Making Peace With War

The Wall Street Journal

By RALPH GARDNER JR.

Updated July 31, 2014 1:11 p.m. ET

Elizabeth Suda founded Article 22, which makes jewelry from bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam War era. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

As the parent of daughters approximately her age, I was curious about the reaction of Elizabeth Suda’s mother and father when, at 24, she told them she was quitting her promising job at Coach Inc.COH -2.49% to travel to Laos and work with local weavers.

“Everyone was like, ‘But your Coach discount!’ I got 50% off the retail price. I’d get them gifts for Christmas,” Ms. Suda told me.

But on a more serious note, were they concerned?

“They were,” admitted Ms. Suda, who today—seven years later—is the founder and creative director of Article 22, a company that makes recycled jewelry from bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam War era. “My parents were worried. I was going alone.”

And at the last moment, the unpaid job—her task was to create a textile foundation to support the weavers—fell through.

“I’d been sold something that didn’t exist.”

She decided to go anyway.

“I had self-funded my plane ticket and six months there,” she recalled. “I left my French boyfriend in New York.”

Article 22 spoons. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

They’re married now. She also told herself: ” ‘This is the moment in my life I need to take this risk.’ “

One thing led to another after her arrival: Ms. Suda, who wasn’t a fashion designer, created a line of clothes and held a runway show that ended up on the pages of the Vientiane Times, a newspaper in the Laotian capital. (“It was a very humble runway,” she explained.)

The write-up gave her some credibility and got her known among Vientiane’s expat community.

Her first experience with the legacy of the so-called Secret War, where Laos served as a covert battlefield, came when she traveled to several remote villages as a consultant to Helvetas, a Swiss nonprofit that was bringing hydropower to the area. Her vehicle was waved off by a local crew about to detonate a bomb in a farmer’s field.

“I didn’t know what the Secret War was all about,” she said. “Not only is Laos the most heavily bombed country in history, per capita, but 30% of the bombs they dropped didn’t detonate. There are 80 million bombs today that are still active.”

Perhaps as much an eye- opener as the problem was the locals’ response: They were melting down bomb metal in earthen kilns behind their homes and using it to make spoons.

Bangle bracelets. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

“A woman brought me over to a shed of scrap metal,” Ms. Suda said. “[One piece] literally said ‘Rocket mortar.’ In that moment I had the idea to create a bracelet to serve two purposes: It could expand their production potential and link to a global market; and the object had the ability to tell a story. That would literally allow us to buy back the bombs.”

The result was the “Peacebomb” collection and a polished gunmetal bangle bracelet with the words “Dropped + Made In Laos” on the interior.

“At first [the villagers] were a little skeptical about how it would be sold,” said Ms. Suda, who grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island, and graduated from Williams College.

“A lot of people want to come help, but after there’s not follow-up. I said, I can’t promise anything except I’ll buy the first 500 bracelets.”

These days, Ms. Suda travels to Laos once a year for several months and her jewelry line has expanded significantly.

Now, there are leather bracelets bound with bomb material, charms that feature a tiny bomb, medallions with the cheeky messages such as “Peace is the bomb” and bomb shards cast in bronze and silver.

Article 22, by the way, takes its name from U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Charms. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

“It’s a little bit kitschy,” Ms. Suda said of her accessories, “but people seem to love them. It’s a feel-good item.”

“When I first started I didn’t know if people would find this offensive,” she added. “But so many Vietnam vets wrote in asking for bracelets and telling me a little bit about their story.”

The jewelry is sold through Article 22′s website and at 120 boutiques in 39 countries, including at the New Museum and starting this summer at a boutique called Curve—both on the Bowery.

Ms. Suda said the artisans, most of them subsistence farmers, are paid the equivalent of the average Laotian salary. Also, for each object sold, funds are donated to village development funds and to clear live ordnance from the land.

“To date we’ve donated to clear 50,000 square meters of land,” she said.

Ms. Suda’s father hasn’t visited Laos but her mother has.

“Clearly, I have incredibly supportive parents,” Ms. Suda said. “Growing up I had the vision that politics was the only answer if you wanted to make the world a better place.

“Business is an incredible tool to create market solutions to problems. I’d never have envisioned at Williams that I’d be an international arms dealer.”

Corrections & Amplifications: The name of Bay Shore, Long Island, was incorrectly spelled as Bayshore in an earlier version of this article.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

 

 

Novelty of Bubble Wrap Never Seems to Get Old

The Wall Street Journal

By RALPH GARDNER JR. 

July 29, 2014 8:49 p.m. ET

Giant rolls of Bubble Wrap shown in a file photo taken at Sealed Air’s plant in Saddle Brook, N.J.Associated Press

My photo editor was curious why I was writing about Bubble Wrap. Was the product celebrating some sort of anniversary—the festivities surrounding which we might want to shoot? Not that I was aware of.

I’d received a news release earlier this month from Sealed Air Corp. SEE +0.72% , the company that makes Bubble Wrap among other products, such as Cryovac food packaging. They were touting a survey they’d conducted on consumer concerns about food safety (as you’d assume, consumers are concerned) and food freshness (they’re all for it).

But that wasn’t the news peg, either. To be frank, there is no news peg. Or to put it another way, the marvel of Bubble Wrap, at least to my mind, is that it’s always newsworthy. There’s something miraculous about it. Invented in the ’50s as an attempt at textured plastic wall paper, according to Ron Cotterman, vice president of sustainability at Sealed Air, then repurposed as packing material a few years later, its novelty never seems to wear off.

