When I was in high school, “cool” was defined in many different ways.
There was “freak” cool, which was represented by
- long unkempt hair,
- ripped Wranglers,
- a pack a Marlboros tucked into the left breast pocket of an oil-stained jean jacket, and
- a MacGyver-like ability to construct a bong out of an
- empty eight ounce orange drink (only Rockefellers drank real orange juice where I grew up) container,
- a straw and
- Tin foil leftover from the bologna and cheese sandwiches served in the cafeteria.
“Jock” cool was
- a buzz cut with a mini mullet that allowed three inches of hair to stick out of the back of your football helmet
- perfectly faded, but structurally uncompromised Levis
- the circle outline of a Copenhagen dip can (ground chewing tobacco made famous by Dallas Cowboy Walt Garrison) on the right hand back pocket of your jeans and
- a fake ID good enough to score a case of Iron City Beer at a Pennsylvania State Store or
- a beat up Cutlass capable of making the 80 mile round trip to West Virginia where the 18 year old drinking age was less important than the stimulus heavy drinking Pittsburghers provided the local economy.
There were other varieties too—Band Geek cool, Cheerleader cool, Math Club cool, Woodshop cool, and Nerd cool among others.
But all cool had one thing in common. It had to express itself uniquely. One had to possess a coveted symbol that was singular and remarkable. Something that defined the person as not only part of a crowd but as an individual too. It could be a T-shirt, a hat, a lunch box, or a strange brand of chewing gum.
What made the item cool (and thus the owner) was that no one else in school had it. Even if they wanted to, no one else would be able to figure out where to find your thing, let alone buy it. They couldn’t go to Murphy’s Mart or Giant Eagle or Gimbel’s or National Record Mart or Sears and get one just like yours. If they could, the cool of the thing was gone.
The “freak” who had a bootleg cassette of The Grateful Dead’s 1970 gigs at The Warehouse in New Orleans (the famous drug busts in between the two performances inspired the song “Truckin”) was the guy who never had to light his own cigarette in the smoking area courtyard. Yes it was the late 70s and schools were trying to be “relevant” for the kids so they did stupid things like setting up smoking areas for the rebels to seem “with it.” The band geek who had a used and discarded tenor saxophone reed in his case from the one and only Sonny Rollins had no trouble sweet-talking the cutest clarinet player.
What was even better was to express your cool by combining “cool genres.” The all-star Jock who had a signed first edition copy of Don Delillo’s END ZONE was as cool to the Shelley, Keats and Byron Society as he was with Division 1A College recruiters.
Cool was easily identifiable back then. It was a visual display of an interest/passion in something no one else knew about. It was cool because the unique possession promised a story.
You can almost hear the freak asking a friend how awesome it was that the “Dead,” after being busted for traveling with their own private pharmacy, were able to post bail and jam the next night without letting the fuzz step on their buzz.
Or the band geek telling the cute clarinet player how in 1959, a technically frustrated Sonny Rollins ditched performing altogether… For three years Rollins “retired” to tighten his chops. But out of courtesy to the other tenants in his New York walkup apartment, he practiced on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. The music that came off that bridge reverberates to this day on his classic album “The Bridge.”
Or the Jock talking to the Romantic poets society about how Delillo’s novel gave him a deeper understanding of the allure of tightrope walking on the edge of annihilation, either on a football field or in the White House or Kremlin war room.
Prized “cool” possessions were meaningful back in the days of scarcity because they were conduits to stories. You didn’t need to have the thing that someone else treasured. You just wanted the story about why she treasured it. Once you heard it, you’d made a connection with someone else.
Today, markets are open and abundance reigns. You can buy anything anytime you want…VintageConcertTshirts.com, Usedcelebritysaxophonistreeds.com, or Signedfirsteditions.com. Billions of people are a Google search away from getting the thing that’s special to someone else. How many dilettantes have you seen wearing Che Guevera T-shirts or wearing porkpie hats or both?
When scarcity of things flip-flops into abundance of things, what get lost are the connective stories that define the very meaning of things. Today it’s don’t tell me why you bought that, tell me where. But if the things that you surround yourself with don’t have any meaning to you beyond them being meaningful to someone else, you didn’t make a connection. Not only have you failed to connect with others but what’s even more tragic, you’ve failed to connect with yourself. It’s an empty and damaging experience.
This is why storytelling is so important. Stories skip the “thing” stage…they are mainlined right into your cerebral cortex. A compelling story doesn’t need expensive packaging. It doesn’t matter if a story is on paper or in ones and zeros. Ones that bring you to your knees and then lift you into the clouds and then payoff with a meaningful emotional catharsis can achieve immortality.
Combine scarcity (a dazzling and deep story) and abundance (open markets) and the rest will take care of itself.