Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Two Bits

I just got my first professional shave yesterday, and I've still got a bit of a high from it. I'm working on a story on professional shaves for Cargo (read it here) and my editor sent me to The Art of Shaving for the Royal Treatment. This is so why I became a journalist.

I walked into their little salon on Madison and 45th and was escorted to the back, where Leda, a robust Russian woman of about 30, proceeded to wrap my face with a steaming hot towel, leaving only my nostrils exposed. It was incredibly soothing, but as something of a mouth-breather, I found myself taking shallow breaths.

After a minute or so, the towel was removed and Leda applied a pre-shave treatment with mint and essential oils that really perked my skin up. With my eyes were closed, I could only hear the whir of the shaving cream warmer as it heated up the lather. Next thing I knew, it felt like someone was tucking my face into a warm, fluffy blanket (Note to self: Buy a shaving cream warmer ASAP). I could have stayed like that all afternoon, but it was time for the actual shave.

The idea of having a straight razor inches from your juguluar keeps most guys pretty loyal to their Mach 3. But Leda was so graceful, I instantly felt at ease. There was not a single nick or scratch--nothing even close! I can't even manage that when I shave in the shower. She shaved me once going with the grain (the direction your hair grows) and once against it. I had heard it was bad to shave against the grain, but I think I'm going to incorporate her method into my usual routine. In fact, the best thing about the shave (besides the euphoric buzz I walked out the door with) was that I learned a number of things I can use when I shave at home. I'm definitely doing the hot towel thing--Leda said you can heat it up in the microwave, so that its warm but not sopping wet.

My only complaint (and its a minor one) is that Leda and the other barber, an older man in his 60s, kept kibbitzing in Russian. Now, my Russian is limited to "how are you" and "I don't speak Russian," but you dont have to know a language to understand someone's intentions. Leda and this guy were totally bitching about work. I don't think they were talking about me ( I was the perfect customer, after all), but they would make quick, sarcastic comments as other customers came and went. It took away from my feeling of relaxation a bit, but maybe I was just being paranoid.

Still, I can't recommend getting a professional shave enough. If Art of Shaving is out of your price range (with tip, the Royal Treatment cost $65), many old-school barbershops offer them for much more reasonable rates. Its a great present to yourself or the man in your life.

<-- Me with my new baby-smooth punim.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Girl Afraid

British author Sue Limb tackles the perils of being a teenage girl.

Adolescence is a challenge no matter which side of the Atlantic you're raised on, but for British teen Jess Jordan—the protagonist of Girl Nearly 16: Absolute Torture—the summer before her sweet sixteen is a veritable disaster. Not only is she trapped on a tedious road trip with her mum and grandmother, but she's miles away from her secret boyfriend Fred with only a dying cell-phone and her nagging insecurities to keep her company. The drama only deepens when Jess, whose parents split when she was little, discovers her dad has a secret boyfriend of his own. The follow-up to UK author Sue Limb's teen lit sensation Girl 15, Charming But Insane, Absolute Torture deftly handles adult themes like sexuality, family dysfunction and even death, while still channeling that mad rush of emotions that comes with being a teenager.

"I wanted to write something sophisticated," Limb says from her home in the south of England, "because I think teenagers are quite more sophisticated than people give them credit for. Your passions are so extreme. Your brain is so fresh and new." As Jess juggles various relationships and personal crises—including the possibility that Fred is cheating on her with her best friend—keen readers will detect a hint of Jane Austen with a Judy Blume sensibility. "And a bit of Shakespeare, as well," the author admits with a modest laugh.

Limb says while Absolute Torture is fiction, she drew on life experiences to help craft her characters. "[Jess] is a bit like my daughter Betsy, who was 17 at the time I wrote the book," Limb explains. "I liked the idea of a girl who was outgoing but insecure. Jess is not gorgeous, but she bewitches people with her wit." Though Limb did have a friend who got divorced and came out of the closet, she says it was a different sort of relationship that inspired the character of Jess' father. "My godmother was gay, though it was never discussed with my parents--even when I was older," says Limb, who saw her as something of a role model. "She was more prosperous and free. She and her girlfriend had all kinds of adventures and traveled the world."