Bubble Wrap is shown in a single layer in a file photo taken at Sealed Air’s plant in Saddle Brook, N.J.Associated Press

In the same way that blowing out birthday candles never seems to grow old. Actually, that’s wrong. Extinguishing birthday candles could probably get tedious quickly, especially if you’re in denial about your age. Bubble Wrap is more like fireworks, or Roman candles. It has the wow factor—with those adorable little air bubbles, ripe for popping, it feels as if nature has been cornered for the amusement of humanity—without any fear that you’re going to blow your thumb off.

It’s about the friendliest product to come down the pike in a long time. Right up there with string cheese and the iPod.

I was eager to talk with Mr. Cotterman about Bubble Wrap—where the “air cellular packaging” industry is heading, and what innovations may be in store—in the same way that an adolescent can spend all day on the phone discussing a crush.

We were also joined on our conference call by Ken Aurichio, Sealed Air’s executive director of corporate communications, who also had strong opinions about bubbles and Bubble Wrap.

Mr. Cotterman remembered an era before two scientists—Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes—figured out how to capture air between two layers of film. “People didn’t realize they needed Bubble Wrap,” he recalled. “They were using wadded newspaper.”

“Bubble Wrap has evolved quite a bit,” Mr. Cotterman went on. “We can ship it deflated and our customers can inflate it. They would have the machines on site that inflates the collapsed bubbles.”

I was pleased for them, but I was more interested in Bubble Wrap from the perspective of the consumer. Specifically, the act of bursting the bubbles. It probably shows how troubled I am, but along with the celebration comes guilt: You’re destroying something. It’s like smashing pumpkins, or plates at a Greek wedding.

I believe Mr. Cotterman could relate. While contending that the desire to squeeze those addictive sacks of air is “intuitive”—”I do demonstrations at schools; we have Bubble Wrap appreciation day”—he has to tell his own kids to stop popping, and not just because the sound can eventually drive you crazy.

“I like to save and use again,” he confided.

He also said it wasn’t my imagination that some bubble packaging seems better, more robust, than others. You assume you’re doing something wrong, but the bad kind deflates without that satisfying pop. “Asia,” the executive said, pointing fingers. “You can’t pop it very easily. Poor quality. That more crisp pop is a sign you’ve got the real thing.”

I wondered whether he awoke at night worrying about competition from peanuts, or popcorn, or whatever that obnoxious foam stuffing is.

“When you get into that space”—Mr. Cotterman was talking about merchandising space—”Bubble Wrap is used primarily for cushioning. Peanuts are used for ‘void fill.’ They’re separate market segments.”

Sealed Air competes there, too. “We make these inflatable bags. They look like little pillows,” Mr. Cotterman said.

I love those. But I’ve never tried to pop them. Can’t say why. Maybe I’m afraid of an explosion, like with a balloon.

The results of the survey Sealed Air conducted “to get a better sense of public attitudes towards food waste” were surprising, Mr. Cotterman reported. “Sixty-three percent were concerned or very concerned. That was higher” than their worries about “water shortages and climate change.”

Needless to say, Sealed Air is scrambling to address consumer desires. One of the ways is through something called Freshness Plus packaging, which minimizes or eliminates the need for preservatives. “The packaging itself consumes the oxygen from the interior,” Mr. Cotterman boasted.

It all sounded promising. But I wanted the expert’s help in sorting out a more existential question: whether he prefers popping large, medium or small bubbles.

“I tend to like the bigger bubbles,” he explained. “It’s a bigger pop.”

“I like the smaller bubbles,” Mr. Aurichio volunteered. “You can get the machine-gun effect.”

I’m siding with Mr. Aurichio.

— Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

The Next Best Thing to an Air Control Tower

The Wall Street Journal

Ralph Gardner Jr.

July 28, 2014 9:54 p.m. ET

Inside a flight simulator at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

It was my understanding that I was going to visit the control towers at both JFK and La Guardia airports on a single afternoon.

I’ve seen control towers on TV but never in real life—most memorably in that fine 1980 film “Airplane,” which seems to only improve with age. (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”)

Under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs both Queens airports, I was to join students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, across the street from La Guardia, and visit that airport’s control tower.

Then I was to head over to CUNY’s York College in Jamaica, which has an aviation management program, and, like Vaughn, has a partnership with the Port Authority. I’d be joining their students for a tour of JFK’s control tower.

“The future of our airport operations depend on the expertise of our next generation of aviation managers and leaders,” said Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority.

I’m not sure at what point I realized my control tower visit wasn’t going to happen. But it was probably pretty soon after I arrived at Vaughn and was met by a welcoming committee.

Welcoming committees, unless you’re a head of state, are rarely a good thing. Precious time that could be spent reporting or, better yet, accumulating new experiences (for example, looking over a veteran flight controller’s shoulder) are occupied with introductions and interviewing everybody in the room so you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.

Student Ryan Barren shows the simulator to Erica Dumas of the Port Authority. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Also, I was informed that Vaughn had its own control tower. Perhaps I’d misunderstood the invitation and they’d planned to show me their version all along.

I tried to stifle my disappointment and started interviewing several students handpicked by the school. Such as 21-year-old Yichuan Luo, who is also known as Edison.

His ambitions are more earthbound than I’d have expected of a student at an aviation school.

“Airport management,” he explained. “How to run an airport on a daily basis.”

“I’ve always been a traveler,” said Mr. Luo, explaining he is originally from Shanghai. “An airport is a familiar environment for me.”

In that case, I wondered whether he had a favorite airport?

“Hong Kong International,” he stated. He added, “Palm Springs International. It’s a very nice airport.”

What did he think of JFK?

“JFK has a very good AirTrain,” he said.

