THE LIVING ROOM — Notice this beautiful place, with a long dining table, eight straight-backed chairs, good lighting, drawers for the silver. What’s that? It doesn’t look any living room you’ve seen? Oh, you are so 1950s. Do you still like Ike, Cadillac fins and 45 RPMs? I can see you need an update: For the first millennia people lived in houses with bedrooms, kitchens, dens, living rooms and, in more recent times, bathrooms. If that particular room didn’t actually contain a bath, it was called a “half bath” where one could only bathe half way down or up.
The floor plan of the average American home changed with the arrival of the television set in the early 1950s. By 1954 some 55.7 percent of U.S. homes had television (or “TV” as we cutting-edge types call it), and the box soon took over their lives. Plans were made and abandoned when “Your Show of Shows” scheduled Elvis. Quiz programs stopped traffic as those who didn’t have a12-inch Admiral paused before store windows to gape. People would watch a test pattern for up to an hour. Soon families discovered the wonder of TV trays to put around the room at show time so children didn’t have to talk to their parents. Social scientists cite the invention of the TV tray as the first step towards the disintegration of the American family, an escalating divorce rate and teenage adolescence.
Technology kept changing how we watched “Gunsmoke” and “I Love Lucy.” First we had rabbit ears, stylishly yet awkwardly pointing to the water stains on the ceiling. Next came a gizmo on the rooftop called an antenna. Then a major scientific breakthrough arrived with the invention of the cable. With ugly black wires streaming through neighborhoods and into our homes, no wind nor rain nor nuclear blast could keep us from “Third Rock From the Sun.” A few years ago someone came along with an instrumenton the rooftop called a dish which could easily be mistaken for an antenna except that dishes fail to deliver in wind, rain and nuclear blasts. Next, no doubt, will come the newest trend: rabbit ears.
But it was our indoors that saw the greatest changes. That first TV arrived with a question: where to put it? Only one set per household was allowed by the FCC. No one had a special TV room. No bedroom could do the job, because the entire family wanted to sit behind their trays eating frozen TV dinners — three-month-old fried chicken with some unrecognizable veggies — at the same time. So the TV set was put in the living room, accompanied either by those rabbit ears, or later, black wires running across the floor. True, the big stand-alone box with its fake wooden sides and that flickering black-and-white screen didn’t add much to the decor. Actually, it looked awful, but every American family had one.
Eventually the box was moved to the den which was more informal. Over the years the TV screens became bigger but thinner, book shelves were removed, (books? who needs books, we’ve got TV!) and replaced by the Sony — sorry Admiral. Invention of the remote control allowed us to completely do away with any remaining exercise. Today in all American homes worth their underwater mortgages the den is where the action is. In my case the den is where I’ve got the fireplace, couch, wet bar, dry bar, damp bar, 120-inch TV with surround sound, DVR, DVD, CD, am-fm radio and, of course, my 45 RPMs. The den is where I plunk down in the morning to watch the news, where I listen to music later that day and where, from 5:30 p.m. till 1:30 a.m., I get my exercise — sometimes changing the programs requires pushing several buttons. All I need now is a remote with a cup holder.
Ah, but what about the living room, that unneeded appendix in my happy house? It remained the same with an occasional new upholstering, paint job, dusting. But it was never used by anyone in the family. Even friends who would drop by would walk in the front door, through the hallway and into the den, never even casting a glance at the living room. I could keep an exaltation of larks or a chine of polecats in there and no one would notice.
After a few years of the room’s non-use if not abandonment, the Texas Workforce Commission decided that if I was to continue receiving unemployment checks I needed an office. But where? Offices cost money, rent, a secretary and an hour-long commute. Each way. The solution: In came the Salvation Army, out went the living room furniture. That newly emptied space became our dining room and the former dining room became — ta-da! — my office. It has all worked out splendidly: I can commute to work in a matter of minutes, the fridge with its beer and cheese is exactly five steps away, and the rent is reasonable.
Do you have a living room? Why? Do you ever do any living in it? I thought not. Get rid of it. Ladies, wouldn’t you like your own walk-in closet to hold every piece of clothing you ever wore which you refuse to part with because poodle skirts may come back in style? Men, are your kids annoyed when you bowl down the hallway? Does your wife complain, “Do you have to do your taxidermy in the kitchen?”? Turn that unused living room into a Man Cave. Put in a wet bar, seven giant TV sets, decorate with old football helmets, team banners and have a humidor to hold your dollar cigars, then invite over 15 buddies for the game. (This is not the same as converting your garage into a Man Cave and parking all your cars in front of your neighbor’s house.) On the other hand, if you do that, your next bedroom may be at the local Y.
Ashby is living at email@example.com