(Arete: the Greek concept of personal excellence, performing exactly the work for which you were built, exactly what you are best at, to your highest ability. Related word: aresteia.)
So I want to talk about a couple of places where I've found excellence in the world. I seek these out, like islands in the stream. They're not always flashy or flamboyant, but they are deep and true. They are hard to find, but they're there. I hope to make this a series. If you know someone who is just astonishing at what they do, send me their information, and if I can experience it for myself, I'll write about them.
The first is the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland, run by Paulius Nasvytis. Now, there are two levels to this place. One is the drinks--they are simply the apotheosis of the cocktail. Handmade in every part--there isn't an electric blender in the house--they are complex, whimsical, slurpingly delicious and often challenging. My favorite is probably the Lady in White, which is so light and airy and fresh that you might as well be sitting on a verandah. Followed by the Apricot Sour (no maraschinos here, we usually fight over the delicate black cherry speared on top), and the Bourbon Daisy, which has a long flavor development on the tongue that is just beyond description. Guys, this is the BPAL of cocktails. You have to collect them all. Last night I had a Royal Fizz--which came with a spoon so that I didn't have to loose a bit of the rich, thick foam on top. I could go on forever.
The second level is Paulius himself. He's a restauranteur of the old school--he has a kiss on the cheek for me and an air of ineffeable grace, enthusiasm, and class. Also he's pretty hot. In his speakeasy--and a speakeasy it is, all decorated in rich reds and golds and candlelight, with a recession special wherein the lady behind the bar will bring you milk punch, a cookie, and tell you everything's gonna be all right for $5. Can you even believe that? The VTR is a small pool of gracious beauty in a broken world. I wish I could go there every week. It nourishes my soul, and I've never been to a place like it.
The second is a barber shop. The Depot Barber Shop, also in Cleveland.
Reader, I have never wanted facial hair so much in my life. Rainier Franke owns this place, and he is a barber out of a book of archetypes. He has a low, comforting voice and talks politics, philosophy, his own long life history, anything you like while he shaves you with an old fashioned straight razor, steam towel, the whole nine. And he's amazing with men's hair--he knows just how to shape that regulation geek goatee to make ever face perfect, what haircut will look best on any guy. But it's the atmosphere, effortlessly masculine in a totally non-confrontational way, but with cookies and coffee and this guy with a voice like honey. I wish women's salons were like this. I wish this wasn't such a segregated thing.
And he charges $12. Shave is free.
Once, as I was pining to be included with all my delighted male friends getting their pampering, he intuited my longing without my saying a word, and kindly offered to cut my hair, even though I'm not a man and it's a men's shop. And do you know what? I've never had such a good haircut in my life. My hair is long and thick and some salons will refuse to seat me just because I have so much of it. He never blinked, and I looked amazing. He refused to take a dime from me, and when I go with justbeast now, he always asks after my writing, like we're old friends.
The last is Parrish Relics, run by Jennifer Parrish (parrish_relics ). Now, most of my friends make jewelry of one stripe or another, and I love what they do, but for me, Jen is the top. She does medieval stained glass and polymer clay, often with paintings embedded in them, and when I think of the most beautiful things I own, her jewelry always comes to mind. I love her work with such a passion, and I am lucky enough to have five of her necklaces, including an anchorite necklace she did on commission from me. I have one black beaded with an arch pendant depicting a nun in a golden robe writing in a great book, and it is probably the single item I wear more than any other. They are classic and mysterious and beautiful, like wearing a piece of a cathedral. When it comes to Parrish Relics, I have no willpower. I lust for them, and when I have one, it always looks like it was made just for me.
Like Paulius at the Velvet Tango Room, Jennifer is herself the soul of grace and beauty. She is an incredibly peaceful person to be around--she just radiates light, like a bodhisattva. I wish I knew her better. But I am content with wearing her work around my neck.
It's important to me, as I get older, to collect these pockets of light, places and people where I can get a piece of my soul buffed and shined, where I can sit in awe of humans clearly doing what they were made for. These are just three. I hope to post about others in the months to come.