I’m not sure I’d agree. The last time I took it I’d been dropped off at the wrong terminal, boarded the AirTrain to reach the right one and found myself heading back to Manhattan.

No problem. I always try to leave enough time for just such eventualities and managed to make my flight.

Vaughn also has several flight simulators. If you’ve primed yourself for a trip to a control tower, a flight simulator is probably the next best thing.

The controls in hand. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Apparently, Vaughn has a regional jet simulator. Unfortunately, it was unavailable. I “flew” a propeller plane. One with dual controls, the second set operated by 22-year-old Ryan Barren, who already has his pilot’s license.

Mr. Barren claimed I was such a natural I wouldn’t have crashed, even if I’d been flying solo.

“I think you did great,” he said with impressive sincerity. “You’d have landed.”

The time had come to visit Vaughn’s “control tower.” I doubt it was more than three stories high, four max, and could reach the top either by stairs or elevator. (JFK’s is 320 feet, and said to be the world’s tallest.)

From the Vaughn tower, we had a stunning view of La Guardia’s Runway 4. But other than panoramic windows, it didn’t have much in common with a functioning control tower. No radar. No weather-monitoring equipment. No high-frequency radio transmitters.

This control tower was just an empty space.

“We have a scanner,” explained Dr. Maxine Lubner, the head of Vaughn’s aviation and management faculty. “Instructors will bring classes up here. You can see a tremendous amount of activity going on. Sometimes we have lunch functions.”

Our next stop was York College, which had no views to speak of.

“It’s an aviation management program,” someone told me. “Not a flying school.”

Nonetheless, a couple of students told me about one of the perks of attending York: they get to go on scavenger hunts at JFK in exchange for keeping the place tidy.

“We help them out” by picking up trash off the runways that could damage the planes, explained Yousef Almomani. “Normally cans. Soda and beer. We’ve done it at La Guardia as well.”

Shawn Ferguson, another student, said for excitement—though to me having jumbo jets taking off and landing over your head would be excitement enough—airport workers hide objects for the students to find.

“If you find it you get a plane ticket,” Ms. Ferguson explained.

It doesn’t look like I’ll ever get to see the inside of JFK’s control tower. But maybe I can sign up for a scavenger hunt.

—Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

 

The City’s Other Museums

July 27, 2014 8:58 p.m. ET

Janel Halpern and Harvey Appelbaum, authors of ‘Not The Met,’ at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace museum. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Manhattan has 80 small museums, according to “Not The Met,” a guide to museums ranging from the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library, to the Museum of Sex and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on East 20th Street, where we happened to be standing at that moment.

“Seventy-nine. One of them closed,” noted Harvey Appelbaum, co-author, with Janel Halpern, of the Pelican-published book. “It was called the Mob Museum. Down near police headquarters. It ran out of funds. It had memorabilia of the gangsters of New York.”

“Instead of a red rope,” Ms. Halpern said, “they had a chain of handcuffs.”

“I say it was rubbed out,” Mr. Appelbaum said.

Even though the authors finish each other’s sentences, they’re not married. Both from Brooklyn, they’re longtime friends, however. “Over 40 years,” Mr. Appelbaum, a graphic designer and photographer, said. And they’ve spent a lot of time together researching and writing their book. “It took us 21/2 years to do the 80 museums.”

“We met once a week,” Ms. Halpern said. “Usually it was a Thursday.”

“We had time,” Mr. Appelbaum stated, meaning that both he and Ms. Halpern, a former English teacher and writer, are retired.

“Janel said, ‘We ought to do something like Zagat,’ but all the restaurants were taken care of. Janel said, ‘We know art.’ “

Indeed, Mr. Appelbaum volunteers at the Museum of Modern Art’s information desk once a week. “I give information from ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ to ‘Where’s Van Gogh’s “Starry Night?” ‘ That’s the most asked-for painting. A lot of people ask for ‘Starry, Starry Night’ which is the song, not the painting.”

“We tried to do two museums each week that were fairly close to each other,” Ms. Halpern explained. “We really did the museum.”

Each institution, whether the Museum of Sex—”You don’t have to be a pervert to visit the Museum of Sex, but you do have to be more than eighteen years of age,” the guide reports—or the Museum of Biblical Art is allocated two pages. The authors don’t shy away from offering their observations and experiences.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace museum’s display of the shirt, glasses case and manuscript on President Roosevelt during a failed assassination attempt in 1912. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

On the New Museum in the Bowery: “Tino Sehgal’s ‘This Is Propaganda’ consisted of nine white body bags laid side by side on a gray floor while a museum guard repeatedly sang ‘This is propaganda/you know/you know,’ in a fine contralto.”

Of watching the “Seinfeld” pilot episode at the Paley Center for Media: “If you love television, you may not ever want to leave.”

“Not the Met” is on sale at MoMA and also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I got an email from Emily Rafferty of the Met,” Mr. Appelbaum said, referring to the museum’s president, “saying, ‘We do have a sense of humor. We will put it in the bookstore.’ And it’s there.”

I took mild exception to the authors’ definition of a small museum. I think of the Frick, for example, or the New-York Historical Society, as major cultural institutions. But some of their choices are clearly small, even tiny. One or two of them Ms. Halpern and Mr. Applebaum even seem to have trouble recalling.

“There’s the Korean institute,” Ms. Halpern said, referring to the Korean Cultural Service. “Austrian,” meaning the Austrian Cultural Forum on East 52nd Street. “And the eggs. The famous eggs.”

“What’s that?” Mr. Appelbaum asked.

“The Ukrainian Museum on Sixth Street. They’re famous for their wooden carved eggs.”

