Archive for the Features Category

Can America Learn From Czech Muslims?

Posted in Features, New York City with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2010 by pbiris

The recent hubbub about the construction of a Muslim community center near ground zero drove me to dig up a story I reported and wrote while studying in the Czech Republic last fall. Since I haven’t had much success shopping this around – a little too specific to the Czech Republic, probably – I’ve now decided to self-publish the feature here, as it seems the right time for this story. Obviously this is a personal blog, so my opinion and personal perspective are a little more available than they would be elsewhere, but hopefully that doesn’t impact how you respond to this.

Since I can say so here though, I really think opponents to the mosque in Lower Manhattan should reconsider whether the United States should be in the habit of debating core freedoms to the same extent as a much smaller nation that’s been a democracy for less time than I’ve been alive; this sort of thing is happening all over our country.

But maybe these thoughts should rest somewhere near the back of your mind as you read the story of Muneeb Hassan Alrawi’s mosque, one of only two that have been officially allowed in the Czech Republic.

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Czech Muslims at the Breaking Point of Past, Present, and Future
by Damon Beres

Muneeb Hassan Alrawi made a choice 25 years ago to leave his home in Iraq and lead his life as a Muslim in the Czech Republic, a nation wherein 96% of the population is ethnically Czech, and nearly 60% describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. At the time, there were a grand total of zero mosques nationwide for Muslims to worship in.

Over two decades later, the number has risen to two, and petitions for a third have largely fallen on deaf ears.
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20 Pleasant Albums from 2009

Posted in Features with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by pbiris

BEHOLD, MORTALS:
20 PLEASANT ALBUMS FROM 2009

Read on, swine.

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On Elizabeth Wurtzel

Posted in Features with tags , on April 2, 2009 by pbiris

We interviewed Elizabeth Wurtzel in my reporting class. Here’s what I have to say about it:

She’s got a best-selling book in her repertoire, 1994’s “Prozac Nation,” also the impetus to a film adaptation starring acclaimed actress Christina Ricci, a spot in one of New York’s top law firms, but author-turned-attorney Elizabeth Wurtzel is still depressed.

 

“I have always and probably will always, in some way, struggle with depression,” said Wurtzel in a recent interview.

 

She wears her infamy about as comfortably as the massive fur coat draped about her shoulders, which she is quick to justify as PETA-friendly; “I promise it’s vintage,” said Wurtzel, an unprompted response to a room of New York University journalism students.

 

And it’s hard to blame her. Do a Google search for “Elizabeth Wurtzel” and a number of juicy tidbits avail themselves. First, that she’s authored three books and appeared in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone. Next, that media gossip site Gawker has a thing to say about her controversial love life; the third result on the search page is a post titled “On Knowing Elizabeth Wurtzel Screwed David Foster Wallace.” And finally, that an unfiltered image search will produce a topless shot on the second page.

 

To say Wurtzel’s been in the limelight, not always on her own terms, may be something of an understatement. But what has fame brought her?

 

“It doesn’t solve anything,” said Wurtzel. “When you’re depressed, you’re depressed.” And despite the widespread attention both she and her seminal tome “Prozac Nation” have earned, she suggests that she doesn’t quite separate herself from jes plain folks.

 

“You have literary success or whatever, but you’re still taking the garbage out,” she said of life after “Prozac Nation.” But most don’t come in from the dumpster to gaze upon degrees from Harvard College and Yale Law School, a coffee table full of magazines they’ve been published in.

 

Still, chatting with CNN producer Phil Rosenbaum’s reporting class, even breaking for pizza with students and offering her email address to interested parties after the interview, Wurtzel was admittedly at ease, her rapport spanning topics from celebrity gossip to television dramas.

 

“I watch Law & Order re-runs…  I actually just watched the E! True Hollywood Story on the Kardashians… they seem like a nice family, in a weird way,” said Wurtzel.

 

She struggles with the bar examination, a requisite for those who want to practice law, criticizes the popularization of Brooklyn as a hip spot for married couples (“It’s Kabul, Afghanistan before it’s Cobble Hill; I can’t hear one more time that Brooklyn is the new Manhattan”), enthusiastically talks about her dog, and ponders the effect the internet has on blind dating.

 

You wouldn’t think so leafing through her books, trolling internet blogs, or maybe even at first glance, but Elizabeth Wurtzel is almost painstakingly normal; melancholic, occasionally depressive, prone to romantic foibles, self-involved and concerned about little more than the nebulous “world around her.”

 

She’s a best-selling author, yes, a big-time attorney, and indeed, still depressed.

 

Who wouldn’t be?

Talking Business with St. Mark’s Comics

Posted in Comic Books, Features with tags , on March 12, 2009 by pbiris

Originally written for my business reporting class and published here, this is a story about one of the more well-known comic book shops in New York City:

St. Mark’s Comics CEO Mitch Cutler is a three-decade veteran of the business. His store is perhaps one of New York City’s most well-known, a 25-year staple on infamous St. Mark’s place, one of but a small handful of locations that boasts such an extended residency. But these are tricky times for Cutler: last Monday, the basement of his store flooded, and the country is facing its worst economic recession in decades.

Cutler’s business is unique in Manhattan. It lacks the size of comic book giant Midtown Comics, a two-floor behemoth right off of Times Square, but his store is notorious for its St. Mark’s Place status. “After Midtown, there’s everybody else,” said Cutler. “I like to think we do it better than anybody else. There are certain aspects of the game that each of us does better than the other.” 

