Douchebag Defined

Interview Week is still in full swing, but I was crossing the Parc Villette today, as I often do, and saw some things I simply had to exorcise. The Parc Villette is an ideal modern public space: traversed by two bodies of water, it serves as a campus for the dance and music conservatories, surrounds a few museums and concert venues, and is the only park in Paris, to my knowledge, that never closes (although you can’t loiter after midnight). As is common with vast, green public spaces, however, the Parc Villette tends to attract some of the lowest forms of humanity.

I had seen the humans in question before. They practice a form of juggling that Wikipedia has since identified as bar flair. Instead of balls or bowling pins or torches or scarves, these young showmen juggle bartender paraphernalia: bottles, shakers, strainers, garnish, glasses. The idea is to, ‘enhance the overall guest experience.’ Having worked behind a bar, I had seen hints of such a practice while working in tandem with more experienced bartenders: each liquor bottle receives an obligatory spin before being handed off; a requested lime arrives aerially, having been rolled down your coworker’s bicep and launched from his inner elbow. But outside of a competition glimpsed on the Food Network, I had little idea that bar flair was an entire, thriving subculture.

My concept of the ideal bartender is much simpler. My friend Tonia is a great bartender. She keeps the bar stocked with all the ingredients needed in the optimal locations to make every drink quickly. The drinks she makes taste good, and she pours a little more liquor into each one than the bosses would like. If a customer gets lonely and needs someone to talk to, she talks. If someone gets out of line, she throws down. But that’s my conception of a good bartender. Apparently, bars in Las Vegas and Miami and Ibiza need a slightly enhanced guest experience. Fine. I would hate to rob some eager patrons of their entertainment if that’s what they enjoy. And perhaps these young bar flair enthusiasts are paid good money for their talent, and the more they practice their tosses and twists, the more money they can request from prospective employers. If that’s the case, I applaud their efforts; excellence is as difficult as it is rare. But employment opportunities aside, I have a few things to say about the motivations of these so-called entertainers.

First, when I’m not simply passing through the Parc Villette, I’m usually snacking and boozing with friends on the grass or alongside the canal. Even though this is rather harmless in my book, I’m sure some more conservative park-goers consider me a scourge, another inebriated Anglophone carousing until early hours polluting their peaceful espace vert. To those upstanding citizens: my apologies: we are young and reckless and will soon join forces with you in petitioning against the unruly youth. I say this to show that my time spent at the Villette is mainly social.

(I should tell this story now because I won’t otherwise have the opportunity. I live in the Tamil quarter of Paris. A few nights ago, just before midnight, a group of young men, having finished their duties at the restaurants and grocery stores on rue Louis Blanc, began an impromptu jam circle right below my window. The only instrument available was a parking meter console. While one of them drummed out a rhythm on its sides, the others stood around, chanting, laughing, smoking and drinking tea. It sounded a bit like Campfire Songs-era Animal Collective. Authenticity is something that musicologist’s debate over endlessly; some say it doesn’t exist. I can say that this was the most authentic musical performance I’ve ever witnessed, likely the most authentic one I ever will witness, and I shut down iTunes to listen at the window. Of course, it only lasted twenty minutes or so, until an old woman a few stories up screamed ‘Taisez-vous!‘ out her window and threatened to call the police. But it was genuinely magical while it lasted.)

Second, all animals have their ways of impressing the opposite sex. (Or same sex.) Humans, of course, are animals (even though some of the most intelligent people you meet, who would laugh heartily at the prospect of Creationism as a credible alternative to evolution, will still try to separate humans from animals on the basis on ‘intelligent discourse,’ as if speech were something apart from other mammalian forms of communication, and not just the most advanced earthly form of croaking, crying, cawing and cackling). I guess that when I comb my hair in the morning or do a few sit-ups every couple days to make my gut less unsightly, I have the opposite sex in mind, even if I don’t consciously acknowledge it. I say this to show that everyone, including myself, engages in activities whose ends are to impress the opposite (or the same) sex.

But bar juggling? Fucking bar juggling? Let me point out you what this entails. First, these guys have to acquire the practice equipment (there are special sturdy bottles for practice). This means visiting a special bar-juggling shop, or placing orders on a special bar-juggling website, or making explicit verbal contracts with other members of the bar-juggling community about the return and condition of each piece of equipment. Then, when they schedule their daily activities, there is a crucial moment when they think, ‘Ah yes, from the hours of x to y, I must make the journey with my sack of bar things to the Parc Villette and refine, through repetition, my bar-juggling skills.’ And who knows all of the steps that must be taken (with the concept of bar juggling never secondary) to book auditions, enroll onself in competitions, strike deals with liquor companies over sponsorship and stipends and. . .

Before you get mad: this is not Cocktail. Cocktail is cool. Cocktail is fun. This is not cocktail! There’s a difference, an essential difference, between the good-natured antics of the boyish Brian Flanagan, and the utter self-absorption of the amazing Youss and his acolytes at the Parc Villette. Camaraderie is intrinsically good; a passion for a vocation whose sole purpose seems to be the validation of the performer’s supreme prowess in the art of throwing bottles into the air while making alcoholic beverages that you might not even drink is irredeemable.

I consider myself a liberal-minded person. I’m open to new ideas, musics, places, tastes and art forms. But with bar flair–and I only do this reluctantly because this whole rant feels undeservedly mean-spirited–bar flair is where I draw the line: these guys are douchebags, grade-A douchebags like the kind my Thai roommates used to keep on the shelf in the shower.

An established hippie pastime is juggling (and other feats of coordination and agility: devil sticks, hula hoops, those little crystal balls à la David Bowie in Labyrinth), and even if shudder a little every time I see some red-eyed, dread-locked Deadhead pull out one of those oversize gyroscopes and have at it, at least his motivations are obscured by several layers of arcane, hippie logic. He enjoys the attention, sure, but that’s not why he’s out there. I’ve had hobbies, too, with outfits and gear to geek out over. It’s fun. But never have I encountered an activity so unabashedly distasteful, and whose enthusiasts appeared so irretrievably thick-witted as these future bar stars.

Then again, maybe I’ve got the whole thing wrong. Teppanyaki doesn’t bug me. And maybe bar flair is just a more ostentatious form of Zen archery: the aim is not the manipulation of the liquor bottle, but the clarity of mind achieved. I doubt it, though. There’s meditative self-indulgence, and then there’s lighting-your-bar-on-fire and blowing-flaming-air-kisses to the girls on the other side of it self-indulgence.

You might come away from this post thinking of Krapp as some stodgy old booze-hound who’ll drink the first thing that lands in front of him, flair or no flair, or a contemptuous kill-joy just looking for something to hate. I’m sure there’s a lad or two out there with good intentions. . .

But if you could only have seen the wink that one of them gave me as he steadied a highball glass on the tanned underside of his forearm–then you might understand: douchebags exist, and they juggle empty cocktail shakers on the northeastern lawn of Le Parc de la Villette several afternoons a week.

~ by ohkrapp on May 21, 2008.

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