Agents Of Change

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Within a few months T.G.I. Friday’s was joined by Maxwell’s Plum and Mister Laffs. A moribund old bar called Sullivan’s switched to the singles format and came alive. The two blocks of First Avenue in the Sixties they all were on were soon known as “the body exchange,” but from today’s perspective the scene was innocent; most of the exchanging was only of telephone numbers. Newsweek and Life sent reporters who depicted T.G.I. Friday’s as the front line of the sexual revolution. The stigma of being single, especially for women, was being softened, and that of venturing alone to a bar was vanishing.

“You really should credit the man who developed the birth control pill,” Stillman says. The pill was as much a symbol as substance in the 1960s. And the man behind it might be said to be either Carl Djerassi, a biochemist at the Syntex lab in Mexico City who in 1951 made the key chemical discovery (a substance in Mexican yams that simulated the female hormone progesterone), or Gregory Pincus of the Worcester Foundation in Massachusetts, who in 1956 first tested it on fifty women (paving the way for the introduction of the commercial product in 1963).

But the spiritual shift was deeper. Stillman had effectively begun the commercialization of sexual freedom, a course that had been advanced by Helen Gurley Brown and others. Brown had arrived as the editor of Cosmopolitan , a magazine that gave her a forum for “frank talk” about sex, in 1963, the same year The Feminine Mystique came out. T.G.I. Friday’s was hardly a protofeminist place, but the unfolding of feminism was unimaginable without the changes that places like Friday’s helped engender.

The revolution led as always to the counterrevolution, beginning with horror stories like that of the 1975 novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar and fueled by outbreaks of venereal diseases, culminating in AIDS. A decade after Stillman opened for business, the worst imaginings of conservatives in the heartland came true at Plato’s Retreat, the Manhattan club that invited absolutely anyone to join the naked gropings on mattresses on the floor.

The changes Stillman had tapped into were unstoppable. Within five years he had opened Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s. He would expand to Nashville and Dallas—“our first night there you couldn’t get into the place”—and several other American cities before selling the T.G.I, name and format to Curt Carlson Industries in 1974. Today there are 294 T.G.I.’s all over the world; one of the latest opened recently in the former East Berlin. That very first one, on First Avenue, closed in the fall of 1994; business had tapered off, the owners said. Stillman has gone on to other worlds in the restaurant business and is president of the New York Restaurant Group.

THE FULL LIST OF THOSE WHO, WORK- ing in anonymity, have changed our lives is of course much longer than the above. And of course it can never be known well enough to be drawn up. But contemplating it can be uplifting. Obscurity itself has value in a culture of overexposure, and the freshness of the innovator’s first steps is never to be recovered once historians begin to bronze his achievements like a pair of baby shoes. Looking at what ordinary folk have done makes us look afresh at every stranger and imagine possibilities. And looking at the history of everyday life can help us remember that every day is history, and perhaps even live it a little more intensely.