Light, Dark—All Maple Syrup Is Delish

The liquid is now rated according to color rather than grade

Bottled syrup ready to be labeled at Crown Maple’s Madava Farms in Dover Plains, N.Y.ENLARGE
Bottled syrup ready to be labeled at Crown Maple’s Madava Farms in Dover Plains, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately—the maple syrup news, that is—but the grading system for this brown, or rather medium amber, nectar from the sap of the sugar maple has changed.

In fact, medium amber no longer exists. Neither does light amber, dark amber or USDA Grade B.

As of January, the guidelines changed. The liquid is now rated according to color rather than grade—from golden to very dark.

The purpose, apparently, was to bring uniformity to the system.

A tasting of maple syrups.ENLARGE

“Vermont had fancy,” explained Tyge Rugenstein, the chief operating officer of Crown Maple, a maple syrup producer in Dover Plains, N.Y., about 80 miles north of the city. “That’s what we would call light amber.”

Now, both are called “golden.”

I sort of preferred fancy. But what I liked best was the Grade B stuff. I’d buy it along the side of the road in Vermont and assumed I was getting a deal because it wasn’t as good as the Grade A stuff.

And all maple syrup tastes great.

That’s the beauty of sugar. It never disappoints. Having my waffles with maple syrup that’s dark rather than light was all the same to me.

“There is no such thing as best,” Mr. Rugenstein corrected me. “Grade B has this connotation it’s not as good. That’s absolutely not the case. Chefs like the Grade B. It has a more robust maple flavor.”

Now, Grade B is called “very dark.”

Crown Maple charges the same amount for all its maple syrup—$16.95 for a 12-ounce bottle. The only difference is their soul-stirring bourbon barrel-aged syrup, which costs $29.95 a bottle.

The color is dependent, to some extent, upon when in the maple-sugaring season the sap is harvested and turned into syrup. “Early season tends to be lighter,” Mr. Rugenstein said. “Later season is darker.”

It apparently has something to do with the bacteria in the trees acting on the sugar.

I can’t say I stayed completely focused as Mr. Rugenstein and Compton Chase-Lansdale, Crown Maple’s chief executive, explained the nuances of the manufacturing process. However, here are a few fun stats:

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And on a good day—meaning that the temperature is below freezing at night but warms up to 40 degrees in the morning—Crown Maple’s 1,500 acres of trees, and 150 miles of tubing, can produce 50,000 gallons of sap.

The fact that Crown Maple even has a CEO and a COO probably tells you something about the operation. And the reason I wasn’t paying full attention—besides the fact that I was distracted by the delicious maple cappuccino I’d been served—is that I was awe-struck by my surroundings.

What do they call the place where farmers make their syrup? A sugarhouse? Crown Maple’s sugarhouse is the size of Tara in “Gone With the Wind.”

Besides all the gleaming maple-sugar processing hardware, it includes a cafe, a tasting room, elegant men’s and women’s comfort facilities and the “mural room.”

“It’s a nice way to talk about the property” to tour groups, Mr. Rugenstein explained, as I admired the colorful floor-to-ceiling mural. “There are 89 birds and animals.”

A log cabin surrounded by maple trees on the grounds of Madava Farms. ENLARGE
A log cabin surrounded by maple trees on the grounds of Madava Farms.PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The artwork’s centerpiece is a quaint-looking log cabin. That’s the country home of Robb and Lydia Turner, who are bankrolling the enterprise.

“He’s in private equity,” Mr. Rugenstein explained.

I wasn’t so gauche as to ask how much of their fortune the Turners had plowed into the operation. But some quick math suggests the sap will have to flow freely for many a year before they recoup their investment.

Their state-of-the art equipment includes a reverse osmosis machine that removes 90% of the water from the sap and produces a concentrate with precise sugar content, as well as one of the largest maple-syrup evaporators ever built that processes the concentrate and controls the natural caramelization process.

From “tree to table,” the operation takes approximately 18 hours.

Crown Maple’s ambition, besides establishing itself as the gold—or should it be the golden, amber and dark—standard for maple syrup and perhaps one day turning a profit, is to create jobs and protect the forests of the Northeast.

Crown Maple Chief Operating Officer Tyge Rugenstein checks the taps and tubes on some of the trees at Madava Farms.ENLARGE
Crown Maple Chief Operating Officer Tyge Rugenstein checks the taps and tubes on some of the trees at Madava Farms. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Maple is unique in that it makes the protection of hardwood forests economically sustainable,” Mr. Chase-Lansdale explained.

I didn’t think I’d live long enough to hear maple syrup talked about in terms of “terroir.” But it came up when I asked whether there could be a difference between New York, Vermont and Canadian maple syrup.

“Terroir makes a difference,” Mr. Rugenstein claimed. “We’ll get subtle differences between our different barrels. We’ll get nuances—early season/late season, sunny/rainy.

“A colder season with a nice snowpack seems to raise the sugar content,” he added.

In other words, this season’s might just be the maple syrup equivalent of a legendary year for Bordeaux.


Walks, Strikes and Matzo Balls

‘The Baseball Haggadah’ can make Passover Seder easier and more fun to follow

The cover of Rabbi Sharon Forman's baseball-themed Haggadah.ENLARGE
The cover of Rabbi Sharon Forman’s baseball-themed Haggadah. PHOTO:KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Sharon Forman just made the Passover Seder easier and more fun to follow, or perhaps even harder.

Among the obstacles typically faced, at least at my family’s Seders—besides relatives talking over the readings, the distracted demanding to know what page we’re on, and prolonged negotiations over the return of the Afikoman—are a hodgepodge of booklets, called Haggadahs, setting forth the order of the Seder and assembled over decades. Each tells the story of the flight from Egypt using slightly different language, and making it that much more challenging to follow along.

Enter Ms. Forman, who has just crafted a baseball-themed haggadah. The inspiration came from her son, 11-year-old Joshua, who was looking online for a Passover manual devoted to his favorite sport.

“He’s obsessed with baseball,” his mother explained. “He’s obsessed with the New York Mets.”

Ms. Forman joined the search, fully expecting to find one. After all, there are Haggadahs catering to myriad subcultures.

