On a recent night, writer Robert Lanham and his wife journeyed from their home in Brooklyn to eat at Red Lobster in Times Square, without a shred of the disdain or ironic intent you’d expect from urban hipsters who would think of Red Lobster as a foreign planet. They were hungry. Lanham ordered “some kind of salmon dish, and we also kept ordering butter,” he says – lots and lots of beautiful butter, just like you see in the Red Lobster TV commercials.
Such is the skill of being a modern pop-cult taxonomist: loving, really loving, a Red Lobster in a reddish affection, then poking fun at it, too, in a bluish way. Lanham, 33, looks beyond mere politics, mining the vast area between NPR and NASCAR to sweepingly and hilariously generalize about many groups of everyday people in his new book: “Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic.”
Here we meet Office Lichens and TGIFs, Uncle Tomatoes and Yanknecks – Americans you never knew had demographic names. Writer Neal Pollack has dubbed Lanham “the Margaret Mead of the North American weirdo,” able to tag and identify dozens of species of humans who may not even consider themselves a type.
“It’s all about hanging out at Applebee’s and JC Penney,” Lanham says of his latest field guide, released, coincidentally, on Election Day. Lanham, who was raised in suburban Richmond, Va., sees beyond his smarty-pants New York trappings to describe the definitions fully:
Food Court Druids are Goth-dressed gamers who turn out for Harry Potter book releases and always hang around the Panda Express. Cherohonkees are white people who wear too much American Indian-themed garb. And on goes the book, sussing out more examples, such as the “Kristen Kringles,” women obsessed year-round by Christmas.
In our world, we see people who vaguely annoy us or make us wonder what the deal is. In Lanham’s world, he sees Stretchibitionists, those peculiar gymgoers who never seem to actually work out but simply claim a high-traffic spot to do a stretch routine with no aim or reason. And Perpendiculoids, “people who maintain an abnormally erect posture to look confident, healthy and fashionable.”
He sees Asphalt Rangers, who overcompensate for city living by wearing backpacking gear and hiking shoes every day. And WBs, adults who own and wear too much clothing featuring Warner Bros. cartoon characters. (You can further classify those, Lanham correctly notes: Foghorn Leghorns are generally Republicans; Road Runners take pride in being jerks.)
Using a satirical sociological method he calls “idiosyncrology” – “the study and classification of individuals and groups of individuals based on their distinguishing behaviors and idiosyncrasies” – Lanham first shot a trank dart into the hipster trend in early 2003 with “The Hipster Handbook.” It unleashed a minor identity crisis as credible hipsters sought to distance themselves from Salvation Army-shopping poseurs. True hipsters decried Lanham for his insistence on defining hipster vocabulary words (“deck” meant cool, and “fin” meant lame – “Whether this argot is real or made up, who knows?” asked a book review in the New York Times).
This latest book is a much broader and more ambitious work. Whereas hipsters tended to dwell in specific urban habitats, who among us has not encountered in the workplace Happy Mondays, those eerily cheerful women with candy dishes on their desks and a passive-aggressive maternal instinct?
Idiosyncrology is not terribly new and sometimes produces a bestseller; publishers are always looking to replicate the success of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” which came out in 1980 and sold millions of copies. Since then, there have been stacks of socio-humor books filled with drawings or photos of people dressed up as “types,” with helpful lines and diagrams pointing out their distinguishing features.
But somewhere along the way, idiosyncrology became more of a criminal act. No sooner does a term surface (metrosexual, security moms) than it is debunked, decried or lambasted by an army of op-ed writers, VH1 commentators or those master idiosyncrologists – bloggers. Just try making a sweeping generalization about class or race or even wardrobe in America now. You’ll get acid e-mail in reply for weeks.
“I think it’s playful,” Lanham says of tossing out labels and poking at people for the way they act, dress and talk. “I’m the first person to make fun of myself. It just seems like there ought to be more ways to describe people, rather than just ‘Hey, he’s black, he’s white, he’s Republican, he’s Democrat.’”
In describing himself, Lanham says he was your typical jokey nerd in high school. (This is not exactly a revelation.) Later he thinks he became something of a CROW, a Cornered Rabid Office Worker, the kind of unhappy colleague whose computer log-in is “(expletive) this (excrement)!” and keeps a rearview mirror taped to his monitor so as to see others approaching his cubicle. Now he thinks he’s becoming a Cryptster, which is a hipster who refuses to relinquish the Chuck Taylor sneakers, is happy when they put out folding chairs at a Yo La Tengo show and still plays Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga in bars.
The book wouldn’t be as funny or eerily accurate were it not for Lanham’s chief collaborator: artist Jeff Bechtel, whose sketches bring to life the Safeway Sages (who all speak the cliches of “the unconscious collection” – “Working hard or hardly working?”), G-Wasps (white intellectuals obsessed with black culture, be it Rasta or a house filled with African art), Jock Teases (loud women in bars who fake sports fandom to attract men) and Ammosexuals (i.e., Ted Nugent, Hunter S. Thompson and all men whose professional or personal machoness is inextricably linked to firearms).
“Jeff is the pervert in the process and helps me bring out some of the tastelessness. We have the same sense of humor, and he illustrates perfectly what I’m trying to work on. People come to the book as much for the art,” Lanham says.
Then there are the types who cannot be defined. They stand alone as CATSCANs (Cannot Attempt to Socially Categorize, Anthropologically Noteworthy). “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart is a CATSCAN. So is Johanna Pieterman, a Dutch woman who specializes in drawing pictures of Stevie Nicks (see www.johannas-art.com). So is Randy Constan, a Florida man who became Web-famous circa 2000, when most of the world clicked on pictures of him dressed as Peter Pan or Little Lord Fauntleroy (www.pixyland.org).