Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nostalgic for nostalgia.

Steve Jobs is dead, the leaves are falling and the global economy continues to lurch around looking for brains to eat. It's hard these days not to think of decline and decrepitude, entropy taking its toll, the world winding down.

This weekend I had to go out to St.-Laurent Shopping Centre with Sarah to pick up some mundane necessities. I note with some shock that gradually, without my noticing, and even in major cities with nominally thriving downtowns, many basic goods can no longer be had in the urban core. Expensive niche goods for affluent bobos have taken over much of the urban retail landscape, while getting a basic pair of pants requires a trip to at least the inner-ring suburbs.

Once we finished at the mall, we made a Logan's Run to the outside to hit a local second-hand store. The neighbourhood around St.-Laurent has seen better days, to put it charitably. At one point it was Ottawa's rural hinterland--there's an old French Catholic cemetery nearby where, among others, my great-great grandparents and Sir Wilfrid Laurier are buried--but the Development Fairy arrived just after World War II and waved her magic can of whoop-ass. Now St.-Laurent is a standard automotive kill zone with the strip malls, gas stations and other bric-a-brac clustered to take advantage of six lanes of passing car traffic.

We broke for lunch at Rockin' Johnny's, one of a local chain of 1950's-themed chrome replica diners. You've seen these places, or others like them, in every city on the continent. They started springing up as part of the wave of desperate Happy Days nostalgia that seized North America after the 1973 oil embargo and that, subsequently, everyone agreed to squint real hard and mistake for optimism throughout the Reagan years.

If you're in the restaurant business there's probably a decor kit you can buy, containing neon Coke signs, rock-and-roll '45's complete with pre-drilled screw holes, and framed shrines to patron saints Presley, Monroe and Dean. One phone call will summon a van with four nostalgia installers in immaculate white Maytag Man uniforms. With NASCAR pit crew efficiency, they will roll out a Wurlitzer jukebox, slap black-and-white checkerboard tile on the floor and chrome on everything else, and reupholster the booths from a ten-foot-wide roll of sparkle-infused vinyl.

The appeal of these places is obvious--a longing for the perceived simpler time of cheap gasoline and giant tailfins, gainful employment for high-school graduates and (not least, for its target baby boomer demographic just then starting to develop post-adolescent metabolisms) a time when you could wolf down a giant cheeseburger with fries and a litre of chocolate shake without spontaneously inflating like the driver-side airbag in your Chrysler K-car.

But now here's where it gets meta. Because what can you say about a nostalgia-themed place that makes you wistful for a time you could go to a nostalgia-themed place that looked convincingly new? When I was young, if you went to a fake reproduction of a 1950's diner, that fake 1950's diner looked like it was just built. That was the whole point. If you're in a 1950's diner and it looks like it's thirty years old, that means you're in at least the 1980's and who the hell needs that?

As it happens, this particular establishment was pretty grim.

Its once-shiny chrome exterior was coated with grime from sitting next to a six-lane arterial for twenty years.

The blinds were pulled down over all the windows. When we arrived at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, we were the only customers aside from a pair of babushkas nursing their coffee.

The table jukeboxes had red duct tape over the coin slots. Perhaps they were out of order, or maybe they were just trying to prevent any customers from denting the already-shaky ambience by cranking up The Eagles or Huey Lewis. The wall plaster bore the scars of decades of being whanged with the napkin dispenser.

The mandatory iconic James Dean poster had faded into the same suicide-blue colour as the walls:

Since we were the only actual customers, it was tricky trying to take pictures without being noticed by the staff. It's too bad because possibly the saddest element (I couldn't get a decent shot) was a clock over the counter, looking distinctly unfabulous with long-burnt-out neon lettering reading "The Fabulous '50's." In a similar vein, the menus sported the slogan "Bring Back Great Times and Great Food." Hey, kitten, you wanna bring me Johnny's Irony Burger with a side of pathos?

For all of this, it wasn't an unpleasant experience. Truth is beauty, even at its ugliest. I found it delightfully freaky to be in a place that so sharply illustrates the end of the rope we find ourselves at, where even our shrines to the golden age are battered, grimy and all but abandoned.


  1. Holy phrack, that is the coolest thing I've seen in a long time.
    Let's burn this out even more meta.

    Remember back in the 80s when Cyberpunk author William Gibson wrote basically some stories indicating that in the "not to distant 2000s" we'd have some kind of nostalgia for the apex of the American Empire, but it would be a decaying vision of utopia?

    You're just about exactly where Gibson pictured you, looking like he described you. And you read that as a youth in a shiny place like that not realising that you'd end up in a dystopic future with retro-nostalgia being nostalgic for a time when you read a story describing a dystopic future with retro nostalgia?

    You look like a beat generation angry young man and you're as much a curmudgeon as ever. Good to see you finallly in yer niche. You were always ahead of the curve in the 80s.

  2. i stumbled across your blog via google word search: "50's diner" and "pathos". i love this so much it hurts.

  3. dude, i have to object a little. i get what you are saying, entirely. and yet, it is my neck of the woods you are talking about, a real place, not a foil for sardonic commentary. you sort of come off a bit like a tourist on a lark or mugging at the zoo.

    there is a lot of money in the core of the city and a lot of money in the mcmansion land of the outer ring suburbs, and the inner ring is like the inner city of the seventies--delapidated, a bit heavy on crime, and ugly and barren.

    on the other hand, relative to outer suburbs, it has pretty integrated mixed use--lots of business in many spaces, close to many residential spaces. lots of people have a sense of locality rather than being in pods that reach far away lives by car.

    not long from now, when the outer suburbs start to feel like an energy drain, this area will seem more desirable. its already happening. hopefully we can have diners on some other theme. the cinematic 50's was tired in the mid 80's.

    furthermore, we have perhaps the city's largest sexshop. so there!

    i love the portrait too, even if you are disrespecting a good sized hamburger. jughead would disapprove.

  4. @Primate - Fair points. I'm certainly not taking a shot at the people who live there. And the location is undeniably good--during the nice-weather months I ride my bike over there all the time. My issue with the place is how development has been undertaken to cater to people arriving from far away by car, at the expense of any esthetic concern that might benefit the locals. The fact that these commercial uses happen to also be useful to people living nearby is purely incidental to the thinking of the builders.

    @Anonymous #2 - The fact that someone was Google searching "pathos AND 50's diner" is intriguing.

  5. Sadly, and only somewhat surprisingly, yours was the only page that met that key word criteria. But, then, there's nothing much left to say, anyway. You kind of said it all.