ROM THE ROAD, the Elks Lodge number 1800 on Lake City Way is a sprawling shape, hunkered down behind a Rite Aid. Up close, the building and its innards reek wildly of an era long gone: dated layouts in stone, thick dark beams, and glass glance steadfastly back into time. Even the lodge's cracked parking lot and the grassy field behind it, all strewn with gull feathers and ancient picnic tables, embody this worn ambience. The spell is suffocatingly complete.

The sky pours into the lodge's glass-walled, indoor courtyard. Exposed rock walls suggest that barriers between interior and exterior are dispensable or illusory; maybe that's true, especially in this place, where the membrane between past and present is porous. A beam-supported rain roof hangs over the lodge's low, carpeted front steps, an illustration through architecture of old-fashioned gallantry: The roof is there to protect the ladies, who -- both then and now -- can be dropped off safely, without getting dabbled by rain, while the men go park the cars.

The Elks Lodge's large dining room, with its round, white-clothed tables, the ladies who sit there during nightly Elk activities with their men and pocketbooks alongside them, and the heavy chains and medals with Elk symbolism printed upon them in the glass cases in the walls -- all this brings to mind the eras of ballrooms, wartime, getting pinned, and cigarette commercials on TV; periods when culture was more homogenous, and when many people fulfilled what society expected of them without question. In that past, finding one's role in life was probably easier, but being true to inner ambiguities, desires, and weird self-whisperings must have been infinitely harder.

Every night, folks gather at Lodge 1800; most are old-timers, but that is beginning to change. According to Lodge 1800's top officer Ed Suddereth, a flurry of young, new members have joined the Elks Lodge in the past two years. I asked him why people in their 20s and 30s are joining. "I'm really not sure," he said, utterly enthusiastic about the changes. "Young men in their 30s are joining, and bringing their wives, too! I think today, it's harder to find a nice, clean place to go where you can have fun. It may be because people just want to go to a place for socializing and seeing friendly, familiar faces." Suddereth himself is 28.

Fraternal organizations like these, including Rotary, Kiwanis, Moose, and the like, have always been places for men to meet. For those who haven't been exposed to these organizations, they are an aspect of American cultural life that's rather impenetrable and hard to understand. In urban folklore and gossip the clubs are linked to white middle America, drinking, churches, arcane rituals -- and the exclusion of minorities. (All the Elks I spoke with were quick to point out the club's non-discrimination policy, and the fact that there are some minority members at Lodge 1800.) These clubs have a basic mission: to raise money for non-controversial charities (last year, Lodge 1800 donated thousands of dollars to Children's Hospital); aside from that, they're square and innocuous social spots.

One recent Wednesday night, I found a group of Elks gabbing, smoking, and throwing back nightcaps in the Elkhorn Lounge, a cavernous room in the sprawling Elks complex with dark, heavy touches to its decor. The gang consisted of both retired and younger folks, all cheerful, insular, and excited about the lodge's charity work.

A friendly guy named Tony Del Maestro, the lodge's membership chairman, expressed a love thinly bordering on tears; with a red collared T-shirt beneath his ruddy face, he talked about the Elks' college scholarship programs (only children and grandchildren of Elks members are eligible for these) and donations to the D.A.R.E. program. "We've got 1,750 members -- 35 of 'em are women," he said. "Now, I'm an old car man: I had a dealership, so I've dealt with all kinds of young people. The thing is, you've got to make 'em feel at home. You've got to have a bar. You've got to have dances. We've got lots of younger members joining nowadays, and it's great." I asked Del Maestro why he joined the Elks so many years ago. "Well," he said, "a lodge was the only place you could get drinks in those years, because the fraternals had their Class H licenses. Otherwise you had to go to a bottle club. If you had a wife, or a daughter, or a sister, they could join, and they had their own side to go to -- that's the Emblem Club. Elks have grown with the times, though. Now, they allow any U.S. citizen to join. Sometimes, we didn't change fast enough."

I asked him why not, and he smiled with equanimity. "Because it was a male-dominated organization," he said, spreading his hands in explanation. "Yes, it took too long to change." With that, Del Maestro jumped into the minutia of Elk history: "Before we built this lodge in 1965, it was down there where the Rite Aid is, and it was called the Manor, and before that, it was called the Plantation. This has always been called the Friendly Lodge -- we even have a song that goes, "Lake City is the Friendly Lodge....''

