A little history and etymology to begin...
1851 - The Charles Street Jail is opened in Boston.
1895 - The word “Schadenfreude” is coined from two others: Damage + Joy. Merriam-Webster defines it as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” Gotta love those Germans!
1973 – The Charles Street Jail is closed. For those unfamiliar with Boston history, the Charles Street Jail was notorious for such inhumane conditions that prisoners filed suit and a judge promptly agreed and ordered it shut. It was a common occurrence for guys to plead guilty to heavier crimes just to get transferred out of Charles Street. They might've been tough guys, but they didn't care for the legendary, prehistoric-sized rodents and bugs.
2007 – Clink, the penitentiary-themed restaurant, and the Liberty Hotel property are opened. (Get it? Liberty? Clink? The bar is "Alibi".)
Admittedly, I used to be a defense attorney, now a “recovering attorney.” I may be tainted by some of those really un-fun "houses of correction" where I went to meet my clients.
But I can be fun. Really, I can. Then, over my heirloom tomatoes and fried Ipswich clams, I looked at the busboys (Latino) with numbered shirts (how clever!) and my spirit fell. I guess my face did, too as my friend quickly told me that she heard there was a staff meeting where employees were allowed to vote on whether or not to go with the prison number theme shirts.
I can just see the chipper HR gal and her buddy corporate marketing chick (both Ivy-educated, of course) eagerly explaining how terrific this whole theme will be to the staff.
I'm a bus boy, I need work, what am I gonna say: “I'm sorry that kind of offends me...” Oh yea, that'd work out just fine.
I kept thinking how uncomfortable it would be to be working all day looking through actual prison cell bars (they left them on, how cool!) in that numbered shirt. How many of the staff have family or friends for whom this theme is too close for comfort? How many people, like me, picked up one of the serving bowls and thought, looks like a stainless steel cell toilet. Maybe none. Maybe.
I had lunch there about a week ago and despite catching up with my girl friend, running into another old friend, having some good food (small portions), a nice glass of wine (prices quite dear), I just feel depressed over the memory of the meal. Not what you want guests to remember.
Schadenfreude all around
Given the prevalence of lowest-common denominator entertainment, or “reality TV”, I shouldn't be surprised. The suffering, or at least the anxiety, of others is offered up for our regular viewing pleasure. This has been true ever since entertainment execs found that schadenfreude sells, and even better, they don't have to pay writers.
Sleek as it is, this jail-themed restaurant leaves me cold. It's kind of like rich celebrities wearing trucker hats and t-shirts proclaiming their “white trash” status. Just not sure that we're laughing with, rather than at, those less fortunate.
The utterly dead flower arrangement at the hostess stand did nothing to put me in a more lively or carefree mood, either.
I used to think I was a cool hipster. Now, I think I'd rather stay home and have a Spam sandwich in front of the TV. Just hope there's something good on...
For an interesting perspective on the Jail, see Kevin Cullen's piece in the Globe.