Customer service, Cutler believes, is such an aspect. “We have lots and lots of regular customers that come in every week and we’ve known them for 25 years and we know their name and we know what they read and that’s all great. We have a tremendous number of new customers every week. Lots and lots of tourists.” 

After handling the basement flood last Monday, Cutler stood behind a counter, surrounded by countless action figures and rows of old comics, arranging a stack of back issues, slapping new price tags on them, and simultaneously greeting browsing patrons. “The level of customer service and the accessibility of staff,” Cutler says, gives St. Mark’s an edge over rival companies. But for a company so reliant on face-to-face interaction, the recession might take its toll; what’s to be done if no one is visiting the store?

“This is the worst Christmas we have ever seen,” said Cutler. “We are always slow in October; it never picked up again in November. November and December were dreadful.”

Still, while many businesses suffer under the nationwide depression, the comic book industry is proving to be resilient. Marvel Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Marvel Comics, which held over 40% of the market share in January 2009 according to Diamond Comics Distributors, saw its shares jump 15% last Tuesday, and its fourth-quarter profit doubled from a year ago. 

A possible explanation? “Comics is cheap entertainment,” said Cutler. And a recent trend towards blockbuster super hero films has been a boon to this pocket of the entertainment industry. “When the movies are good, it helps… ‘Watchmen’ has been a gift from God… this year is full, full, full of mass media introduction of our products… we’re here to take advantage of all of that. Because you’ve got ‘Watchmen,’ and then ‘Wolverine,’ and then ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Transformers,’ this ought to be a swell year.”

This optimism manifests itself elsewhere for Cutler, particularly in discussing the slow business of the past several months. In fact, he contends that the recession might be something of a red herring.

“Everybody wants to write the story about the end of the world and the depression, and that’s just horse shit,” said Cutler. “Something I think people don’t talk about enough is the fact that, at least in the North East, we got the worst winter in a very long time. And more than anything else, the weather affects New York City. This is not Long Island. You do not drive to the mall, you walk places. And when it’s fifteen degrees, nobody walks anywhere. I think that was an enormous factor… that nobody’s talking about. 

I have assumed from the very beginning that once we got to March and April and 50 degree weather, things would get better, and they have begun to move in the proper direction”

Nevertheless, the economic climate also continues to be harsh and frigid. St. Mark’s Comics, Cutler notes, has “no intention of going anywhere,” but nothing is certain for business in the coming year.

“I think it will continue to get better, but I think it will be in very small increments, and it’s very fragile. So any heavy, huge setback would easily derail it… It is inviting the wrath of God to say in an arrogant fashion that we will certainly be here and stronger than ever.”

Amanda Loyola and the Eco-Dog Treats

Posted in Features with tags , , , , on February 4, 2009 by pbiris

Here’s a feature I wrote, originally published on (sigh) Perez Philton’s Money Bag.

Ask any high school junior what tops their college application resume and you’re likely to hear answers ranging from “community service” to “vice-president of the crocheting society.” Less common might be “CEO of an award-winning business startup.”

But Amanda Loyola, 16, of Manhattan’s Horace Mann School, is just that, a young entrepreneur whose company is producing vegetarian “Eco-Dog Treats”. After attending a business-oriented summer program and participating in contests sponsored by major companies like Goldman Sachs, she earned enough money to get her small business moving. 

“If you really believe in something, you should just do it,” said Loyola, who bakes the environmentally-friendly dog treats in her own kitchen with the help of her parents. After her dog Princess died of cancer two years ago, a condition that can be worsened by a diet too heavy on red meat, Loyola decided to invent a healthy alternative. 

The Eco-Dog Treats contain no preservatives and are made from a simple combination of vegetables and peanut butter. Though other vegetarian dog treats are on the market, Loyola notes that many contain “weird” flavors like garlic. “Mine won’t give your dog bad breath,” said Loyola. “There’s more of a homey feel to it.” 

Another plus: the treats are enjoyable for dog owners, as well. “My mom eats them all the time,” she said. “My dad had to hide them from her.”

Five percent of Loyola’s profits from the $6 treat baggies benefit Live Earth concerts. Loyola also notes that pet owners conscious of the green movement can use Eco-Dog Treats as a way of helping out without changing their own lifestyles. “If you can’t be a vegetarian but want to help the environment, you can make your dog a vegetarian,” said Loyola.

But even with the best of intentions, those looking to initiate a new business risk finding themselves left in the cold in today’s harsh economic climate. As Martha D. Soffer, a Business Development Specialist at the U.S. Small Business Administration, notes, “in this economy, there are very few loans being made to startups.” Even in the best of times, Soffer claims that within two years of opening, a third of all businesses fail. 

Still, Loyola is culling the necessary licenses to start selling Eco-Dog Treats online, and is hoping to have her limited liability corporation up and running by the summer. The move will be a big leap from her days of selling the homemade treats on her neighborhood street corner, but Soffer thinks she has a shot at success.

“She probably picked a good business to launch in this economy,” said Soffer. “People will still spend money on pets… she’s probably in a safe niche.” Soffer also notes that there is a trend for eco-friendly, green companies in today’s business world.

Despite the optimism, Soffer is quick to mention that independent business owners get tied down to their companies. “It matures you awfully fast,” said Soffer.

With a bevy of extracurricular activities beyond her business, though, including playing soccer on a traveling team, running track, and a burgeoning interest in guitar, Loyola seems to have even that concern covered. “There’s a lot of things I want to do,” said Loyola. With any luck, the Eco-Dog fad will catch on and Loyola will be able to move onto bigger and better.

(Yes, people can eat the dog treats. No, they don’t taste very good.)