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 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.
What changed is that middle-aged male “palship”—Shor’s excellent phrase—is now practiced on sofas. The saloon came home. There are two big reasons for this. First, there was the women’s movement, which made it verboten for married men to be at bars until all hours. Men (or this was the idea, anyway) took on a bigger role in rearing children, cooking dinner, and maintaining the house.
The second reason is that the sports bar became redundant. These days, every giant, glowing LED TV is its own sports bar. We have the NFL Sunday Ticket—the NFL “package,” as it is gonadally known—and niche channels like the Longhorn Network. Jimmy Cannon, the most famous sportswriter of his day, snooped for material at Shor’s bar; Bill Simmons, the most famous sportswriter of his day, snoops for it on his satellite. “What a man cave night,” Simmons tweeted in April. “3 NBA games, Bs-Habs, Hawks-Canucks, Sox going for .500 + 6 of my League of Dorks starters pitching. TV smorgasbord!”
Staying home and declaring, “I’m totally OK with that!” produces its own peculiar macho code. At its simplest level, a man cave, like a saloon, represents an escape hatch. “I feel like when I shut the door, I’m isolated from all the frustrations of being a dad and a husband,” one man caver told the Nashville Tennessean. Another told the Calgary Herald, “It’s almost like you walk down the steep stairs and everything else is forgotten.” James B. Twitchell, author of the book Where Men Hide, compared this downstairs walk with ones that lead to other illicit male redoubts—strip clubs, opium dens—where there are no windows, where the outside world can't see in.
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