“There are vegetarian haggadahs,” she noted. “There are feminist haggadahs. There’s a chocolate haggadah.”

I wondered how that would work. My feeling is that the story of the Exodus would lose something if you replaced bitter herbs—representing the bitterness of slavery—with a chocolate bar, unless maybe unsweetened baking chocolate.

Rabbi Sharon Forman, above, with ‘The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings.’ENLARGE
Rabbi Sharon Forman, above, with ‘The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings.’ PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I wouldn’t get that for my house,” Ms. Forman said. “They’d be bouncing off the walls.”

The author, a Reform rabbi who served seven years as the director of the religious school at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side, said there wouldn’t be anything sacrilegious about a Seder centered around the national pastime.

“I’m always looking for crazy things to make Judaism come alive for kids,” she explained. “It’s not unusual to have your own spin. You’re supposed to create ways to get inside the story of the Exodus. And you’re really supposed to feel you’ve been liberated from Egypt.”

Baseball is perhaps our most metaphoric of sports, and there’s no reason those metaphors can’t be summoned in the service of the Seder.

“You go home in baseball and the whole notion of the Passover Seder is that you’re going home to Israel,” Ms. Forman observed. “ ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

In my opinion, the rabbi distinguishes herself when it comes to baseball analogies for the 10 plagues: blood equals getting hit with a baseball; boils equal blisters on the pitcher’s fingers; blight equals dead grass; hail equals a rainout; darkness equals blackout of the stadium lights.

When Ms. Forman couldn’t find a baseball haggadah online she decided to create one herself.

I’m always looking for crazy things to make Judaism come alive for kids.

—Sharon Forman

“It was very homemade looking,” she acknowledged. “I printed out pictures of matzo. That was the diamond.”

The rabbi also downloaded an image of Charlton Heston as Moses. He was the slugger at-bat. That is until she enlisted Lisa Teitelbaum to illustrate the book, who talked her out of appropriating the actor’s likeness.

“We didn’t want to get sued,” Ms. Forman explained. “My illustrator is an attorney.”

The Israelites are captained by Moses, who plays cleanup; the Taskmasters by Pharaoh, in the leadoff position.

Ms. Forman’s Haggadah tracks the traditional version religiously, no pun intended, across 15 innings. The game starts with the Kadesh, the blessing over wine—or grape juice for children—and wraps up with Nirtzah, the concluding songs.

“I was a little worried people would think I was making the Passover haggadah into a toy,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to offend anybody. It’s not meant to replace a traditional haggadah. It’s a supplement.”

In her version of the recitation of “Who Knows One?” which builds on itself, eight is the perfect game Sandy Koufax pitched; seven is the innings when we stretch; five is Hank Greenberg’s number, etc.

A page from the booklet illustrated by Lisa Teitelbaum.ENLARGE
A page from the booklet illustrated by Lisa Teitelbaum. PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The “It would be enough” refrain in Dayenu—the song is always a high point at our Seder—has been adapted to baseball drama, (Think of game six of the 1986 World Series when the Creator definitely seemed to be on the side of the Mets) where a day game would have sufficed, but we also get to play at night, score in every inning and, of course, come away with the win.

Ms. Forman said her original intention was to write a baseball haggadah only for her family. But a friend encouraged her to find a publisher. When she couldn’t, she decided to publish her work herself.

The book seems to be doing well.

“It’s up there with best-selling releases in Jewish holidays,” the rabbi reported. “I have no idea how hotly contested that field is.”

My only issue with the volume is that Ms. Forman leaves the Four Questions—the part of the Seder where every kid cuts his or her teeth, the youngest at the table having to recite them from memory—untouched by baseball references.

“That’s the one thing my kids knew,” she explained. “I didn’t want to take that away from them.”

Urban Gardner: Humbled by a Master’s Refinishing Touch

Miguel Saco has revived pieces that reside in the Metropolitan Museum and the White House

Miguel Saco, in his East 18th Street studio, standing next to two Jean Dunand panels from the 1930s.ENLARGE
Miguel Saco, in his East 18th Street studio, standing next to two Jean Dunand panels from the 1930s. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Miguel Saco may be New York’s most eminent furniture restorer. But I’d never hire him.

It’s certainly not because my furniture isn’t in need of restoration. The sobbing I hear in the living room right now is from a couple of easy chairs on life support. And my garage is filled with antiques that had once, and may eventually, find honest homes. In the meantime, they’re the site of spirited turf wars between mice and chipmunks.

No, the reason I’m not taking my furniture to Mr. Saco—besides the impressive amounts even those lower on the restoration food chain charge to reupholster a humble chair or couch—is because I know I’m unworthy.

Pieces he has revived reside in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the White House; and clients include the likes of billionaire collector Peter Brandt and art dealer Larry Gagosian.

I realized I was entering an alternate universe when I arrived at his studio on East 18th Street and Mr. Saco pointed out a set of chairs he’d touched up. They were cute. And admittedly comfortable. As well they might, since they were school chairs.

If I’d spotted them abandoned by the curb I’d probably have considered taking a couple home, entertained the possibility of bedbugs and kept on going.

Mr. Saco described the chairs—belonging to a client and made of blue metal with wooden seats and backs—as the work of Jean Prouvé, a French mid-century master industrial and furniture designer. Each was valued at $12,000. A matching table, owned by Mr. Saco, was worth $35,000.

As I said, I’m unworthy.

But what most impressed me about Mr. Saco’s workshop, besides the amount of discretionary wealth floating around to underwrite such an enterprise, were the casually situated masterpieces awaiting repair or ready to be returned to their owners. A Frank Lloyd Wright chair here. A Duncan Phyfe early 19th-century federal sofa there.

“I have many pieces by Duncan Phyfe,” Mr. Saco said casually as he gave me a tour.

We might as well have been backstage at a major museum.

And even the dregs were more inviting than most of the furniture in my living room. If I were a more materialistic person, I’d have had reason to feel despondent.

A sculptor, Mr. Saco arrived in the U.S. from Spain in 1982 looking for work and discovered that his artist’s eye lent itself to furniture restoration.

“The most important thing is the interpretation,” he explained. “What was the artist’s intention? That’s what I’m good at.

