The Modest Proposal

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The Posturing of Esquire and Air Travel Bobby Schweizer

For eighty years, Esquire magazine has published material intended to appeal to a certain kind of man. Who this man is, or what "man" even means is always a matter of debate, but there is a clear target audience for the magazine. Like most magazines, Esquire is structured with short articles at the front, building toward the cover feature and numerous longform offerings; amuse-bouche building toward a hearty meal. Each issue opens with Scott Raab interviewing someone of note with a conversational style I have not seen emulated elsewhere. Typically framed around ordering food or drink, the chat between author and guest has been edited to read as repartee in which every utterance is purposeful; intelligent people don't waste words. It sets the tone for the issue, reminding the reader though they live in a world with hardly a moment to breathe, the words within have been carefully considered. From fashion advice to profiles of world leaders, Esquire exudes confidence.

Readers are supposed to absorb the confident demeanor of the magazine. Esquire appeals to a lifestyle of no-nonsense cocktails and steaks, proper attire for high-rise businesses and basement bars, and portrays celebrities as people like you and me (who just happen to be better than you and me). On rare occasion it might use the phrase "how to" (how to filet and cook a fish, how to responsibly execute a bar crawl) but never claims to be an instruction manual. But there is an implicit pact between editors and authors and readers that, with a subtle but knowing nod, says follow these guidelines and you'll get by. So, in a world in which everyone has taken to dolling out advice (especially online), leafing through Esquire has become a trusted routine. Esquire teaches a kind of polite demeanor in which the privilege of money helps reduce conflict, and knowledge facilitates access. It's not that I have adopted the promoted lifestyle from the pages of a magazine, but by emulating the words I can order a bottle of wine or talk about economic growth or choose a suit jacket without getting ripped off. A very specific set of circumstances for a niche (though profitable) demographic.

Though its thoughts about sex and politics and economics are progressive, any magazine aware of its eighty year history will inevitably skew a tad conservative. Having its pages graced by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Norman Mailer, Esquire fondly looks back at old rituals. A properly stirred Manhattan, a pocket square, and a woman in lingerie telling a corny joke—the vestiges of the Mad Men era persist. But businessmen and women don't wear suits on airplanes out of a sense of propriety, they do it so that their clothes are not wrinkled in the hastily packed luggage they have to carry on a whirlwind two night trip to "St. Louis" that is, in actually, just metonymic shorthand for some hotel next to an office building. However, Esquire tells its primarily affluent white male audience that practical choices can be postured as a lifestyle. In an era of Buzzfeed lists and 200-beer menus, Esquire attempts to provide guidance to those may be overwhelmed by options, who would prefer freedom from choice.

Esquire's world of thoughtful politics, good food, well-tailored blazers, and current events came into my world right around the time I began flying more often. Air travel, I've learned, is as easy and you want to make it. Airports are places of postures. The confident strut of the frequent flyer—coffee clutched in one hand, her small bag hanging from the bend in the arm, while the other hand effortlessly wheels a roll-a-board—shines amid the herds of travelers shlepping their bags just hoping to find their gate before their life's possessions spill out onto the terminal floor. Traveling works best when one considers it a lifestyle, which is not a matter of buying the right gear, but knowing how to move with it. In a world that favors business-class travelers, it proves advantageous to emulate their demeanor. Will dressing nicely earn you a free upgrade to a better seat? Probably not. But the greatest thing you can do for anybody who works in a service position—whether waiter, retail clerk, or gate agent—is to not be a pain in the ass. Properly sized bags in hand, move swiftly and with purpose. As a TSA security officer announced to passengers on a recent trip: "don't get prepared, be prepared." Knowledge benefits preparation, preparation reduces hassle. I expend a lot of effort to not be in the way.

My dedication to Esquire as my travel tome of choice has become kind of a joke to my friends. On flights, I had taken to bringing along a magazine to fill the time between the cabin door closing and reaching cruising altitude. There is a ritual quality to this procedure: having a magazine at the ready was a demonstration of being unphased by the prohibition of phone or e-reader. Seemlessly transitioning from glass screen to dead trees, I engaged my devotional. In a world in which yoga pants and fishing shirts have become a defacto airplane uniform, the idea of dressing nicely became a way to reengage the bond with travel, gesturing to it that though it forces me to take off my shoes at security I can still manage to wear something with laces. (With over 25 years of practice, my fingers dexterously perform the act with grace.) I genuflect at airport altar, because my Esquire hymnal has taught me how to reduce hassle.

For the first time in years, I broke my routine. The flights coming and going proceeded without disaster, so I know there is no wrath of a vengeful travel god, but I was a bit concerned after purposely leaving my magazine on my nightstand. The recent news of the Federal Aviation Administration permitting the use of electronic devices during take-off and landing was heralded by many as the government finally basing regulations on common sense. "If the electronic interference from my Kindle really could bring down an airplane," the argument went, "shouldn't they just ban e-readers and phones and digital cameras from being brought on board?" The often cited ulterior motive was that the ban on electronics was the FAA's way of coercing people to look up from their devices for even half a second to listen to the safety instructions being performed by the flight attendants, or as often is the case on larger flights, a video. But what we have gained in convenience, we have lost in a moment of reflection.

The time between the cabin door closing and reaching cruising altitude was a sanctimonious rite, marking one of the few spans of time in our lives when we are not connected to personal electronics devices. It was not just that we were disconnected from phone calls and texts and the Internet, but that we were not even supposed to interact with anything with a screen or consume digital entertainment. Some filled this time with idle conversation, punctuated by the noise of take-off and P.A. announcements. Frequently, reading material filled the gap: the book you had been "meaning to get to" or, out of desperation the airline's magazine from the seatback pocket. It seems like the kind of thing the editors of Esquire, despite public opinion, would lament.

At the end of every flight, assuming I have finished with my copy of Esquire, I perform another ritual. Having carefully torn the address label off the cover, I de-board the plane, set on finding a suitable place to leave my magazine behind for another traveler to pick up.

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