Nick & Choose 50: Revere Beach

Published July 20, 2012

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On the Waterfront
Discovering the particular charms of Revere Beach

The path to the beach where I swam as a child had a gate for blocking unwanted visitors. Heaven forbid one’s cows wander onto a neighbor’s field. On the secluded shoreline, pale families kept their old New England distance, staying outside of earshot or the radius of an errant Frisbee.

Now, like many Bostonians, a day on the beach involves a drive to the Cape, and a stop at the gate means a $15 charge to park on roiling tarmac alongside a sea of burned and boisterous vacationers.

There’s another option, but whenever the suggestion floats up, it’s followed by jokes about hypodermic needles or a concern over mugging. Established as the country’s first public beach in 1896, Revere Beach has fallen from its apex. Long gone are the rides and ballrooms. In their place stretches a boardwalk of shacks and dives. When discussing Revere Beach, the subject of swimming never crosses people’s minds. When I mentioned my girlfriend and I were making the trip, most people assumed we were grabbing lunch at Kelly’s Roast Beef. But after a 15-minute journey, the doors of the Blue Line opened, and the drifting scent of tanning oil confirmed we had arrived at an active seashore.

The scene is distinct. In Wellfleet, a nearby sunbather may point out a seal playing in the waves. Here, a bedraggled gentlemen extolled the virtues of a passing El Dorado. At the same time, while Cape beaches are littered with crumbling castles built by future geometry-class failures, in Revere, the sandsculpting festival produced towering works, including a monument to Fenway Park complete with reliefs of retired players. Time had eroded Jackie Robinson’s nose, but he still stared out, majestic as the sphinx.

We spread our blanket by a volleyball tournament sponsored by El Planeta, and Latin dance hits added a backing track to our view of the ocean. The waves rolled in carrying a plastic bag or two, but the sand, I assure you, was free of biological waste. The ideas expressed on that sand, however, weren’t always so pristine.

“Are you guys Spanish?” inquired a paunchy Caucasian woman, her glistening sweat allowing her Patriots tattoo to really pop in the sunlight. We said we weren’t. “Good,” she replied. “No… I mean, I’m not alone now.” She was soon thereafter.

Revere Beach will throw you in the deep end of diversity, but it’s not merely a matter of nationality. Tattoos came in greater variation than skin tones. The removal of a shirt reveals more than the vanilla tramp stamp, as backs provided canvases for massive angel wings or a mural of DC Comics’ greatest heroes. Men’s bathing suits stretched from gym shorts to board shorts to vacuum-sealed boy shorts. A volleyball referee worked a Speedo so small it could, appropriately, be carried in a coin purse, with room left over for T fare.

An idiosyncrasy we discovered while walking to a boardwalk bar was that you’re just as likely to find sunbathers across the street from the beach as you are on the shore. Camped out by a public restroom were four graying men, their hides slowly curing, their chairs facing away from the water. From their conversation—”I rolled in from Lowell at 1:45.” “Yeah, I woke up on my coach at 9:30 this morning.”—it was clear they were either loving retirement or continuing down a career path one wouldn’t deem traditional.

It was at the Shipwreck Lounge that Revere Beach truly seduced me. There were ’70s tunes, racing forms, snapshots of the owner with celebrities (Pacino, Pesci, various Sopranos, Gene Wilder), and not one but two old-timers with canes. It’s everything I could want, complete with a Saturday buffet. In the parking lot, there was a man with a grill stacked with meats and a bikini calendar full of reminders. He served me an Italian sausage and pointed to the condiments. “You want mustard or any of this crap?” I had to restrain myself from hugging him.

An hour later, we stopped at a different bar. As I ordered, a man with a shattered incisor walked up and spun a yarn. Turns out he’d had a vodka-fueled trip to Foxwoods with some Polish gangsters, one of whom found out the hard way he has an allergy to amaretto. Then, studying us with pupils the size of pinheads, he announced he was going to play us a song. Before we left, I overheard him talking to the jukebox about Vladimir Putin.

Seems things turn slightly stranger as the shadows grow long on Revere Beach. Taking one last stroll down the boardwalk, we passed a man walking an iguana and a woman pushing a dog in a baby carriage. We witnessed happy moments, like a busload of dolled-up teens arriving for quinceañera photos. It’s just that they happened to unload in front of two men being patted down for drug possession.

So go to Revere Beach. According to today’s Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation’s hotline, the water’s fine. But consider packing up before the sun goes down.

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Nick & Choose 49: Short Order Cook

Published June, 2012

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Trial by Fryer
Trying a slice of another life

This isn’t a column telling you to abandon your dreams. This is just a reminder that sometimes your dreams are dumb.

