Beers with a Stoic: Spare me the modern speakeasy, will ya?

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Allowing for the possible exception of Mick Jagger, we’re all destined to awaken one morning and find that we’ve pole-vaulted the invisible line in the sand that delineates fashionability.

Whether or not we ever cared about it, hitherto the choice is withdrawn, and popular culture no longer comforts.

Rather, it antagonizes.

Examples that remind me of my eligibility for social security include the bizarre veneration of AutoTune, rendering pop music unlistenable (and making singing into a lost art); the mobility cult of brain-dead chain Buc-ee’s (why, exactly?); and the lesser-known of the CO-prefixed pandemic waves: cosplay, or the prevalence of 24-7 pretending to be something, someone and somewhere else to the exclusion of one’s residence in the real world.

And then there is the contemporary speakeasy, which is a contradiction in terms, although it hasn’t stopped the Indiana Pacers from announcing that Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is adding one of them.

Perhaps wearing a jock strap or sports bra around your head is the signal for entry.

Better yet, the rules governing the basketball game might revert to those requiring a center jump after each score, just like in the 1920s, seeing as the 1920s were the last period in American history when the word “speakeasy” could be used non-ironically.

And yet there it is, popping up several times a year, and about as meaningless as the Instagram page of the downtown whale oil vendor who keeps municipal street lamps lit.

Me?

Well, I adore dictionaries, because the job of those charged with writing them is to mercilessly filter flagrant inaccuracies in order to get down to a granular level about the actual meaning of words. Thankfully, Merriam Webster does precisely this for speakeasy, one of the most abused words in the American English language.

Speakeasy (noun)
»speak·​easy ˈspēk-ˌē-zē (plural: speakeasies)
A place where alcoholic beverages are illegally sold; specifically: such a place during the period of prohibition in the U.S.

Synonyms include alehouse, tavern and dive; while familiar, and periodically prone to misuse (don’t get me started on “dive” bars), there is nothing about these that suggests the defining characteristic of illegality.

Much closer to the mark is “blind pig” (sometimes blind tiger), the back story of which establishes a suitable link with illicitness in the sense that if alcohol cannot be legally sold, tickets can be vended for folks to come inside and see the blind pig — and while there, receive free drinks after the viewing.

Hence the modern conundrum, which produces the dictionary’s palpable lament.

The theatrical and imagined speakeasy imagery, which is all that any of us can possibly grasp, because the people who actually experienced speakeasies during Prohibition are long since dead, is desirable because it conjures the sort of cosplay illusion/delusion so much in vogue nowadays.

However, an actual speakeasy today, just as it was during Prohibition, must be illegal for it to be a speakeasy, and when deprived of this critical feature by virtue of pragmatic business principles (read: the fear of being raided, shut down and prosecuted), the very same selfie-driven showiness that invariably leads to TikTok is sacrificed.

Ergo, any modern-day speakeasy inviting local news channels to dress their reporters like Al Capone, all the better to be served martinis by artfully costumed flappers, is by definition not a speakeasy at all.

Rather, it is a marketing concept, although I’ll allow for an exception: if the owner is in fact bribing regulatory authorities to ignore illegal alcohol sales, then an identification as  speakeasy might still be allowable.

Yes, I know. I’m so very out of touch.

Speakeasies are cute, and they’re fun, and we can have dress-up parties; the bookshelf slides into the wall or Maxwell Smart drops through the bottom of a phone booth, and just because modern computing places the entire history of human knowledge into a space no bigger than a quart bottle of bathtub gin (you’re probably not drinking any of THAT these days, either) we’re perfectly free to ignore these many facts and choose instead to invent fairy tales from whole cloth, whether mythologizing a booze business or a presidential candidate.

NEWS FLASH: I just now popped the cap on a vintage bottle of white pastry sour stout brewed with spices used by the Inuit to cure whale blubber jerky (then filtered through salty pebbles from the Yucatan) — and I poured it straight down the drain even though the sewer department advises against it. New Glarus Spotted Cow? Ah, yes. Gimme. That’s far better for breakfast on a Sunday morning while writing about speakeasies.

Here’s the coda.

Contemporary speakeasy-envy annoys me aesthetically, pervasively and on its own merits, but I’d probably be far more conducive to the idea if I thought any of the rampant make-believe might lead by osmosis to a greater understanding of Prohibition, and how the mindset that brought us this failed experiment lives on, into the faux speakeasy era of the present.

Prohibitionism actually isn’t a simplistic blue vs. red sort of dichotomy; rather, the prohibitionist’s rationale cuts across the ideologies. So, do the whole Disney-fed speakeasy thing if you really must, but then read a book and be reminded of what words meant back when words had genuine meaning.

My reading suggestion: The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr, in which the author establishes that America’s entry into World War I hastened Prohibition’s arrival. I mention the war because we experienced a similar prohibitionist sentiment during the COVID pandemic; there were people seriously advocating for bans on alcohol in 2020, and for reasons paralleling those oozing to the surface during the Wilson administration.

During WWI, sobriety — previously mandated by reason of Protestant fundamentalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and racism — suddenly merged with teetotalism as a manifestation of patriotic imperative in wartime, and BOOM … the foundations of greater government intrusion in our lives became established for the first time, and once given a platform, was expanded in all directions during the decades to come.

And the playbook for the War on Drugs (not that excellent band that somehow functions without AutoTune) was written with speakeasies in mind, back when the stakes were real, and “escapism” meant avoiding jail time, not searching for the evening’s superhero costume.

Enjoy your Blind Pachyderm cocktails, and thanks for reading.

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