"The sparkler is a live firework that shoots out as high as eight inches. It burns for up to fifty-five seconds..."
‘Well, I'm glad you made it. To…’ he glances around, as if searching for something toastworthy in the room, past me, to the all-male gaggle of R's friends-cum-clients, none of whom you would mistake for Brazilian or Columbian, pulls focus back to me, whips left to note the winged robot on stage next to us, back to me…
T says, ‘I said, “To _____!” ’ He’s doing the sort of loud talking you do as a last resort before shouting, which is never attractive on anyone, no matter the necessity. It's like the volume equivalent of speed-walking. I can’t hear him, I hope I’m not toasting to anything obscene. I’m just shouting.
We’re at Etiquette, a pop-up nightclub in Midtown with a significant dinner theater component. And we’re very underground—I spiraled down at least four flights’ worth of marble stairs, behind a trundling bouncer who escorted me and didn’t even slow down as we passed coatcheck so I could bare my teeth at those nickel-and-dimers, after I walked up to the club’s entrance on Forty-Sixth and was whisked inside before I could even spit out my name or R’s. Can’t wait to party it up at M42 next week. Very cavernous in here, too. Caverns, it’s always caverns. Where are all those second-wave feminists decrying the skyscraper as the symbol of phallocentrism now, huh? Oh, right. Face control.
R came to fetch me where the bouncer had dumped me, standing in the room’s entrance, transfixed by the whole spectacle, his side hug snapping me out of it:
‘Quite the place! And you didn’t want to work for these people?’
‘It is, isn’t it? Yeah maybe, one day!…’
‘Oh c’mon! Six figures, to wear getups each Saturday, like…’ I tilt my head in a bit, just as an off-brand Ziggy Stardust makes his way between us and walks out of the room, Ground Control, Gonna Use The John. R just shrugs, and I stow my Man Who Sold The World quip. As we start walking he slips in a mention of his night post-LAVO, involving one of the French girls, I fail to render it here because so often men garden-path their way through brags like that, it always glitches out my memory circuits. Not that I’m surprised, much:
Most promoters were open about their promiscuity, having as many as one new partner per week…Most girls that I met were strikingly self-aware of promoters’ intimacy strategies…
We wind our way to a long table abutting the catwalk/stage thing at the center of the room. Probably a dozen or more girls sit at the table, a few still finishing dinner, it does not look appetizing, glad I had a bite with a friend at Don Angie before this. I dump my stuff and greet T, the promoter from the other night at TAO, as he begins to pour my tequila:
‘Do I look pissed to be here?’
‘Ha, well, if you do,’ passes me my drink, starts to pour his, ‘This’ll help.’
‘Thanks. That was my first time, you know? I think maybe I’ve mellowed out, a bit…’
‘Well, I'm glad you made it. To…’
The sheer kitsch of this place. There's a direct-to-video decadence to it all. The I’m a F*cking [sic] Rockstar tagline. King (Queen?) Freddie Mercury, with flamethrower. Still clubby aspects, still bottle service, still girls, but also an uncanniness. Like if you put funhouse mirrors in all the try-on rooms in Dover Street Market: almost redundant, but not quite. A jester unconscious of his privilege. Like Hamlet, putting on his little play. Surreality unmasking surreality. Just the silly promo on their site:
ETIQUETTE PROVIDES AN IMMERSIVE, HIGH PRODUCTION, HOSPITALITY EXPERIENCE THAT ENCOMPASSES LIVE ART, WORLDLY PERFORMANCES, NIGHTLIFE, MAGIC, AND THEATRE INTO A WORLDLY DINNER NIGHTLIFE EXPERIENCE.
Worldly. Marvelous. Of all the nights I spend surveying the party circuit, tonight’s atmosphere feels emptied out of a certain taut significance most clubs peddle, and which Very Important People’s frame uncritically imputes. It’s a whisper, an undercurrent of charismatic epistemology continually reaffirming your suspicions: There is someone behind the curtain. There is a fiat that transcends the trappings of high status by which it is backed. The rich are more right in their preferences than you in yours.
