—the subject being who is going to face Obama in 2012 (we couldn’t figure it out; Bachmann is too crazy, Romney is too boring, Perry is too much like Bush, Cain is too black (honestly, a black Republic president?), Gingrich’s campaign is too much of a train wreck, Paul is too libertarian, and the rest have attracted too little attention at this point in time to be taken seriously).
Within maybe half an hour or so, the outside area suddenly came to life with people, maybe a hundred, maybe more. Most of the guys were bearded and flannelled, most of the women were sporting platform sandals and one of many coiffures favored by Zooey Deschanel. They didn’t look much different than the people one sees in an Old Navy commercial.
I’ve always known of the vampiristic relationship between Corporate America and youth culture, but, for whatever reason, I had always assumed that the hipster look was something that was universally disdained, and, therefore, would not be subject to this trend (American Apparel and Urban Outfitters, excluded). It was so far from the mainstream, and seemed to base its pride on its difference, that it seemed as though this would forever be the way in which it defined itself. Perhaps that’s what the greasers, or the beatniks, or the rockers, or the mods, or the hippies, or the punkers, or the new wavers, or the people involved with Grunge thought of themselves, too. Now that it is not all that different than the mainstream, as the general trends have been synthesized with the mainstream, the look doesn’t seem all that weird. In fact, it’s fairly common.
So maybe what pisses people off about hipsters is a bit more simple than their aesthetic. Maybe the hatred just comes down to the fact that no one likes a snotty kid who acts like he or she knows more than you do, who is in a state of oblivion, who is self-absorbed, and who would rather sit mesmerized in front of the newest piece of technology (radio, television, walkman, iPod, iPhone, iPad) than have a conversation. In other words, although the style is different, the same basic principles and generational antagonisms that have operated throughout innumerable decades and eras remains the same, and all that ever really bothers anyone about the youth is the fact that they make us, even those of us still in our twenties, feel old and outdated.
Jay Fox was born in suburban Detroit. He moved to New York City in 2001. When he’s not working his 9-5, he spends his time writing fiction, playing with his band (Pistols, 40 Paces), doing the crossword puzzles featured in The New York Times, and drinking in waterholes around the city. If given the option of a PBR or a Budweiser, he would take the PBR. If given the option of an IPA or a Belgian wheat, he would more than likely take the IPA. Whiskey makes him charming, stupid, and then sleepy. He doesn’t particularly like writing in third-person, but understands that it’s necessary sometimes.
He would probably want to meet anyone who has bothered to read this, especially if it’s over a drink.