“Who are you?”
That’s what the model in cutoff jean shorts asked me at this Tribeca bar a Friday or two ago. I was there with a group late at night at the suggestion of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. At 2am we’d all piled into a taxi, zipped downtown, gotten out in front of a long line of people, and, because my friend somehow knew the bouncer, skipped the line like the trendiest of the trendsters.
Immediately I’d felt totally out of place. You know how you can walk into a venue and immediately get smacked by this vibe, this flavor in the air? Something about the décor, or the outfits of the people, or the lighting or something? It reminds me of what architects refer to when they talk about form or aesthetic. Well the vibe here was this kind of deliberate cool. It was no fun, and I’ll tell you why.
There are two different kinds of cool: deliberate cool and effortless cool. Effortless cool is when you’re doing things because you want to and it’s badass because you don’t care. I think about that guy in the YouTube video who begins just dancing by himself and ends up starting a hundred-person dance party. In order to be really cool, you have to have the right reason for doing it. You have to want to do it because it comes from some authentic part of yourself—from your own will, your own gumption.
Deliberate cool is the opposite: it’s cool for coolness’ sake. If you are acting a certain way or dressing a certain way in order to be cool, you’re missing the mark. Your reasons are wrong—you’re being too deliberate. You’re trying too hard. And you can’t just pretend it’s some other reason. People are smarter than that—they will catch on to you right away. If you are trying to be cool for coolness’ sake, people will know.
Well this bar was filled with the deliberately cool people—the bad kind of cool. And not surprisingly, this coolness was further marked by a certain moneyed quality of the clientele. The men were all wearing these shiny designer sweaters and fancy shoes. The women were all skinny and tall and associated, no doubt, with the fashion industry.
But here was the clincher: no one was smiling! It turns out that in order to be deliberately cool, you need to either a) be having an awful time or b) be pretending to have an awful time. Everyone was scowling at each other in a competition to see who could appear the most miserable.
In order to mitigate with my deep discomfort in this situation, I adopted a radical approach: I smiled. I smiled at the bartender, then smiled at the people chatting next to me. I joined my group of friends and smiled at them, then I smiled at people sitting at the table nearby. I even smiled at the pretty girls dancing by the DJ booth.
No one knew what to do. People sitting at the table started whispering and pointing to me. A couple guys passed by and scowled harder than ever, something I had previously assumed impossible. The girls on the other side of the DJ booth glanced at me skittishly, as if something were terribly wrong. Someone was smiling. Didn’t he get the memo? Didn’t he understand that’s not how we do things around here?
Then something funny happened. One of the girls started whispering to her friends and suddenly started paying more attention to me. Eventually she came over and we danced, me twirling her around a couple times in a dorky swing-dance move that was clearly not the norm in this dour environment.
Now, it is well known that the people in this bar are very important. To simply have the average riffraff off the street and sullying the rarefied stock that frequented the establishment would be a travesty, and would signal the impending demise of the coolness it was trying so hard to maintain.
So of course, to be smiling like I was, I had to be somebody.
As I was dancing with this girl, she leaned in and whispered, “Who are you?” That’s when I understood. This girl assumed I was so cool, I was going against the trend of pretending to be miserable. I must have been, in other words, an EIP: and extremely important person.
I looked at her knowingly. “Daniel,” I said. Her eyes widened even further. “Have I heard of you?” she said. “Have you?” I said. That was enough. She was hooked. We danced all night, her convinced I was a top-end photographer or something, me enjoying the ruse. Eventually she informed me she was returning to Paris to do a shoot in the morning, and after the lights turned on we never saw each other again. But she may always wonder which artist she danced with that night. As for me, I’ll just keep smiling.