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.

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 47: Golf Cheats

Published April 28, 2012

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Danger Ahead

Golf, the Unfair Way
Testing out cheats in a gentleman’s game

I used to take golf seriously. I practiced. I had my swing analyzed. I spent one summer as a groundskeeper at a fancy golf course, waking at 5 am to rake sand traps. I might have returned the following year had the offer not been rescinded for breaking two mowers and stunt-driving the carts. It was around that time that I revised my attitude toward the game.

To excel at golf requires terrific amounts of money and time spent brandishing a deadly weapon while strangers critique your hip alignment. On the other hand, accepting mediocrity frees you from that pressure and from ever evolving into the sort of person who keeps a foam putting green in his office. Abandon the pipe dream of consistent performance and the good walk spoiled becomes the more satisfying Sunday drive, perhaps with a cold beer in the cup holder. My game transformed once I embraced the life of the duffer. However, I understood if I ever wanted to beat anyone decent, I’d have to become a cheater.

Cheating is woven into the fabric of golf. The only players who don’t scribble the odd numerical fib on the scorecard are the ones who occasionally sign giant novelty checks. If your opponent hooks a drive into a nearby elm, it’s unseemly not to grant a mulligan. There are now technological aids for bending the rules, but while no one would blink if you pulled the latest titanium, offset, adjustable driver from your bag, if you rest your ball on anything other than an antiquated splinter of wood, eyebrows will rise.

Before my first round of the year, I picked up three packs of newfangled tees. There was the Brush T ($8), which gives the appearance that you’re prepping your Titleist for a shave, and the 4 Yards More ($7) and Pride Professional Offset ($6), both of which feature small prongs that hold your ball aloft like a precious jewel. The idea is to provide more distance through less friction, and while there may have been appreciable length added to my drives, it was only serving to deposit my ball further into the woods. Plus, when you shoot a 57 on the front nine, doing so with the aid of science only increases the embarrassment.

While silly, the USGA-approved tees didn’t technically count as cheats, so on the back nine I went old-school. It’s a hustler’s trick to apply a lubricant like Vaseline or spit onto the driver face, as it’s supposed to reduce spin on the ball, turning your brutal slice into something that may actually see the fairway. Before teeing off, I smeared ChapStick on my 3-wood like I was greasing a baking pan. The tactic showed modest results. Yet the tacky petroleum also clearly showed how poorly I was striking the ball, as viscous, lip-balm kisses popped up around the face’s heel and toe. The evidence revealed my lack of skill, but I was nonetheless winning the game, largely due to the crafty strategy of playing friends whose golf talents are (pardon the phrase) subpar.

A week later I faced a steeper challenge: a seasoned player who would display no mercy—my girlfriend. Wanting to up my fraudulent game, I went on the Internet for the kind of equipment not sold at reputable retailers. First there were the Intech Anti-Slice tees ($5 for five), which cup the ball like a jai alai stick to create a launching pad for straight drives. The thin plastic backings only last a single swing, so I waited until the seventh hole, the course’s most difficult, before I planted one into the tee box. After I launched a rocket down the fairway, a nearby, skilled, golfer asked, “Who said cheaters never prosper?”

Less successful were the Polara Ultimate Straight XS Self Correcting Golf Balls ($35 for 12). With a specialized dimple pattern, the ball is designed to self-correct in the air, reducing the likelihood of a hook and slice. It also feels like you’re spanking a rock, and the Polara will often crash like an asteroid yards in front of your target. After thumping one for most of the front nine I found myself three strokes back, so I put it away (by unintentionally shanking it into the bushes).

I also stopped cheating. The schemes became too much to think about: which ball, which tee, which ChapStick was safe to use on my lips. The loss of authenticity is disheartening, as you never know if a good shot would’ve flown as true without the autopilot. Plus, losing with unfair advantages means you really stink, so cheating adds pressure, and pressure is what I decided to drop from my game years ago.

Unshackled from my chicanery, I actually won the back nine. It was a victory both minor and ignoble, but it was genuine. For the duffer, it’s better to be bad with no apologies than triumphant with transgressions.

