During one of my recent visits to the magazine stand, I experienced a San Francisco flashback — circa 1995, shortly before the original dot-com bubble burst.
My wife and I were enjoying an evening stroll in North Beach, having just spent the day taking the 49 Mile Scenic Drive.* We were in front of Vesuvio, sipping the requisite coffee and watching an enormous stretch limo attempting a particularly tight corner. The driver finally had to concede defeat and cautiously back up.
It realigned itself with the traffic, then came to another full stop. The passenger window rolled down, and a 20-year-old kid holding a cell-phone thrust his head out. “Hey! Hey, Derek!”
Derek was standing in a cluster of snazzily-dressed friends in front of City Lights. “Yo!”
“You going to Cassie’s later?”
“Maybe. Not sure yet. You?”
“Probably. Maybe I’ll see you.” The kid flopped back in his seat, rolled the window up and instructed his driver to carry on. The limo pulled forward, and took a more reasonable corner.
I thought of the kids who had flocked to San Francisco some 30 years earlier, then I thought again of this kid and his flashy compatriots. Such is the behavior of the nouveau riche: unintentionally amusing, if only for its pallid irony, but finally quite maddening if you allow yourself to mull it over long enough (13 years, say). The very rich are not like you or I, and neither are the newly rich — they’re more like a magazine. In this case, GQ.
The Gentleman’s Quarterly, in the tradition of most American magazines, holds out an invitation (with a serrated edge) for the consumer to join its exclusive company. The opening pages present cell phones and shaving accessories I can probably afford, then push ahead to music and movies I haven't yet had the chance to sample but are coming soon to a download service near me, before finally moving on to suits of clothing, exotic spas and scantily-dressed girls that are completely out of my reach. Leafing through the magazine I find my reaction is similar to the one I had with the dot-com kid: I might appreciate the original distraction, but I’m finally keen to get it out of my face.
I’ll take a deep breath, then go on record and just say it: from 1985 to about 1990 I used to really enjoy reading GQ. Its invitation was more appealing, and the let-down was a little gentler. My recollection of the magazine from those years is the pictures were for kids, while the words were (mostly) for grown-ups. I know I’ve moved out of, and quite likely have never been in, the target demographic, but these days the whole shebang is devoted to kids.
But it’s not just this one publication that appalls me, it’s pretty much the whole stand. Where’s a picture-lovin’ word-hungry fella to go for an afternoon’s enticement — Vanity Fair? Lessee, here: we’ve got the watches, the trousers, the Manolo and the movie stars. The encouraged consumption is all a little too conspicuous for this farm boy, but never mind. In the words department, Christopher Hitchens rhapsodizes about blow-jobs and martinis, while Stiglitz and Bilmes tear their robes over the cost of Iraq. Three trillion dollars — isn’t that the yearly retainer for Annie Leibowitz? Talk about a magazine with a split personality. What’s next: Britney Spears on the cover of The Atlantic?
Alright, time for another San Francisco memory, this one from our most recent visit. My wife and I were trudging around Pacific Heights, looking for perspectives into people’s yards. The neighborhoods are terraced with long flights of steps that are perfect for exactly that sort of voyeurism, so we climbed up one such, then parked ourselves on a bench and took in the view. Some minutes later I noticed a white-haired gentleman in a black suit at the bottom step. He was a long way down, but as he got closer I could make out other details. He was smoking a cigar, and his suit and sunglasses were almost certainly Italian. Within a few minutes I could smell his cigar, and it was quite fine. When he reached us he nodded at me, then flashed my wife a sharp smile. He opened his mouth and a gravelly Robert Loggia voice came out and said, “How aahh yah?” The man was fit, sharp, charming and alive, and for that one moment the two of us were part of his glorious conspiracy.
He went on — to his home, his lover, his job ... who knows? Could be he drove the limo we’d seen ten years earlier. Regardless, the old guy left a sensual impression that got the imagination spinning in delightful directions. Somewhat like another magazine: Chicago’s own Stop Smiling.
If you pick up the current issue, you’ll see it’s devoted almost entirely to jazz, “America’s Greatest Art Form.” Anyone who couldn’t give a toss about jazz will reject the magazine outright, and that’s a shame — not because I’m looking for jazz converts, but because any magazine, regardless of its chosen subject matter, is about delivering an appealing look and read. On this score, SS has yet to fail me: I’ve purchased issues with rap artists on the cover, and though I still make it a point to avoid the music, I’ve enjoyed the magazine.
Stop Smiling’s approach has a faint esotericism to it. Where other magazines make their point by assembling an argument and sealing off the exits, SS devotes its pages to personality profiles and interviews, inserts the occasional historic footnote, and closes with a few reviews. All of this is mercifully brief and pleasantly evocative. It makes for a perfect lunch-hour’s worth of reading because it pulls the reader in with its format, which makes the case for an alternate reality that is aesthetically rewarding without being off-puttingly “glamorous.” Like the old gent, it is superficial in the best sense of the word: it invites closer scrutiny.
For reasons I cannot fathom, SS has a scrupulous Internet searcher that rats me out every time I post their cover without permission, no matter how I laud their product. Nevertheless, here I go. This issue has three covers, one of which looks like this:
Their official site is here. Seek it out at your magazine stand today.
*San Francisco’s 49 Mile Scenic Drive is truly one of that unique city’s great innovations for its tourists. If you’re visiting San Francisco, pick up the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide and take The Drive — by car is fine, taxi is better, but motorcycle or scooter is the very best. Stretch limousines, however, are to be avoided. They just don’t work.