Jars filled with substances that Mr. Saco and his employees use in the restoration process.ENLARGE
Jars filled with substances that Mr. Saco and his employees use in the restoration process. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We do a lot of improvisation in the finishing department,” he went on, pointing out a shelf of jars with labels that identified their contents as things such as “rabbit skin glue” and that looked more appropriate to a medieval alchemist’s lab. “Usually the pieces are telling you what has to be done. Other times you have to be more aggressive.”

Recent major restoration projects have included Madrid’s royal palace. Mr. Saco also sits on the vetting committee for 20th-century furniture at the Winter Antiques Show.

We stopped by a 1950s Italian Fornasetti chair decorated with butterflies. It was impossible to tell, but his workers had repainted half of them, part of a $5,000 restoration. However, that’s not why the object was sitting there. The chair had suffered a break when it was sent home to its owner in Pittsburgh.

“The movers broke the chair,” Mr. Saco explained. “I think the crate fell off the truck.”

Was he heartbroken after performing all that work?

“Both of us,” he said, referring to himself and the client. “But he more than me.”

Jean-Philippe Baty, one of Mr. Saco’s furniture makers, was restoring a circular $75,000 Line Vautrin soleil mirror that appeared of extraterrestrial origin. Ms. Vautrin, who also made jewelry, was known for her willingness to experiment with new materials. What looked like cilia radiated from the mirror’s edges.

“It’s made of resin,” Mr. Baty explained. “With time it’s cracking.”

A Mathias Bengtsson chair, in Mr. Saco’s studio.ENLARGE
A Mathias Bengtsson chair, in Mr. Saco’s studio. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The pieces that prove the greatest challenge to restore often aren’t the most ancient, which tend to be made of wood and metal, but those of more recent vintage, from the 1990s, using plastics, resins and micro-fibers.

“It’s fascinating,” Mr. Saco said. “It keeps us alive.”

Both creatively and financially. “The most important pieces on the market today are made from these materials,” he added. “It’s hard to survive working only with the 18th and 19th century.”

To me, the most relatable piece might have been a Japanese lacquer cabinet in, to put it politely, distressed condition. A client once sent it to Mr. Saco for repair. But the bill would have been between $30,000 and $40,000.

What’s it worth in its present condition? “Whatever you want to pay,” said the furniture restorer, who is using it for storage. “It’s a nice piece.”

I’d considered making an offer. But I already have stuff almost as nice sitting in my garage.

An Urban Archaeologist Lets Go


Gil Shapiro is selling some of the vintage architectural fixtures he’s salvaged over decades

Gil Shapiro, the owner of Urban Archeaology, admires the Grecian relief on the ornate terra-cotta train-station clock to be auctioned this month.ENLARGE
Gil Shapiro, the owner of Urban Archeaology, admires the Grecian relief on the ornate terra-cotta train-station clock to be auctioned this month. PHOTO:MANSURA KHANAM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Some of us collect. Others hoard. “I’m a hoarder,” admitted Gil Shapiro, an owner of Urban Archaeology, a company that specializes in inspired salvage as well as reproduction vintage lighting and bathroom fixtures.

Of his wife and business partner, interior designer Judith Stockman, he added, “She’s a minimalist. We had a lot of issues. Eventually, I got mature enough to understand she lives here also.”

I’m not sure how much, if any, of that maturity is responsible for Mr. Shapiro’s decision to put some of his favorite things, accumulated over half a century in the salvage business, up for auction March 27 and 28. The sale is being run by Guernsey’s.

These aren’t items that fit in the palm of your hand, like baseball cards. Rather, a forklift would be helpful.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the wrought-iron gothic gate from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Part of the St. Patrick's Cathedral wrought-iron gate on offer at the Guernsey's auction.ENLARGE
Part of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral wrought-iron gate on offer at the Guernsey’s auction. PHOTO: MANSURA KHANAM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Or the 10-foot-diameter antique brass-and-glass grand chandelier, circa 1918.

“The design of this massive piece exudes grandeur without being overwhelming,” explains the auction catalog copy.

That’s a lie. The piece is totally overwhelming. I don’t know whose McMansion would be big enough to hold it.

“You probably need a 25-foot ceiling,” Mr. Shapiro said as he showed me around Urban Archaeology’s showroom on Franklin Street, where the sale will be held.

Then there is the set of spectacular but massive glass ceiling panels from Le Bon Marche department store in Paris—the 1887 store’s architects including Gustave Eiffel. Bon Marche was updated in the 1920s. Mr. Shapiro said he bought the Art Deco infrastructure after a more recent renovation.

But who would want such a thing? “If you’re into 1920s decoration, this is pretty important,” he said. “We have the entire grand staircase.”

Indeed, I’m not sure he’s come to terms with the fact that his possessions may actually sell, rather than fail to find a buyer and be returned to him to hoard anew.

Apropos his wife, he said, “There are certain things I can’t live without and she can’t live with.”

They apparently include items on the auction block.

He said he’s told her, “When I die you can sell it. And if you die first I’m putting it right in our living room.”

I asked for examples of some of the objects that create conflict. Mr. Shapiro mentioned, “In the window, a clock.”

He meant the store’s front window. And he wasn’t speaking of an alarm clock, or even a grandfather clock. The item—#406 in the auction catalog and carrying an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000—is a glazed emerald green terra-cotta clock, circa 1900, that was originally installed in the Troy, N.Y., Union Depot train station.

The train-station clock will be up for auction this month along with the wrought-iron Gothic gate.ENLARGE
The train-station clock will be up for auction this month along with the wrought-iron Gothic gate. PHOTO:MANSURA KHANAM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It is 7 feet wide and 10 feet high. Scantily clad youths lean against the clock while above a locomotive is bursting through a tunnel of steam.

But it may soon find a buyer. Maybe Mr. Shapiro is assuming it won’t. The chasm between rich and poor in this country is growing ever wider. Nonetheless, rare remains the plutocrat with a mantelpiece broad enough to support a 10-foot-high train-station clock.

I didn’t think it presumptuous to ask Mr. Shapiro how and when he contracted his addiction to salvage.

“I was 15,” he remembered. And growing up in Brooklyn, where the contents of the soda fountain where he had his first date were being auctioned.