Nick & Choose 45: Electronic Cigarettes

Published Feb. 29, 2012

View as PDFLighting Up
On the efficacy and dissatisfaction of electronic cigarettes

It’s a filthy habit. Though it may feel cool, we all know the facts as we willfully suck the pollutants into our bodies. Long-term use is linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Occasional use can become a crutch, which turns into addiction. Like many people, I ignore these facts and continue to drink. Then I sometimes want a cigarette.

I’m not a smoker by any stretch. My occasional lapses in judgment usually end with me waking up inflamed and regretful, gargling Listerine as I try to avoid my reflection in the mirror. I have an unabashed love for gadgets, though, and with the rise of electronic cigarettes, I was itching to give them a try. Plus, there was the notion that I could obliterate my occasional cravings by smoking myself sick, like a boy discovering his grandfather’s Pall Malls.

Approximately 2.5 million Americans used electronic cigarettes last year. In a recent Italian study, after six months of e-cigarette use, more than half of the test subjects reported at least a 50 percent drop in their regular cigarette consumption. Free from the formaldehyde, tar and other carcinogens found in a pack of Camels, an e-cigarette instead contains a small reservoir of nicotine that’s vaporized with each puff to create an inhalable mist.

While many medical organizations view e-cigarettes as a useful alternative to smoking, they’re not fully stamped as safe. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Cancer Society have both tried to block their sale. They’re currently banned in Canada, the land of universal health care, but are also illegal in Denmark, home of sanctioned prostitution, and Mexico, where a Tijuana pharmacist will sell you horse tranquilizers without a prescription.

I received a couple of shipments through the mail. From Krave, purportedly the industry’s most popular brand, came a disposable e-cigarette ($15) approximately equal to two packs of the real thing. Almost immediately, what began as a mischievous inquiry became a shameful embarrassment. “That could not get tackier,” said one coworker as my inhalations lit the plastic rhinestone tip a bedazzling shade of blue. With the color scheme and the unwieldy weight, the sensation is more like sucking on a Maglite than a Marlboro. And though it was thrilling to legally smoke inside a bar, I was too humiliated to take more than a brief, secretive toke. It’s a robotic facsimile of sin. Getting caught smoking a Krave would be like getting caught kissing your animatronic girlfriend.

The situation improved with the arrival of the V2 Ultimate Kit ($160) stocked with a variety of models, chargers and cases. I shared the contents with a coworker who’d recently fallen back into the habit, and we both began to warm to the e-cigarette’s potential. With the industry’s “thickest stream,” V2 does a better job mimicking the density of actual smoke, so it’s easier to succumb to the fantasy of enjoying a real cigarette. Plus, discussing office politics with your feet on your desk and a cigarette in your hand drapes the workday in a Mad Men atmosphere, without the stink or the fear of ashing on the carpet. By the time we broke out the flavor packs, which ranged from cherry (noxious), to peppermint (oddly refreshing), to coffee (frustratingly tasty), I began to worry that I might be enjoying myself.

There are key negatives, though. First, e-cigarettes lack any sense of ceremony. There’s no opening spark, smoldering middle or stamped out finale, just an endless, unsatisfying series of impotent draws. And while the routine is ruined, the physical reactions remain the same. The dry mouth, the itchy throat, the dilemma that bubbles up in the mind of “Why did I do that?” Of course, that can be spun as a positive. You’re not supposed to want to smoke, and in fact, my coworker said he could see quitting if he had a supply of e-cigarettes at the ready, so I gave him all I had left.

But my self-destructive curiosity remained. During my trial, an e-cigarette exploded in a Florida man’s face, turning his front teeth into shrapnel. I continued my experiment anyway. On my last night, like a sign from above, a friend told me he had cancer, and I still took a few furtive puffs. And the honest reason why is because e-cigarettes aren’t poisonous enough. I was chasing a buzz that the knockoff couldn’t deliver. But I tried anyway. As with any regrettable act, there’s some element of gratification motivating you to commit it in the first place. Smoking is unsavory, but at least it’s a relaxing, tingling misdeed.

I know that cigarettes are stupid, so I didn’t need the lesson. I needed an excuse. What I got was a faulty approximation best left to those looking to kick smoking and not to those who smoke for kicks.

