Five Stories, One Williamsburg

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Inside Brooklyn’s Creative Hub, and the Passions it Supports

Steven Thompson and his studio's color (Alexander Abnos / The Brooklyn Ink)

I | Art, To Start

Locust Hill, South Carolina is not a town. The small community on the outskirts of Greenville has a population barely large enough to register on a Google map. There are two roads and one lake. There are houses, but not many of them. Steven Thompson spent his first 18 years along these winding narrow roads, where everybody knew everybody, and nothing seemed to change.

Then one day he opened his front door and walked out. Destination: Clemson University. There were massive libraries there – appropriate, for someone intent on majoring in literature. They had a football team – Thompson was a huge fan. But one month in, still fresh in his dorm, his journey began to slow. Feelings obscured. Anxiety set in. On his own for the first time, Thompson broke down.

“Everything just became so bizarre to me…things were fundamentally without understanding,” he says today, fiddling with the wheels of a toy skateboard in his cluttered Williamsburg studio. “I don’t think I’m an artist BECAUSE of the nervous breakdown, but it definitely helped.”

Indeed, it took Thompson five years (and a transfer to the College of Charleston) before he took his first studio art class – a one-month short course on printmaking. He spent those five years as a pendulum. Sometimes a recluse, sometimes gregarious. Always, though, with a deep, unabiding, and simply unexplainable internal pain.

Slowly, tentatively, Thompson applied oil paint to plexiglass for his first project. His inner dialogue, still turbulent years after his Clemson episode, began to calm. Each brush stroke brought Thompson closer to secret places in the deep recesses of his person. Each color sang to him. In art, he could get lost in discovery. Thompson took a deep breath.

“You could say ‘I’m going to walk out this door and go into the city. I plan to go to a bar. I hope to meet my friend.’ But when the day comes around, you never know,” he says. “You could walk out the door and get smacked down by a car, and you’re gone forever.”

“When I sit down to make a work of art, it’s kind of like I’m stepping out of my door. I don’t really know what is going to happen. I have an idea of where I want to go, but I don’t know exactly where I’m going to end up.”

20 years after his first class, and it’s others who discover Thompson. They see him at galleries in New York City. In Georgia. In North Carolina. And on a cold December day, a former exotic dancer from Austin, Texas will walk into Oslo Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn and discover Thompson herself.

Merget, Ben, and the bean machine (Alexander Abnos/The Brooklyn Ink)

II | Brooklyn’s Roaster

Downtown Williamsburg may be a brick-and-mortar neighborhood, but glass and metal are beginning to loom large. Their smooth, silvery surfaces provide the facade for many an upscale condo building popping up in the area, monuments to gentrification for a community in flux.

Things begin to change to the north and west of McCarren Park. Here, glass shards powder the streets, lined with nothing but warehouses. A faint rumble emerges from one building on the corner, with chipping grey paint and a creaking front door. Motorcycle logos plaster the outer wall, appearing faded in the afternoon sun. Inside, mountains of dead metal and tools lie scattershot throughout the concrete floors. The rumble loudens. It smells like morning. In a side room, a door slides open, and within a single step you find yourself at the epicenter of one of Brooklyn’s most successful independent coffeehouses.

“Coffee always changes. It’s never the same,” says J.D. Merget, the founder and owner of Oslo Coffee Roasters. He has to raise his voice to be heard above the din of the roaster, currently cooking beans from a far away land. “It has a life at each stage. It has a life when it comes to us, it has a life when it’s roasted, and it has a life when it’s been brewed. It’s constantly evolving…or devolving, as the case may be.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the roaster itself. The model in Oslo’s partition of this warehouse was made in the early 1980s, but the design has not been fundamentally altered since the early 20th century. Encased in dark red metal, a giant barrel rhythmically revolves. The coffee beans inside tumble like laundry, visible only through a tiny porthole on the front of the machine. Temperature and timing are paramount here. Cook the beans one second too long, one degree too hot, and the taste will suffer. Merget periodically removes a small metal bar from the front of the machine. It contains a sample of the beans within. Placing it near his nose, he inhales deeply. Not quite time yet.