We all need hopes and aspirations. They guide us toward fulfillment. Without goals, we lose sight of the path ahead, and that forces us to look inward to ask the most terrifying question: What am I doing with my life? To cope with the stress, we spoon up some ice cream, or we visit our favorite restaurant. We experience joy through food, and sometimes we allow a meal to calm our existential crisis. This is how foodies are born. Humans are genetically designed to love eating. If you’ve taken the extra step to give that love a nickname, you need a secondary passion.

Then there’s the final step, the culinary bridge too far: professional cooking. The world needs chefs, of course, so I don’t mean to be haughty. Most of us have shared the same vocational fantasy, after all. But unless you’re reading this column during your summer vacation, it’s too late to find the level of success you’re imagining. Let me remind you where the fantasy begins, should you try to make it a reality.

It’s June 21, the first full day of summer. The mercury at Logan Airport reads 96 degrees, a record-breaking high. Where you want to be is in a bar, bathed in darkness and refrigerated air, your insides cooled by icy beer. Where you don’t want to be is by that bar’s oven.

Jason Santana, the chef at Silvertone Bar & Grill, has graciously allowed me into his kitchen to be low man on the totem pole. In return, I’ve promised not to be a liability, both in terms of efficiency and legality.

At 5 pm, Santana has me chopping mirepoix for the shepherd’s pie. I took a knife-skills class once, and ever since, I’ve been a little cocky about my ability to dice an onion. But a work environment is eons from the safe confines of an adult education center. It’s 115 degrees in the kitchen, a delightful sensation compared to the evaluating gaze of my new boss. Ten minutes in and I’ve got a blister developing on my index finger and $1.50 worth of vegetables sunk into the holes of the kitchen mat. Santana decides I should assemble kebabs. I immediately stab my blister with a wooden skewer.

As service starts, I move to the grill, where my guide is Ronabel Freitas, a young man affectionately nicknamed “Taco Bell.” The estimable Mr. Freitas broke his arm a while back. Five replacements in a row worked one shift and never came back for another. He’s a full assembly line under a single hairnet.

Freitas stuck with the one-and-done approach to mentoring. He’d show me a recipe, and I was expected to execute. In the beginning, this set a flame under my nerves. Chicken wings require little more than nine minutes in hot oil, but I still found myself pacing around the fryer like an expectant father in a waiting room.

As the hours passed, I burned my knuckle, singed my arm hair and gradually developed some confidence. It got so I could handle four dishes at once without sweat and tears leaking into the Bolognese. I also learned the beauty of well-done steak. To a foodie, if you order meat well-done you’re a heathen. As a cook, you were my new best friend, as you gave me an order I didn’t have to think about. “If it doesn’t taste like cardboard, they’ll send it back,” Santana advised. To my happy customers, I hope you enjoyed your meal as much as I enjoyed desecrating it.

As the shift ended at 11 pm, I received the kitchen seal of approval: “Not bad for a white guy.” Of course, the night was slow, with only about 90 covers in a restaurant that regularly clears 300. I was well-rested, while Santana had been working since 7 am, a 16-hour day not outside his normal routine. A career in the kitchen demands a genuine appetite for the grind. Just one night on the job had me sweaty, dirty, greasy and satisfied. But not wholly fulfilled. (Oddly, I didn’t feel hungry afterward.)

Cooking is a profession of inventiveness, in which people should be inspired to create. I remain happy to eat the results of their labor. The food stains, however, belong on my desk, a place where I can express myself better.

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 11: Figure Drawing

Published April 29, 2009

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Sketchy Character
Burlesque life drawing isn’t as easy as you’d think.

On Easter Sunday, while many of you dined with your families and reflected on your blessings, I sat in the back of a dingy bar, drinking and ogling a topless woman, a sweaty hand stuffed into my pocket, groping for a fistful of singles.

It was Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School Burlesque Life Drawing, and in contrast to the name, the afternoon was the most wholesome time I’ve ever spent with half-naked women. Founded in Brooklyn in 2005, Dr. Sketchy’s has spread worldwide, with 60 branches in cities like Cape Town, Bogotá, and on a couple weekends per month, Allston. On a small stage in the back of a club, cheerful drag kings and queens pose in corsets or pasties. Should anyone walk in for a lazy Sunday pint, they’re in for a shock. But on this particular Sunday, the sketchiest thing they saw was me.

Sketchy reason No. 1: I went alone. It was Easter, and all my friends were busy or just didn’t feel like helping. So while two people at a burlesque drawing class is a fun afternoon, one guy arriving solo for some Sunday boobage is a sign of a life gone wrong.

Sketchy reason No. 2: It was windy, and when I arrived my hair resembled a toupee salvaged from a storm drain. I’m generally unkempt in the first place, but now I looked like a man who enjoys the feel of a good trench coat, mumbling to himself and living in a van.

