Nick & Choose 40: Helicopter Tour

Published Oct. 5, 2011

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Suspended Disbelief
Boston, from a bird’s-eye view

In 1986, my family went on a vacation to Hawaii. Thumbing through the photo album, it’s clear we had adventures, but I remember little beyond the helicopter ride. It had everything a seven-year-old could ask for: classical music pumped into ill-fitting headphones, exciting views blocked by my father’s towering frame, a nauseated sister turning green in the adjacent seat. It’s not my fondest memory, but the adrenalized atmosphere did make an impression. Now whenever I hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” obstructed snapshots of majestic waterfalls and volcanoes hover up in my mind.

Brothers Christian and Matthew Nowosiadly have brought that experience to Boston. The two software businessmen happen to be aviation geeks (the back of Matthew’s SUV is crammed with RC airplanes), and it’s their belief that a helicopter tour is what’s needed to propel our city into the stratosphere of the elites, joining such heavenly destinations as Indianapolis, Des Moines and that arbiter of class, Branson, Mo.

Currently, the Nowosiadly’s infrastructure is humbler then their sky-high ambition. Stationed between a tool shop and a dog kennel in Revere, the helipad for Now City Tours, Inc., is a sun-cracked patch of asphalt left over from an abandoned oil rig project. Inside a square of chain-link sits their office, which consists of a folding table under a small collapsible canopy tent (the kind used for bake sales and industrious tailgates). Outside the fence stands a smattering of dry-docked boats, including a shabby Grady-White named “Master Baiter.” Matthew jokingly refers to the motif as “rustic New England.”

The swampland and gaping gray quarry of Revere look pretty rustic from the air, too, but what you’re reminded of when the helicopter begins to levitate is that your perspective on a subject always depends on your angle.

Now City Tours offers three different routes: Skyline, North Shore and South Shore ($99-$124.50). Routes are set but flexible, the paths bending on the whims of the Federal Aviation Administration. I had hoped to get a bird’s-eye view of my apartment, but an ocean tanker in Boston Harbor nullified a flyover of the North End. “We can’t get over there unless we want some F16s coming after us,” said Matthew. Down the barrel of a Gatling cannon was not the angle I was aiming for.

The beauty of the helicopter tour is that it provides you with the real-life views you could previously only imagine. It’s akin to dreaming about flying like Superman, at the cost of relinquishing his control, agility and ability to buzz the Zakim Bridge without having to check in with the control tower.

In reality, the copter’s glass bubble becomes the world’s best window seat. As the Robinson R44 curves around Fenway at 120 mph, you see the park as a skydiver floating in for the first pitch. Snaking along the Charles at 500 feet you’re a bird, and the rowers beneath are water-skimming snacks. Every day thousands of pedestrians see their reflection in the Hancock Tower windows, but waving to your image mirrored on the 50th floor is a singular experience.

Like a superhero dream, the ride is cut off too quick. Even with a swing up the South Shore, the trip lasts just over 30 minutes. Is it a tour worth taking? Absolutely. Is it worth $3-$4 per minute? That’s trickier to answer.

A city tour implies some educational element, but the descriptions are basic. Native Bostonians aren’t going to learn much beyond what the tops of certain landmarks look like. Vacationers are the key (which is why Now City Tours has wisely established a relationship with the Lenox Hotel).

If a friend from out of town has some scratch and an itch to take a tour that doesn’t require quacking, Now City Tours would be a viable choice. There are other operations, but the airfields are farther away, and the prices are higher. Maybe your friend will spot you the cost of a seat in exchange for your expertise.

Now City is convenient, just down the road from the Wonderland T station, and the ability to make Lynn look like an affluent seaside hamlet is a kind of magic. It’s a different city seen from the sky. We’re much smaller than we sometimes like to admit, but a new altitude can reshape your attitude.

Nick & Choose 39: Hubway

Published Sept. 7, 2011

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The Wheel Deal
Giving Hubway a spin

Often the most stressful part of the workday is just getting to the office. The noise, the congestion, the sea of bitter faces. A friend’s therapist recognized that her commute was compounding her anxiety. So she recommended my friend get off her bike and start squeezing onto the T.

For years, Boston was ranked as one of the worst cities in the world for biking. But in 2007, noted cycling enthusiast/mayor Thomas Menino launched an initiative to reverse this reputation. The biggest step has been the implementation of Hubway, a near six million-dollar bike-sharing program that debuted in July.

There are now 600 bicycles stationed at 61 kiosks, stretching from the North End to Allston. For prices ranging from $5 a day to $85 a year, the bikes provide an intriguing alternative to cabs and public transportation. (Key addendum: That price remains at its base as long as you return your bike every 30 minutes. An hour ride would cost a casual user an additional $6, and from there prices can escalate into the prohibitively expensive.)