The outside view confirms this. There is not a sociology book about the enjoyment of your own preferences you can read. You, however, have read one about theirs. From this, you deduce the existence of a superimposition that has been forced on you. By fiat. Theirs.
And it continues, on and on like this. And a vanishingly small proportion of readers are women who are north of six feet tall in heels, conspicuously, if not ludicrously thin, less than thirty, preferably less than twenty-five, and whose facial attractiveness is left as an exercise to the reader who will experience the ouroboros of it all for themselves, from the inside, and get to yank back the curtain, only to find there’s no one there.
Mears only flatters her subject further as she tries to establish a through-line with the book’s mascot, the potlatch:
…competitive gifting and feasting rituals called potlatches. In a potlatch, a tribal chief or noble lavished gifts of considerable riches upon his guests to advance his title or rank, doling out large quantities of food, woolen blankets, or silver bracelets… [It was] typically enacted by a group leader seeking prestige and status….
In ceremonial squander, anthropologists saw not just a curious or irrational practice, but profoundly meaningful ways of representing and building the hierarchy of a society… While classic studies of potlatches now feel dated, ethnographies continue to reveal them in a surprising range of contemporary settings…
Ah yes, shoehorning indigenous peoples into theories about timeless, universal attributes of human nature, that timeless, universal attribute of sociologist nature. Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, all just wanna spray Dom Pérignon on girls taller than them in rooms with inordinate numbers of subwoofers.
But nothing is timeless. Vibes shift. Wealth from status, currency from fiat, price from prestige, never have these been more divorced than in the present moment. So far, the scene I’ve safaried, it’s just a bunch of mooks who think you can purchase a ticket to the opposite of Disneyland. Bridge and tunnel. Unlike the elites of yestercentury, they would be flattered by the idea they’re engaging in some transcendent ritual, weighty with eons of ancestors past. By the suggestion their freedom, innocence, universality, and objective value are proven by their affinity to the primitive:
The economist Thorstein Veblen scandalized elites at the turn of the twentieth century by likening high society to the ‘primitive peoples’ he read about in Boas’s anthropology reports. To Veblen, the natives and the elites shared the impulse to show off through ‘invidious consumption,’ seeking status among their respective audiences.
Because, perhaps not entirely in Mears’s time but certainly now, clubs are to status as Everest is to danger: venues of an embalmed élan vital that once made them frontiers. For their part, clubs’ inventions of ever more baroque VIP gimmicks read like a fractaling list of mountaineering exploits: First female ascent without supplemental oxygen. First to descend by paraglider, and survive. Invent stupider and stupider games, dispense stupider and stupider prizes. The downtown set, all the cool kids, they’re going to see plays about themselves now. Scene has long since sublimated into content: Not me drinking tequila at Tao!
In a post-irony-to-the-nth world, how is sociology to be done? Surely not with the straight face that Departments of Systems of Power Relations that Enable Value Accumulation from Bodily Resources that Aren’t One’s Own Studies prescribe of their practitioners. Detached objectivity is as much a LARP as self-conscious potlatching. It takes an anarchic anthropologist, a sovereign sociologist, a rogue researcher, an elitist egghead, a freewheeling fieldworker. You must seek to understand how your own idiosyncratic accumulations of capital affect the worlds you inhabit, because they alread-
A sudden BOOOOOM rattles me out of my rhapsody, I look around, confetti has exploded everywhere. I’m digging the dinner theater thing, it’s refreshing. For once delicious visuals that aren’t female bodies are just as much on display as female bodies. I’m in such rare form, I get up onstage and dance when the other girls do. When in Rome. No, I’m not in that photo. I’m watching this guy dance on the table next to me when I feel the buzz of an errant DM, and decide I’d rather talk to this rando than anyone in my immediate vicinity:
I send him an Accidental Renaissancey photo I took of the robot actor who was onstage earlier. Not only was he winged, but his big, boxy helmet was covered in LEDs that cycled between facial expressions in sync with the music. And he had green lasers shooting out of each and every digit, even his toes. I also send a video of him battling what seems to be his arch nemesis, an LED-studded gladiator with a square screen mounted to his chest displaying a silhouette of a scantily clad woman dancing against a colorful background. He’s pounding on a snare drum that’s strapped to him, like he’s the Little Drummer Boy who grew up and became this degenerate:
I am well-equipped to answer this, because at one point Very Important People helpfully explains what a sparkler is:
The sparkler is a live firework that shoots out as high as eight inches. It burns for up to fifty-five seconds.