“We were welcomed,” Ms. Halpern explained. “These museums don’t get much publicity. Most of them can’t afford marketing people.”

Among Manhattan’s sometimes overlooked cultural gems that the authors visited were the Hispanic Society of America on West 155th Street, with its Goyas, El Grecos and Velazquez; the Anne Frank Center USA at 44 Park Place, with a model of the house and the secret attic where Anne lived; Tibet House on West 15th Street, established in 1987 at the request of the Dali Lama; and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan. Built in 1765 by British Col. Roger Morris as a country home, it’s Manhattan’s oldest home. According to “Not the Met,” George Washington had his headquarters there during the battle of Harlem Heights and returned as president in 1790 for a dinner that included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, as well as Alexander Hamilton.

I wondered which institution had the best bathrooms. As important as their cultural treasures, it’s always good to know where there’s a quality comfort station. “It’s in the book,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “It’s the Japan Society.”

“Which is 47th Street between Second and First Avenue,” Ms. Halpern added. She said it was her first experience with a Toto, the versatile Japanese toilet.

“It’s paperless,” Mr. Appelbaum explained. “It’s beautiful, too.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Howzat? Figuring Out Cricket

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner
July 23, 2014 8:48 p.m. ET

David Shillingford of the Shelter Island Cricket Club demonstrates the straight-armed throw of the game for columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. The club’s annual match is Saturday.                             Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

The vast and unbridgeable gulf between two peoples, even those with a common language, can be summed up in one word: cricket.

I’ve never understood the sport. I find it impenetrable. No matter how much I’ve watched it. Not that I’ve watched that much.

I think part of the problem is I’m a chauvinist: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Cricket bears a passing resemblance to baseball but, to an outsider, appears to lack the machismo. In baseball, the pitcher bends his arm at the elbow, whipping the ball at maximum velocity. In cricket, the ball is thrown with the arm straight, which looks vaguely girlish.

Also in cricket, as I understand it, points are scored and accolades earned just as easily by hitting the ball along the ground. In baseball, poetry is made when the projectile takes flight and travels as far as possible.

A cricket ball—crimson with white stitching Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

You’ve probably already deduced—especially if cricket is your sport—that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Which is why I made my way to Shelter Island last week for a cricket lesson ahead of the Shelter Island Cricket Club’s third annual match on Saturday. The game is a fundraiser for the Shelter Island Ambulance Corps.

Two Brits—David Shillingford, in risk management, and Frank Emmett, a Shelter Island schoolteacher—had agreed to provide a tutorial.

Also, present were Mr. Shillingford’s two children, Orla and Basil. They were sitting in their dad’s car in the shade entertaining themselves.

I bring them up only because Mr. Shillingford boasted that earlier in the day it was 11-year-old Basil who had mowed the pitch, the 22-yard strip of manicured grass where the bowler delivers the ball and the batsman attempts to hit it.

“Unlike baseball, the ball is supposed to bounce before it gets to the batsman,” Mr. Shillingford explained. “A bumpy pitch is dangerous.”

The bowler’s art, as I understand it, is to deliver the ball with all the unpredictability that a baseball pitcher musters with the curve, fastball, knuckler, slider, etc.

His assignment is probably even more of a challenge since it’s supposed to hit the dirt, or rather the grass, before rising to the batter. Hence, you want as true a bounce as possible.

“The town has a heavy roller,” to produce as smooth and professional a pitch as possible, Mr. Shillingford explained. Unfortunately, it had yet to be deployed. Which didn’t come as good news.

David Shillingford, in the white cap, and Frank Emmett demonstrate how to play the game of cricket.                                      Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Shillingford handed me the cricket ball, which was crimson, its seam in the center. Nonetheless, its density was similar to a baseball’s.

I saw the risk manager delivering it with English—no pun intended—and it taking a diabolical bounce directly into my eye socket.

“People assume we play every weekend” because of the club’s handsome white jerseys and caps, Mr. Shillingford said. “We play once a year.

“We had a phenomenal graphic designer” who created the regalia, he added. “He got carried away with the logo.”

He was referring to the club’s rakish and professional-looking emblem of crossed cricket bats over an outline of Shelter Island and the letters S-I-C-C. “Last year, we had players from England, Wales, Canada, Bangladesh, New Zealand.”

Mr. Emmett added: “Sri Lanka, India, America, obviously.”

Sides were apparently picked based on who owned homes on the island, who rented, and who simply happened to be somebody’s houseguest.

“Whether you had kids born in the U.S. was part of the algorithm,” Mr. Shillingford said.

Unlike professional cricket matches, which may be played over five days, the Shelter Island benefit consumes only a few hours.

Frank Emmett helps measures out the pitch. Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

Pimm’s Cup and rosé are served to friends and admirers—attendance last year hit 400—though apparently not to the combatants until the match is complete.

“You want to be quick-witted,” Mr. Shillingford explained.

“There’s no advantage to being relaxed. Professional cricket organizations do quite well at selling alcohol, but not to the players with the ball moving as fast as it is.”

After Messrs. Shillingford and Emmett took their “innings,” I stepped into the batter’s box, or crease, or whatever the area in front of the wicket is called.

I had no problem making contact with the ball, probably because a cricket bat is wide and flat—and because Mr. Shillingford was courteously delivering the ball from about 10 feet away and at about 5 miles an hour, as if he were pitching to a toddler.

I demanded he throw the ball at the grown-up speed and from the distance he was bowling it to Mr. Emmett.

He did.

The projectile took a wild bounce, caroming from my right side to my left and whizzing about 6 inches past my left ear.

“HOWZAT!” the Brits shouted in unison.