On the surface, the program is fun, green and healthful, the commuting equivalent of forgoing a steak for a salad. In practice, the program can be disappointing, like forgoing a steak for a salad.

Boston is notoriously difficult to navigate by car (and, because it follows the same basic rules, by bicycle). My commute takes about 35 minutes if I walk, 25 if I take the T and 20 with Hubway. In my first rush-hour ride, I had more scares and broke more laws then I thought I could squeeze into a 15-minute window.

I went the wrong way down one-way streets. A valet almost clocked me with a car door. I rode on sidewalks and ran red lights—although I don’t feel so bad about these last two. (Sidewalk riding is only illegal in “business districts,” and the state has yet to define what that actually means for cyclists, while getting a head start at a red light is apparently the bicycle version of jaywalking.)

Part of my performance can be blamed on inexperience, and I’ve gotten better. What worries me is the riders I’ve seen who are much worse. Drunk kids biking the wrong way down Cambridge Street at night. A woman struggling to pedal ahead of a wailing ambulance.

There’ll be growing pains in a city adjusting to a new system. The problem is many of these riders aren’t wearing helmets.

Hubway is already popular. Since July 28, there have been more than 42,000 rides. Cities of comparable size with their own bike-sharing programs, like Denver and Minneapolis, have taken months to reach that number. But according to city statistics, 28 percent of riders aren’t wearing a helmet. That’s about 12,000 helmetless Hubway trips in just over a month.

The good news: Hubway makes it comically easy to purchase a helmet. They have street teams and local stores selling them for $8. They’ll even mail you one. Only someone who’s already suffered brain trauma could avoid owning a helmet.

MassBike executive director David Watson recognizes the influx of new riders. The number of cyclists has quadrupled in the last three years, and according to Watson, “There’s definitely a learning curve.” MassBike has begun offering free one-hour classes to Hubway users, and Watson cites studies showing that getting more bikes out on the road actually makes cycling safer. Says Watson, “Everyone has to become aware, so it essentially forces the issue.”

Many more bikes are coming. In the next few years, the city envisions adding more than 4,000 additional bikes and 200 kiosks, with Hubway’s reach extending into Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville. Thankfully, the infrastructure is changing, too. Says urban planner and Boston “bike czar” Nicole Freedman, “Would I expect someone like my grandmother to be biking across the city now? No. But five years from now, will the infrastructure work for someone like my grandmother? Probably, yeah.” Recently, more than 38 miles of bike lanes have been added, with lanes coming soon to the Greenway and Mass. Ave.

I’ve yet to find Hubway’s place in my life. Walking’s just as good for my health, and it saves me from biking’s minor heart attacks. But I have a dear friend (who owns a much better TV than I do). Getting to his place for football games is a huge pain by any way other than taxi. This fall, cycling could merge cohesively and cost-effectively with my sloth, and that’s when I’ll know if we have a system that works.

Nick & Choose 38: Food Challenge

Published July 27, 2011

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Glutton, Punished
Nick triple-dog dares you to beat his record.

Food challenges hold a peculiar allure. Events like the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest or shows like Man v. Food have earned real followings, and as they require physical exertion and stamina, parallels can be made to traditional sport. But perhaps the biggest difference, among many, is that sports can inspire the onlooker. A child watches David Ortiz smash a homer and vows to become a ballplayer. No one watches a man ingurgitate a wheelbarrow full of pulled pork and thinks, one day, that’s going to be me.

Yet there I was, staring at the Tasty Burger Challenge. On the menu, it reads like a provocation: three half-pound hot dogs topped with a split cheeseburger, chili, cheese sauce and bacon, served on a sub roll. Thinking of it as a schoolyard dare may be the key to understanding why someone would choose to pack their esophagus like a musket. If someone calls you a chicken, sometimes the only proper recourse is to eat a family-size bucket of extra-crispy.

Knowing I’d need help, I turned to Belmont native and competitive eater Crazy Legs Conti. The record holder in such prestigious categories as beef brisket and Twinkies, Conti told me to eat the toppings first in order to save my strength for the frankfurter Cerberus. But what about chugging water beforehand to stretch my stomach? “Don’t chug anything except mental awesomeness,” said my seasoned guide. “Maybe listen to some pump-up music. Something good, like Air Supply or early Menudo.”

Of course, I’d need a partner, someone to share in the pain and potential glory. Thankfully, I know many men with voracious appetites. Barrel-chested heroes who can destroy a hoagie, sub or grinder without pausing to belch. Regretfully, they were all out of town.

So on the big day, I arrived at Tasty Burger with my girlfriend, Susan, a compact young blonde annoyed at not having been considered my first option. I’d paid for my gaffe with a barrage of trash talk, but once we learned that no woman has ever completed the challenge, we came to an understanding. We would support each other through this test, and I would witness her smashing chili-covered meat into her face and still find her attractive.

Contenders have one hour to complete the challenge. Once the timer begins, things progress in a gaseous haze, but these are moments of clarity I’ve been able to scrape together.

