It was 1977.

I was not quite three years old and was pretending not to listen to what the grown-ups were saying. Huddled in my aunt’s kitchen, speaking in hushed, agitated voices, they were talking about my much-older cousin who was coming to visit. It sounded like they’d mentioned jail. I have a vague recollection of some proverbial hand-wringing over the poor choices he’d made, and how he was wasting his life when he was such an intelligent boy.

He walked in, blue eyes blazing, wearing a pin-striped suit with a pastel-colored shirt, shiny black Stacy Adams shoes, very short, gold-burnished hair, and sideburns. He practically crackled, he was so phenomenally exciting. But when he spoke, it was with a quiet confidence, and with respect. I sensed, as young children and animals do, that he was gentle and kind. There was something dangerous about him, and something sad, but primarily there was something alive in him that set him apart.

I recall being introduced to him, and that he was polite, almost formal, but sweet to me. All of us sat in my aunt’s living room—I on the carpet with a doll, where I again pretended not to be listening to what, in retrospect, must have been a whole lot of unsolicited advice from people who were only slightly older than he was.

Then my parents said it was time for us to go. I desperately wanted not to be separated from my cousin. I wanted to observe him, for him to talk to me. He took children seriously. He was so handsome, and so different from anyone I’d ever met before. My mother, who later told me she saw all of that plainly written on my face, said she wanted to take a picture of us together. We stood near the top of the stairway that led to our aunt’s door, and my mother went down onto the patio below. She told me to stand a little closer to him, for which I was glad. He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, and I remember feeling like there wasn’t enough room in my body for all the crazy awe and joy that flooded me.

That was my first run-in with cool. I still recall, vividly, the emotions evoked in me by being in its presence, as well as the absolute recognition that here was something unusual, stripped down and fundamental, yet magical. I wanted more of it.

I’ve wondered obsessively, for much of my life, about what makes something cool. Certainly we all have opinions and tastes—preferences for different flavors, if you like. But there are people, places, things that stand outside of those constraints and find favor and recognition across the divisions we humans insist on creating at every turn.

So what is that thing, that something alive that sets its host apart? What comprises cool? This is a gathering of evidence, a presentation of prime specimens, a roadmap, and an assortment of viewpoints and discussions on the topic. It is neither exhaustive nor definitive. But it’s a start.

~ Emma Alvarez Gibson