Merget tuned in to this process some time ago. Formerly head of quality control and roasting at Kobricks Coffee in New Jersey, he started Oslo in 2003 at the insistence of his wife Kathy. The rationale for their shops location – on Roebling and Metropolitan in Williasmburg – was simple. It was cheap. Soon they found other advantages.

“It used to be you couldn’t get me to cross the bridge and visit my friends in Williamsburg. Now you can’t get me to cross the opposite way and go to Manhattan,” he says. “That happened pretty quick. Once we opened the store it was just like ‘What were we doing? This is such a great neighborhood.'”

Merget takes a sip of a new brew. This time, from the tiny African country of Burundi. Placing his nose inside the small glass tester cup, he inhales a sweet, floral bouquet. Taking a sip, the sensation turns to tart grapefruits, a short pause, and a finish of burnt sugar and tobacco. He nods approvingly, sets the cup down, and waits. In five minutes, he says, this same cup of coffee will taste noticeably different.

“The neighborhood is constantly changing, too,” he says. “It’s not what it was 10 years ago. It went from a sleepy little town that swelled on the weekends with visitors to the hustle and bustle of New York City.”

What has always remained, though, are the residents and their stories. When he started Oslo, Merget worked behind the counter all day, six days a week. He met customers from all walks of life, all pursuing their passions just like him. He got to know them. What they do. How they think. Where they’re going, and where they’ve been.

“At some point,” he says, “Brooklyn became this machine that attracts more and more and more creative people.”

The time has come. In one fell swoop, Ben (Oslo’s roaster operator) opens the door to the machine’s barrel, allowing an avalanche of steaming hot coffee beans to land on the platform below. Through air holes on the surface of the sifter, steam is sucked out while mechanical arms stir and jostle wave after wave of beans.

Merget observes this and takes another sip of the now-lukewarm Burundi coffee. The grapefruit is still there, but less pronounced. The pause between start and finish extends at least twice as long as it did previously. The taste experience ends with a new, flowery finish. In short, it tastes like a completely different cup of coffee.

“Ultimately, [the community] is simple,” he says. “It’s like-minded people coming together because we have passions and Brooklyn has the facilities for us to do what we want to do.”

A lever is pulled, and the now-cooled beans fall through a trap door in the roaster and into a grey plastic trash can. Another machine will sift through the beans to remove any rocks or debris that could ruin the grinders. Within a day, they’ll be up for sale in brown paper bags.

Brown bags and business (Alexander Abnos / The Brooklyn Ink)

III | Fashion and Function

The acid-washed denim vest needed some spicing up. That’s all Nayantara Banerjee knew. It needed flash. Pizazz. Style. Something feminine and eye-catching. Something fit for a Barbie doll. Because that’s exactly what the vest was.

“It was basically just a tube of fabric,” Banerjee says of the doll’s garment, the subject of the first sewing project she ever completed. Using a needle, thread, and advice from her mother, Banerjee added lime green lace trim to the collar and arm holes. She was six years old.

“I was not a prim and proper type of kid,” she says now, at 27. “My little brother, a little boy, thought I was disgusting.” She places special emphasis on “I,” as if her brother had no room to talk.

“He used to make me wash my hands before I played his Nintendo.”

So Banerjee’s hands turned to sewing instead. Her personal wardrobe expanded to include custom creations – constructed by herself, still with the help of her mother. Even with a bigger canvas, the Barbie doll aesthetic remained.

“I started getting really particular about what I wanted,” she says.” I wanted really girly things like huge full skirts and puffy sleeves.”

She wore them all with sneakers, to run around in.

