Our Town: The mystique of being cool

What does it take to be considered cool?


The term “cool” is similar to charisma, tough to define but everyone knows it when they see it. The Rat Pack was cool. Marlin Brando was very cool. And so was James Dean, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Kurt Cobain. Bill Murray is still uber cool. Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Joan Didion also had cool.
This term has something to do with self-assurance and a sense that they are the center of things. To be cool means to be loved and to be loved means to be happy.
Teens are obsessed with being cool . It means they are in with the in crowd, get invited to all the cool parties and people laugh at their jokes. When a teenager feels ousted, excluded, ostracized or marginalized, they don’t like it one bit.
The sense of cool for teenagers develops into status seeking in adults. But status seeking in adulthood is a lot more expensive. Cool hunting for adults means things like buying a nice house in a golden zip code and making sure this house has a view of the water. So being cool on Long Island will set you back a fast $8 million.
One of the strange things about cool is that it can change over time. Let’s take my life as a good example. In high school I often thought of my depressed little group of friends in high school as “The Invisible Ones.” Yet when I entered college I became a super cool jock, bought myself an MG-TF and somehow became Big Man on Campus.
Alas that did not last forever. Upon entering graduate school, cool became an afterthought and when I finally re-established myself in a profession and joined a country club, I soon re-established myself as yet again “the invisible one.” Such is the way of cool.
Adults are far more clever than teenagers at becoming cool. The most common way is to buy cool. This method will vary depending upon your age, income and gender. Women may purchase cool by entering a Louis Vuitton store on the Miracle Mile, approach one of those nice looking women who work there and say “I want to buy a nice bag—maybe a big one.” Within 15 minutes you will be the proud owner of cool.
Or you might buy cool with a purchase of a Maserati, which has the added feature of not only looking cool but sounding cool as well. But you will pay about $115,000 for that kind of cool. This is where women have an advantage over men since a Louis Vuitton bag won’t cost you more than about $5,000.
You may buy cool by living in a golden zip code, but there are no guarantees. When I think of golden zip codes, I think of towns like Garden City, Rockville Center, Manhasset and Great Neck. But the uber rich of Muttontown, Old Westbury and Locust Valley might give me a simple smirk if I were to say that to them.
Standard markers of social status are in the clothes you wear as well. A person’s manner of dress is unconsciously noted by others and this goes for every bit of apparel. I once had a stranger say to me in a restaurant “Nice Hubbards” as he noticed my new shoes. We all know by now that labels are omnipresent and are an attempt to signal status. I like to wear the white cotton knit shirt I purchased at the Beverly Hills Hotel a few years ago since it has the hotel iconic signature on the sleeve, but sadly to date no one has mentioned my shirt nor how was my stay at the hotel.
Social signifiers based upon clothing can be very tricky if not downright confusing. If you hang around 5th Avenue in Manhattan long enough you will eventually see some young man leaving one of the buildings and watch as a chauffeur opens a door to a limo and he jumps in. You will also notice that he will be wearing a baseball hat that is turned sideways, an oversized T-shirt, baggy cargo pants with the crotch down by his knees and a pair of very expensive sneakers. This, of course, is fashion borrowed from the ghetto so it does get confusing.
I think the most crucial social signifier and one which will prevent status from being achieved is the tone, quality and manner of speech. It matters little if you have $75 million in the bank and fly privately, if you sound like you are from Queens or worse yet from Brooklyn you will never be given entree into the inner sanctum of cool, class or status. This may sound unfair but it’s probably true. I think one of the primary gains of a college education is in the subliminal acquisition of a certain style of speaking and as Malcolm Gladwell once wrote, people sense this within a blink of an eye.
Cool is hard to define, tough to acquire but easy to lose. One mistake and you’re out. Like the scarlet letter, once you become uncool you will remain uncool. Unless of course you’re Tiger Woods.
Which takes me to my last point. I think that cool or status is ultimately given to those who have earned it. As an example, my late friend Spalding Gray was extremely cool not because he looked cool. In fact, he looked like a homeless man when you walked with him in the city. His cool came because he was so interesting. He was well read and well accomplished as an artist, actor and writer. He earned the term cool. Tiger Woods is the same. He is cool because he’s so good at what he does.
Maybe that’s what I ought to say to my young patients who feel alone, marginalized and uncool. The only way to achieve cool on a permanent basis is to earn it. That means to get to work following your dreams and if you are lucky and patient, you will arrive at the gates of cool with more friends than you know what to do with.


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