A profile of one of Boston's most, er, entertaining restaurateurs. Read it here.
"Nicky Varano comes precisely drawn—high-def and 3-D—like the protagonist a second-year film student would conjure up in a Red Bull– and Ritalin-induced fury over several days following his first screening of Casino. He loves his wife, and his son and daughter (who study at Boston College and the University of San Diego, respectively). Sure, he likes his strippers and his blackjack, too. These are simple pleasures from simpler times. In the age of the Koch brothers and fracking and North Korean hacking, Nick Varano’s flaws are finite and knowable.
And yet, when the waiter uncorks a beautiful bottle of Italian wine and Varano sticks to still water, he begins to take on more dimension. He’s never had a drink in his life, he explains. He wants to stay sharp—when other guys get soft, that’s exactly when Varano shines the brightest. Later that night, at Strega Waterfront, he’ll continue working the room, hanging briefly with the pro-hoops player who’s been strategically seated at the back of the dining room to shield him from zealous fans. Varano will tell a story, then duck into the private dining room where eight jacked guys swap CrossFit stories and supplement tips, lit by a massive flat-screen TV. He’ll admire a clip showing one of them clean and press what looks like 1,000 pounds, then head back to the main room to introduce himself to the five middle-aged couples—ladies to the left, guys to the right—on their seventh bottle of chianti, celebrating a birthday. “How’s it goin’?” As he turns to order the table a round of limoncello, the women exchange elated looks. A visit from Nicky Varano! And somewhere in Medford, five babysitters curl up on sectionals, texting their baes."
It’s a white-hot august morning and Steven Samuels and I are dodging the sun in the courtyard of his new Verb Hotel, on Boylston Street. It feels very Hollywood, as this low-slung, ’50s-modern edifice sparkles from reflections off the backyard-size pool. Samuels looks every bit the middle-aged movie mogul in his Varvatos taupe polo shirt, collar spread wide. Something you’d see on Sinatra or Dino, tucked into high-waisted, triple-pleated slacks. His hair does a single smooth wave off his high, lineless forehead. Call it L.A. Casual East. A few steps away, his 10-year-old daughter lounges listlessly like a jaded star, occasionally interrupting us to announce that she’s bored or that Mom’s on the phone or to remind him that they still don’t know who they’re taking to the One Direction concert.ft
That we’re standing here, at street level, squinting into each other’s sunglasses, shouting over rock tunes piping in from the Verb’s outdoor sound system, defies all real estate logic. By the laws of urban development, we should be at least 10 stories up, gawking at the view—looking directly into Fenway Park—from some carpeted and air-conditioned hotel conference room.
Because chances are this squat, low-bed-count boutique hotel—close enough to the ballpark that a minor league hitter could lob one over the wall right onto the infield from the valet lane—isn’t making a dime.
Those who know nothing of the 1,500-pound animals in question typically admire their physiques from afar, but sniff at their apparent lack of intelligence. A smart horse, however, would be less than useless. What equestrians desire—whether the sport in question is dressage, polo, or hunting—is a hard-working, submissive equid that’s sensitive enough to interpret a few commands, either through the reins or from a shift of weight in the saddle. Getting a horse to respond correctly can take years, but the payoff is much grander than a fetched newspaper.
With their gazelle-like eyes positioned outward to detect predators, horses are high on anxiety, high on instinct, and low on analysis. They follow their gut (which usually tells them to obey those who feed them), and when they do, they sometimes find themselves in a dressage ring trussed with double reins and a pair of tight middle-aged buns in the saddle. The sport is performed entirely in a 66-by-197-foot arena, where the animals are asked to perform a series of profoundly unnatural acts. Dressage is easily the most evolved saddle sport—some would say the zenith of man-on-horse action—and the most expressive result of the many millennia we’ve spent training horses to do our bidding. The equine athletes prance high without moving forward (the piaffe), change gait mid-stride (the flying change), and circle in place (the pirouette). Witnessed for the first time, this balletic display elicits either gasps or giggles, but such equitation may have once served a purpose—in-place stomping, it’s said, was designed to finish off fallen foes on the battlefield.
CRMA 2016 finalist for essay/criticism. Read it here.
