A man’s quest for his soul starts with a walk downstairs.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
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.
Yet man caves full of framed sports jerseys aren’t illicit escapes. They’re the male equivalent of slipping into a bubble bath. (Cal Ripken, take me away!) Many man caves are stripped of sex altogether. “It couldn’t be anything cheesecake,” one man told the Tennessean of his décor. “No Maxim magazine.” Likewise, when a man constructs an elaborate bar in his basement, what he is really constructing is a pretend bar: one without pool table brawls, chance encounters, and drunken flirting. A Pittsburgh Steelers fan and man caver told the Sacramento Bee, “It’s my space. … My wife knows where to find me.” In the yawning void between those two sentences, you see the fantasy a man caver is creating for himself.
So man-cave masculinity is about tip-toeing 10 feet and hiding in plain sight. It’s also regaining control of a life’s narrative. See, for example, the DIY Network TV show Man Caves. Jason Cameron, a contractor, and Tony Siragusa, a former NFL nose tackle, grant the wishes of sad, cave-less men who write into the show’s website. (It’s the reverse of the 1950s, when a strung-out housewife would go on TV to weep for new appliances.) Cameron and Siragusa build these men dream worlds. “There are certain things we always put in a man cave,” Cameron tells me by phone. “One is the bar. We haven’t done a man cave without a bar and a kegerator. And a comfortable chair. And a big-screen TV.”
About the walls: “Earth tones, steel, and wood,” Cameron says. Manly materials, the kind that would have made Tim Taylor grunt in ecstasy. (Man Caves bans throw pillows, scented candles, and fuchsia.) As Cameron explains it, presiding over a man cave is a trade off. The men on Man Caves have no say (or interest) in decorating the rest of the house. But they throw themselves into decorating the man cave within an inch of its life. It is a plank of man-cave masculinity that you will give away the world—drapery, patio furniture, kids’ names—for a small zone of autonomy. “It’s just that I’m comfortable down here,” one man told the Muskegon Chronicle, “and it’s kinda mine.”
Let’s enter the man cave. Here are some typical decorations, culled from news stories: seats from the old Boston Garden. Game-worn cleats from Tommie Frazier. A Lance Parrish Tigers jersey. The board game Axis & Allies. “Ironic movie and video game posters.” A saddle. An Egyptian tomb. The man cave isn’t just the new sports bar—it’s the new parents’ basement, the college dorm room. It is the place where a permanent childhood is left uninterrupted.
Man caves become ego caves. They are shrines to their owners. “Most people are amazed when they walk into my room,” a man caver named Ken remarked to the Sacramento Bee. “They are just shocked that one guy could have as much as I do.” (Ken has a signed photo of Derek Jeter.) In the suburban hinterlands, the man cave—along with the garage workshop, the in-home theater, and the humidor—is a muscle-flex of wealth, of having a McMansion with more square footage than your neighbor’s.
On the credit side, this physical space—this five-yard halo—can also provide some mental space. “Building a space of your own is a way to establish your identity,” says Sam Martin, author of the book Manspace: A Primal Guide to Marking Your Territory. One man Martin chronicled made his man cave into an elaborate replica of a 16th-century Japanese tea house. Another man refurbished a 75-foot tugboat. DIY’s Man Caves crew designed the radio studio for former SportsCenter host Dan Patrick: a cave of exposed brick walls and a pinball machine and athlete cardboard cutouts and a basketball hoop. According to Jason Cameron, when Patrick saw the room, he wept.
Cameron himself lives with his wife in a 1,000-square-foot condo—too small for a man cave. But he’s dreaming of a future hideout. “I’m a cigar guy,” Cameron tells me. “It’s going to be a cigar-slash-wine room.” I tell him that sounds awfully upscale. He pauses. “Yeah, I’m shocked I just said that.” Man cave masculinity holds that—contra the sports bar—self-realization comes when a man is alone. If he’s ever alone.
The hedge is appropriate, because at bottom a man cave is a compromise, a punt. It is an admission that unbridled guydom will be balanced with family life. That self-realization with be mixed with self-abnegation. As Bill Simmons noted in another tweet, his vacated man cave had been taken over by his young son, who was watching Scooby-Doo on the big screen. We guys haven’t “turned in our man cards,” to use the most horrific phrase known to, er, man. But we have accepted that we can only use them in a dank basement, in view of Tommie Frazier’s cleats, for a few hours on Sunday.
We? You bet! I get married in a week. My current “man space” amounts to half of the second bedroom in our Brooklyn apartment. It could support an ethnography of man cave masculinity. Papers strewn all over the floor (stubborn messiness). Fitted caps I buy but never wear (longing for lost childhood). The complete novels of Michael Crichton (ditto). A cactus (still under booth review). And finally, a photo of me, around age 13, in a suit and clip-on tie interviewing a baseball player (a cocktail of childhood longing, sports fetishization, and escape from reality that even Dr. Freud would have trouble choking down). As this article goes to press, I’m temporarily surrendering my cave to my in-laws, who will be sleeping in it for a night. How do I feel about the intrusion? You know, man to man, I think I’m going to be totally OK with it.
(Disclosure: I write for Bill Simmons at Grantland. James Twitchell, cited above, has admitted to plagiarism in his published works; if his insights about man cavery rightly belong to someone else, I’ll credit them instead.)
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.