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What's up with these members-only clubs?

Most of us understand the concept of evil.

We know from repeated prompting, for example, that a man who controls a nuclear arsenal, backs out of international accords, achieves power through dubious means and threatens other nations represents evil without question. Yet more than half of the voting population approves of President Bush and his actions.

Other contradictions become evident by measuring aphorisms against real-world values. Most of us are conditioned to value humility and scorn opulence. At the same time, popular culture rewards celebrity and turns acquisition into a religion of sorts. Now, because the Burning Question crew would rather watch college football than rummage through medieval texts debating human nature, depravity and the state of grace, we'll just blame this social irrationality on the Puritans.

You see, these dissenting bastards with their buckled shoes and curious bonnets admired austerity. Yet they also believed in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that an all-knowing God determined at creation who entered heaven and who suffered eternal punishment. Nothing you could do--working with Habitat for Humanity, donating blood, pretending to care about the slave laborers who sew up your designer clothes--would help you in the supreme being's eyes.

A curious bunch, Puritans thought it necessary to determine ahead of time if they belonged to the elect. They reasoned that God would reward those bound for heaven and began emphasizing personal wealth as a sign of favor from above. By working harder, spending longer hours away from home and drinking less, Puritans could accumulate wealth and thus claim elect status.

In a sense, then, Puritans invented conspicuous consumption, which brings us--by a long, convoluted route--to this week's Burning Question: What's up with these members-only clubs?

According to the modern bastardization of the Calvinist ideal, membership in a VIP room or private lounge validates a person's presumed status as one of the elect. "People want to be seen," says Tony Kabolati, manager of Illusions Cabaret, which features a massive upstairs area for members with several luxury skyboxes. "And if you want to get noticed, everyone downstairs will know you're up here."

Yet that's an imprecise answer, thanks to the prevalence of artificial membership clubs. The Burning Question crew stumbled into Sipango to visit The Sellar, a VIP room inside the long-standing establishment. Unfortunately, the manager either forgot to put us on the list as requested or their staff never unhooked themselves from phonics. No matter--anyone can pay $10 to $20, depending on the night, to enter.

Several establishments offer some form of membership or VIP area, including Club Life, Euphoria and various strip clubs. Entry into the elite class varies from place to place, but generally requires some form of financial transaction. "You purchase membership, but clients are screened," Kabolati says of the procedure at Illusions. "It's a judgment call, really. We just have to make sure you're someone the other members want to be around."

In other words, the modern-day elect subject themselves to the approbation of others.

We discovered one establishment--Sense in Knox-Henderson--that remains true to the Puritan origins of membership (and we mean that in a good way). There's no sign outside, no advertising, no attempt to generate more than a moderate amount of buzz. In fact, many people we encountered in bars around the city were unaware of the club's existence. To hang out at Sense, you simply must prove your worthiness--and get your name on the list.

"You can't buy your way in," explains Nick Badovinus, chef-partner of the private club. "The gateway to entry is working connections."

And it's different among the elect. Patrons of Sense converse with ease, mingle with poise, avoid sloppy pickup lines. "A vodka martini is a vodka martini, but who's drinking next to you is important," Badovinus says. Yet drinks served by bartender Phil Natale and his crew are potent, a fact that brought tears to the eyes of many a crewmember.

So, what's up with all the members-only clubs? Well, bars attempt to define their crowds through various means: cover charges, music, dress code and so on. But these are uncertain measures. Membership allows club owners to build and maintain a culture in which select patrons will feel comfortable. As Chris Michael, bartender at Bali Bar and an astute observer of Dallas nightlife, explains, "Sense's membership allows them to control the crowd. It's filled with people you want to see and be around. That's what makes Sense a good bar."

Remember, Aldous Huxley once wrote that "to associate with other like-minded people in small, purposeful groups is for the great majority of men and women a source of profound psychological satisfaction."

Of course, the Burning Question crew agrees with the great Groucho Marx, who once resigned membership from an organization with a terse, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

 
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