HOT DOG #1: As tracks from the Rocky IV soundtrack hit your ears (part of chef Greg Weinstock’s special challenge mix), your mind begins to open to the notion of beating Matthew Hummel’s record of 17 minutes, 31 seconds. Your empty stomach is already on board. And, initially, your tongue raises no protest. When you’re facing 4.5 pounds of food, flavor is a vital factor, and Tasty Burger delivers. First one down in eight minutes.

HOT DOG #2: Crazy Legs’ advice helped my speed, but his plan was abandoned out of necessity halfway through round two. The frank’s flavor, at first meaty, turns salty, then altogether noxious. Chili, bread, lashings of hot sauce, they were all mixed in to cloak the flavor. Second down in 17 minutes.

HOT DOG #3: Susan hit a food wall. Sitting by the corpses of her massacred wieners, I entered a horrible fever-dream. Paying for my sinful gluttony, the last devil dog seemed to extend into infinity. Swallowing turned to choking down, and with each bite, Satan taunted me with the forcemeat’s tumescence. Gathering my strength, I knew that, like Orpheus and Eurydice in their jaunt through the underworld, Susan and I would make it through together as long as I didn’t look back. Finished in 58 minutes, four seconds.

Your body has a lot of questions after a victorious food challenge. The most pressing is, “When can I throw up?” The calorie count is of course a morbid curiosity, but it’s the salt that gets you. Just one hot dog holds about 1,800 milligrams of sodium. I wasn’t hungry for two days after, but I’ve never been thirstier.

It’s achieving this kind of hideous benchmark that makes the experience worthwhile. I’m only the fifth person to complete the Tasty Burger Challenge, and that does give me some level of pride. More importantly, I know that, should my heart pop now or I live the extra 60 years I have planned, I will never eat a bigger, unhealthier meal. I extended myself and found one of my life’s boundaries. It’s not a first kiss or a graduation, but it’s a place I’ve seen and can now never return to, and I’m richer, and slightly fatter, for the experience.

Nick & Choose 37: Tourists

Published June 22, 2011

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The Tourist Trap
Local history shouldn’t be wasted on visitors.

City dwellers have a love-hate relationship with tourists. The two key positives are:
A) Their presence reassures urbanites that they live in a place so cool that other people choose to vacation there, and;
B) Tourists spend lots of money.

The negatives include sidewalk-clogging, undertipping and a manner of dress that makes East Coast elites feel even more superior. Of course, a resident’s biggest fear is to be seen as a tourist, effectively being branded as an outsider. The Dutch used to drape unfaithful women with snakes and parade them through the streets of Amsterdam. That’s probably what it’s like being caught taking a trolley tour.

Fear and shame mean that many Bostonians’ knowledge of their heritage ends with foggy memories of high school history class. But an out-of-town guest is an opportunity for a refresher course. My girlfriend had visitors, a newly married Texan couple, so for two days we whirled through the city. I’d say I went through the gauntlet so you don’t have to, but, at some point, you should. Just don’t start at Cheers.

“You should have no inherent reason to go here,” said the confused husband, watching young foreigners snap photos by the bar’s entrance. Cheers went off the air 18 years ago, so I couldn’t actually explain the appeal of Sam Malone bobbleheads or headshots of a sassy Shelley Long. I doubt WKRP in Cincinnati is flooded with sightseers. Perhaps the crowds are drawn by the enduring sex appeal of Kirstie Alley.

Tougher explanations continued across the street, though I bet most conversations about the Swan Boats go this way:

Husband: So you don’t go anywhere?
Me: Nope.
Husband: And you don’t row or paddle or anything?
Me: No, only the dude in the back.
Husband: Poor bastard.

Once we hit the Freedom Trail, things got more educational. We visited the final resting places of Samuel Adams and Mother Goose at the Granary Burying Ground, or, as I had previously known it, that creepy graveyard by the Beantown Pub.

Down the block sits the Omni Parker House Hotel, home of the three most interesting pieces of Boston trivia that I know, and that I repeat at every opportunity: Malcolm X was a bellman there, Ho Chi Minh was a baker, and it’s the birthplace of Boston Cream Pie. We stopped in for a taste in a gift shop full of “Pahk the Cah in Hahvad Yahd” T-shirts. I learned that I prefer the Dunkin’ Donuts version, which I think actually makes me a more authentic local.

The search for trivia continued after a brief stop at what our guests referred to as “Nathaniel Hall.” There’s not a whole lot to grab your attention—they have Gaps in Houston—but we did see two separate buskers playing pan flutes, which provided a haunting soundtrack for our walk to the Union Oyster House.

Over pints of local beer, we learned that the restaurant played host to the first recorded use of the toothpick. King-to-be Louis Phillipe lived upstairs tutoring, and probably bedding, the neighborhood girls. Heady stuff.

