Monday, August 3, 2009

Sneakeasy, Part 2: A Slice of Pizza, A Life of Crime

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 6:00 PM

  • Fernando de Sousa, Wikimedia Commons
Show: Drinks at the Flatiron Lounge, Flatiron District, New York, NY.

Food: One deliciously greasy and huge slice of New York pizza.

Difficulty: Medium. Pizza is a messy food with a limited temperature range within which it is fully delicious. Thus, it requires extensive repackaging. While my sneaking tote is generally quite stylish as well as useful, this dressier occasion required a more petite evening bag.

Last week, I took a look at Prohibition's impact on American food culture and on the cult of the celebrity criminal through the lens of Chinese food snuck into Public Enemies. This week I'd like to examine prohibition in general -- with a small "p" -- and why it adds its indelible soupçon of delight to mundane activities.

Last weekend, in St. Louis, I could have done all of the following without driving more than ten minutes, total: drink absinthe, smoke a hookah, take in a burlesque show and go to a speakeasy. This weekend, I was in New York, where the only part of the previous statement that has ever been unusual has been the driving. All of these things are legal in both cities, and all are popular enough to inspire widespread casual enjoyment beyond their loyal subcultures.

What's the attraction? There was much discussion over the weekend. The consensus was that all of these current trends represent the same kind of safe exoticism that Chinese food provided the larger American culture during Prohibition. In each of them exists an exoticism of both place and time as well as the ability to show off unusual knowledge and a sophisticated palate. They are brief jaunts of historical tourism to the sanitized underbelly of other times, drinking Colonial-style hard cider without having to talk to interpreters about the fact that the men who wrote the Constitution owned slaves or having to take your mother to Ye Olde Pub for peanut soup.


My favorite sneaky club is a perfect example of this guilty pleasure. The Thaxton Building is a lovingly restored Art Deco marvel with movie-star murals on the inside and a gleaming white façade that makes it stand out on its Downtown block like the only crown in a crooked but improving smile. You can rent it out for receptions -- ideal if you're marrying your childhood sweetheart who also happens to be a famed Clark Gable impersonator.

What sneaky people want, however, is downstairs. Ignore the front door and cut around back to a trash-choked murder alley and remind yourself that the fear is the soul of the thrill. Look for the lighthouse-orange glow of the single light bulb and ring the doorbell half concealed in the shadowed grotto of exposed bricks. Wait for the man to come up and let you into the building's velvety basement. (If you know the week's rotating password, you pay half cover).

In the Speakeasy at the Thaxton, with blue light pooling and unspooling around clutches of retro furniture, you are like the stag leaping on your wrought-metal grates: preserved in a single moment of action and yet perfectly static. Every time I've visited, the crowd has been small and expectant, as if a wall-shaking party is going to break out at any moment -- but never quite does. Try the house "bathtub" gin in any mixed drink or the orange-infused and surprisingly potable moonshine.

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