If Absolute Torture were written in the States, we might expect protests against the gay-inclusive book from right-wing "family" groups, but Limb says there's been "no negative feedback" to the book's initial release in Britain. (It was picked up by Random House's Delacorte Press imprint last fall). "We don’t really have the assertive kind of fundamentalist groups that you do in the States. Liberal values are fairly de rigueur."

Even more surprising than British audiences' reaction to the gay character is the reaction of Jess herself. She's tickled, well, pink. "It's brilliant! It's so cool!" she tells her dad. "Wait till I tell all my friends! They'll be so jealous!" While such a positive outlook might be a bit optimistic even in an enlightened England, Limb wanted to send a message of support to queer youth and children of gay parents. "I try to avoid being heavy-handed, but ultimately it's important to show positive role models," she says. "I wanted people who don’t know gay households to see that it's not a problem."

Friday, January 06, 2006

Brokeback Marlboro

Monday, January 02, 2006

Out with the Old

So, despite months of will-he/won't he, Dick Clark made his annual appearance on ABC's Rockin' New Year's Eve celebration Saturday night. I was out partying, but caught a snippet of his appearance on video today. He was clearly still recovering from his stroke, and his speech and appearance were not what we've come to expect from "America's oldest teenager."

I'm kind of torn on the whole issue of whether he should have gone on the air. On the one hand, he's a living institution and just because he's unwell doesnt mean he should be banished to Siberia. On the other hand, New Year's is a light-hearted night of drunken revelry--I dont know if someone suffering from a stroke is a good choice for an emcee. It's not audiences job to pity a host; its the host's job to entertain audiences and keep them in good spirits. Is that lookist and agist? Yes, but so is everything else in our society.

I think my and a lot of people's real problem was with the way the media (and our culture in general) treats infirmity. We dont allow our celebrities to show anything but their plucked, airbrushed and fake-tanned best. Ironically, Melissa Etheredge probably showed more bravery appearing bald from chemo on the red carpet than she did coming out as a lesbian.

Maybe instead of sequestering Clark since 2004 and sending out press releases about how he was back in peak form (what is he, a Soviet premier?). they could've said, "Look, having a stroke is tough but Dick is commited to being there for New Years." For me, it was the jarring contrast between the way Clark is always portrayed and the way he appeared that was so unsettling. How about a little honesty? "Hey, you know what? I feel like crap, but this is a party, so we're gonna party!"

As for Clark's "courage" in appearing on New Year's, I think thats a little misleading. More likely he wanted to preserve his legacy and keep the Dick Clark brand-name pristene. I dont know if that's ego or just thinking about posterity, but there you have it.

Making Amber Waves

A Park Slope beer aficionado spreads the gospel of the brew.

Most of us were introduced to beer as a means to get drunk. Even with the emergence of high-quality microbrews, many still view the amber elixir as a mere social lubricant. Not so Richard Scholz, whose Park Slope beer and gourmet food store Bierkraft is a mainstay along Fifth Avenue's restaurant row. To Scholz, beer is not just a drink, it's a lifestyle.

"I've always been into good beer," says Scholz, a sturdy-looking man in his mid-50s. "Well, not always good—I worked at the Rheingold warehouse in New Jersey for a few summers in college." His duties, though, were somewhat less than glamorous. "There were only two or three guys in charge of the actual brewing. The rest of us just did the hundreds of the other things you need to do to keep thing in order—checking gauges, sweeping floors, setting traps."

After getting into home-brewing in the 1990s, the Brooklyn native and former mortgage broker decided to make his hobby a full-time vocation. Opened in November 2001, Bierkraft stocks almost 700 different varieties of beer from the far corners of the globe—everything from Ethiopian Bedele pilsner to Japan's Hitachino Red Rice Ale—arranged geographically in the refrigerated cases that line the store's long narrow walls. (Belgium is the best represented internationally, with more than 150 different beers in stock).