Banerjee says this seated on a chair in the middle of her studio apartment in East Williamsburg. She sips at a cup of Oslo coffee. Banerjee glances around and apologizes for the haphazard look of her front room. “I used to live across the street…I only moved in here a month ago,” she says. There is nothing to apologize for. Her apartment is well-kept, outside of the pins, needles, thread spools, and scissors that smatter the surface of a wide wood table pressed against the wall.

But those things are to be expected in the home of a door-to-door seamstress.

“As friends started to be bridesmaids, they would ask me for alterations, then friends of friends started asking and I got requests for custom made things. Then one day on a whim I was just like ‘I’m gonna quit my job and see if I can make this work.”

Her job at the time involved posting instructional sewing videos and managing the web site of a fashion design start-up. Before that, with the ink still drying on her degree in fashion design (Syracuse), she worked for a company making women’s suits. In both jobs, marketing and trends directed the work. Banerjee’s mailbox became stuffed with magazines, their smooth pages dominated by advertisements and the smell of various perfume samples. Her Twitter feed became a tangled web of “what’s hot now” and “the next big thing.” It became too much to handle. Banerjee cancelled her subscriptions, and embarked on a simpler path.

“I get fed up with the branding and marketing of clothing sometimes,” she says. “We live in a world where people want something new, something more, and somebody’s going to give it to them. But a lot of times they’re just expressing that they want to look a certain way, not that they are a certain way.”

Today she trades under the title “The Williamsburg Seamster” – a play on the “scenester” title bestowed on so many of North Brooklyn’s more fashionable, event-attending types. When she started the business six years ago, Banerjee was a bartender, too. Now, she is the same as when she was six. She sews garments, and runs around.

“I don’t know that I could do it in another neighborhood,” she says. “There’s something about this North Brooklyn area. People are open with their homes, I offer a unique service…it just fits in with everything this neighborhood is about right now.”

Banerjee hasn’t left the design game completely. But now she plays it on her own terms. Just after quitting her job and before The Williamsburg Seamster matured, Banerjee began custom-making garments again. This time, for her friends. This time, it needed to be simple. Functional. The antithesis of everything the fashion and design industry was marketing towards.

Within a year, she nearly sold out her batch of customized aprons.

“They’re like giant pockets,” she says.

Banerjee and the tools of her trade (Alexander Abnos / The Brooklyn Ink)

The Ehlers adjustment (Alexander Abnos / The Brooklyn Ink)

IV | To Learn To Turn

At one point, Barb Ehlers greeted her clients in full rock climbing gear. Rugged boots, thick pants, and, sometimes, jackets with untold amounts of pockets. Ehlers, 5 foot 11 inches with fiery red hair and relentlessly focused expressions, had climbed Mount Everest on a whim. People paid her to get them in top shape now, and with no company dress code to follow, she would wear whatever she damn well pleased.

Today, in a studio on the 16th floor of a Manhattan high-rise, Ehlers dons a light blue tank top and black tights that cling to her slim, toned frame. Hair up, her expressions remain focused, even while laughing at the scene she finds herself in. She stands well over 6 feet now, the extra inches courtesy of a pair of black patent leather platform heels that lace up nearly to the top of her knees. It’s Wednesday night – time for her stripper class.

“I’ve been a jock all my life,” she says. “I know how to use my body. I know the muscles. But there’s this sexiness to using your body that I was never taught.  I can do push ups and pulls ups with a guy. I can dead-lift 205lbs, but to do a little sexy turn? That’s work for me!”

Ehlers, a personal trainer living in Williamsburg, takes this class each week with seven other women. Their instructor, Kimberly Smith, leads them through an array of moves that involve gyrating hips, slow leans forward, and dipping tooshes. Ehlers’ partner sits on a low-lying wicker chair while Ehlers uses the back of it to lift her body up with her arms. Carefully, Ehlers places her knees across her partners lap and shifts the weight from hand to hand. The goal here is to bob enticingly over the subject, lift up with the arms, extend legs, place toes on the ground, and slide the torso down slowly. Very slowly. And very, very close.