The music really is atrocious at these things. Beloved house beats lol. It was strange initially, hearing these songs pumped out of terawatt sound systems. Prior I thought they could only emanate from tinny Uber stereos, some aural Soylent drivers are contractually obliged to blast even as they shout over it, struggling to be heard on a conference call in some foreign language, with additional cacophony provided by the half-down windows they just passive-aggressively won’t roll up for you despite how much you need your hair intact for whatever thing you’re going to.
Or I’d hear them in spin class sometimes, all those songs, I was Pavlov’d into associating the whole genre with motion. You’re going somewhere. But at the club, it’s You’ve arrived, you f*cking rockstar, you. It’s New Year’s Eve from here on out. You’ve made it to the top—now you’re here. But arrival has a minuscule shelf life. It gets baroquer, quicker, than almost any other sensation. Store-bought especially, it’s less a zennish reach-the-peak-be-enlightened, more murdered anticipation of a roller coaster that has spent agonizing minutes inching up to its zenith, only to get itself stuck seconds before coasting down the initi-
Buzzzzbuzzzzzzbuzzzzzbuzzzzzzbuzzzbuzzzzz My phone erupts with a shrillion buzzes, derails me, her thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm. They’re Calendy notifs, inbound from a link that lives on my personal site’s homepage, ‘Instagram Rando scheduled…’
Funny guy. I decline them all, then swipe back over to Instagram:
I put away my phone, enough clubbing crabbing for tonight, I’m so lame, I’m kicking myself out so I can get some sleep before next week’s all-nighters. And one of the aerial contortionists whipping about almost killed me earlier, her Elsa wig flew off her head and nearly beaned mine. Don’t wanna stick around and get caught up and diced to pieces in Bumblebee’s machinery as he’s transforming, dude’s a walking crush hazard. I’m yanking my trusty coat/shaw/robe thing out from beneath the leg of a table I stashed it under when I first arrived when I hear someone behind me shout:
‘Are you a model!?’
‘Da!’ I finally get it free, and stand back up to find myself chest-to-face with a good civilian. She stares up at me, tilts her head a bit to one side, and shouts into my neck: ‘What!?’
I feel like that godawful term’s gotten into my water supply for good. I hope she’s here writing her own book, hoping I’ll give her the ammunition she needs to savage me as the avatar of this whole gilded funhaus of mirrors. This imported bitch is so pathetic, she couldn’t even get herself invited to Saint-Tropez, so she’s just here, partying it up on a Saturday night with Alcoholic Betty Boop.
Everyone’s writing, I hope, the busboys, the bouncers, whoever lights the sparklers—I hope the whole game of nightlife turns itself inside out, that the ascent to ever-higher simulacrum levels becomes the most incredibly seductive and thrilling part about these nights.
‘No, I’m not! I am not a model!!’
It’s too loud to argue with me, and she doesn’t ask any follow-up questions.
Sunday, it still feels like morning to me, and I’m sprawled out on my bed, tangled in the covers and skipping through stories from last night. It doesn’t seem like any grand qualia are on the horizon, like when I first dove into this world. Thanksgiving’s next week, maybe I’ll eat my way to good citizenship like I’m Christian Bale or something, if I can keep from potlatching it all up, see nightlife from another perspective. You don’t know what you’ve got un–
There I am! I spot myself finally. This is the girl. I do look sorta imported, in this context. Natasha, twenty-two, little Croatian flag emoji. MGMT: @elitenyc. Dm for booking and inquiries. Has a small dog, and a boyfriend who looks to be a gas station attendant. What is it like to be a that?, I just wanna ask her, wring blood from that stone-cold stunner. I owe Mears an apology, this is difficult to convey.
Part (iv) is published next week.