A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Have you ever had the feeling you’re being watched?
The sensation isn’t irrational, and it’s not paranoia. Rather, it’s the sneaking suspicion that you’re being toyed with, prompted, or set up.
Suddenly you’re confronted with a situation so weirdly surreal that surely a hidden camera is aimed your way, primed to capture your dumbfounded, flailing reaction for speedy editing into a YouTube video, to be greeted virally by the guffaws of the uneducated, addled masses.
My former manager at Scoreboard Liquors must have felt this way on the infamous day thirty-odd years ago when a complete stranger strolled in, pointed at the door to the rear office, and asked, “Do you mind if I go back there and change my pants?”
YouTube obviously didn’t exist back then, but Candid Camera did. The late Lloyd “Duck” Cunningham’s unprintable reply to the man’s request would have played well in syndication, with Allen Funt joyfully suffering the brunt of bleeped-out epithets.
It brings to mind the time when my inbox disgorged a Yelp review notification. An customer identified only as Manny was deeply troubled.
A little while ago I noticed there was a room that had pictures of several mass murdering, genocidal, tyrannical dictators on the walls. As a customer what meaning should I take from that? In my opinion it seems to show support from the owner of New Albania of these tyrants?
I enjoy the pizza at NABC but I don’t enjoy the thought of supporting someone that idolized people like the pictures and posters you seem to proudly display. Maybe I misunderstand their meaning.
My initial reaction was confusion. Manny filed his one-star review under NABC Bank Street Brewhouse, although the alleged "shrine" prompting his consternation has existed for two decades not downtown, but at NABC’s Pizzeria & Public House.
Next came annoyance. Murderers, tyrants and dictators on the wall, in the Red Room?
If so, who had possessed the nerve to pull down my Commie regalia and replace it with fascist iconography – Franco, Mussolini, Idi Amin and Dick Cheney?
Of course, I soon realized he was referring to the usual Red Room stalwarts like Lenin, Che and Gus Hall. Fair enough, I thought. The political spectrum for crimes against humanity has a tendency to mutate, depending on where one is standing at the time.
Here was my reply.
It isn’t necessarily a misunderstanding on your part, but what I can tell you with certainty is there’s no idolatry on mine.
I remain a leftist, broadly speaking, having traveled in the East Bloc and USSR as a young man in the 1980s, but while I found these countries fascinating from a number of standpoints, they were not places I ever wished to live.
Your question is asked every now and then, and my answer always has been the same: The Red Room means whatever the observer wishes for it to mean: Kitschy poster art emporium, spoils of Cold War victory or a shrine of reverence.
However, the primary intent for me is for it to serve as a talking point to help keep a piece of still-recent history living, in the sense that with each passing year, fewer (mostly younger) customers have any clue what the era was about.
The verdict of history is fairly clear when it comes to the legacy of Stalin and Mao, and I have confidence that most interested parties will reach that conclusion, as you and I already have. But first they must be interested in history and motivated to investigate it. In my view, the Red Room periodically serves that purpose.
As for what I was thinking more than 20 years ago with regard to this tiny bejeweled dining space, my prime consideration at the time was to have a place to display the many propaganda pieces I’d hauled home from travels abroad.
One thing led to another, and there it was. The Red Room came together non-metaphorically. I’m the first to admit there is as little to idolize on Stalin’s part as Hitler’s, but to repeat, the point lies elsewhere.
Decades have passed and the older generations have departed. Precious little discussion takes place about the “-isms” dominating the entirety of the 20th century … and sorry, yonder Teahadists, but petulant ranting about Communism and Obamacare amid voluminous ricocheting spittle does not suffice as earnestness.
It remains that to forget history is to risk repeating it, as either Santayana or Carlos Santana once remarked. I’m in favor of reminders. If you ask me, local school children should visit the Red Room on their field trips.
The Red Room’s “meaning”?
It prompted a question from Manny about the Red Room’s meaning, simple as that, even if the real estate in question now lies outside my immediate bailiwick. May these historical inquiry instigators survive the business buy-out – if the blessed cha-ching ever occurs in my lifetime.
Ironically, my single favorite example of work- and history-related consumer behavior occurred not in the comfortable confines of the Red Room, but at Bank Street Brewhouse, not long after it opened in 2009.
One of our servers was asked by a well-dressed while male customer to explain Roger’s political beliefs. The visitor had noticed the red stars and leftist imagery on the shiny new brewing tanks visible just past the dining room window.
Our man on the floor, who’d studied some history and political science in college, made a game effort to interpret these complex threads of geopolitics, economics and the art of brewing, and to phrase them in snappy sentences reproducible on bumper stickers suitable for a Lexus, and yet the customer remained unimpressed, writing this on his charge card receipt:
“Tell your Commie boss to share the wealth.”
In order to accentuate his displeasure with my cheeky political proclivities, this rather boorish scion of an identifiably Falangist regional family left the gratuity column empty, thus idiotically stiffing the server while doing me no harm whatever.
Not only that, but he was mistaken; in fact, I still share the wealth every day – in terms of knowledge, as teachers are wont to do, because I’ve always been more a teacher than a businessman.
In 2009, my advice to our server was this:
“If it ever happens again, tell him you don’t care what sort of ‘-ist’ Roger is, just as long as he keeps signing my paycheck.”
Seven years later, permit me to consciously refrain from associating the Republican Party’s nominee for president with any of these memories.
After all, The Donald would be just as clueless as Manny and the Stiffer when it comes to the history in the Red Room.
August 22: AFTER THE FIRE: Drink, smoke and enjoy.
August 15: AFTER THE FIRE: Listening to "Dixieland" jazz, and thinking about drinking a beer.
August 8: AFTER THE FIRE: A pre-digital Bohemian vignette, 1989.
August 1: AFTER THE FIRE: The devil made me drink it.