Mr. Shapiro, who wanted a memento of that milestone, ended up buying 12 of the drugstore’s light fixtures for $100. Only he didn’t have $100.

“I sold my brother’s bedroom set for $100,” he recalled. “And then I went to a shrink for two years.”

I believe he was joking. However, the problem was that his brother, while seven years older, was still living at home and needed somewhere to sleep.

“My parents weren’t too happy with me,” Mr. Shapiro said.

So what happened? “He took my furniture,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And I slept on the floor.”

The future merchant decided not to take the episode as a teachable moment. He started trafficking in salvage shortly after college and opened his first store in Soho—on Spring Street, between Wooster and Greene—in 1978.

The neighborhood was different then. “For the first five years, the two questions people asked were, ‘Are you throwing out that 4-foot tub,’ and ‘Where is Dean & DeLuca?’ ”

“One day I was shopping at Dean & DeLuca and someone asked Giorgio DeLuca, ‘Where is Urban Archaeology?’ I threw up my arms—‘We made it!’ ”

Urban Archaeology currently has two stores in Manhattan as well as locations in Bridgehampton, Boston and Chicago. The main focus of their business shifted long ago from salvage to creating their own lighting and bathroom accessories.

“But I continued to look for salvage for things to copy,” Mr. Shapiro explained.

He pointed out a gleaming 1900 medical cabinet with rotating, mirrored glass drawers. “I wanted one in our bathroom in Long Island,” he said. “My wife gave in.”

The other is for sale. The auction estimate is $8,000 to $10,000.

Trumpeting Herb Alpert’s Feats

Ralph Gardner Jr. talks to the almost 80-year-old musician and sees him perform in Manhattan

Herb Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall, are at Café Carlyle through March 21.ENLARGE
Herb Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall, are at Café Carlyle through March 21.PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I wasn’t always the hip, pipe-smoking, turtleneck-wearing cat you behold today. It took me until the ’70s to become a child of the ’60s.

Through the entire rock ’n’ roll explosion, when my friends were religiously attending acid-fueled concerts at the Fillmore East, I owned a total of two records: the Surfaris’ “Wipeout” and the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man.” Both were 45s and I acquired them at summer camp when I was 12.

Nonetheless, a few bands penetrated the cultural vacuum where I dwelled. The Beatles, of course: even a sheltered 10-year-old watching their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” could sense that things were about to change.

There was also Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I wouldn’t put them in the same paradigm-shifting category, of course. Nonetheless, with hits such as “The Lonely Bull” and “Spanish Flea,” and an album cover that featured a model wearing nothing but whipped cream, the band was certainly part of the conversation.

So, I felt an obligation to attend when Mr. Alpert returned Tuesday night to Café Carlyle with his wife, Lani Hall, whose own contributions to the mood of the times—as lead singer with Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66—weren’t inconsequential. They’ll be performing at the cabaret through March 21.

Still Rocking: Herb Alpert

The nearly 80-year-old musician takes the stage in Manhattan

Herb Alpert turns 80 later this month.
Herb Alpert kicks off a series of shows performing with his wife, recording artist Lani Hall, at the Café Carlyle at The Carlyle in Manhattan on March 10.
Fans and photographers take photos of Herb Alpert, his wife, Lani Hall, and the band after a recent show.
Guests enjoy dinner and drinks at the Café Carlyle, where Herb Alpert and Lani Hall are performing through March 21.
In the 1960s, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were known for such hits as ‘The Lonely Bull’ and ‘Spanish Flea.’
Herb Alpert’s career includes five No.1 albums and nine Grammys. Late last year, he released his latest album, ‘In The Mood.’
Actress Tamara Tunie watches Herb Alpert perform.
The Café Carlyle
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall perform on stage. Mr. Alpert concurrently has a show of his sculpture under way at the ACA Galleries in Chelsea.
The sound board at Café Carlyle.
Musician Michael Feinstein attends the Herb Alpert show on March 10.
Herb Alpert turns 80 later this month.
Herb Alpert kicks off a series of shows performing with his wife, recording artist Lani Hall, at the Café Carlyle at The Carlyle in Manhattan on March 10.

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Herb Alpert kicks off a series of shows performing with his wife, recording artist Lani Hall, at the Café Carlyle at The Carlyle …
Fans and photographers take photos of Herb Alpert, his wife, Lani Hall, and the band after a recent show. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Guests enjoy dinner and drinks at the Café Carlyle, where Herb Alpert and Lani Hall are performing through March 21. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In the 1960s, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were known for such hits as ‘The Lonely Bull’ and ‘Spanish Flea.’ ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Herb Alpert’s career includes five No.1 albums and nine Grammys. Late last year, he released his latest album, ‘In The Mood.’ ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Actress Tamara Tunie watches Herb Alpert perform. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall perform on stage. Mr. Alpert concurrently has a show of his sculpture under way at the ACA Galleries in Chelsea. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Musician Michael Feinstein attends the Herb Alpert show on March 10. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Herb Alpert turns 80 later this month. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Alpert, who announced from the stage that he turns 80 on March 31, also has a show of his sculpture at the ACA Galleries in Chelsea.

Since there was little chance of me interviewing Mr. Alpert at the performance or afterward when he was surrounded by well-wishers, we spoke over the phone the previous week. He was still ensconced at his Malibu home and exhibiting some trepidation about trading 80-degree ocean breezes for New York City’s 8-degree arctic blasts. “That weather is scaring the hell out of me,” he admitted.

What I wanted to know, among other things, was how his music managed to hold its own in the era of Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Mr. Alpert’s career includes five No. 1 albums and nine Grammys, and he’s still in the recording studio. His latest album, out last fall, is titled “In The Mood.” And in 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts.

I must have raised the notion of competition, with the Beatles among other bands, which the musician firmly rejected. “It wasn’t about any competition,” he said. “I’m happy when people are successful. It means more people in the record stores.”

The Cafe Carlyle where Mr. Alpert, the iconic 60's musician, is kicking off a series of shows with his wife, Lani Hall.ENLARGE
The Cafe Carlyle where Mr. Alpert, the iconic 60’s musician, is kicking off a series of shows with his wife, Lani Hall. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

As agile a trumpet player as Mr. Alpert remains—his set at the Carlyle ranged from Van Morrison’s “Moondance” to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”—he was an equally talented record executive.