From there we hit the North End, passing my least favorite attraction, Paul Revere’s house—he lived there for seven years; it’s like visiting where John Hancock bought his quills—and stopping at my favorite, the Old North Church. They say the crypt is stacked with dead redcoats. As a neighbor who believes in ghosts, that’s frightening to hear.

The quintessential capper was the Duck Tour. Aboard “Tub of the Hub,” we learned about the official children’s book of the Commonwealth (Make Way for Ducklings) and its official stone (Roxbury pudding). And, driving past Copley Square, we saw another pan flutist. Said the husband, “Maybe it’s the official music of the Commonwealth.”

I’ve visited lots of cities in my time and retained very little information. But after our weekend tour, my daily commute is enriched. In the Back Bay, I’m now reminded of Zabdiel Boylston, who fought smallpox. When I pass Gilbert Stuart’s gravestone on the Common, I know that he painted the portrait on the dollar bill, and is surrounded by dead British soldiers (they’re everywhere, it’s terrifying). Like youth wasted on the young, local history is often wasted on Midwesterners. I’m not saying you wait in line for an hour for a cannoli from Mike’s Pastry, but it might not hurt to brush up on the Battle of Bunker Hill. At the very least, you’ll have an alternative should your old college roommate want to sit on Norm’s barstool.

Nick & Choose 36: Mustache

Published May 25, 2011

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The beard is for the solitary man. The look is tough and rugged, worn by men of the earth—the lumberjack, the sailor. Yet the beard is a mask. The beard is for the guarded, the quiet. The beard is a shield. It’s a cowboy hat turned low over the eyes. It’s Jack Nicholson’s sunglasses. A man’s beard asks a stranger to notice his appearance, and to please quash any urge to strike up a conversation. The more isolated the man, the longer the thicket: a monk’s whiskers impress, a hermit’s beard is nonpareil. But the beard is good company, a faithful pet to scratch. I’ve grown a few in my day, and each time I raise the clippers to shear my face, I feel I’m about to harm something innocent.

My winter beard had overstayed its welcome, and my girlfriend, Susan, had started making subtle hints that it was time to shave. I’m good at ducking subtle hints, but once it became a birthday request, I relented. A lover of fools, she asked that I keep a mustache for her party. Out of curiosity and revenge, I left it on my face for more than a week.

For both our sakes, I avoided the tired pedophile jokes and went with the horseshoe mustache, a favorite of bikers and Sam Elliott. Unlike the beard, which can act as a social cattle-catcher, I found a mustache invites friends to openly comment on your appearance. “Very Dukes of Hazzard,” said one pal. “You look like you’re about to do something indecent,” said another. The general consensus after an hour or a beer, was that the look succeeded.

Counterinuitively, silence was agony. Around strangers, at the gym or on the street, people can just assume you’ve lost a bet or happen to be a big Freddie Mercury fan. It takes a brave man to flaunt an assertive mustache.

But while beards are for loners, donning a mustache initiates you into a brotherhood. On day two of my experiment, Susan and I shared a table at a snazzy restaurant, my furry horseshoe announcing its presence among the suits and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In a brief, beautiful moment, I locked eyes with a waiter clearing dishes. Beneath his nose grew a majestic handlebar fit for a vaudeville star. We froze, then shared a quick nod of mutual admiration. “That was so strange,” said Susan. “It’s like you’re in a club.”

The following day we stopped for pizza. The cashier, sporting a mangy slug of hair on his lip, charged Susan $2.50 for her slice. He then pointed at my face and declared, “His is free.”

This sort of support is lovely, but in pensive moments I would reach for my chin, forgetting I’d lost the comfort of stroking my beard. In desperation, I’d twist the wispy ends of my horseshoe, like an adolescent fondling the tattered rags of a treasured security blanket.

There are rough moments with a temporary ‘stache: the sideways glances, the coworker who plainly states, “I hate your face.” And there is the nightmare scenario I created by carrying a six-pack of cheap beer, a powder keg ignited by one slanderous spark: “You look like such a hipster.” From there the shots kept falling. “How’s that all going to fit on your bike?” “Yeah, go back to Jamaica Plain.” I ran from the room suffering the type of anguish only Morrissey could understand.

Life with a mustache is an odd experience, as the world reacts to a patch of hair you tend to overlook. It’s like walking down the street with your fly down. Your friends will tell you truth, but strangers may get uncomfortable.

On my mustache’s last night, I put it to a final test. Turning to two women in a bar, I asked, “Does this look work?”

“No,” said one.

“Yes,” said the other, and both walked away wearing equal looks of disgust.

Dejected, I spun back toward the bar to find a fresh shot of whiskey. “What’s this for?” I asked my friend.

“It’s not from me, it’s from him,” he responded.

“From behind the taps, the bartender motioned to his mustache and bobbed his head in approval.