As this mad arcana coursed along, the new, younger members smiled and chatted in the bar. I wondered what possessed them to join this lodge, with its time-worn rituals of lapel pins, Laws of Order, crab feeds, awards to local policemen, old barbers, and arcane titles and lingo dating back to old British club traditions (the officers are called "knights"; Suddereth, as top officer, is known as the "Exalted Ruler"). According to one old-timer, prospective members must face a panel of senior members and affirm their patriotism to the United States -- and you must believe in God, or at least say you do.

One younger new member of the lodge, John Fry, told me that, at age 34, he had a very specific reason for joining this group. "I think my generation is filled with malaise," he said. "There just doesn't seem to be a lot of passion about anything. Yes, during Desert Storm, there was an edge and a certain energy on the street... but not now. This place is good because it lets you put some help and energy into the community."

His friend, Jay Jenkins, 33, concurred. "Coming here for me started out as a joke, but now I think it's great. There's a lack of traditions and stuff in society... that this has. And there comes a time when being cool and going out and getting trashed and hungover gets old. You just want something more."

One of the lodge's interior walls is devoted to black-and-white photos of former and long-dead lodge officers -- their faces seem arrested and unsuspecting, in the way of old photographs. To the rear of the building, there's a kitchenette where a bridge club meets every month; there's also a barber shop, and an indoor pool frequented by retirees. The water is kept at 87 degrees, the most bath-like swimming pool in town. Glass walls high above the pool sweat constantly. As with the roof overhang, such features, in the hoary past, certainly denoted elegance and luxury. But the irrevocable scent of stale smoke hangs inside the lodge dining room in the coy, shifting sunlight of a weekday afternoon, and the white-clothed tables and dark-stained podium with its sagging microphone look tired and dated.

This lodge sports big doors and windows through which tradition and The Way Things Were blow in and out continually, but the past tumbles forth faster than the present. Though Fry and Jenkins brought up the truly critical issue of loss of community, ritual and tradition are ballasts that don't necessarily create good community -- and grasping onto them is out of place in the present. I sometimes imagine a future in which the incredible masquerade of gender roles and suppressive groupthink traditions are entirely removed from the landscape. But if this happened, in the midst of all that outrageous freedom, how would we feel about the loss of all the pretty lies? Like now, would we look to the past with the glaucous fondness of nostalgia?

In the bar, a little tight group of women sat at a distance from everyone else; they talked at a long table, nodding, smoking extra long cigarettes, sipping little icy brown drinks. I discovered they were a club deep within the club, a group of silent sisters: the ladies' Emblem Club that Del Maestro had mentioned. Some of them are Elks members' wives; they conduct their own charity projects when they're not helping out the manly Elks. "Almost nobody from the outside" knows about this group, said Emblem Club President Lorrie Van Spoor, wife of an Elks member.

"Time was, women couldn't go to the Elks meetings at all, so we had to make our own place," said Delores Callahan, another Emblem Club member, active since 1971. "That might've been in the 1950s. But we've always been here to support what the Elks do," she added timorously.

Van Spoor squinted, smoking, then listed some of the Emblem Club's activities: "Every November we have a memorial service for our deceased sisters. Of course we raise money for charity. We help the Elks whenever we're needed. We have an officers' meeting every month. Of course, we have a ritualistic form of opening and closing the meetings -- we have a chaplain and an organist. We wear white, long formals and gloves for our meetings... I suppose the younger gals don't really appreciate that."

I asked what the white ball gowns were for.

"It has meaning," Van Spoor said heavily, as if stating that there is meaning creates meaning. "It was the way the Emblem Club started."

Callahan added that, besides raising money for charity, "Mostly, it's fun to talk. Emblem is a sort of salvation for widows, too, you know," she said quietly. "It gives them a place to go. In fact," she said, lowering her voice, "a widow came in last night! Her name is Linda, and she just marched herself right in here and made a lotta friends." The woman sat back in her chair, satisfied with her tale.