He and partner Jerry Moss started A&M Records in 1962, signing artists such as the Carpenters, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Cat Stevens,Carole King and Peter Frampton, before selling it to Polygram in 1987 for a reported $500 million.

If Mr. Alpert has any regrets regarding the Beatles, it seems only that he didn’t sign them. “In 1962 or ’63,” he remembered, “the Beatles were available for distribution. I wish I had been there. I wasn’t even aware they were available.”

In the brief but spirited research I performed before Mr. Alpert’s Carlyle outing, I learned a couple of new things about him—at least new to me. He’s Jewish and grew up in Los Angeles; with a band and a mariachi sound such as the Tijuana Brass, I somehow assumed he was from south of the border. (He jokingly signed off our conversation with “Shalom!”)

And through the Herb Alpert Foundation, he’s also a significant arts philanthropist. Among the foundation’s beneficiaries are the Harlem School for the Arts, which received a $5 million grant in 2012; the school, at 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, added the trumpeter’s name, becoming the Harlem School of the Arts: The Herb Alpert Center.

I must confess that I was unaware of the cultural importance of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” until a couple of friends mentioned the role that the 1965 album cover played in their budding adolescence. It featured model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but empty calories.

Between songs that included Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love” and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof”—accompanied by Ms. Hall, whose voice sounded as just as rich and pure as it had a half-century ago—Mr. Alpert took questions.

He seemed surprised none involved whipped cream.

“My buddies and I would listen to your music in Vietnam,” someone shouted.

“And where were you when those songs were being played?” Mr. Alpert asked the rest of the audience.

It was rhetorical question, but people were thinking.

Urban Gardner: In the Buff: Nudie Playing Cards That Call Your Bluff

Artist creates a deck filled with naked men striking all manner of cheesecake poses

The artist Z Behl put two jokers in her take on the risqué playing cards of her youth; both are of Ms. Behl. ENLARGE
The artist Z Behl put two jokers in her take on the risqué playing cards of her youth; both are of Ms. Behl. PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I don’t understand the precise chronology, but the artist Z Behl was approximately 10 years old when she stole a pack of nudie playing cards from her father.

“I found the same deck again 10 years later,” she told me last week as we stood in the Kai Matsumiya gallery on the Lower East Side.

That’s where the end result of her thievery, the show “Joker’s Solitaire,” was on display. It is her take on the risqué playing cards of her youth, except using male rather than female models.

“He told me he’d gotten them on Canal Street,” she said of her dad and his playing cards. “They used to sell a lot of weird stuff on Canal Street in the ’80s.”

What I’m confused about is whether she stole the same deck twice, or if there were two decks of randy cards.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter. What does is what the effect that seminal experience of discovering ladies in various states of undress had on Z Behl’s art.

“I made a drawing of my favorite one,” a memento mori featuring a woman, a skull and a leopard rug, Ms. Behl went on. “I don’t really look at porn or anything. It was bizarre I had this relationship to it.”

Next, the artist asked herself: “What would I like to look at?”

The answer provided the inspiration for “Joker’s Solitaire,” 52 oversize playing cards of nude men striking all manner of cheesecake poses.

Unfortunately, the show closed over the weekend. But individual, standard-size decks of the playing cards can still be purchased through the gallery.

“I knew immediately I could find 52 men who would pose naked for me and be excited about it,” Ms. Bell said, “given the kind of friendships I cultivated. I also knew my boyfriend would be OK with it.”

Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to provide a brief biography of the artist, in an effort to determine whether the nature of her friendships are different from yours and mine.

Or whether millennials, males in particular, are quicker to strip in public than they were in my day.

Ms. Behl, now 29, grew up in Tribeca, attended P.S. 234 on Greenwich Street (several of the male models are friends from her school days), Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University.

After college, she moved to New Orleans where she was part of a community that included her former boyfriend Benh Zeitlin, who made the Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

I neglected to ask whether Mr. Zeitlin has a cameo role in “Joker’s Solitaire.” I’ll assume not. I know her current boyfriend, Justin Cox, doesn’t.

In a follow-up email, Ms. Behl told me, “I had a hard time finding ANY female artists who used the male nude in their work. Women have often turned the camera on themselves, but there are very few examples of women taking on men.”

I couldn’t think of any either.

“I wanted to reveal men and what they’d be comfortable revealing,” she added.

The short answer is—quite a lot.

One gentleman, with glasses and a beard, is posed on his tummy atop some sort of giant animatronic dog.

Another model is making use of a whisk, but only to cook dinner. A third is taking public transportation. Indeed, I believe he’s on the B train.

Then, there is the image of a fellow wearing nothing but red socks and dreadlocks.

“This guy is a friend from Wesleyan,” Ms. Behl explained.

The setting is pleasantly arboreal. Indeed, he seems to be pausing in a forest clearing, the foliage exclusively marijuana plants.

“This is his dad’s grow house,” Ms. Behl explained.

Some of the cards—the ace of diamonds, for example—are downright studious.

“That is my old roommate who’s a lawyer,” the artist reported. “I knew I wanted to show his [private parts] on a pile of books.”

A movie house provides the backdrop for the three of clubs; apart from the originality of “Joker’s Solitaire,” and the casting, one must credit Ms. Behl with a talent for set design and especially logistics.

In the picture, a moviegoer has settled in with a supersize box of popcorn, soda and candy for a late showing of “Ouija,” a horror film that came and went pretty quickly last fall. Except, of course, he’s buck naked.

“There were actually people in the theater,” Ms. Behl recalled. “I used an iPhone to light it,” she boasted. “I shot a roll in the dark during previews.”

Perhaps my favorite card—the three of diamonds—shows a gentleman with bearlike amounts of body hair. He’s posing in the buff at the venerable New Orleans Athletic Club. Ms. Behl gained access by applying for a trial membership.

“People were swimming laps in the pool,” she remembered, apparently unaware there was a photo shoot in progress, albeit furtively.

The pack of playing cards includes two jokers. They’re of Ms. Behl, posed with her Pentax, in a black-and-white spandex bodysuit.

I suppose that is the equivalent of maintaining your aesthetic distance.