Nick & Choose 43: Chilies

Published Jan. 4, 2012

View as PDF Feel the Burn
If you can’t take the heat, get out of my my kitchen.

In the mornings after, the kitchen staff goes on bucket patrol. Like criminals sweeping their tracks, they look for the stains and splatters of the fluids that erupted from their victims. Safely rinsed away, the evidence slides into the gutter and preparations begin for another Hell Night.

For 15 years, East Coast Grill has hosted the Hell Night dining series, which exalts the chili pepper and leads some acolytes to splash esophageal offerings out on the sidewalk. It’s an assault on all the senses. Death metal throbs in the air. The restaurant is soaked in a devilish shade of red, like the mood lighting in Satan’s boudoir. In the kitchen, minions in gas masks pollute the atmosphere with billowing clouds of capsaicin. Those who call for popsicles are openly mocked. Those who order the Pasta From Hell must sign a waiver. The latest rendition included the Trinidad scorpion Butch T pepper, newly crowned the world’s hottest. Clocking in at more than 1,400,000 Scovilles (the unit for measuring spicy heat), it’s roughly 250 times more powerful than a jalapeño and will puncture a hole in your stomach like a needle to a water balloon. Last month, EMTs arrived after one diner who ordered the fettuccine à la Mussolini passed out at the table. He awoke to find he had not earned his souvenir T-shirt.

Hell Night continues to expand and continues to sell out fast. I’ve been three times myself. A major part of its popularity stems from the fact that it’s an experience hard to duplicate at home. Chilies are an intimidating ingredient, and with a couple false steps, a dish can go from picante to practical joke. Like many chili-heads, I’ve taken up the crutch of hot sauces. With each swing of my refrigerator door, the sound of rattling bottles proclaims my culinary cowardice.

Graciously, East Coast Grill owner Chris Schlesinger and head chef Jason Heard helped me select three peppers that spicy food fans should have in their pantry and offered pointers on how to tame the flames. “People misunderstand heat,” say Schlesinger, sitting in front of an arsenal of chilies. “Heat is a weapon, a blunt instrument. You need to combine things to be effective.”

Any good soldier should know his weapon, so here are some SCORCHING HOT FUN FACTS:
* People are affected by different chilies in different ways. A Chipotle could put a smile on my face and tears in your eyes. A Manzano could have me doubled over while you’re asking for seconds.
* The smaller the pepper, the bigger the burn. The seeds and ribs pack the heat, so a lower meat-to-seed ratio means a magnification of pain.
* A friend in neuroscience told me the area in the brain the responds to nicotine is next to the area that responds to capsaicin. So were you to serve chile relleno to a dinner guest back from a cigarette break, you’d be digging shards of skull out of the carpet for weeks.

The first pepper that Heard recommends is the wrinkled little cherry bomb known as the Scotch bonnet.

Great for seasoning, Scotch bonnets can be diced up for salsas or dropped into stews. Schlesinger describes the Scotch bonnet as “floral and naunced.” And, like a perfume, you really don’t want to get any in your eyes. At 100,000 to 350,000 Scovilles, a handful of Scotch bonnets is like a book of matches: great for building heat, but playing with them could lead to disaster.

Tip From Heard: Keep the burn where it belongs. “Always wear gloves. And when you go to the bathroom, wash your hands before and after.”

Next, there’s the medium-sized pepper, like a serrano or poblano. Heard encourages neophytes to “substitute this in for when you would’ve used bell pepper before you knew anything about chilies.”

One trick to try is to flame roast a serrano on your stovetop. Once the skin starts to pop and blacken, stick the pepper in a paper bag and let it steam, after which the skin should peel off easily. Dice it up and toss with orange segments and lime juice. A relish of sorts, I spooned mine into a sandwich and found the spark of spice collides nicely with the spark of acid before fading into a long, slow burn.

Tip From Heard: Scrape the seeds out before dicing, as roasting makes them bitter.

