Dinner at T.G.I.F.: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

There’s something wonderfully hectic about my friend Francesca. She’s a musician who sometimes wears a stretchy all-white shiny polyester pantsuit with a thin silver belt and she does up her hair in a mangled Farrah Fawcett hairdo. It’s an amusing rebellion against … something.

A while back, Francesca threw a birthday party for Lilly, another sometime musician, at the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant near Penn Station. It certainly seemed like a funny idea. New York City has become such a relentlessly self-assured place these days, with its Belgian bistros, dim cocktail joints and proliferating minimalist sushi restaurants, that the idea of going someplace that was not designed to ensnare upwardly mobile cosmopolitans had its appeal.

Part of it was nostalgia. Most of us had grown up in recently produced suburban areas where there really wasn’t anyplace to eat besides these chain restaurants-Bennigan’s, Chili’s, Chi-Chi’s. Places like T.G.I. Friday’s, out by the mall, were where we learned to eat heaping piles of nachos, potato skins and other festive high-starch market-tested fare.

And the T.G.I. Friday’s near Penn Station was for those people, still-suburban commuters and tourists who just want something familiar, something near the train. So it was supposed to be funny that we were there, smirking and harassing the waitress, pretending to have a good time. While really being above it all. We could go to T.G.I. Friday’s and be untouched by its banality!

The problem was, it was disgusting. They couldn’t even make a decent drink, and somehow the chicken fingers and french fries with honey mustard sauce-which cost as much as a meal for two at any of the Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street-were wanting. The room was dim and depressing; the service was slow and confused; nobody could smoke at the table; and no matter how desperately we tried to stir up some kind of trouble, our fellow diners were unoffended by us.

I don’t want to turn out like George Mactier, the main character in Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century , a novel of frantic striver confidence. Mactier and his wife have made a terrific amount of money, and they’re fanatically conscious of how they use this money to fund a different, more refined sense of themselves, from the brand of clothes they wear to their subtly expensive modernist coffee table. At a certain point, Mactier’s wife sees her kids’ school pictures on the counter and she goes into a panic because they look so … average. And when they go back to Mactier’s childhood home in the Midwest for his mother’s funeral, they tell themselves that the other people he grew up with have never stopped being adolescents: “Outside big cities, people seem to age faster, become fatter and balder sooner, even though they also tend to dress and talk and eat like adolescents at 30 and 40 and 50. They’re teenagers with mortgages and multiple marriages and 40 extra pounds.”

I asked Mr. Andersen once about whether he was satirizing the Mactiers, and I got the idea he wasn’t, really: “They don’t want to live by default,” he said. Meaning they don’t want to live like all those aged adolescents who eat heaps of nachos out by the mall. And, of course, none of us do-that transformation is a good bit of why people move here and put up with New York.

I know a few members of an art “collective” who made their name first by doing a “critique” of the Gap in a group show in 1993. Many of the photos were of the artists, who were all freshly out of Cooper Union and imperiously cute, wearing Gap clothes, thereby making them into objects of instant kitsch. One of the first things I heard about them was that they “really loved McDonald’s.” This was said with some alarm and disbelief, which somehow convinced me that they were onto something there. Could enjoying Chicken McNuggets be an act of cultural deconstruction? Again, the idea had its appeal.

Living in the twitty consumerism of Manhattan, I wanted to go back to mainstream McNugget culture, too. I wanted to embrace the chains and malls-maybe my really average self-but defiantly. There’s something about wandering the mall that takes the pressure off of the grotesque self-refinement of this town. Over the last year, I’ve been to three malls: the Poughkeepsie Galleria and the Palisades Center upstate and the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. But there’s nothing to buy. Standing in the colorful food court, you can’t imagine eating.

The same art “collective” has a show in SoHo, which opened around the time the new Star Wars movie did. The show is a retrospective of their collaboration, with bits lamenting the decline of SoHo into commercialism and life-size cutouts of them in children’s animal costumes.

The people in the group are mostly about my age, which means they are six or so years out of college and remember Star Wars intensely, from when they were about 7. Star Wars nostalgia has been going strong for a few years now-people are watching the movies again, joking about them, wearing reproductions of the large-decal T-shirts from the 70’s. Action figures got dug up from parents’ attics and kitsch stores in the East Village had large and pricy displays. As recently as March, the skate shop near my apartment had a groovy $85 sweatshirt with an “AT-AT” stitched on it.

After the “collective” had its opening, a whole group of folks from the show went to see Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace . They had seats for the 11 P.M. show. Some of them were already wearing Phantom Menace T-shirts.

But the movie was, of course, terrible. There was no way to enjoy its lack of drama and texture. It wasn’t even interestingly awful-overblown or grotesque in the traditional way that inspires people to appreciate something for its kitsch. It just wasn’t much fun at all.

The thing is-as with the Poughkeepsie Galleria-after all the buildup, you knew what it was going to be like without having to go. Its awfulness was going to be thorough and conscientious. Jar Jar Binks-gay, racist or not, who cares? The “pod race” was exciting, and it’s ready to play on your Nintendo, and who the hell was Darth Maul, anyway?

Despite my growing disgust with the game of enjoying mass culture with a wink, I went along with Francesca and the others for dinner at Mars 2112, a relatively new alien-themed tourist restaurant just north of Times Square. As with T.G.I. Friday’s, it was supposed to be funny, or somehow interesting, that we were at this restaurant … and yet not really there. But Mars 2112 just turned out to be a chilly, grim dump. Pitted against a menu of overpriced “wraps,” fake rocks, repetitive New Age theme music and indifferent service, our sense of mischief just sort of dissipated.

Even so, I tried to play the game one more time. Francesca decided to throw her own birthday party amid the brass railings and conference center elegance of the revolving bar atop the Marriott Marquis on Times Square. They tried to separate us from the people the restaurant was intended for, but we resisted. Things were helped along by the marijuana brownies.

But even as the house band played “Time After Time” and everyone rushed to the stage to dance expressively and ironically, I felt like we were banging our heads up against a wall. There was no way to transcend the upscale banality of the Marriott Marquis.