Sketchy reason No. 3: I can’t draw. Not a lick. Actually being able to produce something of artistic merit would have helped tone down my shadiness. Also: I didn’t even bring paper. Never even occured to me. So in I walked looking like a serial glue sniffer with no intention of doing anything but staring at bare flesh.

Thankfully, it’s a friendly crowd at Dr. Sketchy’s, and an older woman drinking a Scotch on the rocks gave me all the paper I needed. Nearly 20 people filtered in during the proceedings, from a group of women with cigar boxes full of supplies to a young man in the back who casually tossed off drawings I’m incapable of creating even in dreams where I have talent.

The session began with one-minute sketches, as a woman named “Johnny Blazes” slowly stripped out of her men’s clothing. One minute isn’t enough time to do more than a rudimentary outline, which I excelled at, but the allotments soon ratchet up to two, five and ultimately 20 minutes. Twenty minutes is a long friggin’ time when you can’t draw anything resembling the human form.

Scooting further into the corner, I decided to try different techniques, like only drawing negative space. When Johnny and a woman in mossy pasties named “M. Hanora” staged a 10-minute “surreal garden party,” I scribbled out a patch of lead and drew with my eraser. When M. posed with a plunger on her butt, I went for firm, straight lines and ended up with a fetching little image I call “Woman With Plunger on Her Butt.” Finally, I just took to drawing details, like the felt and googly-eyed face Johnny had glued to her underwear, until I realized I had spent 10 minutes glaring at her crotch. I just couldn’t help looking shifty.

There’s a fair amount of interaction during the session, as Johnny tells the story of how she broke a molar on a pita chip and familiar faces nod greetings while passing the tip bucket. The pervasive atmosphere is just good, clean fun. The comfortable crowd of regulars is simply happy for the creative exercise and the chance to show off the level of detail they achieved on M.’s booby tassels. I, on the other hand, hid my sheets like they held nuclear codes and quickly shuffled out the door. As the afternoon proved, I have no talent for drawing. But I have a gift for being sketchy.

Nick & Choose 10: Hypnotism

Published April 1, 2009

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Head Games
Nick writes in real time.

Friday, 11:10 am. I’m writing this opening at a three-day journalism conference as an exercise in a class on the personal essay. These words are the result of both a minor assignment and an attempt at a major life change.

I’m an expert procrastinator. Given an hour to complete a 60-minute task, I’ll get the job done on time. Given an entire day for the same assignment, and I will fill the empty space like foam sealant. As I prefer to write at home, my apartment is spotless, because how can you write a snappy simile when the ceiling fan needs dusting? But in the past five minutes I’ve completed the first 103 words for an 800-word column due four days from now. Change is afoot, and hypnosis was my first step.

I should have a healthy distrust of hypnotism. Four years ago, a teacher tried to mesmerize me to greatness. (Continued at 11:50 am, as another assignment.) I never felt I was susceptible to the process—I was too strong, I supposed—but one day after class, he locked my eyelids shut with the power of words. At the start of our sessions, I was excited with this promise of something new, but things quickly deteriorated into nighttime phone conversations in which he prompted me to bark like a dog, and an incident that found my roommate trapped in a bathroom with a bag of this man’s dirty underwear. But I still have a cautious optimism. (Edited at 8:15 pm, when I’m usually drinking.)

Sunday, 4:26 pm. Despite the uneasy introduction, I thought hypnotism could help boost my productivity by reprogramming my instinct to stall. So I turned to Avinoam Lerner, a multi-discipline healer in Newton. He’s got a lean, sculpted face, non-matching eyes and the voice of an Israeli Garrison Keillor. He’s the image your mind conjures of a man capable of molding it. But before we met, I put his work to the test and downloaded his Pure Relaxation program for a red eye back from Denver.

It took me three listens to consciously hear what Lerner says toward the end of the 19-minute program, because I kept falling asleep. The beginning is amusing, as he warns against listening while operating heavy machinery. In the middle, there’s what you might expect: soft music, counting, commands to focus on his voice and to let outside noises lead you deeper into relaxation. So there, in a dark cabin somewhere above Iowa, amid the coughs, hums and smell of diapers, I escaped. Stirred awake at the end of the recording, I felt light and hollow, like a Nick-shaped bunt pan floating on a fountain of air. Whether it was Lerner’s words or the 90-minute nap I snuck in before work, it was the most energetic post-red-eye weekday I’ve ever had.

Monday, 8:45 pm. Four days later, I visited Lerner for a more directed, personal session. He has a small office, muted and clean with a portable radiator set to soothe. There’s a letter of commendation from the mayor of Newton on the wall, and with no bag of skivvies in sight, it became even easier to unwind.

Lerner describes the hypnosis process as cutting the connection to your inner critic. You want to lose weight, but your inner critic says you’ll always be fat. Hypnosis lulls that voice to sleep so the positive thoughts can be planted while the defenses are down. The key is you have to want to believe.

