American Odd: Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic, by Robert Lanham

Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic

by Robert Lanham

Art by Jeff Bechtel

PLUME/Penguin (2004)

A longstanding concept beloved by American civilization has been the notion of personal freedom. Thomas Jefferson inscribed it in The Declaration of Independence, laying it out as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the United States we have tension between two instincts: the desire to conform and the desire to stand out. Over the centuries many have found that this tension isn’t an either/or proposition. The burgeoning of the Internet and a rapidly globalizing post-Communist world means one can slip on personas as easily as a pair of shoes. Inconsequential office drone by day and vitriol-spewing edgelord by night.

Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic by Robert Lanham is a humorous guidebook to various idiosyncratic denizens inhabiting America. Written in 2004 it has become a relic, but that doesn’t mean it has become irrelevant. I would categorize it in the same milieu as a decades-old slang dictionary. The styles of idiosyncrasy might have changed but there will always be a need to fly one’s freak flag. Food Court Druids is the sequel to The Hipster Handbook. (Published in 2003 The Hipster Handbook is a satirical examination of the hipster phenomenon. It is also a souvenir from the age when hipsters tried to make “deck or fin” a thing.)

Food Court Druids offers a taxonomic investigation into American idiosyncrasy. The book is divided into five sections (“Idiosyncrology Groups” in Lanham’s crackpot sociological lingo.) The office, the family, the fashion-conscious, the obsessives, and oddball hybrid types are the main categories. At the end of each section is a CATSCAN, meaning “Cannot Attempt To Socially Categorize, Anthropologically Noteworthy.” CATSCANs include Mary Hart and Randy Constan. Hart, the former host of Entertainment Tonight, notoriously took out an insurance policy on her legs. Constan is a middle-aged man who thinks he’s Peter Pan. He founded his own church called Through the Cracks Ministries and has also dressed up as Little Lord Fauntleroy and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. Perhaps the most diplomatic reaction to this would be a bemused, “What the hell?”

The variety of personal idiosyncrasy is staggering to behold. A funny example is The WB. Each type is given a brief description, population size, gender, habitat, turn-ons, and Idio Rank. The WB’s is 6.8. On the scale The WB hovers between “eccentric but socially acceptable” to “neurotic, borderline weird.” (An 8 is “do not trust with children” and a 9 is “do not trust with scissors.”) In everyday life it is sometimes hard to tell how idiosyncratic a person is. Are they merely strange and/or socially awkward? Or should you call the police? (Cue joke about the dismal state of American healthcare and our hilariously idiotic gun control (or lack thereof) laws.)

The WB is emblematic of the era this was published. Named after the Warner Bros. Franchise, the WB “regularly wears Looney Tunes clothing and decorates his home with WB towels and shower curtains.” The type gets broken down further into subtypes including The Taz, the Thug Taz, and Marvheads (after Marvin the Martian).

Some types receive mildly offensive names like Chihuamos and Unitards. The former being gay men who accessorize their tiny dogs and the latter being sports fanatics. But we also get Cherohonkees, Hexpatriates, and Yanknecks. These are cultural oxymorons. Yanknecks are “Rebel-flag-waving rednecks who live outside the South.” In the section on the passionate, obsessed, and kinky we find Kristen Kringels, Ammosexuals, and Lieberals. The first are year-round Christmas obsessives. The second is self-explanatory. Lieberals are “overly PC Democrats who water down their liberal tendencies in order to do what’s best for their children.” But this was published in 2004 the apogee of liberal despair and the dawn of Dubya’s second term. Today we have the opposite, especially with the ascent of Dirtbag Left and the popularity of Chapo Trap House.*

The funny handbook is a brilliant marriage between sarcasm and page design. Food Court Druids (and by extension The Hipster Handbook) have a long tradition in American humor writing. The godfather of the genre is The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbach and Jonathan Roberts. Published in 1980 it is a comic epitaph to the Ivy League WASP elites who gave us everyone from Henry James to Louis Auchincloss. (A sequel, True Prep, came out in 2011.) The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf came out in 1994. In 2008 there was The Official Filthy Rich Handbook by Christopher Tennant. It is an acidic tongue-in-cheek look at how the other One Percent lives.

POSTSCRIPT

Food Court Druids was a funny relic to a bygone age. The War on Terror was in full swing and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man hadn’t permanently altered the cinematic landscape. Now comic book movies have gone mainstream. To put this in perspective, Food Court Druids came out pre-YouTube. The book may be outdated, but it is not irrelevant. Many types foreshadow our current age – Ammosexuals, Sportriots – and many remain unclassifiable.

Yet the book leaves me hopeful. Although it is a perfectly natural reaction to conform and go with the flow, America also has a wonderful tendency to cultivate oddballs with remarkable consistency. We remain a nation of obsessives, maniacs, recluses, and visionaries. Somehow we make it work. Lanham and company did a great job by offering us a snapshot of the American oddball in the dawning of the 21st century.

*I was a teaching assistant with one of the co-hosts, Matt Christman. Matt also had a story in an earlier CCLaP fiction anthology, American Wasteland: Bleak tales of the future on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

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