There was an “A-Hed” story in The Wall Street Journal last week, “America Is Becoming a Nation of Early Birds,” that elicited a volley of “Nooooo!” and “We’re Doomed!” comments on social media, probably from people who didn’t read the anecdotal article. My favorite tweet: “So I haven’t been imagining it, and it isn’t localized. This is a disaster. We used to be a country.” I must’ve missed CNN’s Breaking News that America is now a colony or territory. I read it in my home-delivered copy of The Journal (I’m an early bird, and always was, even in my wild, wild life as a younger fellow) and didn’t think twice about it. The gist: restaurants are offering their last seating sometimes before nine p.m.; many movie theaters are jousting for the matinee crowd (I saw the spectacular Oppenheimer at a packed 12:15 matinee on Saturday at Baltimore’s grand Senator Theater); and in NYC, some Broadway shows are starting at seven p.m. instead of eight.
This is a post Covid/lockdown strategy by restaurateurs and those who schedule entertainment, and it’s hardly surprising. A lot of people work from home, get antsy when their tasks are completed, and with no commute, are ready for an evening out. My guess is the “new hours in America” is now trendy, with a follow-the-crowd dynamic, and in a few years will shift back to what people were used to.
However, aside from the biggest cities in the country—notably The City That Never Sleeps (which was no longer true back in, say, 2004), Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles—America has always had a puritan streak, whether it’s the blue laws on selling alcohol that vary state to state, or last calls at bars. Boston’s a prime offender: I remember one afternoon after seeing a Sox game at Fenway Park and accompanying two friends to a nearby bar, and the proprietor nearly lopped off my head because I was wearing a cap—a Red Sox cap!—since hats weren’t allowed.
When I came to Baltimore in 1973, except for Fells Point, the city was closed for business after eight o’clock. That marginally changed with the Baltimore Renaissance—which I fear was a one-off—but it’s back to Dullsville again. Oddly, airports across the country mostly don’t have 24-hour cafes, newsstands and bars like days of yore, and when arriving at a destination after midnight, wanting a nosh, you’re out of luck. This one strikes me as strange: since so many flights are delayed/cancelled and pissed-off travelers are stomping around the terminals, you’d think entrepreneurs could smell a buck. Maybe they can’t attract the workers, and say fuck it to the buck.
Middle-aged journalist Alec MacGillis, a well-meaning liberal scold (but not at all hysterical; he’s reminiscent of those who were once called “goo-goos” or “eggheads”) who’s worked for The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and now ProPublica, and authored the well-received Fulfillment, a scathing examination of Amazon, posted the Journal story last Thursday on Twitter and received a lot of response. He said, “It’s worth noting that this is only heightening the contrast with many European cities, where late dinner is de rigueur.” Thanks for that nugget! Anyone who’s traveled to Europe, or around the world, knows this. Different traditions. I’ve liked the late-night option in, say Lyon, Madrid or Milan (London, which used to close pubs at 11, was worse than the U.S.), but MacGillis doesn’t also “note” that siestas in the afternoon close those cities, which isn’t convenient. Besides, if you choose to believe the headlines of today, Europe is Going Broke—I don’t believe that—so maybe that’ll change too.
The photo above (clues for the year are below), in which my mother is fourth from the right, was taken in D.C. for s convention/conference that she never told me about. I doubt many of these ladies and gentleman were in the after-hours crowd, but that’s a guess. It’s a fascinating representation of mid-20th century America: the two guys in the foreground with pocket squares and hideous ties; the ladies with pearls, fake or real; and coffee for everyone. I particularly like the character third from the left, maybe mugging for the Muse Photo Bureau camera, maybe trying to hear a speaker at the dais. Could be wrong, but if any of the assembled here were alive today, I don’t think the apparently new trend of “early-bird” reservations at three-star restaurants would bother them much.
Take a look at the clues to determine the year: The Nutcracker is staged for the first time in New York City; the first mass vaccination for children combatting polio is held in Pittsburgh; the CIA engineers a coup in Guatemala; Texas Instruments announces development of first transistor radio; the first successful kidney transplant is performed in Boston; Matt Groening is born and Machine Gun Kelly dies; The Marlboro Man is introduced; Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey are born and Henri Matisse and Sydney Greenstreet die; Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession are released; Nat King Cole hits #18 year-end in Billboard for “Answer Me, My Love”; and White Christmas is the highest-grossing film.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023