For a quick, biting heat that doesn’t linger, there’s the slender green or red bullet called the Thai bird chili. Use it to flavor vinegar, shave into curries, or make your own batch of nuoc cham. For this savory Vietnamese condiment, mix a cup of fish sauce with two teaspoons of rice wine vinegar and five thinly sliced peppers. While Heard suggests dashing nuoc cham on spring rolls or grilled beef, I can attest it also adds bold flavor to sandwiches. (Hey, I’m adventurous at the table, but I can be lazy in the kitchen.)

Tip From Heard: Whatever you make is going to be hotter the next day, as the capsaicin has had the chance to spread and saturate.

In your own endeavors, remember Schlesinger’s call for combination. Variety is the spice of life, but in the kitchen, it’s variety that’s going to keep spice in check. So in the beginning, be merciful. For any novice, the goal should be making food people can keep down. Leave regurgitation to the professionals.

Nick & Choose 42: Juice Cleanse

Published Nov. 30, 2011

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Pressing Issues
An adventure in clean living and running on empty

There are many reasons to go on a hunger strike. People forgo food to protest an injustice, or to seek spiritual enlightenment. But because Jared Leto drank spicy lemonade for 10 days and dropped a few pounds is kind of a silly reason to skip breakfast.

Like adopting babies and naming them after the toaster or whatever’s in the fruit bowl, juice cleansing is a celebrity trend that’s difficult to grasp. When her normal diet of tree bark and sunlight begins to weigh her down, Gwyneth Paltrow turns to organic pressings. Salma Hayek recently launched her own juice brand. But like an actor confused about a role, as I prepared for my own cleanse, I had trouble finding my motivation.

I’m not an unhealthy guy. I work out. I eat right. In fact, making the leap to 1 percent from skim required some deep reflection. As a result, I’m thin, and probably not juicing’s target audience. Removing mastication from my day wasn’t the root of my hesitation; it was the 1,000-plus calories I’d be removing from my diet. Skinny I can handle; scrawny I have a problem with.

Micki Oliva of Blueprint Cleanse assured me that I wouldn’t waste away after three days of “Renovation,” the first of their three cleansing levels. (The top level is “Excavation,” which I avoided, as the name had me picturing small men with pickaxes at work in my colon.)

For motivation, I settled on the excuse of a pre-holiday diet. After three days of no solids or booze, I could feel justified in making a Thanksgiving sandwich bigger than the family or asking my boss to hold my legs for a keg stand at the company party.

Day 1: Blueprint recommends starting your morning with some water and lemon, so as to awaken the palate. As a breakfast lover, that’s like waking the kids up for Christmas and throwing their presents out the window.

It’s surprisingly easy after that. Out of your day’s menu of six 16 oz. bottles, two are of a blend called “Green Juice,” a slightly bitter liquefied salad that’s not unpleasant, though it makes your inner Charlton Heston suspicious. “P.A.M.” (pineapple, apple, mint) is, in fact, delicious (and probably even better with rum). By the time you get to your nighttime dose of cashew milk, the biggest surprise is that going an entire day without food is actually a piece of cake.

Day 2: Still no rumble in my belly, but the cleanse began to affect my head. By 3 pm, I felt spacey and my words came in slow motion. Basically, I was stoned. Each bottle would awaken my system, but while I still wasn’t pining for food, I was missing the fun in our relationship.

That night I watched friends eat dinner, which is no way to spend a Friday. As I sucked down a beet juice, one buddy dug into steak tips and described his recent culinary adventures in Hong Kong. I threw some salt crystals in my mouth, desperate for variation.

Day 3: According to Oliva, the working principle of the cleanse is that you’re letting your digestive system rest, giving your body extra energy it can use “to help clean itself out.”

I slept for 11 hours. I felt no extra (nor any changes in my gut). In a small dream before waking, I pictured a plate of French toast. Remembering I couldn’t eat, I thought, “What do I have to get up for?” That’s not a healthy way to start a day.

The one part of my body that was supercharged was my nose. I could identify items cooking on a stove top two rooms away. I could list components to a carbernet’s bouquet, when I usually say things like, “It smells like grapes.” My body could go for days, but my brain was ready to eat.

