2010-03-25 / Sam Bari

Toys – the new symbols of power

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

Back in the 1800s, the style of a man’s beard was a symbol of his virility, his manhood. How he wore that facial hair all but defined his station in life. Big handlebar mustaches, mutton chops and full beards were used as yardsticks to measure masculinity. A man’s ability to grow and groom such plumage often contributed to his success.

The truth is, facial hair was also used to cover weak chins, bad complexions and often, ugly faces. During that lawless period in the 19th century, a beard could change the identity of men being sought by law enforcement for unsavory behavior.

The symbols of manliness evolved over the years. In the 1930s and 1940s, the hat – usually a snap-brim fedora in the winter, and a similar Panama for summer wear – did the trick. During the cold months, the fedora was worn with a stylish overcoat or trench coat on rainy days.

Then Wall Street added to the image by introducing the wingtip shoe as the well-dressed businessman’s footwear of choice. Symbols of masculinity in men’s fashion changed subtly during modern times.

President Reagan made use of the power tie, and from that came the power lunch. The winners in the mid-day dramas were those wearing the brightest neckwear. How an obnoxious, brightly colored tie became a sign of masculinity escapes me, but that was apparently the case.

Men’s fashions have relaxed a little in many areas of commerce, and the formal “business look” is no longer taken as seriously as it once was. However, symbols of power have not lost their importance. I saw the latest trend on a trip to Florida last week.

Computer stations have been installed at every gate in the airports so people can work while waiting for their flights. The stations are usually round. A table with stools attached surrounds a column adorned with anywhere from six to 10 electrical outlets, depending on the number of stools the table can accommodate.

Businessmen and other geeks with computers favor these stations. They plug in and use their “important work” to strut their stuff and establish a high position in the pecking order of passengers.

It’s not unlike days of old when a guy with two shiny sixguns and the biggest black hat walked into a bar with a chip on his shoulder daring anyone to knock it off.

The only difference is that the latest and greatest electronic toys the computer industry has to offer have replaced the six-guns. I transferred planes several times on the trip to and from Florida, and the scenarios unfolded the same way every time.

One guy would go to the computer bar, break out his laptop and plug in. Then others would amble up, check out his machine and if they didn’t feel threatened, they would also plug in. The first guy would always check out every man that joined him by looking at the guy’s computer, not the man.

It was comical.

The look of envy, or “mine is cooler,” was so obvious I could barely keep from laughing. When I was in Baltimore, I had to email an assignment, so I joined two men at the computer station at the United terminal. One of them had an off-brand laptop and the other, a 15-inch HP.

As soon as I unveiled my Macbook Pro, the two of them looked at me as if I had pulled up to the curb in a Ferrari and picked up their girlfriends. I’m a writer. The Macbook Pro is a high-end computer that is standard in the industry for this line of work. I wasn’t trying to be intimidating, I just wanted to e-mail an assignment.

Then another guy joined us with the latest Dell. He seemed confident enough until another journalist came to the table and broke out his 17-inch Macbook Pro and the two of us started typing with all 10 fingers. That was too much for the others. They quietly folded, one by one, and took their toys elsewhere.

Not only did we have the coolest toys, but we could actually type. That was more than they could handle. I looked at the journalist who had a press pass sticking out of his upper breast pocket, and we smiled and shook our heads.

Whoever has the latest toys wins. Lamentably, that has become the sad reality. It could only happen while living in a system we can’t understand.

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