Man-Cave Masculinity A man's quest for his soul starts with a walk downstairs

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by Bryan Curtis Slate

     

Students of anthropology, by now you’ve heard of “man caves”: the basements and above-the-garage spaces where men gather to watch the Red Zone Channel. What requires further study is the culture that has arisen there. It is man-cave masculinity – a new male code. Study man-cave utterances (“This is everything and more of what I’ve ever wanted in a basement”) and you begin to see fear. You see confusion. You see men galloping into the adulthood like Leon Lett running toward the end zone in Super Bowl XXVII. That this unsteady manliness would be celebrated with big-screens and kegerators and Golden Tee machines is part of what makes it so touching.

To see how far men have come – or maybe how far they’ve retreated – we need to start at midcentury, at a proto-man cave: Toots Shor’s eponymous saloon in New York City. The décor at 51 West 51st Street was manly in extremis. “[I]t is as devoid of subtlety and fussy trimmings as a boxing ring,” John Bainbridge wrote in his three-part New Yorker profile. Fleshy and obscene, Shor pulled in manly types – Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason; sports stars like Joe DiMaggio; sportswriters like Jimmy Cannon; even Chief Justice Earl Warren – to join his nocturnal party. As Shor liked to say, “A bum who ain’t drunk by midnight ain’t tryin’.”

Shor also enforced a male tribal code. To be one of his “crumb bums,” you had to make frequent and tender declarations of friendship. You were expected to smother your ego. (Charlie Chaplin, enduring a 20-minute wait for a table, was told by Shor, “Have a drink and be funny for the people.”) And although he was happily married, Shor did not make his inner sanctum particularly woman-friendly. Bainbridge: “[A] member is not forbidden to bring a female companion into the restricted area, but it is understood that he will not do it too often.” Switch up a few particulars, and this is man caving today.

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