Cheers to the gallant mustachioed. Maybe one day I’ll rejoin the ranks.

Nick & Choose 35: Martini Lunches

Published April 27, 2011

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Wasted Efforts
How to be intoxicated, on the clock

Lunchtime in the Financial District. I’ve got a meeting with an important source. I show up early, place an order and wait. He slinks in, shakes off the rain and darts his head both ways, like he’s about to dash across the Central Artery. “I want to make sure there’s no one here I know,” he says, peering down at the notebook to my left, and the martini to my right.

A few days earlier, I was slumped on a couch at the Four Seasons, trying to enjoy my first martini lunch. As usual, my timing was off. It was 1:30 pm on a Friday, and my visions of smarmy masters of the universe abusing expense accounts had materialized as a roundtable of young mothers. Highballs and cigars had been replaced by a fleet of $600 strollers and a couple of put-upon nannies.

With the resurgence of craft cocktails and the popularity of Mad Men, the allure of the three-martini lunch has grown. Imagine a world where a Manhattan and a nap is good business, not grounds for dismissal. Its disappearance is often blamed on Jimmy Carter, who condemned the practice during his 1976 presidential campaign. Carter has always been known as a bit of buzzkill. His opponent, Gerald Ford, called the three-martini lunch “the epitome of American efficiency.” Ford was known to fall down a lot.

Looking for expert advice, I turned to Improper contributor John Spooner, who’s worked in the Boston financial scene for decades. “It’s like being in training,” he said. “If your body gets used to it, you learn how to handle it.” In the gin-soaked ’60s, he explains, everyone went out for lunch, “and I used to think that if I had a drink, I’d dare to get on the phone and pitch, whereas before, I wouldn’t.” Today, with the speed of business increasing and downtime dropping, Spooner says 98 percent of his coworkers eat at their desk, the lack of social lubricant leading to an office life both “less civil and less civilized.”

Case in point: my lunchtime source’s Blackberry perched next to my martini. We were at Brandy Pete’s, a bar that opened at the end of Prohibition and in which the lunchtime drink special is now a “skinny” margarita. As we sat among suits slurping iced teas, my source—in his 20s and representing the newest generation of Boston finance—explained why the three-martini meal is dead (or at least restricted to Europe). There’s the financial liability. There’s intense competition. Then, of course, there’s perception. It’s not that people don’t indulge, they just save it for dinner, as “someone who drank at lunch could have a problem.” I asked the waitress to chase my martini with a pint. “That’s a much more common order,” she said with a coy smile.

“I think she admires my bravado,” I said.

“Yeah, she probably also thinks you have no job,” replied my source.

The following day I returned to the Four Seasons, and as I waited for another friend in finance and watched Toyota execs sip ice water, I knew it was time to kick off the training wheels. The Bristol Lounge had designed a new cocktail menu, and we were going to wade our way through. As inebriation took hold between rounds of tasty tangerine sidecars and something called “Pork Chops & Apple Sauce,” I determined that our changing cocktail culture is just as much to blame for the demise of the martini lunch as our evolving business practices. Things are bigger and faster now, arguably better. But Don Draper could drop a project in the mail and knock off early. Savoring the simple pleasures, his celebratory apertif would be free of yogurt. There’s a dignified afternoon tipple, and then there’s bacon bourbon.

Regardless of the vehicle, I found alcohol slightly improved my focus upon my return to the office. It was mostly out of guilt, as I figured I was already drunk, so I shouldn’t try to get away with slacking, too. My drinking partner reported that she multitasked her way through the afternoon. Of course, all plans for the gym were scrapped and replaced with more drinking, so, between the martinis and the Chesterfields, it’s not hard to see how previous generations amassed so much cognitive heart failure. It’s a difficult pace to maintain.

The following day I conducted an interview at Eastern Standard. I had something dry with a twist. She drank something dark and bitter. Leaving after a single, satisfying drink, I thought I’d alchemized the formula for happy productivity. Then I forgot my notebook on the bar, never to be seen again.

Nick & Choose 34: Burgers

Published March 30, 2011

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Cattle Call
The hamburger enters its prime.

In the 1940s, a casual California eatery with a yellow-and-red color scheme began serving cheap burgers to an eager public. With booming success came expansion and a wave of copycats looking to cash in on the model.

Of course I speak of In-N-Out Burger, the chain that’s captured the hearts and stomachs of both chefs and the foodies who love them. Trying to find the key to its appeal, I asked my Facebook friends for their opinion—and subsequently received more comments in less time than anything I’ve ever posted, including links to my own work. (I in no way found that insulting.) As a coworker later put it, “Imagine if you went to a McDonald’s and it was really clean, and people knew their shit.” Loyalists cite the secret menu, which offers the allure of the esoteric, or the dedication to freshness. In fact, In-N-Out policy requires all new restaurants to be within 500 miles of a distribution center, which is why our area currently lacks an outpost.