American microbrews—more than 200 of them—make up a sizeable chunk of Bierkraft's inventory and include such varieties as Louisiana's Abita Turbo Dog, He'brew, the Chosen Beer, and Portland, Oregon's Orange Blossom Cream Ale, made with honey, orange peel and flower essence. Scholz even carries the ultra-rare and ultra-potent Sam Adams Utopias MMII (24% alcohol by volume, as opposed to the more typical 4.75%), but that's more for bragging rights than anything else.

What really sets Bierkraft apart is how Scholz works to, as he explains it, "bring beer into the gourmet consciousness." His wife Daphne, a former specialty food buyer for Bloomingdales, stocks the shelves with a wide range of gourmet delicacies, including sweet potato gnocchi, artisanal chocolates by Eric Girerd, and white Boquerone anchovies from Spain. The cheese offerings, which include farmer's gouda and beer-bathed Hooligan cows’ milk cheese, rival anything you'd find at Murray's or Fairway. "Originally, Rich's idea was to focus on beer and have maybe just a few snacks," says Mrs. Scholz from behind the deli counter. "But I said, 'If I'm going to support this, I want this to be a full service market.'" The idea was to elevate beer's profile; to make it an end unto itself. Judging from the crowded aisles, it's been a successful approach. "Beer is so versatile—much more so than wine. People ask me all the time which beer goes with what meat or what cheese," she explains.

With only his wife and a few knowledgeable assistants to run the busy emporium, Scholz has little time to himself, giving him a manner that's not so much gruff as it is terse. Even on a rainy Saturday morning, after all, there are always more cases to open, more pots to stir, shipments to sign and customers to advise. The one time he slows down is when he discusses the months leading up to Bierkraft's opening—when he left his job at Cantor Fitzgerald, the World Trade Center-based brokerage house that was devastated in the 9/11 attacks. "I left in July of 2001 after being there for more than fifteen years. If I had delayed my plans by just a few month—which my wife and I seriously considered—I probably wouldn't be here today."

With Bierkraft firmly entrenched in Park Slope and Williamsburg's Brooklyn Brewery gaining a natural reputation, one has to wonder what it is about the borough that has made it such a mecca for the sudsy libation. "Brooklyn has always had its place in the history of beer-making," says Scholz, citing the old Schaeffer and Rheingold plants. "It's on the water, so it made shipping easier, and many of the early German immigrants brought their beer-making traditions across the Atlantic."

Park Slope was a natural choice for the store's location. In addition to being the Scholzs' home turf, the neighborhood has seen a tremendous surge in upscale real estate and restaurants along Fifth Avenue. But gentrification can have its drawbacks. "There have been about a half-dozen or so competitors since we opened," Mr. Scholz says, citing nearby gourmet markets like Blue Apron and Fresh Fields, just two blocks away. "But they don’t understand the business and they don’t have the knowledge or experience. Everyone here can tell you about every bottle we sell."

Ask Mr. Scholz to name some of the store's most popular brands, though, and he comes up short. "It really runs the gamut—we have folks who come in and get the same thing every time and others who always try something new." Many customers are attracted by the fact that Bierkraft's brews are available as single bottles or six-packs, so they can afford to be adventurous. Others have attended the popular Tuesday night blind tastings, featuring a speaker followed by samplings of beers and complimentary cheeses. A charity microfest in September, with representatives from six microbrews pour out samples, drew over a hundred attendees.

Free samples and gourmet cheeses aside, the main reason beer connoisseurs flock to Bierkraft is Scholz's dedication. After a customer with a serious wheat allergy inquired about gluten-free beer, Scholz did some investigation and discovered Bard's Tale, an all-natural brew made with malted sorghum. He began stocking small shipments, which he said quickly flew off the shelves. "We'd order larger batches but the demand kept rising." When the company's distribution system fell apart, Scholz became the beer's main distributor in North America.

Of course, Bierkraft customers are every bit as loyal as the store's proprietor. One Sunday morning last year, when Scholz came to unlock the store, he was greeted by a carload of college students who had driven all the way from Montreal to see the store and buy some beer. "I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the mail order business," says Scholz. "But I think for them it was more of a pilgrimage than a beer run."