Technology and innovation were supposed to power Boston’s next great age, but judging from our skyline, both were instead harnessed to spit out blank, emotionless towers. If we continue to do what we have done—what we are still doing now—then our negligence, and the passivity of a generation of builders, architects, and city planners, will be responsible for the most unremarkable design period in Boston’s history. For years, few have cared that our buildings look more like executable spreadsheets than good citizens.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Yearning for the needle didn’t begin in the Newbury Street eyeglass shop where I spent a recent Saturday afternoon shopping for frames for my 12-year-old daughter. But that’s where it became chronic. Since our last visit a year ago, the girl who could pick out a pair in five minutes flat had transformed into an adult-size, waffling, hedging, decisively indecisive proto-teen. Which meant that during our long and ultimately inconclusive shopping expedition, complete with false victories and two dozen iPhone portraits of eyewear pending approval, I had plenty of time for a tense summit with my frown lines. These lines and I go way back—they were helpful when I wanted to scare a certain toddler into submission. But lately, they’ve teamed up with a variety of other seemingly harmless facial flourishes to create an overall effect more soccer mom than sexy. And frankly, I want my mojo back.
At first, of course, I blamed the store’s halogens: so strong, so downlight-y. Lumens are cruel (until you’re trying to read a gray-on-gray cocktail menu at a dimly lit restaurant). At a certain point, though, the excuses wore thin. Because at a certain point, an officious thirtysomething sales assistant started referring to me as “Mom.” (Aside: I may also have a masochistic streak, because I never actually got around to telling him my name.) And while I was dodging bad lighting and mirrors and a fully functioning adult posing as my child, a radiant fiftysomething Julianne Moore look-alike appeared on the scene. She was, confusingly, both middle-aged and luscious, with rich red hair, green eyes, and, most disturbingly, a completely lineless visage. If ever a face did glow, hers did, just a tiny bit. It was as delicate and pure as a restored da Vinci. The first word that came to mind: lovely. The second thought that came to mind: Who the hell is her surgeon?
CRMA 2015 finalist for essay/criticism. Read it here.
Snort a Xanax before you read this. Because if you’re living in Boston, your dirty little secret is about to get out: You can’t afford to be here. No one’s judging you, unless you count the rest of the U.S., save New York, Honolulu, and a few other places pricier than here, places you’d never deign to live anyway.
Stoic you are, Bostonians, heirs to transcendentalism, firm believers in self-reliance. You don’t complain, and you just won’t quit. Instead, you spend a huge percentage of your paycheck to house yourself and those you love, and even more to enjoy fancy first-world amenities, like food and electricity. It’s true. Boston’s cost of living is 39.7 percent above the U.S. average, with groceries and healthcare running 26 percent above average, while our median household income remains stubbornly on par with the rest of the country. More than a third of the city’s homeowners work four months or more each year just to pay for housing.
Is it any wonder fewer of us are doing it? According to a U.S. Census report in January, the rate of homeownership in the Greater Boston area is now below 60 percent, the puniest number on record.
There’s simply no place to live. If you sold your home right now, the supply is so low that you might not be able to get back in the market. That’s because the city’s population growth (14.2 percent since 1990) has far exceeded construction rates. Between 1950 and 2000—half a century—remarkably little housing was built. That was fine; Boston’s population was shrinking most of that time. But in the past 20 years the population has exploded, and Boston has been scrambling to catch up.
WALKING INSIDE THE MUSEUM for the first time, through its monumental glass doors and into the foyer, the first thing I lost sight of was the water — blocked by, of all things, the gift shop. What those priorities would eventually mean for the shows, at the time I could only guess.
Fast-forward to 2010: One of the ICA’s most recent exhibits featured Dr. Lakra, a Oaxacan tattoo artist who draws tatt-like imagery onto pictures of vintage pinup girls, baby dolls, and other found objects. Vanity Fair called it “easy-to-love schtick,” and that’s where the intellectual exercise pretty much ended, unless you swallow the museum’s promotional statement that the work “challenges social norms by blurring cultural identities.” Sure. If you’ve never wandered over to the sidewalks in front of Berklee College of Music and dodged the dozens of smokers with (real) tattoos challenging social norms every day.
Compare Dr. Lakra with the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. In his performance, …and Counting, at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York last March, Bilal addressed the invisibility of Iraqi civilian deaths during the war by tattooing his back with a map of Iraq that marked the war’s casualties — 5,000 dead American soldiers signified by red dots in permanent ink, and 100,000 Iraqi deaths by dots of green UV ink. During the performance, people read the names of the dead. The work haunted long after it was over.
The Dr. Lakra exhibit was a shadow of Bilal’s. Its big takeaway concept? How cool and attractive graphics can be. And how buyable: Many of them were found on ICA-branded merchandise (from postcards to T-shirts) hawked to the crowds walking through that entryway gift shop.