A Sweet Ride in New York City

Chauffeur Mohammed Mechouche in one of the St. Regis hotel’s Bentleys.ENLARGE
Chauffeur Mohammed Mechouche in one of the St. Regis hotel’s Bentleys.PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

New York is a city of contrasts. There’s rich and poor. Townhouses and tenements. Museums filled with treasures and streets heaped with trash.

Even so, I’m not sure where last Wednesday afternoon fits into the equation. It started with a spin in a Bentley. Two different Bentleys, actually. And continued with an exhibition on the Lower East Side of nudie playing cards.

First the ride.

I’d never been in a Bentley. So when the St. Regis hotel on East 55th Street announced it was inaugurating what it described as “the world’s only Bentley house car service,” I asked whether it might be possible to go for a brief ride, without having to check in and pay their $645-a-night starting room rate.

My mother stayed at the St. Regis. But that was in 1938. Apparently her guest privileges no longer apply.

Actually, what intrigued me about the Bentleys was less the quality of the ride than that I mistakenly believed they allowed guests to drive the $350,000 cars.

They don’t.

Due to my lack of familiarity with five-star hotels, I assumed that “house car service” meant the St. Regis thought highly enough of its guests that they handed over the keys, no questions asked.

And that you had an open-ended invitation to drive the vehicles to impress friends, family and business associates. (Except for the vanity license plate there is no branding on the car’s side to indicate it belongs to the St. Regis.)

In fact, what the hotel is willing to do is let you sit in the back seat while chauffeur Mohammed Mechouche takes you where you need to go.

The other reason I wanted a ride in a Bentley is that I’d heard somewhere—I believe it was on NPR’s “Car Talk”—that this latest generation of Bentleys possesses ungodly acceleration.

The engine basically sticks its thumb in the eye of Einsteinian physics. Going from zero to 60 in something like a nanosecond.

I realized we probably weren’t going to reach maximum speed in Midtown. Especially given all the snow and slush we’ve been having lately, as well as the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Lexington Avenue. And also because of the city’s new and reduced 25 mph speed limit. (Anybody know how that’s working out?)

But one could still theoretically floor the engine and almost instantly hit the brakes. That way you could experience the car’s Saturn rocket-like G-forces while simultaneously testing the efficacy of the seat belts and perhaps the air bags.

Mr. Mechouche told me that he’d never gone faster than 80 miles an hour, even though the speedometer tops out at 200 mph. And that he plays with the accelerator only on the West Side Highway.

However, to be perfectly clear—because I don’t want to get him into trouble—he never said he’d gone 80 on the West Side Highway. For all I know, it might have happened on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“It’s not good for the engine,” to never let it out, he told me. I didn’t need convincing.

The two Bentleys that the St. Regis hotel in Midtown keeps for its ‘house car service.’ENLARGE
The two Bentleys that the St. Regis hotel in Midtown keeps for its ‘house car service.’ PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

At that moment we were stopped at a red light in the hotel’s daytime car—a $222,000 Moonbeam Silver Flying Spur—and the smaller of the two vehicles in the St. Regis fleet.

Come nighttime, the Silver Flying Spur goes to bed and is replaced by an even more luxurious Beluga Black Mulsanne.

“We’re always looking at what we can do differently without being too gimmicky,” explained Hermann Elger, the general manager at the St. Regis. “Every luxury hotel has a big, fancy house car.”

The St. Regis also has a “Bentley Suite.” “It’s outfitted with materials from the cars,” Mr. Elger explained. “The drapes are lined with seat-belt material.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the suite because it was occupied. But for some reason the idea of a hotel room decorated like a car, even a Bentley, doesn’t particularly ignite my imagination.

However, the vehicle’s interior was admittedly tasteful, all leather and burled wood.

But I remember the days when Bentleys and Rollses were roughly the size of an Abrams tank, and almost identical to each other except for their distinctive radiator grills—the Rolls’s straight, the Bentley’s V-shaped.

These days they could pass for a dozen other luxury cars. Indeed, the feature that most impressed me, and that I spent the most time experimenting with, was the control that raised and lowered the individual sunscreens on each window.

I also appreciated the way the window descended all the way, rather than receding incompletely as they do on my Subaru, I assume to qualify for a higher mileage rating.

But I suppose it would be really annoying if you paid as much for a car as for a condo and then discovered the windows didn’t roll down all the way.

The story of “Joker’s Solitaire”—the exhibition of oversize playing cards of 52 nude men by Z Behl that I was on my way to see—will just have to wait.

There’s only so much stimulus one can take in a New York day.

Treating My Many Traumas Over Drinks

Urban Gardner/Wall Street Journal


I avoid analysis. Except when my friend Margaret Crastnopol comes to town.

Peggy, a psychologist in Seattle, visits once a year for the national meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

We met on a “teen tour”—a busload of 16-year-olds hitting every tourist hot spot from Niagara Falls to Disneyland—during the summer of Woodstock and the Moonwalk.

Peggy seemed mature even back then, turning her analytical eye to relationships on the bus.

“You were so wanting to win people’s approval, especially girls,” she recalled. “Would girls like you or not? Would girls find you attractive? They’d give you their blessing and you’d have a good life.”

To be fair, Peggy didn’t just offer this insight into my adolescent romantic aspirations unprovoked. I encouraged her honesty. I have an idea to turn the events of that memorable summer into some sort of coming-of-age story and asked her impressions of my budding personality.

The psychologist also kept me apprised of a book she was working on and that has just been published. It’s called “Micro-trauma: a Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury” (Routledge).

Peggy wrote the book for her peers rather than the general public, though I think she succeeds in addressing both. (She analyzed “Sopranos” episodes for, so she’s versed at translating her insights into layman’s language.)

And while I’m frankly generally not supremely interested in the field of psychology—avoidance works just fine for me, thank you—something resonated about the subject of her book as we discussed it over the years, over drinks and dinner.

Rather than major clinical conditions such as depression, she tackles the thousands of slights and arrows we toss at each other daily. These are the “micro-traumas” in the book’s title.

I like to think I have a reasonably healthy marriage and relationship with my children—mostly because my wife passed down her mental health to my daughters; if I’d married anyone else, I suspect they’d be nervous wrecks.

