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the conversation pit
I love exactly one room and that room is my wife
My favorite character on Mad Men is the conversation pit in Don and Megan’s apartment. The rest of the apartment that appears for the first time in the opening of the show’s fifth season is just your standard late-1960s-rich-people-with-a-troubled-marriage interior. But its living room is a spectacular stage set and functions throughout the rest of the series as a character itself. I love many characters on this stupid television show, but none as much as this big beige carpet pool sunk into a living room floor, which every time it appears anywhere on the internet or on the screen when I’m rewatching the show, shocks me into pure longing.
The Mad Men conversation pit is a lower level in an already low-slung room, sprawling across a whole frame of television. It has that same comfortable science-fiction feeling that the command headquarters of the ships on Star Trek from the same era and a little later do, rolling and modular and almost no angles in sight, every possible object carpeted that can be carpeted. The apartment in which the pit is sunk is a spaceship too, absolute modernity and total luxury, pinned way up in the clouds above Manhattan. No one on the show appreciates the conversation pit properly, which is the whole point of it, but I do.
There are a number of other conversation pits I love almost as much that I’ve encountered solely through instagram; a whole genre of account exists to post interiors from the 1960s and 1970s, old photos of sunken, over-carpeted rooms full of round-shouldered, low-lying furniture in olive greens and goldenrod yellows and funky orange-browns. By any reasonable standard, many of the interiors are hideous, all these intestinal earth tones, mirrors on ceilings, struggling houseplants and unusable woven furniture. But the overall effect of these accounts is swoony, a space where everything is a party and nobody is looking at their phone. The 1970s is the color of California, the color of a dirty martini, the color of a plate of mini-quiche and a record player and a nap in the middle of the day. Everything is the color of the future.
In these once-futuristic interiors, sunken couches are a crown jewel. Conversation pits began to gain popularity in America in the 1950s, and were trendy to the point of saturation by the ‘60s and ‘70s, the decades with which I personally associate them. The idea of a lowered part of a room meant for socializing, within a room and yet freed from the room, is nothing new, and was nothing new in the American 1960s; it reaches back at least to the Ottoman Empire, medieval Spain, and ancient China, and probably further than that. Everyone has always wanted a party, and everyone has always wanted to lie down.
Geoff Dyer writes in an essay about sex in hotels, “some rooms are more inside than others,” riffing on Don Delillo’s declaration in White Noise, “the point of rooms is that they’re inside.” The conversation pit is a further interior space within an interior space. Even in those mouth-watering photos of Californian homes from the ‘70s in which a conversation pit is surrounded on all sides by windows, the conversation pit pulls the action away from those exteriors, and turns the windows into a painting, decorative and unreal. At a really good party, the outside world recedes. Parties at their best and most desperate briefly push away the the phone calls and worries and obligations outside. The party is another spaceship, a closed room rocketing safely through the vast night. The world beyond it becomes optional, something to worry about later.
Nothing looks like the past so much as the things that were supposed to look like the future. The 1970s thought it was the future; it is the last decade for which I was not alive at all. Perhaps this part of the past seems idyllic and permissive to people my age specifically because we were not part of it; it is a landscape free of ourselves, free of the limits and facts of our lives, our bodies, and our histories. If only we could get back to a place before ourselves, we could shake free of the things that obligate us, that make us petty and small and unkind. The ‘70s, in the glossy fiction of television, and the moon-eyed gaze of Instagram accounts dedicated to the kinds of rooms that include conversation pits, is a fictional place, and has little to do with an actual decade in which real things happened, in which a president was impeached and American imperialism calcified and flourished, in which poverty and racism ran rampant. But the ‘70s in my mind is a conversation pit; the ‘70s is a party. A lot of 1970s interiors are in objective fact hideous, but aesthetics are always about longing. How we look at things is about where we’ve been, what we’ve done, what has been done to us, what we’re searching for, what we don’t have.
It’s important to note that, in terms of what actually happens there, the conversation pit on Mad Men is a realm of pure misery. Like so much else on the show, it underlines the chasm between what people want and what they think they should want, who they are and who they pretend to be. The two-episode opener of Mad Men’s season five is about this conversation pit, which is to say it is about a party. Don’s second wife, Megan, throws him a surprise fortieth birthday party. Don, a man-shaped house of cards built out of secrets, doesn’t want to host a party, and certainly doesn’t one sprung on him. Don’s apartment, conversation pit and all, has been decorated to demonstrate not just that he has limitless money, but that he has limitless good taste, which, for this character, is also a kind of currency. The apartment aggressively asserts that its occupant knows what’s good, and what was good in the late ‘60s, when the episode takes place, was parties. The conversation pit is about inviting people over, being a host, having friends. Don, a person who would rather do almost anything other than throw a party, moves into an apartment that is shaped like hosting one. The thing he is supposed to have runs directly counter to what he actually wants. The apartment looks like love, but is about money.
The party is a disaster; nearly everyone who attends humiliates themselves. Everything that happens in the conversation pit for the rest of the show continues to be terrible, several more fights and a small handful of equally awkward and lightly tragic social gatherings. By the final season of the show Don sits alone there in his pajamas in the middle of the day, spilling snacks and booze on the floor and watching cartoons; he has forced the room into anti-sociality, into the opposite of its design. If the gleaming newness of that apartment at the beginning of season five was the hope that we can transform ourselves, through love or money or both, what it becomes by the end of the show is our repeated failure to do so, how over and over again we wind up back at who we always were.