“When they think a player is out, the opposing team shouts howzat! to influence the umpire,” Mr. Shillingford explained.

Little persuasion was required in my case. I was clearly out and happy to return to my national pastime.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Store With Plenty of Horse Sense

 
July 22, 2014 9:25 p.m. ET

Horse tack at Manhattan Saddlery, once the ‘equicenter’ of New York Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

At one time, Kips Bay was horse country and several stores catered to the needs of riders and their steeds.

Today, there is a sole survivor: Manhattan Saddlery at 117 E. 24th St.

“In the ’20s, ’30s, to the ’80s, 24th street was the equicenter of New York City,” explained Rhys Moore, the shop’s consultant.

There are many reasons for the decline of this specialty retail sector—from the rise of the internal combustion engine to the dearth of places to ride in Manhattan anymore.

“The last place to ride was Claremont,” said Nick Tsang, who owns Manhattan Saddlery, referring to the Upper West Side riding academy that closed in 2007.

Nonetheless, Manhattan Saddlery—it was called the Miller Harness Co. before Mr. Tsang’s family bought it in 2002—has a lot to recommend it.

The smell, for instance. Not of horses or stables. But of fine leather. It hits you as you walk in the door, coming from the custom Vogel riding boots on the main floor and the saddles in the basement.

“Everything for the rider is upstairs,” Mr. Moore explained. “Everything for the horse is downstairs.”

The store doesn’t seem an anachronism at all. Indeed, the Great Recession turned it into a tourist destination.

“Ironically, after 2007,” Mr. Tsang said, “what happened is that a lot of native New York customers fell off. They got replaced by South American travelers. We do very well with Brazilians, Argentines, European and East Asians.

Manhattan Saddlery owner Nick Tsang Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

“Ideally, we’d like to do more outreach and bring back that local New York population. We’re more famous in certain quarters of São Paulo than the Upper West Side.”

One way Mr. Tsang has tried to raise the store’s profile is by contributing $25,000 worth of riding apparel to Rider’s Closet, which makes riding clothes available to therapeutic riding programs.

Georgina Bloomberg, a professional equestrian and the daughter of former MayorMichael Bloomberg, started Rider’s Closet. And it also happens to be a cause close to Mr. Tsang’s heart.

The Tsang family started riding as a form of therapy for Mr. Tsang’s autistic brother, Andrew.

Everyone eventually lost interest—except Mr. Tsang’s mother, June. Indeed, Manhattan Saddlery seems an extreme example of what happens when a person gets hooked on horses.

“She bought a horse,” Nick Tsang recalled. “One led to two led to four. She was a customer of Miller’s.”

One day, Ms. Tsang visited the store and noticed the shelves looked poorly stocked.

“She asks what’s going on,” Mr. Tsang said, “and the manager told her, ‘If you’re interested in buying it, here’s the [phone] number of the bank.’ “

Mrs. Tsang made the call. But when she fell ill in 2007, her son decided to take command of the store fresh out of college, even though his undergraduate education at Harvard University had absolutely nothing to do with retail.

“I studied the history of science,” he said.

However, the store coincided with his plans to become a real-estate investor and developer.

Mr. Tsang’s main business is developing multifamily townhouses on the Upper East and West sides and in Greenwich Village.

A sampling of the shop’s wares. Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

Besides, trying to sell ground floor retail space in the teeth of a downturn would have been a challenge.

“Riding in the city had such a great lineage,” added Mr. Tsang, 30 years old, citing H. Kauffman & Sons, another well-known horse haberdashery on the block, and M.J. Knoud Saddlery on Madison Avenue. “I thought it would be a shame if there were no longer any.”

Most of all, he wanted to honor his mother. Mrs. Tsang died in 2012.

“This place was my mom’s place,” he explained. “It was a labor of love. I wanted to keep it going for her— until she got better and she’d have this place to come back to.”

Now, Mr. Tsang realizes the best way to preserve her legacy is by growing the business—stocking it with $600 GPA riding helmets and $350 Pikeur riding breeches, as well as with bridles, bits and horse blankets, of course.

One afternoon, a father watched from an armchair while his wife and daughter shopped.

“Nick used to think,” confided Mr. Rhys, that a morose-looking dad wasn’t good for business. Au contraire. “The longer they’re sitting there the more it cost them.”

Eventually, the dad spent about $1,000 on his daughter’s horse passion.

Also shopping, for breeches, was 14-year-old Lara Smith.

“I was googling where to get riding clothes,” she explained. “Because not many people ride in the city.”

Lara said she leases a horse and rides in New Jersey: “It’s a problem how much I like it,” she admitted.

While Mr. Rhys said that upstairs was devoted to riders and downstairs to horses, there is crossover.

For example, horse products that apparently work equally well on humans at a fraction of the price, such as Mane n’ Tail shampoo and detangler.

“Girls with thick hair,” use it Mr. Tsang said.

Absorbine veterinary liniment is also a big seller.

“People rub it on themselves.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Ode to the Write Stuff

July 21, 2014 10:05 p.m. ET

Grant Christensen, the managing director of Palomino, the company that relaunched the Blackwing pencil in 2010 Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

The Blackwing pencil, made legend by the likes of John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, animator Chuck Jones and especially Stephen Sondheim, is back. I even got to road test it last week.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the implement, or that it had stopped being manufactured, until Mr. Sondheim sang, or rather spoke, its praises in a discussion with Paul Simon last December at the New Museum.

The songwriters were talking about the creative process when the conversation segued to the tools of their trade. Mr. Sondheim professed a devotion to the Blackwing so intense that he went about stockpiling as many boxes as possible when production ceased in 1998.