After some preliminary relaxation, I sank in a chair, my eyelids sealed, ready for my procrastination instincts to be rewired. “I want you to picture someone in your life who doesn’t procrastinate,” Lerner instructed. “And when you have someone in mind, I want you to raise your finger.” The notion shook my trance, as I don’t tend to associate with go-getters, but my mental Rolodex eventually coughed up a serviceable option. Next, he told me to envision walking up a staircase, at the top would be a room, and in the room would be a book. If I believed the solution to my problem was inside, I should raise my finger. I blanked, I stalled, and in the end, I lied with the lift of a digit. But then, as if my finger flicked a switch, the answer came to me.

It’s really all about trust. I don’t trust the right words to come, so I give them as much time as possible to arrive. (For example, it’s now 11 pm.) Perhaps the teacher in my Friday class was on to something when she said you can outrun your own inner critic if you write fast enough.

Or maybe I’m not lazy; I’m just busy. Maybe I’ve just adapted to what works best for me. As writer Walt Harrington told a Saturday seminar, “Deadlines focus the mind.” Or perhaps I’m just indulging in self-delusion for the sake of convenience. (Then again, I wrote those three sentences on Saturday.) But in the end, like hypnotism, I think the key to change is to be open to influence.

Nick & Choose 5: Man Panel

Published November 8, 2008

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Man Trap
The truth shall set you free

Years ago, a girlfriend gave me a journal. Behind the cover, I taped the only New Yorker cartoon I’ve ever cut out. A couple sits in a restaurant. The man says, “There’s something you need to know about me, Donna. I don’t like people knowing things about me.”

We break up on page seven. I stop writing on 19.

I find it hard to open up. Evidently, I don’t even want future Nick to know his current state of mind. Personal questions just make me feel like an animal in a trap. I’d love the freedom of release. But that’d require chewing my foot off, so I just stall and bleed.

I need to be forced into candor, an opportunity that came courtesy of Laura Warrell, a local writer who runs the Man Panel, an alcohol-fueled interrogation of willing guys by dozens of single ladies. Warrell assured, “These are fantastic, attractive women in their 30s and 40s who just haven’t had luck in relationships.” My immature side pictured cat ladies brandishing glinting sewing needles. My empathetic, nearly-30 side RSVP’d.

Sipping my third IPA, I considered the difference between candor and vulnerability. Before me sat about 40 women, two reporters and a cameraman. I was prepared to be honest, but this was naked, defenseless, “I-was-in-the-pool!” honesty. Luckily, I had five other men in the foxhole. When the first question was lobbed, we all paused, wondering who would jump on the grenade, “What makes you approach a woman?”

Our eyes glazed, and I could almost hear our collective consciences scream, “Don’t say looks!” But to our credit, that truth was acknowledged. The man to my left—who no doubt owned a dog-eared copy of The Game—cited evolutionary biology, which would be his theme for the night. “Who here is sitting hunched with their arms crossed?” he asked. More than a few women raised their hands. “Exactly.” I scooted to my right and watched dozens of shining eyes slowly narrow. I’m no body language expert, but those looks could’ve come with a parental advisory sticker.

As the panel progressed, the discussion—ostensibly for the benefit of the females—became an impetus for self-discovery. I found that my safety net is metaphor. Throughout the night, I turned to lions, amoebas and traffic lights to make my points. “Well, at a bar or something, I consider everyone as a red light. If we lock eyes for a moment, you’ve changed to a yellow, and if we really lock eyes again, I have permission to advance.” I blushed so hard my skin prickled. I don’t know if it was because of the answer or the way I phrased it, but at least I was learning.

But were the women? We men provided simple truths. Why do guys hang out in bars? “Because I don’t have draft beer at my house,” posited a marketing exec. And for the most part, we presented the companionable version of our sex. Whenever our Y-chromosomes threatened to split us apart, the courteous, divorced father of two or the social worker with the godly voice steered us in the right direction.

But what did I offer? Trouble arrived with “What do you think women are looking for?” The suggestion of a sense of humor was met with approval, and my lonely heart soared at the response to my one marketable asset. But when the din died, I realized all I had left to offer was my confusion. A depressing thought when by yourself but oddly comforting in a room full of anxious women.

Collectively our answers were mixed, but with enough beer you could weave them into a lifeline. At the far end of the panel sat my antithesis—a muscled Southern firefighter/boxer/bartender in a mesh hat and tight “wing man” T-shirt. I’m certain that he has stories of eroticism that would make my inner Emily Post choke on her cucumber sandwich. Yet toward the end of the night, he said, “Don’t fool yourselves. We’re all scared as shit.” The women nodded. We nodded. And for a moment, both sexes hovered around the one thing we all recognized as truth.