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A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster

by Josh Aiello, illustrations by Matthew Shultz
Published by Broadway Books

Reviewed by Josh Aiello

Looking for a great new book to read on the toilet? This one's got it all: humor, anthropological intrigue, sections short enough to read in five minutes, you name it. And I'm not just saying that because I wrote it. It's just that good! Don't believe me? Listen to this rave review:

"One of the 5 best books I've read this year!"
-- Linda Aiello

(no relation to the author. Well, actually his mother.)

Convinced? I should think so. After all, who doesn't enjoy people watching? I know I do. In fact, the only thing I enjoy more than people watching is people judging. It's unbelievably entertaining! So here's a little back-story: I spent many, many years wishing I had cool hair and could date girls with nose rings (hey, it was the 90s, give me a break). Unfortunately, I'm Jewish and do most of my shopping at Old Navy. I've thought about carrying around one of those backpack-like guitar cases just to look cool, or maybe learning to skateboard, but somehow my plotting never seems to amount to anything. I think I've got some sort of hip gag reflex. However, for the record I've never pledged a Fraternity (a practice I find unseemly), so I hope that counts for something.

OK, where was I? Girls, right. (By the way, this applies to everybody. For all the ladies out there: just switch genders wherever applicable). Well, I packed off to Boston University right as Grunge was petering out (K. Cobain shot himself during my Freshman year) and the whole Alternative scene was really coming into its own. Remember, this was a time when getting a tattoo still seemed dangerous or somehow "edgy," as difficult as such a concept may be for us to grasp today. I had grown up in a small town on the New Jersey shore, and had yet to live in NYC, so Boston actually seemed like an urban environment (by comparison), not the college town with traffic I now recognize it to be. Point being: this was something of a culture shock. Girls didn't shop at thrift shops where I came from, nor did they smoke Marlboro Reds or kiss other girls just for fun. In fact, the only real similarity between the girls at college and the girls at high school was that neither seemed interested in dating me.

I'm not fishing for sympathy here. I'm just setting up the fact that, since I wasn't doing things like "having sex" or "actually leaving the dorm on Friday night," I had an incredible amount of free time on my hands, free time that was invariably spent one of three ways: 1) playing NBA Jam on the Nintendo in my dorm room, 2) trying to figure out why a film major (which I was) needed to take one semester in Geography and another in Spanish, and 3) observing which guys the girls I wanted to date were actually dating.

In case I haven't made this clear, the early to mid-90s presented an opportunity for people-watching unseen since perhaps the heyday of Studio 54. It wasn't so much that everyone was particularly flamboyant, or even all that physically interesting, but that we all found ourselves smack in the middle of a major cultural paradigm shift. This was a time when social evolution was happening at an incredibly rapid rate. After all, the vast majority of those who would become Alternative, or trendy, or Hipsters (whatever) arrived at college as regular, normal, indistinct kids (you know you did). People switched identities practically overnight, and displayed little to no embarrassment over having just done so. It was unbelievable! I still have trouble describing it, actually. I'd hazard that never before in history (with the possible exception of the Summer of Sam) has so much hair switched so many colors so quickly. This was an era in which blonde actually seemed unique after a while, and in which a lack of black plastic eyeglass frames became something of a refreshing change of pace. I was transfixed.

As mentioned earlier, I was an idealistic little film student at the time. Thus, my crowd was definitely of the "artistic" variety (at least in theory; I still haven't seen much art produced by members of my graduating class, and it's been 5 years), the very type of people most caught up in this sartorial revolution. [Full disclosure: I admit to bleaching my hair, growing a goatee, and wearing Dickies work pants on a daily basis]. They were my friends, and good people deep down, I think. But what struck me about them was their unquenchable and fiery need to consistently belabor the point that they were (collectively) much more advanced, thoughtful, worthwhile, etc. than those they perceived as their enemies: namely, Boston College-style Frat Guys.

