Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Masters of a Gentlemanly Quarter

Quite a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to get an invite to both the Explorer's Club and the Union League Club of New York City. This wasn't just any visit though; I got to drink alcohol, good alcohol, as a high school sophomore in what seemed to me the essence of classic swankster digs. Nothing to rave about in today's teenagers-are-extinct world, but this was big news for a Virginia boy of the pre-dotcom era. Before that weekend, I had never really experienced "The City" in all its gritty yet sartorial charm. To gain entrance to these prestigious institutions was enlightening, and I was even more excited to have my photo in the NY Times Sunday Style page. Imagine my excitement...I think I was brash enough to put this appearance on my resume for a while. Thankfully, gentlemen mature.

So I got my early hobnob career started by cavorting (however acneed) with the likes of a pithy Joan Rivers (not so much a hero) and a cognac-sipping, boa-wielding Jim Fowler (so much a specific type of hero). This was my also first foray into the rarified world of polished hardwood libruhrries, mandatory neckties in hallowed halls, Peary's original North Pole sled (c. 1900), and locks of John Brown's hair preserved in little glass display cases. It was like playing little adult at a secret Smithsonian sleepover. There's something vaguely comforting in dark natural materials, a smoky haze, and an air of unpolite sophistication that one sometimes finds amongst today's homegenous American Techno-wasteland.

The kids I hung out with that weekend were older, wealthier, and a lot...lighter. They seemed fluid and composed in these surroundings. I struggled to maintain my cool as childish eyes and brain sopped in the sights and sounds like so much gravy on crumbly biscuits. Bourbon and espresso at a Greenwich Village jazz cafe at 2am, mojitos and fresh Maine blueberries for breakfast, (window) shopping at Barneys...these were all things I'd kinda-sorta heard of, or seen in photos and movies, but never really experienced close up. Bryant's family were the only black folks I knew that did that type of thing, maybe because they're from Massachusetts? My main precursor to this visit was the tobaccanist haven Quartermaster Club at our local Air Force base, where my dad would take me as a kid to watch him play pool under chandeliers (!). I remember fancy glass bottles filled with potent brownish liquids, lots of cursing, and the *sssssp, sssssp* sound of swoopy wooden pipes in the capable hands of some some hip cats. Model aircraft hung above, and black-and-white photos of pilots and generals and other warriors dotted the walls. My attention though, was usually focused on rolling a ball around on the floor. The Virginia "city" I grew up in, Petersburg, is rife with history and the attendant dramatic architecture and ephemera. Most of the structures in the city were built in the years around the Civil War. My favorite library growing up was built as a mansion in 1859; it currently has a couple of ghosts. Edgar Allen Poe frequented a pub near the courthouse on weekends, where he'd occasionally be found passed out in the alley. The whole place seems locked in a period somewhere between 1840 and 1930.Everything in Petersburg is old, and this fact is not lost on anyone growing up there. So much so, you can't wait to leave. I left, but I find myself in frequent reminiscence. All of those memories came flooding back on that visit to New York.

Fast-forward to 2006. I'm still defining what "gentleman" is, and whether I might consider myself one. It's more than holding doors for ladies, using the proper forks at dinner, or saying please and thank-you. I'm finding it also includes some specific materialistic touches, such as dressing nicely (with pocket squares) and carrying umbrellas, lounging in large distressed leather club chairs, betting money you don't have on red-velvet pool tables, and eating below mounted elk racks placed strategically over the heads of diners in a fine restaurant serving mutton. Yes, the world of a true gentleman is imperialistic, violent, and extremely romanticized, probably even a bit racist and sexist. Yet, there's some truth and genuiness of character in the whole thing. Figuring out which parts I hold dear to the heart has been difficult, but it's being worked out, maybe with the help of an Oban's single-malt, neat, in glass, with no napkin.

Which leads us to Freeman's Sporting Club & Freeman's Restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Now here we have what just might be the epitome of a gentleman's store, situated above the epitome of a gentleman's restaurant. Anyone who goes from architecture school to opening a restaurant to designing tailored suiting made from heavy vintage wools in the manner of oh, Nicholas Biddle circa 1860 is alright with me. The fact there's a heavy cotton duck tent and a library inside the store, and that owner Taavo Somer drinks scotch there with friends serves as great inspiration for my own Gentleman's Quarters, a little piraty, a little intellectual. Though I've yet to visit, I can imagine they are pretty interesting places, as only uniquely themed New York eateries and atteliers can be. I've found a couple of places in Washington that fit this bill, not that I'm looking too hard. There's 18th Street Lounge (a former home of Teddy Roosevelt), the Oceanaire Restaurant (back room only), or the Earth Conservation Corps' Matthew Henson Center (no alcohol and closed to the public, but the photos are a nice touch, as are the bird cages).This weekend, I'll have to take a trip north to find out what we're missing. If only they'd answer the phone. On second thought, I wouldn't have a phone in my clubhouse either.