Nonetheless, in Peggy’s description of her work, I recognized the psychic cuts and bruises people in close proximity can inflict on each other. And not just between spouses, but also among friends and co-workers.

“Since these injurious moments occur within relationships that are otherwise felt to be valuable,” she writes in her introduction, “the individual may be motivated to ignore them in service of not rocking the relational boat.”

Which is how my marriage rolls, since I avoid conflict at all costs, except when my wife corners me. That generally happens no more than once or twice a month; and I try to make the most of it by telling myself that it’s well deserved.

Peggy has broken down these micro-traumas into seven categories, which she confesses to be “idiosyncratically selective,” even though they’re the result of years of observing her patients, and perhaps her own relationships as well.

I’ll do my best to describe some of them, with the caveat that I was taking notes over drinks while we were deciding where to have dinner.

Some even sound upbeat at first, such as “airbrushing” and “excessive niceness.”

“People who have to put a positive spin on everything,” as Peggy put it—in the process of minimizing one’s own or the other person’s flaws and paving over not only shortcomings but also the complexity of relationships.

Then there’s “connoisseurship gone awry.” A healthy example of connoisseurship would be a parent educating a child to be engaged with the world. However, constructiveness turns into coercion “having a hyper-discriminating person trumpet his or her special knowledge of excellence to another person.”

“You see a lot of connoisseurship in relationships where people try to encourage the other to be what we most admire, so we’re boosting our sense of self,” Peggy told me.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps my favorite, so to speak, is “little murders,” assaults on a person’s self-worth. Peggy cribbed the description from a Jules Feiffer play of the same name. These are the slights and put-downs, usually delivered in an offhand manner, that we aim at each other every day.

“It doesn’t have to be traumatic,” Peggy explained. “It’s more a matter of how much, how often, how much resilience the person has.”

It wasn’t long after that we went out to dinner. To an excellent restaurant, but one where I couldn’t help but feel that Peggy was unnecessarily depriving herself by ordering off the gluten-free menu, allergic reactions be damned.

However, I bit my tongue. I’d learned to become a better person over the previous hour, and wasn’t about to blow it.

Gentile’s Fine Foods, a Beacon on Grocery-Starved Madison

The family-owned business opened in its first location in 1927

Gentile's Fine Foods on Madison Avenue and East 79th StreetENLARGE
Gentile’s Fine Foods on Madison Avenue and East 79th Street PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

With its designer boutiques and jewelry stores, but almost nowhere to buy groceries, does Madison Avenue qualify as something of an upscale food desert?

And if so, does that make Gentile’s Fine Foods, at Madison and East 79th Street, a balmy oasis upon this gilded but parched plain? A fresh water port filled with Pellegrino and framed by trees bearing the finest produce?

That was the conversation I was having with myself as I walked home along Madison one evening.

I can’t remember what product I was craving.

If it had been a canary yellow diamond or a Carolina Herrera gown, I’d have been in good shape. But since my needs were somewhat more pedestrian—perhaps cashews, ginger ale or Tide Plus Bleach Alternative—I seemed out of luck.

Anthony Gentile, left, of Gentile’s Fine Foods speaks to a customer.ENLARGE
Anthony Gentile, left, of Gentile’s Fine Foods speaks to a customer. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But just as I was about to abandon hope and succumb to the uncertain charms of Lexington Avenue, which still has a supermarket or two, I spotted the hearth-like warmth of Gentile’s shining in the distance.

How it manages to survive, I have no idea.

“It’s a loyalty thing,” explained Anthony Gentile, the store’s owner, referring to his bespoke clientele.

Mr. Gentile’s grandfather opened the store in 1927 at Lexington and 92nd Street. The operation moved to Madison Avenue in the late ’60s and has been relocating ever since, but only within a one-block radius.

“1065, 1045, now we’re at 1041,” Mr. Gentile explained.

Jordan Gentile with employee Anna Navarro.ENLARGE
Jordan Gentile with employee Anna Navarro. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

He refers to his longtime Fifth and Park Avenue customers by address rather than by name. Seven out of 10 place their orders by telephone.

“We stand behind our service,” the 64-year-old Mr. Gentile said matter-of-factly.

“You have the best produce,” Jordan Gentile, Anthony’s son and the fourth generation to work in the business, told his father. “Fairway [Market] can’t touch what you get.”

“They could,” Mr. Gentile said about his competitor. “But it’s very personalized. We still wrap our fruit.”

Mr. Gentile said his grandfather would turn in his grave if he saw the way fruits and vegetables are handled these days.

“It’s a lot of work,” he acknowledged. “Don’t get me wrong. If I had to do it again, a 7-Eleven manager might be easier.”

Whether or not Fairway’s produce is competitive, Gentile’s just offers a special level of service. Like delivering a three-item order to your door in 10 minutes. Or not batting an eye if a customer desires bread from E.A.T., across the street.

“I go to Eli’s two-three times a day,” Jordan Gentile said. “We’re basically food shopping for people.”

Clients over the years have even included West Siders, such as comedian Steve Martin and Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman, according to Anthony Gentile.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg , who lives around the corner, has dropped by as well.

“When Spitzer was governor,” Mr. Gentile recalled, “he and Bloomberg used to have their Saturday meeting here over coffee.”

He added, “We always called Eliot, Eliot.”

The grocer pointed in the direction of the deli counter, where the politicians held their informal conclaves.

Or rather where the deli counter used to be. The store underwent a renovation not long ago and looks somewhat more streamlined.

But you hardly notice. Because taking up most of the oxygen in the room, outshining even the $2.99 Sumo oranges in the front window, and the excellent white-fish salad sandwiches, is Mr. Gentile himself. He’s a large, perpetual motion machine who exudes a gruff charisma while filling orders and stocking shelves.

No one seems to appreciate his effort more than his 26-year-old son.

“He’s kind of hard of hearing,” Jordan Gentile confided. “He needs a hearing aid and won’t get one. He needs a knee replacement and won’t get one.”

The younger Mr. Gentile didn’t share the medical histories of other employees, but they might be suffering some wear and tear, too.

One of them dates back to his grandfather’s era. Three others joined the store around the same time his father did in 1980.