Not all that interesting, I grant you. But over time, I came to notice (and ultimately obsess over) the fact that these anti-Frat ravings were delivered, without fail, by some sloppily drunk and sweating AlternaBoy, slurring his words, hugging his male buddies, speaking WAY too loudly, having just come from hero-worshipping some crappy college band (as opposed to team) in some loud, obnoxious bar at which he spent the entire evening pounding beers and objectifying every female within earshot.

See what I'm getting at? Not only were these jokers identical in every way (save fashion) to their hated enemies (Frat Guys), but they were getting girls and I wasn't! Unfuckingbelievable. Faced with such an illogically awful situation, I felt the need for revenge. First I tried stealing their girlfriends, which actually proved briefly fortuitous. For any undergrads reading this, I offer you my only dating tip: cast girls you like in your student films. The results are incredible, but, unfortunately, not lasting. I can't tell you how many times I was dumped like five minutes after yelling my final "cut!" Guys in bands can play every night; it takes a lot of effort to mount a film production, especially in these quaint days before the advent of digital video.

It took a few years before I decided writing a book might be a better angle, but by the time I got my shit together, I had aged and significantly mellowed out. I'm still fascinated by people, especially those who decide to join a group and dress like all their friends, but I'm no longer able to separate myself from this tragic human flaw. True, I don't think I fit so easily into obvious categories like Frat Guys, Punk Rockers, DJs, Metal Heads, or what have you, but I know I'm in there somewhere: probably a Starving Artist or something. And I still love making fun of people, the more condescending the better.

The challenge came in trying to determine how to reconcile all of this into one easily grasped book idea which would be easy to sell and thus get me out of a few months of horrible, soul-deadening office temp work. The answer came unexpectedly. One day, I found myself absentmindedly poking around my mother's bookshelves. There, nestled in between The Jewish Book of Why (both volumes), Tuesdays with Morrie, the Illustrated Diary of Anne Frank (I'm not kidding), and countless other vaguely Hebraic texts I knew had never been so much as cracked open, stood Roger Tory Peterson's late 1930s edition of A Field Guide to the Birds. Now, as far as I know, no one in my family has ever done any bird watching. In fact, a brief experiment with a family dog notwithstanding, I'd say we're not really animal people in general. So I like to imagine the bird book's presence on my mom's bookcase was due to the work of some sort of celestial, fate-like apparatus. Actually, I'm sure it was just an unwanted gift, but humor me on this. It was so incredibly perfect, I feel justified in fantasizing a little.

And so that's what I came up with: a bird watching book in which humans are the subject. Please don't get turned off my inclusion of the word "Hipster," a term I realize is both overused and unexciting. I use it broadly, for lack of a better term, and in a way dissimilar to its usual usage. I'm really talking about everyone, countercultural or not, who fits into a category and can be thus observed. I'm not talking about Williamsburg, or irony, or mesh-backed trucker caps (well, actually I am, but only in one of the book's 38 different entries). If there was a more appropriate word to use, I'd have used it. But sadly there isn't. While we've all caught up with, absorbed, and moved on from the Alternative explosion of the early 90s, the English language hasn't. Scenester? Trendster? Those suck, too. Let's just go with Hipster, until someone thinks of something better.

And so the conceit of the book is this: the reader (you) is a prospective observer about to enter the field. The narrator (me) is a seasoned observational anthropologist. The book (A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster) is the result of ten years' research. The scope (of the book) is national. The illustrations (by former pet caricaturist Matthew Shultz) are genius, the main drawing for Struggling Actors, in my opinion, being particularly brilliant. The price ($12.95) is a bargain. The experience (for you, the reader) is indescribably rewarding and entertaining and will cure your constipation. The financial gain (as a result of your purchase) will directly effect only my landlord. The pride (on the part of my mother) will be manifold. The regret (on the part of the several exes who meanly dumped me) will be, I'd imagine, too much to bear.

Thank you for hearing me out. This was cheaper than therapy. I love you all.


Editor's Note: This book is fucking great. You can buy it here: A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster


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