The Blackwing pencil Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

I could relate, even though I swore off pencils around fourth grade. While a perfectly sharpened pencil is a fine thing, it requires constant maintenance. Which is part of the allure for Mr. Sondheim, as he explained during that talk. Sharpening them is a form of procrastination.

I pound out a first draft on a computer, print it and then scribble between the lines using a blue Uni-ball Roller pen with an extremely fine point. It feels as if there’s an uninterrupted connection from paper to brain that facilitates creativity. It may be illusory. But coming up with something slightly interesting to say is challenging enough; you need all the help you can get, including psychological support.

It was because of the pencil’s cult following and invaluable free publicity from the likes of Mr. Sondheim that the Blackwing was reintroduced in 2010 by its new owner, Palomino, which is part of California Cedar Products Co.

“He wrote about it in his autobiography and he talked about it in his HBO documentary,” said Grant Christensen, Palomino’s managing director. “People started going on eBay to buy the unused stock for up to $40 a pencil.”

What separates the Blackwing from mortal pencils, according to Mr. Christensen, is that it’s made from incense cedar—”the highest grade of wood for the best pencils,” he claimed—and Japanese graphite. “The best graphite comes from Japan.”

The pencil even comes with a motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”

That’s probably another reason I don’t use pencils. I have a penchant for pressing down hard on the point; I suppose as a defense against life’s impermanence. I’m prepared to concede it’s a character flaw. But when the point of a pencil breaks it feels as if a small piece of your heart goes with it. So why suffer avoidable pain?

The Palomino Blackwing now comes in three versions: black, said to be soft and smooth for animators, illustrators and composers; the slate-gray “602″ model, with the firmest touch, for writers—that’s the one Mr. Sondheim stockpiled; and white “Pearl” for the best of both worlds, or polymaths, I presume. All have replaceable erasers. Their hexagonal shape is to prevent them from rolling off the slanted desks of animators and architects.

Palomino makes them in a handsome presentation box that retails for $130 and includes two dozen pencils with a two-step sharpener. “One hole sharpens the wood,” Mr. Christensen explained while doing so. “The other sharpens the graphite.” You can’t buy the pencils individually, but you can also buy boxes of a dozen for $20.

I wondered who still uses pencils these days except for elder statesmen such as Mr. Sondheim, and preschoolers, though I’m not even sure about them. “It’s the same kind of person who likes the sensation of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record,” Mr. Christensen explained. “The same kind of people who like to buy a book in a bookshop.”

I was also curious whether Mr. Sondheim had been contacted with the good news that his favorite pencil was back on stationers’ shelves, even though it sounded as if he’d purchased a lifetime’s supply.

Palomino did tell Mr. Sondheim about it, and “he sent a note back saying he supported what we were doing,” Mr. Christensen reported.

The time had come to test the pencil, to see whether it matched the hype. Needless to say, I was skeptical. How different can one pencil be from another? We’re not comparing Bordeaux, after all. The experiment started with Mr. Christensen’s publicist, Sara Rosenthal, producing a generic, over-the-counter pencil. It wrote fine. Then Mr. Christensen handed me the 602. I hate to admit it, but it was about the smoothest ride I’ve ever had with a pencil; it verily skated across the page.

I doubt it would allow me to write “Sunday in the Park With George,” or the Great American Novel that has thus far eluded me. However, if I ever need a pencil, I know the one to use.

It might even be fun to buy one of those chrome, desk-mounted sharpeners they had in grade school. While perfection in most things remains beyond reach, you’ll probably never come closer than at that fleeting instant when you remove a pencil from a sharpener and pause to admire the point.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Canoeing Up the Hudson River With River Haggie Outdoors

July 20, 2014 10:25 p.m. ET

A canoe trip on Stockport Creek, two hours north of New York City, led Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors and joined by families from The Farm at Millers Crossing in Hudson, N.Y., and the columnist.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Had I not followed normally reliable Google Maps, I’d have arrived in Stockport, on the Hudson River about 10 minutes from my home and a couple of hours north of New York City, 30 minutes earlier. Fortunately, Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors, an environmental education program, hadn’t yet departed on the canoe ride I’d signed up for. Ms. Martino works in partnership with the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, whose organization provides many free canoe trips, as this one was.

The last time I’d gone canoeing I capsized in a rushing, early spring torrent in a nearby stream. Though I’d like to state for the record, it was through no fault of my own—except to the extent that I was stupid and uncharacteristically game enough to agree to the adventure in the first place.

I’d also once gone kayaking on the Hudson as part of an organized tour. That outing had fortunately ended uneventfully. But I became aware that the tides on the river are so strong that you have to time your trip accordingly.

In other words, if I’d missed the boat, or rather the canoe, there was no way I was going to venture into the waterway alone, or with my photographer Richard Beaven, even had Ms. Martino courteously left a vessel and paddles behind.

However, the tour of approximately eight boats and 20 participants had yet to leave. I even made it to a brief tutorial where Ms. Martino, assisted by Jim Herrington and Brianna Rosamilia, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River Estuary educators, explained that the greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley, including, I assume, the unheralded streams and swamps on my own property.

The plan was to travel up the creek, test the water quality, and drag a net to catch some fish. Time permitting we’d then venture into the river itself. That’s what I was looking forward to most. Even though I live only a few miles from the Hudson, most of the time I spend on it involves taking an Amtrak train from Penn Station to Hudson, N.Y. It’s a scenic ride, but doesn’t quite qualify as communing with nature.

The greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Martino, whose organization leads several trips up the creek each summer, gave a few helpful tips on paddling and steering a canoe. I found them invaluable both because I hadn’t had any instruction since summer camp several decades ago and also because it persuaded me that I should sit in the rear of the boat and steer—especially since it was hot and sunny—while Mr. Beaven, seated in front, provided the muscle. I trusted the arrangement would only minimally inhibit his ability to take prize-winning photographs. Besides, we’d be on the water for several hours. Some of that time would obviously be spent simply drifting and appreciating the view.

Ms. Martino offered a final piece of good news and then we were off—that the creek was only a few feet deep. If we capsized, it was unlikely we’d drown. “Stay with the downed boat,” she instructed.

After we’d paddled up the creek a quarter-hour or so, Ms. Martino took and tested water samples and found the pH levels within normal range. Since I wasn’t appropriately dressed—I’d worn sneakers instead of waterproof shoes—and because there were lots of children along, I remained in the canoe while allowing them the fun of dragging the creek for fish, even though they ended up mostly catching pebbles.

The trip back down the creek toward the Hudson was more auspicious. You could almost persuade yourself that you’d left the 21st century behind, that you were traveling Huck Finn’s Mississippi, especially after a bald eagle landed on an overhead branch and watched us pass below, and we entered a serene, slow-moving side channel filled with violet-blue flowering pickerelweed.

We passed under a railroad bridge, out into the Hudson and to a nearby island. “These are man-made islands from the dredge spoils,” Mr. Herrington explained. “The Dutch were the first ones to start dredging the river so they could have boat navigation. Henry Hudson couldn’t even make it this far. He got up to Hudson and then he had to continue on in smaller boats.”

When the fish net was dragged again, the catch was marginally more successful than it had been in Stockport Creek. It included a white perch. Unfortunately, the fish would have been inedible even if it had measured longer than a couple of inches. Ms. Martino produced a chart that showed which fish were safe to eat in which part of the river. “Yellow perch, yes,” she explained. “White perch, no.” The fish may contain unsafe levels of chemicals, particularly PCBs.

The environmental educator also leads seasonal snowshoe walks, owl prowls, animal-tracking trips and lessons in debris and snow-shelter construction. “The idea is to connect people to the resources we have here,” Ms. Martino explained. “People don’t realize what they have in their backyard.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Religious Experience

July 16, 2014 9:36 p.m. ET

The cross on top of the steeple of the Church of the Incarnation. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Churches—absent those with a Caravaggio or a Michelangelo, or unless I’ve been summoned to a wedding or a funeral—don’t hold particular excitement for me.

On the other hand, if you invite me to clamber to the top of a steeple, I’m there.

Such was the opportunity I had last week: to summit the Church of the Incarnation at Madison Avenue and 35th Street, which is only about a block from the Empire State Building.

Dating to the Civil War era, the church—a New York City designated landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is behind scaffolding right now, undergoing restoration. If I might be allowed to quote from a fundraising presentation prepared for members of the parish: “Due to its weathering surface, the brownstone spire atop the great corner tower is eroding, sometimes in sizable chunks.”

Scaffolding surrounds the church. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Even though the prose was explicit enough, the Rev. John Douglas Ousley, the rector, drove home the message as we stood on the scaffolding at the base of the spire, about two-thirds of the way up the 14-story structure.

“We had one small piece that triggered the project,” Father Ousley explained.

My understanding was that this was also his first time on the scaffolding, at least at this height. Looking through the protective material installed to prevent accidents or lawsuits from falling debris, we could see traffic and pedestrians vertiginously far below.

A piece of stone will be repaired on the church’s steeple. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Three days after Christmas 2012, the rector went on, a chunk of stone “the size of your fist” plummeted to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. “You don’t want it on your head. We immediately put up a sidewalk shed.”

I wanted more details, even though my primary concern at that moment was making sure I didn’t plummet to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. I don’t know whether it is age, wisdom or impending mortality, but as I get older, I find myself clinging to objects, such as subway banisters, a lot more enthusiastically than I once did. And as I was now doing with any piece of scaffolding within my reach.

I wondered whether Father Ousley was alerted to the steeple’s decay, perhaps by a passerby who got beaned—fortunately not. He said one of his caretakers was sweeping the sidewalk when he discovered the stone.

“We ended up with eight giant garbage bags filled with loose pieces of brownstone,” he said.

Obviously, something needed to be done.

Preserv, a restoration and project management firm, and Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, an architectural firm, were called in. I mention them not only because they seem to be doing a diligent job restoring the steeple to its original 19th-century dignity, but also because several of their representatives were complicating my journey, clambering up and down the scaffolding either ahead or behind me.

The Rev. J. Douglas Ousley climbs up the scaffolding that surrounds the church; a renovation to the historic building’s stone facade should be finished in November. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Their plan was in at least three parts. First, to remove any loose stones to prevent an impending disaster. Next, to staunch the deterioration. And finally to repair and restore four stone “gablets,” elongated dormer-like openings on each side of the spire. The stone that hit the ground came from the Madison Avenue-facing gablet.

There was other damage as well to the body of the spire, which was shaling off. Kurt Hirschberg of Jan Hird Pokorny, and Carl Culbreth and Nikki Westfall of Preserv, attempted to explain the intricacies of the restoration. It included everything from saving and retooling the existing stone when possible to finding matching stones when not, a challenge with weathered brownstones that are a century-and-a-half old.

I can’t say I was paying the closest attention. I had two overriding priorities: maintaining my balance as I climbed up and down the metal staircase and across planks that seemed to offer more than enough room to drop through; and ascending ever higher.