But we do have Four Burgers. And Flat Patties. And b.good, and 5 Guys, and Boston Burger Company and other establishments capitalizing on the burger-culture cachet. Each offers a look into why the model is thriving, and why we can expect more iterations.

Uburger is a local chain with three locations in the city. Like In-N-Out, it offers a West Coast-style, flat patty burger made from fresh beef ground daily. And like its forebear, everything on the menu is ordained as free of fillers, additives and preservatives. Owned by Christians, all In-N-Out items arrive with Bible verses, but both companies seem to operate on the principle that eating of the sacred cow is some kind of cleansing act. However, digging into a plain hamburger (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, house spread) wasn’t a revelatory experience. The burger ($4.25) looks pristine, like the photographic lies used in Burger King adverts, but the product doesn’t taste much different than a Whopper. The one distinguishing factor, the house spread, was dolloped in a nearly undetectable amount, but I assume it represents one of the atolls on the Thousand Island archipelago.

While UBurger illustrates the profitable benefits of fast and cheap, other chains appeal to gourmand sensibilities. The hamburger has recently become an object of playful worship for chefs and restaurateurs. Icon Thomas Keller celebrated the anniversary of the French Laundry with In-N-Out. Says Beau Sturm, co-owner of Somerville’s Trina’s Starlite Lounge, “It’s the benchmark for what everyone’s doing,” adding that their house burger is “absolutely ripping off the In-N-Out product.”

Predictably, the hamburger craze struck years ago in New York, with restaurateur Danny Meyer creating an empire of Shake Shacks, and chefs like Daniel Boulud preparing burgers with price tags reading like traffic tickets. Last year, Boston heard rumors of a Shake Shack hitting the Common and witnessed the coming out of its own hamburger aristocracy (Back Bay Social Club’s $21 burger comes to mind).

Into that fold comes 5 Napkin, expanding from three locations in Manhattan with a new spot on Huntington Ave. “We’re not just a burger place,” co-owner Andy D’Amico says. “It’s a concept and a restaurant.” Appropriate, as takeout is geared to the corporate crowd. More stylized than the flip-and-fry flat patties, 5 Napkin’s versions are 10-ounce pucks cooked to temperature. What’s sacrificed in speed is made up for in juiciness, with giant dripping hamburgers ($8.95) requiring a serpentine mandible technique. Conscientious suits may opt for a sixth napkin to tuck under their collars.

After cheap and hedonistic comes the last piece in the procedural: hip. Tasty Burger, by Fenway, embodies that attribute, right down to the remodeled garage location and retro signage. Here the hamburgers ($4) come hot, salty and charred, as if straight from a backyard Weber. (There’s also the In-N-Out-esque option to double the beef.) As you wash it down with a tall boy served by a bartender with funky facial hair, Arthur Fonzarelli gives a thumbs up from his pop-art print on the wall, assuring you this is cool.

When our region finally got a Sonic in 2009, there were three-hour backups on Route 16. The arrival of In-N-Out could create a flame of hysteria unseen since Krispy Kreme landed in Medford. Of course, that donut shop has closed. Flames die out. “For trendy foodstuffs are as roses, whose fair flower, being once display’d, doth fall that very hour,” said Shakespeare through a mouthful of jellied eels. For burger fans, it’s time to strike while the grill is hot.

Nick & Choose 33: Psychic Medium

Published March 2, 2011

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Vision Test
A meditation on mediums

They say there’re no atheists in foxholes. By the same measure, most of us don’t believe in ghosts, until we have to go down to the basement and flip the circuit breaker. Apply the right pressure and even the most rational mind will dart to illogical places.

I, myself, am an open-minded agnostic with wavering thoughts on the supernatural. My stance sounds noncommittal, but I prefer to think that I’m prudently hedging my bets. I’m not expecting to meet St. Peter or the Ghost of Christmas Past, but I won’t be struck speechless should our paths cross. I don’t think Molly Powers communicated with my dead relatives, but that didn’t stop my hands from getting clammy.

Molly Powers is a psychic medium with an office in New York and a small, dimly lit room at Oriental Medicine in Cambridge. She describes her role as “literally the vessel between the spirit world and the physical world.” It’s a grave description that belies her personality (or performance) as a cheerful young woman just trying to make good with an unasked-for gift. Put more casually (and rapidly): “Me, Molly Powers, from Lowell, Mass., raised Irish Catholic, father’s in church everyday saying the rosary. What do I do with this? I don’t tell him; he’ll have another heart attack.” Whether you view her sessions as treatment or a cheat, the woman is a hoot.

“You ready to go for a little ride?” she asked, before we called upon my grandparents. No matter the truth behind her service, it’s impressive to watch Powers work. Through rapid-fire speech with the dead or the client, it’s essentially storytelling through sonar. Powers quickly bounces ideas, and by reacting to your affirmations or denials, she crafts an imaginary relationship. If you wanted to, you could direct your own revelation.