This is a bicycle, into a James Brown, into a full body slide.

“It’s just like a mountain climber!” Smith says as she demonstrates for the class.

“Yeah, I know,” says Ehlers. “That’s what I’m good at!”

Born in Bremen, Germany, Ehlers came up in a family where even her grandmother biked from place to place. Time passed by with roughhousing sessions from her sister. Eating took place at regular intervals, in controlled amounts. Breakfast. Big lunch. Something small in the evening.

At six, she moved to Queens. The transition was easy, but the kids seemed…different.

“It was like ‘Why aren’t you rolling around in the mud? Why aren’t you riding your bike around like a race car?’,” she says. “I felt tomboyish. There’s more of a gender difference here than there was there.”

There’s an atmosphere difference as well. In Queens, the Ehlers lived close by JFK airport, where the roar of passing jets (and their resulting pollutants) imbued the air. Just after moving to a new country, Barb developed a severe case of asthma.

“It hit me like a truck,” she says. “I couldn’t play, and I loved playing. I loved being outside, and I couldn’t do it. It takes your childhood life away.”

Soon, regularly scheduled pills went along with her regularly scheduled meals. A new character – an inhaler – added itself to the cast in her pockets. By 12, Ehlers had enough. She would breathe when she damn well pleased. She became a vegetarian, and her mother enrolled her in a karate class. At the beginning, she couldn’t make it through without reaching for her inhaler.

“I just couldn’t breathe,” she says. “Every time I got active, it got worse.”

Her sensei, an imposing man named Lee Ireland, would have none of it. Even as Barb gasped for air on his mat, the message rang firm.

“Breathe it out,” he commanded steadily, regularly.

“Just breathe it out.”

She did. Ehlers has not touched an inhaler since.

“A good teacher can show you a vision of yourself that you didn’t know was possible,” she says. “That’s something that I try to do with my clients, too, as a personal trainer. It’s the gift that [Ireland] gave me.”

Today, Ehlers trains so much, so vigorously, and in so many different ways that she needs to have clothes adjusted twice a year to account for her constantly changing body shape. TRX training, for example, has taken in her abdomen a couple inches. This is good. But now her little black dress poofs out at the sides. This is not good.

So at 10 a.m. the morning after her stripper class, Nayantara Banerjee pays a visit to Ehlers’ cozy one bedroom apartment in one of the last-remaining old style walk-ups by McCarren. Standing in front of a mirror in her living room, Ehlers lifts her arms up over her head as Banerjee carefully marks her body’s outline with safety pins.

A series of dead weights lie neatly on the floor next to the mirror, ordered according to size.

Kimberly Smith at work (photo by Halston Bruce / courtesy StripXpertease) and Thompson's work at rest (Alexander Abnos / The Brooklyn Ink)

V | The Cycle

The man carried stacks of money. Each stack contained one hundred dollars. All in ones. He sat in a low-lying chair in dim light, throwing bills on the strip club’s stage for whichever dancers he liked the most. Swigging vodka, the man leaned back in his seat. It creaked under his considerable girth. He liked Kimberly Smith. So when she came around to collect her tip, he told her a few things.

Smith looked at the man with wide brown eyes. She smiled with disarming grace. Then she walked away toward the manager of the club, demanding that the man be thrown out immediately. The manager remembered the stacks of money, and where his customer was currently spending it. He declined. The man would stay right where he was.

“Every single night there’s so much – you’re groped, you’re touched, you’re talked dirty to – there’s too much happening in one night to remember one situation,” Smith says, struggling to recall exactly what it was the man said that drove her to quit after 10 years of being a stripper. “That’s when I felt like I should move on. Nobody was on my side.”

Smith went home early, and angry. Sleep evaded her. At 3 a.m., she called the club, and told them to find a new dancer. Five years later, with StripXpertease, she teaches women from all walks of life the moves she learned.