My guides seemed content to conclude our trip only halfway up the spire, after we’d examined the dormers. But as compelling as the challenges of historic restoration are, my top priority was finding daylight—climbing to the absolute tippy top of the steeple.

All agreed to go forth—when we embarked on the voyage, Father Ousley had made mention that the church was protected not only by God but by adequate liability insurance—and we reached the pinnacle.

It was well worth the effort. We were greeted by the cross that capped the spire as well as a spectacular view of the Empire State Building, the two edifices feeling as if they were engaged in a relationship of mutual admiration.

When we made it down safely, Father Ousley gave me a brief tour of the interior, showing me stained glass windows by the Victorian-era artists John LaFarge, Edward Burne-Jones and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The church “was built when Murray Hill was the most fashionable neighborhood in New York,” the rector explained. He also pointed out a front pew where parishioner Eleanor Roosevelt worshiped and where President Franklin Roosevelt attended his mother’s funeral.

“We have a very primitive ramp he used to get in the church,” Father Ousley said, motioning to the ornate Tiffany side door where the disabled president arrived. “We still have that in the basement.”

Artwork by John LaFarge surrounds the church’s altar. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Carnivore Without Guilt

July 15, 2014 10:53 p.m. ET

Patrick Martins at Heritage Foods’ complex in Brooklyn. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Brooklyn has played the incubator to lots of innovative, romantic, and, it goes without saying, hip business models in recent years. But few seem more ambitious than Patrick Martins’s operation on Seigel Street in East Williamsburg.

It’s the home of Heritage Foods 519552.BY +5.16% USA, which ships at least 45,000 pounds of heritage and rare-breed meat to customers around the country every week. And the Heritage Radio Network. That nonprofit spreads the gospel of the sustainable-food revolution from a studio around the corner. In fact, it’s located at Roberta’s, the celebrated pizza restaurant where guests can dine while watching one of Mr. Martins’s radio shows in progress through a picture window.

He’s also the author, with Mike Edison, of a new book, “The Carnivore’s Manifesto” (Little, Brown). I was attracted by the title, hoping that it would mollify my guilt—much of it inflicted by my younger daughter, Gracie—when it comes to eating meat. In particular, supermarket meat.

I’m honestly trying to be a better, more humane and sustainable person. But it isn’t easy. Last week I visited an enlightened local farm upstate and selected something called a flat iron steak from its freezer. The cut resembled a hanger, flank or skirt steak.

The helping was small. In fact, it was almost exactly half a pound. Enough for two people, eating judiciously. The farmer presented me the bill: $18.

Meat freezer at Heritage Foods’ complex. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Surely, this must be a mistake, I thought, and said so out loud. We weren’t talking Kobe beef, or even aged filet mignon. This was one of the less-expensive cuts on the animal. He must have meant $9, which would still have been plenty pricey.

The gentleman checked his math. No, he said with a smile, that petite sliver of protein cost approximately $36 a pound.

I thought of how much beef 36 bucks could buy me at my local supermarket: a slab of sirloin the size of a coffee table.

I’m not suggesting corporate food and factory farming is the way to go. But throw me a bone, no pun intended. My wallet is willing to suffer a little pain if it means saving the planet. But this was like attaching electrodes to my head and cranking up the dial.

My hope was that Mr. Martins’s book was a paean to the guilt-free consumption of red meat—a courageous, politically incorrect diatribe.

As passionate, thoughtful and more than occasionally amusing as it is, the volume is anything but. Mr. Martins’s argument is that we’re a meat-eating species, so get over it. Now that that’s settled, let’s do so in the most responsible way possible. “The book is trying to create the path for a more humane and tasteful meat culture,” he explained. “As opposed to not eating meat.”

“We sell 25 types of hamburger meat,” he added, by way of example. He listed goat, chicken, pork, bison and turkey, in addition to beef. “We’re grinding the whole animal so nothing is wasted.”

The author’s background isn’t exactly agricultural. His father is the Brazilian classical pianist João Carlos Martins, and the son grew up on the Upper East Side, attending the Browning School (my alma mater, though I’d never met him) and Vassar College. He’s married to Anne Saxelby, the respected Essex Street Market cheesemonger.

One of his first jobs in the food industry was making deliveries for Gentile, an upscale Madison Avenue grocery store around the corner from his apartment. Heritage Foods USA came out of Slow Food USA, a nonprofit he founded that was inspired by the Slow Food movement started in Italy by journalist Carlo Petrini, and for whom Mr. Martins went to work.

Heritage Foods USA began in 2001 when Mr. Martins decided he could have a greater impact on the food chain by working day-to-day with farmers.

The job—not writing books or running a radio station, but selling 200 heritage pigs every week, as well as goats from 14 farms across the East Coast, while attempting to revive 24 rare heritage chicken lines—would seem to invite a certain amount of stress. But Mr. Martins and his co-workers seem to wear their mission lightly.

“We have to move 50,000 pounds of meat,” Mr. Martins reported as he gave me a tour of his walk-in meat freezer, filled with Duroc porterhouse pork chops and tasty prosciutto from Virginia. “And come hell or high water, we do every Tuesday.”

My favorite part of Heritage Foods USA’s catalog is the gift packs. For example, there is the sausage sampler (seven kinds); the four-breed-variety burgers (from Angus and Highland, to Devon, Belgian Blue and Dexter); and the five-kinds-of-bacon variety package.

“I’ll always eat it,” Mr. Martins testified, referring to meat, as our conversation veered—and as that of proud New York carnivores inevitably must—to burgers. “I think the best burger in New York is P.J. Clarke,” he stated.

I politely disagreed. J.G. Melon makes my favorite burger. Then again, I have a hunch the man knows his burgers better than I do.