Even Marie Gentile, Mr. Gentile’s mother who labored alongside his father on 92nd Street—there’s a picture of her behind the counter—still drops by twice a week.

“It’s like a social club for her,” said Mr. Gentile, who was born in the neighborhood—at Lenox Hill Hospital—but moved to the Bronx and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. “I didn’t want to work here,” he remembered. “I needed to pay some bills.”

But the early ’80s were an exciting time to enter the food business. Stores such as Dean and DeLuca and the Silver Palate were opening and spurring what would become a food revolution.

“I went down there and met all these people,” Mr. Gentile said, among them Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca at their Prince Street store. “It was interesting back then.”

Gentile’s could benefit from a little more space. And Mr. Gentile said a real-estate investor client—the grocer identified him by his Fifth Avenue address—told him he’d help him move to Third Avenue where he could spread out.

“Basically you don’t need to be right across the street,” from your clientele, Mr. Gentile said. “You think about it. But you’ve been on the avenue for 45 years.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be moving any time soon.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at

View of the High Wire—From Below

Ralph Gardner Jr. goes behind the scenes with the Ringling Bros.’ Danguir Troupe

Achraf Elkati, a member of the Danguir Troupe, the high-wire act of Ringling Bros., leaps in the air at Grand Central Terminal.ENLARGE
Achraf Elkati, a member of the Danguir Troupe, the high-wire act of Ringling Bros., leaps in the air at Grand Central Terminal. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES FOR RINGLING BROS.

Small confession: I dropped the ball. Or to be more accurate, I forgot that I’d committed to a tightrope-walking lesson last Tuesday afternoon with the Danguir Troupe, the high-wire act of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

In my defense, it wasn’t as if the circus—which is performing in the area through March 22—was put on hold awaiting my arrival. The lions weren’t left in mid-roar and the Human Cannonball fully loaded with nowhere to go.

I’d been told to report to Grand Central Terminal where Ringling Bros. was making a promotional appearance in Vanderbilt Hall for “Circus Xtreme,” its new production.

Also, the high wire I was supposed to be walking wasn’t especially high.

It’s not as if the Danguirs— Mustafa Danguir, Anna Lebedeva, Achraf Elkati, Mohamed Azzouz, Abdelhamid Danguir and Miguel Angel Pereda Fernandez —were going to escort me to the roof of Nassau Coliseum or Prudential Center in Newark, a couple of their local stops, and have me cross the arena on “a wire no wider than a human thumb,” as the circus puts it.

The contraption I’d be mounting was to be no more than a few feet off the ground. I was also assured there would be someone holding my hand.

Not that I requested such coddling. Even someone as risk-averse as me must admit that a person holding your hand as you cross a high wire, or even a picket fence, is pretty lame. What am I—a 3-year-old?

By the time I scrambled onto the subway and made it to Grand Central a half-hour late the high wire had been removed. Replaced by some aspiring local talent trying out for the circus, doing headstands, as a small crowd of commuters looked on.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly relieved. Even a fall from a few feet can spoil your day. Besides, I’m not one of those who ever aspired to join the circus. Growing up in New York City during the ’60s was hairy enough.

I was more interested in getting the behind-the-scenes scoop on the craft of high-wire walking from the Danguirs, and specifically whether being an acrobat makes it easier to meet girls.

Mustafa Danguir, a Moroccan who seemed to be the group’s leader and spokesman, readily acknowledged that acrobats have built-in luster. As a matter of fact, he met his girlfriend, Ms. Lebedeva, through the circus.

Now she’s part of the act.

“She was a juggler before,” he said. “She fell in love with the high wire.”

“Yes, it helps a lot to be a performer,” Mr. Danguir went on. “For the girls it’s something different. Women like crazy people.”

I didn’t know how to put it politely. But was Ms. Lebedeva as talented an aerialist as a juggler? Or was there a little nepotism involved? Just because you fall in love with someone doesn’t mean they’re qualified to join you on the high wire.

Besides, you’re not thinking only of your own safety, but also that of Achraf, Mohamed, Miguel and Abdelhamid.

Danguir aerialists, from left, Achraf Elkati, Anna Lebedeva, Mustafa Danguir and Mohamed Azzouz.ENLARGE
Danguir aerialists, from left, Achraf Elkati, Anna Lebedeva, Mustafa Danguir and Mohamed Azzouz. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Fortunately, Mustafa Danguir took no offense. “You’re talking with the best high wire in the world,” he boasted. “That’s how good she is. To go up there you really have to be good. To control your fear and to trust each other. High wire is about trust.”

I brought up the documentary “Man on Wire” where Philippe Petit crossed from one of the towers of the World Trade Center to the other in 1974. Thinking about the stunt still nauseates me.

Mr. Danguir said that he once crossed on a tightrope from the top of the Gran Hotel Bali Benidorm in Spain to the Church of St. James, a height of 540 feet and a distance of a mile. He also crossed two mountains in New York, and Alexanderplatz in Berlin.

However, he admitted that last May’s circus accident, when eight Ringling Bros. acrobats fell to the ground in Providence, R.I., gave him pause. “It affects you, to remind you this is dangerous,” he said. But he quickly added, “This life is a dangerous life. You like the feeling to be doing dangerous things.”

Ms. Lebedeva joined us. She was dressed for winter in a down parka, pink cloche hat and boots, rather than the flashy circus outfits her male counterparts were wearing.

“I was really emotional,” she recalled of the first time she mounted the high wire. “I just grabbed his shoulders,” she said of Mustafa Danguir, “and we crossed together.”

Mr. Danguir and she must argue occasionally. All couples do. “During the act or normal life?” asked Ms. Lebedeva, a sixth-generation Russian-Italian circus performer.

“Either,” I answered.

Fighting is rarely fun. But it could be lethal if you weren’t on speaking terms suspended 30 feet above the ground on a chair between two bicycles, as Ms. Lebedeva has been known to do.

“In that moment we work together,” the performer explained steadfastly. “You forget everything.”

Mr. Danguir agreed. “When you’re up there your mentality has to be 100%.”

If anything, performing together on a high wire seems to promote romance. “He’s an amazing performer,” Ms. Lebedeva said.

And what of the other members of the troupe? “They’re like brothers to me,” she said. “I trust in them and they trust in me.”