“Busboys and Poets.”
The two words, in my mind at least, imply a mystical realm replete with pens and paper, where starving scribes would sit for solitary days, exploiting their experiences for all they’re worth.
In the midst of all the empty hours you’d see Langston Hughes penning “Theme for English B,” whilst imbibing Irish coffee, and an Italian waiter, not too far removed from the boat that brought him to Ellis Island, pacing here and there, asking patrons, “What can I bring you, signore?”
The stultifying smoke from so many cigarettes would cloud your eyes in an instant, and, indifferent about hearing a whole chapter from the first book of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” recited in its original language, you’d leave listlessly, treading all-too familiar streets that screamed at you, complaining of their solitude, beneath a mad moon, gleaming white like an art deco marquee.
Over the weekend, I went to Busboys and Poets for the first time.
At the location that recently opened in Takoma Park, D.C., my abstractions evaporated into a fleeting puff of smoke.
A peace sign integrated into a linoleum floor greeted me by the automatic sliding front door, in front of a reception counter. Toward the right, there stood a series of bookcases. Beyond these, tables, booths, diners and servers beneath dim lights that beamed yellow in the quasi-artsy ambiance.
Yes, there were busboys here. What about poets?
I was having dinner that Friday night with two old friends of mine whom I’ve known since elementary school, Sam and Andrew Hellerstein, and their parents, who were kind enough to sponsor funding for this outing, Daniel and Susan Hellerstein. We sat down at a booth and ordered drinks.
At some point in our conversation, the ubiquitous topic of “hipsters” came up. Mrs. Hellerstein inquired, “So, what exactly is a ‘hipster’ anyway? And what do you guys think of them? Do you want to be like them?”
The immediate response (not issued by me)
“Hipsters deliberately try to be different. They’ll do something dumb and ironic just because it’s not ‘mainstream.’”
For a more specific example, it was said hipsters would “dress like they’re really poor, even when they have money, just because they think it looks cool.”
At that moment, I was brought back to almost a month earlier, at a bar in Philly, when my friend William Fewer-Reed remarked, “I kinda dislike the term. I think it’s just something that people use to label other people who form part of a more alternative culture.”
So then, which of these parameters might work to better define the elusive concept of what a “hipster” is? Are we to suppose a hipster can be immediately spotted due to his dingy rags, his disdain for all “mainstream” music, his predilection for Pabst Blue Ribbon or his artfully-emaciated physique?
Or is the hipster more a mythical beast, part unicorn and part chimera, devised by the boogeyman-infested psyche of idyllic-minded baby boomers, used as a crude target to spew vitriol at that which they hate most – that which is different, inventive and will not be constrained by the dictates of society?
It seems to me there are no shortage of examples of both characterizations.
TV series like Portlandia (of which I only saw one episode, I think) poke fun at the purported hipster obsessions of being eco-friendly and treating animals humanely, among other things.
At the same time, conventional wisdom seems to suggest that hipsters are fixated on instantiating their own personal variation of cool. And under those conditions, there are no shortage of hipsters at all. Hell, maybe we could even call Johnny Depp or James Dean hipsters.
The top definition for the term on Urban Dictionary claims, “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20s and 30s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence and witty banter.”
Insofar as our everyday language is a fluid, yet conventional sort of thing, I feel inclined to say there’s nothing wrong with turning to popular opinion for at least a rough definition of what a hipster might be. It may be in 10 years, what people mean when using the word “hipster” will be something entirely different or the word might have altogether disappeared from common usage. But for now, let’s go with definitional convention.
In any case, the word, which most jumps out at me from Urban Dictionary’s definition is “subculture.” And what exactly is meant by “subculture”? According to the Oxford Dictionaries, a subculture is, “A cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture.”
If we accept the Urban Dictionary claim in the first place, “Hipsters are a subculture,” it seems that the most immediate way to differentiate them would be according to their “… beliefs or interests [which are] at variance with those of the larger culture.”
And what sort of beliefs or interests might we say are particular to the hipster? These would probably entail “independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence and witty banter.”
There are, of course, many ways to put such interests into practice, and many reasons for having them in the first place.
We might note a difference between the poseur, who simply adopts a particular stance or opinion because they think it will make them “cool,” and the bohemian, who feels more at home with Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” than with the music being played on Top 40 radio—not because of any perceived stratifications of “coolness,” but because the former is simply more in tune with how they really think and feel.
I’d like to suggest the idea of hipsters as “deliberately [trying] to be different” and as legitimate constituents of “a more alternative culture” be taken into consideration.
In the former case, it is clear I’m invoking the illusory spirit of the poseur, who sports ironic mustaches and goatees, shops only at thrift stores, and intentionally tries to listen to music no one else has heard of out of an externally-imposed desire to be different, because different is cool, and mainstream culture is so passé.
In the latter case, I call to mind the bohemian—Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” the “… cool junk booting madmen, street-minded girls in Harlem howling at night,” “L’Étranger,” the perpetual outsider and exile, indomitable nexus of perspective and creativity, who ambles about, angel-headed, intently listening to the soliloquies spoken by the desolate streets and the marquee moon.
I’d like to say both are hipsters, insofar as they both strive to exemplify an apex of cool which is not to be found in the tedium of 9 a.m. to 5p.m. jobs and college trust funds.
Which of these ends up being the better hipster?
The cooler one, of course.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.