Monday, May 15, 2006


A little lightness for this Monday morning after Mother's Day (hey ma)... the topic is music, played in cars. YW is out of town and I'm carsitting the Prius for a few weeks. Great litte vehicle, I'm averaging about 52 miles per gallon. What's even better is the pile of CD's in the multiple glove compartments. I have no idea what most of it is because they are burned "gifts" from her DJ boyfriend. They're good though. Awesometastic even. One my favorites is a few tracks on the Benny Sings album "Champagne People" (see cover photo). Just happy music in general, reminds me of early Band of Bees. The title track is amazing.

For those of you without access to these lil golden nuggets, I point you toward OSN. Great stuff. Right now, I think we're both rocking to The Crusaders' "A Message from the Inner City." Also on the new playlist are Nouveau Riche

Now, back to work.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bio-Butanol BMW Bike?

Like all those "B's"? I do. Biologically-derived fuel source? Check. Butanol? Flammable alcohols are always great. BMW? Engineered for performance and cache. Bike? It's about to be summer, why not? Plus, who's not down for late-night beer runs without a helmet or shoes?

My neighbor (I'll call him Cool Hippie Guy) has had an old R90 Bimmer sitting on his walkway for about 2 years. The price is right, and getting better every day fuel goes up. The raggedy old girl runs but needs cosmetic work, ie new exhaust pipes, seat, handlebars, tank, tires...basically a prime case for a "cafe racer" makeover. *The bike pictured gives a nice idea of what I want to do (please focus on the motorcycle, not the kneepads and bare feet).

The ugly red demon with a huge 1970s fairing is at 750cc power output right now (something about a re-ring job and smaller pistons?). I've heard the 900 is the same motor anyway, just bored over at the factory. How that affects titling and performance I don't know yet. Regardless, I like the idea of burning a clean renewable fuel in it (and not that E85 stuff either). Not that bio-butanol is the answer, but Robert Rapier over at R-Squared makes a strong case for the potential. I told myself I wouldn't own another gasoline vehicle (though I'll drive/ride someone else's; hey Zipcar, the Mini Cooper, Prius, and Tacoma are winners. Has anyone actually driven a Mini? I love it, and I want to go back again and again.)

So yes, I just might be succumbing to the dark side because there aren't any affordable diesel motorcycles yet. Help me to hold out and give me reasons not to go through with this. Last summer's "One Last Ride on the American Dream" project was a 1979 Toyota Land Cruiser (mine not being nearly as nice as this one is). At 11 miles per gallon, that experiment failed horribly, and she was sent packing south to Alabama right before Katrina sent prices further skyward. Maybe this idea will make more sense. Until then, there's always the bicycles and Metro.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Pollan on Pollen (For the Food Lovers)

Micheal Pollan is one of my favorite food writers. Not just because he writes about the experience of eating, but moreso the history, technology, politics and sociology of global food culture. His most recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is pretty good from what little I've read. The guy knows his stuff, and it's not at all offputting or heavy-handed. Oneof his previous stories that was quite enlightening for my farmer-other stuff-retiree-farmer father was Michael's "This Steer's Life," where he sets out to purchase a single calf and follow its entire life to the slaughter house and eventually, his dinner table. It is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of where our beef comes from, approached objectively and with good humor. While on the topic of meat, I'd like to point out another interesting food "personality" (who also happens to have been an architect in the way of Le Corbusier) - Mr. Fergus Henderson of St. John Restaurant. Anyone that can wax poetic with such love and respect for tripe, pigeon meat, pig's feet and halved ox hearts, well, you gotta appreciate that devotion.

But let's return to our quandry; both Treehugger and the New York Times have good reviews of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I'm sure you can find more on your own. (I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell has plans on a review?) Hear some Pollan's various interviews here, where he delves deeply into the hidden lives of corn, soybeans, and a number of other foods that allow humans to exist. We are truly at the mercy of nature's whims, not the other way around. This fact is profoundly humbling.