On a recent night, when it was still possible that President Bush might lose, writer Robert Lanham and his wife journeyed from their home in Brooklyn to eat at the 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, an avowed "pescatarian," 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, the archly titled "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 JCPenney," Lanham says of his latest field guide, released, coincidentally, on Election Day. Like Penney's commercial slogan says, "It's all inside": office cubicles, malls, chain restaurants -- the heavenly aura of the banal. Lanham, who was raised in suburban Richmond, sees beyond his smarty-pants New York trappings to describe the definitions fully:
"Food Court Druids" are those Goth-dressed gamers who play Magic: The Gathering, turn out for Harry Potter book releases, and always hang around the Panda Express. "Cherohonkees" are white people who wear too much Native American-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," those people who overcompensate for city living by wearing backpacking gear and hiking shoes every day. And what about all those "WBs," adults who own and wear too much clothing featuring Warner Bros. cartoon characters? (And 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 was a group he'd been closely watching (and, frankly, had been part of) since he moved to the then-barely-chic Williamsburg part of Brooklyn in 1996.
"The Hipster Handbook" unleashed a minor identity crisis from New York to Austin to the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, 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).
The upshot of all that, the real victory?
Ashton Kutcher eventually stopped wearing trucker hats.
But the hipster wars quickly grew unbearable to those of us who fought (or reported) them. A rival hipster guide came out at the same time. (And just released is yet another examination, "Hip: The History," a more academic version by former Details magazine editor John Leland.) By out-hipping the hip, Lanham had accidentally bordered on uncool, and worse, media fatigue. Attention shifted that spring to the unrelated "metrosexual" craze, which quickly suffered a similar fate of overexposure.
"Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic" 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 who have 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. It has become a graphic cliche.
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. (Example: Instead of doing this story for the Style section, the reporter is dying to peg and typify people who wear those insipidly righteous yellow Lance Armstrong cancer bracelets. But some interior warning system says: Don't dare.)
"I think it's playful," Lanham says of tossing out labels and poking at people for the way they act, dress, 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.
During the press tour last year for "The Hipster Handbook," Lanham says, "People were bombarding me with questions about whether or not I was going to do another book on hipsters, and I facetiously said the next book would be about white baby boomers who dress like Native Americans. After reading it back, I was like, hmm, it would be a good idea, a nice progression to start identifying and classifying a broader array of people."
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.
Lanham's wife, Amy Brown, a documentary filmmaker, is "my conscience," he says. "She studies people in a more earnest way." Add to those two a circle of hipster friends who are continually feeding Lanham ideas and improving on types he has already half-defined.
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).
"I'm trying to come up with something about women who hate pretty girls," Lanham says. "They're out there, but a name hasn't quite come to me."