Our conversations started with my paternal grandfather, a man I don’t really remember. Fittingly enough, he just wanted to talk to my dad. My father’s mother, whom I never met, also had little to say. But they did leave me with some months and numbers. Apparently all spirits do this, as if they want loved ones to consult their supernatural almanacs.

We moved on to my maternal grandmother, and things began to click. Powers didn’t see my grandfather around, which was accurate. She said my grandmother wanted me to know that she loved our house and hated her nursing home. She explained that my grandmother kept pointing to her hip.

In real life, my grandmother entered a home after slipping on some ice. I remembered visiting and hearing her blame that small accident for the loss of her independence. Then I remembered lots of old ladies hurt their hips, and no one feels comfortable in a nursing home.

“What kind of candy did my grandma keep in her purse?” I asked, deciding to get direct. “I see something in a silver wrapper, like a Hershey’s Kiss,” Powers replied. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I owe my affinity for caramel to the sticky little squares wrapped in clear plastic grandma always kept in supply. Envisioning my grandmother’s service, Powers saw arrangements of red flowers. As my mother later pointed out, “Your grandmother always said, ‘Don’t give me flowers when I’m dead, give me flowers when I’m alive.'” Ending with my maternal grandfather, and forgetting that she’d already left him out of the picture, Powers stated that this was the grandparent I really knew well. The man’s been dead since the 1950s.

For a skeptic, the question about mediums is whether the profession is defensible or deplorable. Powers has worked as a counselor, and I don’t doubt her compassion, but her clients include grieving widows and families of suicide victims. If you don’t believe in her abilities, you have to acknowledge that what she’s doing is lying to sad people for $175 an hour.

But clients do find comfort. Perhaps there’s no real treatment, but there can be a spiritual placebo effect. It’s sugar-pill therapy, but a rational mind doesn’t care as long as the symptoms fade.

We lie to ourselves all the time, especially about matters of the unknown. Psychic mediums, rituals of luck or superstition, the vat of worms that is prayer; they’re all attempts at finding an answer. If you pick the petals off a flower and end on “she loves me,” you know that may not be the case, but it’s the result you were looking for.

Nick & Choose 32: Podcasts

Published Feb. 2, 2011

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Getting an Earful
Exploring the odd, unusual—frequently tedious—podcasting outskirts

My life’s most excessive purchase is my iPod Touch. I employ no apps. I don’t go online. I’ve never used it to watch a movie, and it holds little music. On the sliding scale of extravagance, I’m like the guy who buys a Porsche just so he can drive it in rush hour traffic.

During my own commute, my iPod serves its primary function as a podcast delivery device. I have a regular lineup of shows, all of which could fairly be deemed “mainstream.” But on occasion, I do find myself checking out the dustier corners of the iTunes library. It reminds me of when I was a kid, taking my first exploratory steps away from the music on pop radio. To stimulate intellectual growth, sometimes you have to shock the system. So for a week, I strapped my headphones on like defibrillator paddles and plunged into the auditory fringe.

Perhaps still channeling my younger self, the first area I turned to was porn, and the show Porn++. The podcast features two guys dissecting scenes from current and “classic” adult movies. You’d think having been on the job since 2008, the hosts would’ve seen everything by now, but as they trade breakdowns, the commentary is often interrupted with an ear-shattering “WHHHAATT!?,” as if somehow a particular bout of fellatio finally took sex into the 21st century. The show’s only highlight was the coda, during which they discussed whether or not their parents knew about their side job. Said one cohost to the other, “In hindsight, I recommend you don’t tell your dad.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Help Me Quit Porn. I was hoping for a cheeky peek at religious self-righteousness, but after a bitching Christian rock intro, the show turned out to be just a recount of one man’s struggles followed by quiet prayer. It’s actually quite soothing, like having a remorseful Mr. Rodgers discuss his dirty habits, then read you a passage from Corinthians.

Thinking elicited fear would be a good measure of a podcast’s success, I turned to the supernatural. Sadly, the only alarming thing the Northwest Georgia Paranormal Investigation Team had to share was the bitter announcement that a team from Tennessee got first dibs on a haunted swamp house. On The Paranormal Podcast, hyperdimensional physics expert Mike Bara announced that “Newton, Einstein and quantum mechanics are all wrong,” and that the 2012 apocalyptic nightmare can be avoided through the power of positive thought. He may be an idiot, but he’s not a dull listen.

Boredom did, however, strike when I tried to learn about other people’s hobbies. The hosts of The Antique Auction Forum brought on Mark Moran, author of price guides on everything from salt and pepper shakers to West German pottery. I feel I owe my brain a sympathy card. Then there was Crafternoon Tea with Auckland’s own Grannyg, aka an hour in which I could actually feel my body aging. Steam Geeks promised a breakdown of True Grit and a discussion on the influence of Westerns on the steampunk subgenre of science fiction. Oddly, however, they began the show with more than 30 minutes of comparative whiskey tasting, and the subsequent hour was a wash.

