Rob Walker | Essays

The Way We Live Now: Fauxhemian Rhapsody

Pastis, the Parisian-style bistro that recently opened in New York's meatpacking district, is a restaurant with an idea. The menu is unpretentious, ''simple,'' the owner has explained, and ''there will be no reservations.'' The airy, lived-in design suggests a neighborhood place you stroll to, order coffee, grab a newspaper from the rack up front and kill a few hours thinking about the tragedy of Rimbaud.

Of course, if you should try to eat at Pastis you'll see that all of this is ridiculous. The matre d' looks like a model; those mirrors aren't old, they've been ''distressed''; and actually the owner made his explanations in Vanity Fair. So after an hour wait (off-peak, that is), you'll be seated next to an earnest-looking 20-something in a tattered dress who maybe could pass for a struggling artist, except that's really a $400 house frock from Mayle she's wearing, and she's not reaching for her sketchpad but for her Nokia 8800. Look around the room: yet another place that's packed with fauxhemians.

Being bohemian — or counterculture, or alternative or whatever you want to call it — used to be all about dichotomy: you chose one life at the expense of another. Opt out of corporate life to run a literary magazine, and you had to live in a fifth-floor walkup, shop in thrift stores, drive an old VW bug and eat at hole-in-the-wall cafes. On the other hand, you got to cling to your unsullied ideals and aesthetic sense. For many, the bohemian life was just a youthful phase. You could have your freedom for so long, then you had to go work for the Man. Now, of course, it's difficult to find an actual bohemian, yet boho trappings that vaguely suggest counterculture taste are everywhere, because the fauxhemian idea is that you don't have to choose anymore. You can be mainstream and alternative, a grown-up and a hipster, all at the same time. 

Conspicuous consumption no longer cancels out the idealistic self-image. The revamped Volkswagen Beetle — which is all about flashy design, not economic practicality like the ancestor it's calculated to remind you of — is a good example, and so is a Classic Parisian Flea-Market Club Chair from Mitchell Gold as advertised in fine shelter magazines. Miramax, an ''indie'' film company whose marketing department sprays an intellectual mist onto its usually middlebrow product, is a fauxhemian juggernaut. Janeane Garofalo, who stars opposite Uma Thurman or Sylvester Stallone part of the time and rolls her eyes about mainstream Hollywood the rest of the time, is our fauxhemian It Girl. And Apple Computer's C.E.O., Steve Jobs, a centimillionaire in bluejeans and a black mock turtleneck, embodies the look and feel of fauxhemian chic.

La vie fauxh me is a peculiar artifact of the bust-to-boom 1990's. The decade started on a slackerish note, as a generation of Americans was informed it would probably be the first not to match its parents' income. Since the Man was laying everybody off, why not grow a goatee, chase those dreams and forget about growing up and making money? Of course, the intervening years played out differently. Real money has found its way to younger and younger people, crashing directly into the postundergrad secondhand-shop lifestyle. 

What's more, a lot of that money has gone to people who never bothered to pay their dues by groveling before 80's-style Master of the Universe bosses. The cultural equivalent of dropping out to write poetry became dropping out to write Linux code — the open-source, anticapitalist computer-operating system — though plenty of people are making real money even off that.

A result is that corporate America has not only stopped trying to homogenize its new recruits, it is also practically begging college dropouts with nose rings to explain what the hell is going on out there. And gradually that old dichotomy has fallen away. What if you could just, you know, telecommute for the Man? Or maybe do a little consulting gig, only this one time? Or let's say the Man wants to put a million dollars of seed capital behind some side project you've been working on in your dorm — or help your nascent literary Webzine go public.

Still, as this generation unlearned its expectations of failure, it never unlearned its love of bohemianism; it just reconfigured bohemianism to accommodate a grown-up income. It's one of the few traits it shares with its parents' generation: a widespread reluctance to grow up all the way. Whatever his or her age, the fauxhemian is not one of those stick-in-the-mud, conventional, middle-class grown-ups.

So it's critical at least to pretend to keep any middle-class definition of success at arm's length: it's O.K. to like the theory of a Parisian bistro or the practice of a boutique eatery like Pastis; eating at a strip-mall chain called Pastis Too!, however, would be unacceptable.

And obviously when you have enough people thinking this way — when most people think they are more unconventional than most other people — then being unconventional doesn't have much meaning anymore. So it is that Urban Outfitters, to take one example, was penalized by the market recently because it stocked a spate of ''overly mainstream merchandise,'' as The Wall Street Journal put it. And while financially successful people flatter themselves by dressing up as bohemians, a working-class store like Sears seeks to boost itself not by offering up images of a well-appointed family home, but by changing its slogan to ''The Good Life,'' as though it were some exclusive realm of luxury. 

Which brings us back to Pastis and its ''simple'' democracy. In practice, as it turns out, reservations are accepted -- just not at peak hours. The restaurant has already played host to a number of parties for members of the media elite, and nobody expected them to hang around the bar waiting for a table for 40 to open up.

But that's the point, isn't it? Exclusivity and elegance aren't cool, but exclusivity dressed up in the artfully tattered guise of the downscale and democratic / that's the coolest thing of all. 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, January 23, 2000.  


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