I wasn’t sure I liked Mad Men when it was on television in real time and everyone I knew was obsessed with it. I called it a longform narrative furniture catalog. It’s now probably my favorite piece of television. I have watched the whole series three or four times and think at its best it gets close to some kind of actual genius but I also wasn’t wrong about the furniture catalog. It turns out that many of our human feelings and experiences— about home and family, about the past and the future, about comfort and fear, about money and desire and lacks and sufficiencies and our attempts and failures to love people and to recognize ourselves— are also sometimes furniture catalogs. People’s lives are to a great degree about which rooms we enter and which we leave, what we wish we could inhabit, where we can and can’t stay. Instagram’s 1970s interior design accounts are all surfaces, slick and superficial: oh look here’s something else that’s green, here’s one more couch inside of another couch, oh look a tree but it’s inside the room. But when I look at them, they’re also the difference between other people’s families and my own, the interiors of marriage versus the exteriors of it, my guilt over times I hurt people when I was trying to love them, and my inability to access a past that in my imagination will always be better than the present. The conversation pit is the way other people’s homes always feel more like home than my own does. It is the rooms I can’t get inside of, and what I imagine would be possible there.
In my twenties, I spent far too much time in my friends’s apartments. I clung to the edges of other people’s lives. Everyone else’s windows were the warm yellow windows that I saw from the outside, printing into the dark hulking skyline and turning it cozy, a beehive of warm rooms. My own life was precarious; my memory of that time is mostly about being very cold and wearing uncomfortable shoes. I was always trying to make myself a part of a room in somebody else’s house, trying to stay in places where I couldn’t stay, bargaining one more hour against the long walk or subway ride back to my own apartment, against the muscular and chilly world that waited beyond friends’s apartment buildings and staircases and front doors and living rooms.
Two of my friends in particular were known for throwing parties. They had lucked into the kind of apartment that nobody has at that age, sprawling across the whole top floor of the building above the bar where we all hung out back then, like something out of a sitcom from the ‘90s. Sometimes the parties were planned and sometimes they were spontaneous, erupting out of boredom and avoidance and a string of texts and who was on the subway and who else didn’t want to go home. My memories of those parties all run together now: yelling about plans or ideas that seemed briefly more important than anything had ever been, going into the kitchen to tell secrets and drunkenly pan-fry things until the smoke alarm went off, lying on the living room floor late into the evening when most everyone else had left, climbing out onto the roof even in the bitterest cold, talking shit and exaggeratedly praising one another. On those nights, when things went well and I didn’t get too drunk and nobody got mad at me or told me I had to go home, I felt able to believe that everything in my life was going to work out somehow, that the kind of strong clear paths toward success and happiness that had seemed possible in my childhood were still available to me, waiting soft in the next morning. That apartment didn’t have any carpeted 1970s design flourishes; it was just another Brooklyn living room with shitty uneven wood floors and an ancient filthy rug thrown over them. But it was also a conversation pit, a space in which the party shut out everything that was not the party.
On Mad Men, the conversation pit represents failure, which makes how much I love that specific one, and how it stands in for this kind of party to me, seem a bit nonsensical. But maybe my impulse toward it is the impulse so many of us have toward the wastefulness or bad taste observed in people wealthier than us: Oh, if only I had that, I’d use it right. Lately this is my attitude toward my own life as well, or the one I had before last March, which now appears to me only as a long list of things I took for granted. I feel guilty when I talk about how much I miss parties. I was often terrible at them, nervously failing to make conversation, cancelling plans or hoping someone else would cancel. I felt all the time like an overdue and unfinished assignment, I promise I’ll be done soon, just let me stay home until I am. Let me just wait until I look better, until I have more money, until I’m more successful, until nothing is wrong.
But now that parties are inaccessible, all I can think is, oh just let me have it back and I’ll do all of it right this time. I’ll never take anything for granted; I’ll say yes to everything. The conversation pit, whenever it swims up out of the internet, is what parties look like to me now, from the long vantage of not having been able to attend them for nearly a year. When all this is over, I tell myself, lying as furiously as Don Draper, I’ll never be scared to go to a party again. Never mind that everyone will probably be terrible at parties when they return, never mind that we are all likely to emerge from this more scared than we were before it. Just let me get at the future, at the thing I cannot reach. People talk about the future now the way they once talked about the past: a place I can’t go to, where everything is better.
Those parties in my twenties were rarely as good as I remember them being; the 1970s wasn’t a smarter or sexier or more hopeful decade than this one. Most conversations pits are ugly, and most parties are awkward and boring. But everything that leaps out of reach is perfectible, because it is not ourselves. The conversation pit is everything I can’t access. It is every story we tell each other about “the after times,” about an idealized future that is unlikely ever to arrive. If only I could reach that place— that past, that future, that imagined security— everything would be fixed.
The conversation pit is the home decor feature of these unreachable spaces, this ever-receding past or future in which I am good at talking to people, in which I can love the people I love skillfully and generously and in which I can be loved without condition, in which I have enough money to no longer be worried all the time, in which I am beautiful enough not to be angry at everyone anymore. Imagining a party is always better than a real party will ever be, and that imaginary party takes place in this specific conversation pit. The conversation pit is the faded-photo past and it is the after-times when we’re all vaccinated, when we’re all well again, when everything is healed and everyone wants to talk to everyone, when every party is finally good, when we all lie down on the floor and nobody ever has to go home.
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