There is an important caveat, though. Nobody is ever, in any way, encouraged to strip professionally.

“I get calls all the time from people saying ‘I want to be a stripper’ and my response is ‘Well, we can’t help you,'” she says. “I’m turning away money, but I just can’t justify helping some naive girl get into that industry, and then lord knows what happens to her. I don’t want that on my conscience.”

She knows all too well the cyclical, absorbing nature of the profession. Smith was in 6th grade in Austin when her drug-abusing mother moved them into a halfway house. Both of their housemates worked as strippers. One was still using. Both frequently strutted the hallways fully topless, as if it was the most normal, natural thing in the world. After all, they were just breasts.

“Looking back, it was bizarre to be living in that situation,” Smith says, emphasizing that she suffered no abuse or wrongdoing during her stay there. “I mean, they were strippers. It just wasn’t an ideal situation for a child to be in.”

But even as the women around her toiled in search of a better life, Smith couldn’t help but admire them a bit. These women were confident. They were in control. They had amazing bodies and exuded potent sexuality. In the comfort of the gaze of others, they could be the stars of their own intimate stage. For Smith, who long aspired to be an actress, these were significant qualities.

At the age of 18, she got a job as a dancer at a local club. Her 10-year journey through the seedy underbelly of strip clubs began.

“Girls are constantly getting evicted, getting their phones turned off, not being able to pay their bills, and they’re in this constant cycle,” she says. “That’s why girls dance to really sad music or really hard music. They’re angry. It’s just a horrible job. You’re getting paid to rub your crotch, your butt, your boobs on his penis. Nobody really wants to do that.”

Smith’s StripXpertease lesson plan simply removes money from the equation. Women, she says, want to know how to move, feel, be sexier. Victoria’s Secret rakes in countless millions based on that very concept. So do make-up companies. And hair salons. Buy this bra. Apply this mascara. Take on this expensive style. Even pole dancing classes, popularized by actress Sheila Kelley, market themselves as a physical fitness regime. There are tangible, physical results.

Smith’s aim is entirely mental. In the eyes of many, this makes it all the more dangerous. StripXpertease has been kicked out of multiple studios and received negative press, while pole dancing flourishes (despite the fact that most women do not have a pole in their homes). A YouTube video of Smith performing a routine with annotations explaining how she was moving and why was taken down by site administrators. Meanwhile the exact same video, without annotations, remained live.

“Apparently it’s more offensive to teach people how to do this nasty stuff than just doing the nasty stuff,” she says.

The solution would seem to be to open her own studio, but it’s easier said than done. The two main ingredients – money and time – are in short supply for Smith at the moment. In Williamsburg, though, she has a liberal, open neighborhood more likely to accept her enterprise with open arms.

“When I first moved out here I didn’t like it at all,” she says. “It’s like…everyone’s white. Everyone has a decent amount of money. Everyone’s ‘cool.’ It just seemed so pretentious. I said ‘If I’m going to live in the white suburbs, I’m going to go back to Texas where it doesn’t snow.'”

“It’s grown on me, though. I like the small, mom and pop feel here. I think a studio would do really great.”

Smith lives with her boyfriend in an apartment just off the hustle and bustle of Bedford Avenue. On a cold December day, she walks through the light drizzle into Oslo Coffee Roasters. The barista greets everyone who enters, including Smith, with a pleasant, familiar “hello.” Several pieces of art hang on the walls of the cafe, including one large web of wood and plastic suspended across from the front counter.

Smith’s eyes squint as she examines the sculpture. At first, it looks like little more than a series of translucent plastic bags suspended by planks. She inches closer.

“Oh!” She exclaims. It has become clear that inside the plastics are countless small woodcut figures, with intricate swooping patterns drawn in pen on top of them. Smith’s eyes settle back into their wide gaze. Her raised cheeks begin to relax with understanding.

“That’s a lot of work right there,” she says. “That’s so cool.”

There is a pause.

“What’s the artist’s name?”

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