Deciding to indulge my own nerdy tastes, I dug for podcasts about movies, video games and comic books. I found Boston Bastard Brigade, a show that perpetuates negative stereotypes about both nerds and Bostonians. But I encourage you to check out Giant Fire Breathing Robot if you’d enjoy a lengthy commentary on how awesome it’d be to have director Kevin Smith’s baby.

My podcast search’s one salvation was Band in Boston. Light on chatter, and with tastes skewing toward Americana, the hosts list the weekly lineup at some local clubs and play select tracks. It answers the question, “I wonder what a band named Cat-Tooth Jim sounds like?” (Pretty good, actually.) The interludes allow the mind to wander, which is part of the reason I assembled my regular lineup in the first place.

Like picking your particular brand of cable news, sometimes your brain just needs the guise of edification in order to unwind—a springboard into day-dreaming. All I ask, and what my quest failed to find, is that a podcast give me what I want to hear, and the freedom not to listen.

Nick & Choose 31: Botox

Published Jan. 5, 2011

Lipstick on a Guinea Pig
A burning, scraping, stabbing journey through skincare

I don’t go to great lengths to improve my appearance. Shaving on consecutive days is something I did in my teens, back when the ritual was a novelty, not an annoying necessity. The hairbrush has only recently become part of my grooming arsenal. But I floss (almost) every night, so let’s not start throwing stones.

A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the channels and landed on a show called Bridalplasty, a terrifying program in which young women compete for implants, nose jobs and other procedures in the hope that, on their wedding days, they’ll be able to unveil themselves as completely unrecognizable to their husbands-t0-be. The show came up in a conversation with a friend, who, it turns out, never misses an episode. A nurse practitioner specializing in skincare, she shared delightful stories about wealthy, Percocet-addled housewives and desperate boob-flashers soliciting illegal, direct injections of silicone. As the images swarmed in my imagination, the world of medical aesthetics became a canvas for Charlie and the Juvéderm Factory, or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch by way of Us Weekly. Seeing the fear in my eyes, she offered to guide me through some of the outer circles of beauty’s inferno.

Preferring to remain anonymous, I’ll refer to my friend as Joan, in honor of Rivers, the patron saint of aggressive measures. So it’s fitting that the first thing she did when I arrived was sandblast my face. Technically a microdermabrasion, Joan exfoliated my features with a small plastic node attached to two tubes: one for sucking in my skin, the other for barraging the surface with aluminum oxide crystals. Aestheticians normally keep the suction power to around 35 kilopascals, but as a nurse, Joan was free to crank the dial to 48. The process sounds unpleasant, but it’s relaxing, like being cleaned by a toothy vacuum.

The next logical step was to smear my face with acid–10 percent glycolic, to be exact. To me, the notion of a chemical peel has always brought to mind a Mission: Impossible-esque revelation, with the recipient literally peeling off a mask to reveal his true, debonair self. In reality, the person underneath looks like a guy who fell asleep on the beach, as, before it’s neutralized, the acid evokes the feeling of a freshly smacked sunburn.

Then it was time for some real pain. After extracting the pores of my nose with a “scoop” and a “spear,” Joan unholstered her laser gun for some hair removal on my throat. What followed was five minutes of penitence for every sinful ingrown hair, each exploding follicle snapping like a rubber band against my jugular. The smell of burning beard was disturbing, but what really had me nervous was the final step: Botox.

I’m more comfortable communicating with a smirk or a shrug than with actual verbalization, so I find my frown lines useful. Now with five shots of botulism between my eyebrows, my preferred method of expressing disdain has been paralyzed. “People are going to say “Oh, Nick, you look so happy!” Joan assured. That’s not something I’m used to hearing.

“You look like you got beat up,” said my father. It was Christmas morning, my neck was irritated, my forehead slightly swollen and ruddy cheeks were emerging from underneath a shedding layer of epidermis. My skincare session produced no holiday miracle, but as the days progressed, I found myself rounding into a smooth New Year’s baby. But a mere $559 in procedures won’t sway me from my austere grooming habits. I don’t fit the type, do I?

“I have everyone from landscapers to pro athletes’ wives,” said Joan, correcting my assumptions. With an age range of 16 to 86, her customers’ motives vary beyond the vanity stereotype. “There’s people who got laid off and feel like they’re competing in a younger job market, or people that just got divorced and maybe they’re not feeling so good about themselves.”

Like buying a new shirt, there’s an element of pampering coupled with a moment of trying on a fresh persona, a fleeting version of you. But for now, I’ll stick with my current method of revitalization: a winter beard, grown to shroud, and to be shaved on my birthday, revealing a newly exfoliated, inescapably older me.