On the morning after my cleanse, I weighed myself to find I’d dropped a pound and a half. I then bought a large coffee with cream and a muffin the size of a brick, which I troweled with jam. For lunch I had a salad. Everything in moderation. Which makes a three-day cleanse extreme.

I didn’t feel cleaner or more virtuous, just perhaps more aware. The food world is industrialized. Bad cantaloupe can kill. One-hundred-ninety-five bucks worth of juice is too steep a price, but we could all be more mindful of what we put in our bodies. It’s a theory easier in design than in practice, but at least it’s something to chew on.

Nick & Choose 41: Scientology

Published Nov. 2, 2011

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Dropping Science
Nick is tested by faith.

Question 2. When others are getting rattled, do you remain fairly composed? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

The Church of Scientology of Boston offers free “scientometric” intelligence and personality tests. Before my appointment, three separate coworkers offered to come along as protection.

The facts are: Scientology is a faith created by a former science-fiction writer. Devout practitioners believe humans are haunted by the souls of dead space aliens. The church has been accused of fraud and abuse. Some loyalists have their children sign billion-year contracts of service. All of this tends to give people the creeps.

But John Travolta seems content, so at question 49, I was happy to answer: Do you find it easy to be impartial? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

My objectivity was tested at the door, where I was greeted by a kid in a shirt and tie, apparently working as a receptionist—at 2:30 pm on a school day. He passed me off to another adolescent in cheap business attire who led me to a desk in an adjacent room.

Surrounded by coursework and materials for classes promising to teach me values, integrity and “a simple, powerful action that assists children to recover from physical injuries,” I penciled through the 200-question test. Alongside innocent, repetitive queries like “Do you smile much?” and “Do you laugh or smile quite readily?” were questions I found odd: “Do you consider the modern ‘prisons without bars’ system doomed to failure?” and “Are you in favor of color bar and class distinction?”

I answered honestly and turned in the form. In college, I took an aptitude test that claimed I was made to be a flight attendant. I’ve learned not to put much faith in paperwork.

80. Do you accept criticism easily and without resentment? Yes: ( ) Maybe: (X) No: ( )

Your personality is graphed along 10 points on a scale from -100 to 100. The second adolescent was pointing to the spot detailing my composure, where I’d scored a 20. “Your friends and family find you difficult to be around,” he said, reading from a script I couldn’t see. As a communicator, I scored a -82. Apparently, this also makes me tough to live with. My guide drew stick figures on the back of his page and penned over smiley faces to make frowns, illustrating the effects of my character flaws. After each summary of my deficiencies, I was assured, “we can help you with that.”

174. Are you usually truthful with others? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

“Honestly, what were your first impressions when you came here today?” he asked.

“Honestly? I thought you looked really young.”

“I get that a lot,” he said before adding, “I’m 18,” without prompting. Then he brought over the E-meter.

Essentially a crude lie detector, the working premise behind the E-meter is that stressful thoughts possess mass. Holding two metal cylinders, you’re told a current is working through your body. A distressing thought is supposed to impede the current’s path through your mind and move the needle on the meter.

Concerned about receiving Scientology’s wrath and junk mail, I was using a fake name. I had also lied about my profession. But for 10 minutes, I spoke openly with a kid I was sure was holding back truths of his own. He asked about my family, my friends, my love life, and each blip on the meter was treated as a clue toward clearing up my issues. On the topic of drugs, I told him I’d never taken anything considered hard.

“Hey, that used to be me,” said a boy who looked years away from shaving.

From there I took to playing with the tin cans in my hands, watching the needle bounce with each squeeze of my fingers.

100. Are you logical and scientific in your thinking? Yes: ( ) Maybe: (X) No: ( )

Before I left, a nervous young man gave me a 20-minute lecture on the connections between affinity, communication and reality. As he stumbled through a prepared script, it became apparent we both had a hard time grasping the principles, but I didn’t doubt his sincerity.

I’m not the first person to poke at Scientology. All I can say, from empirical evidence, is the atmosphere is disjointed. Treated as a potential convert, I felt like a shill, with the disciples of this self-help con game the unwitting marks.

145. On subjects about which you are not an expert, are your own ideas of sufficient importance as to tell others? Yes: (X) Maybe: ( ) No: ( )

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.