Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Velvetina Taylor

When I arrive at Velvetina Taylor’s apartment building, she is already decked out in her burlesque makeup, sparkly silver eyes accented with black shadow and black eyelashes that curl upward in a perfect C-shape. Both match her jet black hair. Earlier today she performed at a brunch in the Financial District, and tonight she’ll be at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side.

Also decked out in black is her Harley-Davidson. It’s named Rita, after iconic 1940s film actress Rita Hayworth. Velvetina will be riding Rita all the way to San Francisco this summer, doing a cross-country burlesque tour of her own design. It’s her third “Pistons and Pasties” tour like this, though the others were from New York to New Orleans. On the way, she’ll stop in her native Indiana for the state fair she never misses. Rita is Velvetina’s second motorcycle but first Harley. It makes a massive, throaty vrroooooooooooom when she moves it across the street. A group of women walks by offering snaps and applause.

During the weekday, Velvetina works at the Conjuring Arts Library, dedicated to all things magic. She received her master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from University College Dublin and previously worked as a freelance social media specialist and ballroom dance instructor.

Velvetina began doing burlesque about three years ago after taking classes at the New York School of Burlesque with her sister. At first it was just for laughs, but Velvetina really loved it and just kept going. She started hosting her own shows, and now has Velvetina’s Vixens at Beauty Bar on the second Monday of every month and Mistress Velvetina’s Variety Hour in the Red Room at KGB Bar on the second Friday of every month.

As Velvetina prepares her suitcase for the night--she can’t think of a burlesque performer who isn’t constantly trailing one behind them--she looks through a clothing rack bursting with costumes like an orangutan suit and the sparkly pink confection she’ll wear tonight to perform her “La Vie En Rose” number. She’s also assembling her costume for a number she does to “What’s Inside a Girl?” by The Cramps, stripping out of a skeleton suit and then a light-up muscle suit, down to tasseled rhinestone pasties made to look like especially sparkly nipples.

We arrive at The Slipper Room and Velvetina begins to change. There’s a tattoo on her right thigh of a moose playing a banjo. “It’s my favorite animal,” she says, putting on a curly blonde wig and earrings, then fastening herself into the “La Vie En Rose” gown. During the performance, she’ll toss pink petals from ruffled pink bloomers to great applause. Later, she’ll go-go dance between shows in a bright red leotard and thigh-highs. Sitting on the stage with a bouncy black ponytail attached to her dark hair, she looks like a maraschino cherry on top of a sundae. The audience slides all denominations of bills to her or tucks them into her stockings as she teases and twirls.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Miri Hoffman

Miri Hoffman is not her real name. It is not her real name because by day she teaches English, History, and occasionally Sex Ed to seventh graders at a charter school in Manhattan and they know a little too well how to use Google, she laughs.

At Westville--a restaurant known for the veggie-forward market plates she’s enjoying right now because she’s starting a cleansing diet--Miri sips a neon green concoction that turns out to be a rather herbaceous mint lemonade. We sit outside and she shows me a teeny cabinet she just purchased from a gal online--she loves other people’s stuff because she loves other people’s stories, she says.

Miri is originally from Canberra, Australia--pronounced “Can-bruh” for the uninitiated--but has been living in New York going on six years. She originally came to the city to work as an intern at The Drama League, staying in a friend’s apartment in the West Village for the summer. She points it out in the distance as we walk up Hudson Street from Westville. She left and came back, and has been in New York since.

Living in Australia never really resonated with her, she says, because as open-minded as the country might appear, she felt there was only really one type of person you could be there, and it was not one she wanted to be. Moving to New York, she finally felt like she could be herself.

She loved it, yet found herself scraping by. After eighteen months here she sold some of her eggs in order to be able to stay. She did it two more times after that. It’s strange knowing there are at least three humans walking around the earth that are half you, she says, but she’s happy she was able to give people an opportunity they may not have had otherwise: the eggs of practicing Jewish ladies are in high demand because of the belief that Judaism carries matrilineally.

I'm surprised she’s telling me all of this, almost. Miri and I attended a seder earlier this year and she came over to say hello. We began talking about religion and men and the intersection (or lack thereof) in our lives. I shared more of myself than I do with total strangers, perhaps due to the flowing wine, but she shared in kind. I admired her openness and warmth and positivity, and we became friends. She continued to share her experiences with me and, as I learned, there is hardly anything about her that is a closed book (except, understandably, when it comes to her students).

We sit in Christopher Park and chat for awhile, light fading into dark, before walking uptown for a treat at Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Co., where they make desserts out of pressed fruit and a little sugar. It’s a cheat from Miri’s cleanse, but a good one--she tops hers with raspberries and coconut and it becomes quite a beautiful production. Sitting at the edge of Union Square Park, she dives in.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Alissa Sexton

When Alissa Sexton describes how we met nearly 13 years ago, she uses the phrase “nerd camp,” which is not entirely inaccurate. We were both rising high school seniors taking college classes for the summer at a university we hoped to attend (neither of us did, and for the best). We fell out of touch a bit but reconnected once we both arrived in New York in 2010. This insanely intelligent and considerate, dry-witted, wacky and graceful woman has been a constant presence in my life ever since, and I’m proud to say I will be her maid-of-honor at her (totally non-patriarchal) wedding in September.

Alissa moved to California a few years ago and became a social worker at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, where she works with the inpatient psychiatric unit. To say her job is not easy is a wild understatement. But even though she often works with florid psychotics on a regular basis, she keeps her sense of humor not just intact but thriving--there are few people on this earth who can make me laugh like she does.

Since I had been to San Francisco before, my goal was to just hang out with her this time--upon arriving at the airport, I realized it had been over a year since I last saw her in person, even though we talk on the phone for hours a couple of times a month. Alissa made a list of things she wanted to eat and we checked them off. First up, the Ricotta Cheese French Toast Sandwich at Lale in Inner Sunset, filled with fluffy scrambled eggs, avocado, chipotle aioli, and salty, sweet bacon, all with maple syrup for dipping. The avocado throws me, but I decide to trust the kitchen and order as is. It is extraordinary, all sugary and spicy and savory and soft and crisp all at once.

We follow this carb fest with a walk through Golden Gate Park, then past the famous “Painted Ladies” at the Alamo Square park--which are not, as the name might suggest, old-timey prostitutes, but rather boldly painted Victorian and Edwardian houses. The sky is a bright, cloudless blue and the wind whips Alissa’s hair as we walk past the many architectural delicacies San Francisco has to offer. Our next stop is in Hayes Valley, at Salt and Straw, an ice cream shop that originated in Portland, Oregon and is known for its unusual flavors, like black olive bark and goat cheese or almond brittle and salted ganache, the latter of which Alissa chooses.

And though we cannot eat it, we also stop into SFMoMA for a brief inhalation of art (Alissa is a member, so there is no pressure to gobble up every floor). She is a big Richard Serra fan, and there is one of his massive sculptures in the lobby. We continue inside, making jokes about Alexander Calder’s sexual preferences and whether it’s appropriate to touch the ferns on the third floor’s living wall. It’s probably not.

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