Monday, May 27, 2019

The Fervor Over Fermented Rice

Last week, I mentioned how Dragon and Meeple only has a "beer and wine" liquor license, as opposed to the "spirits" liquor license that a full bar would have.  I also mentioned how the general manager, Josh, found a loophole that allows us to serve margaritas.

The topic was sufficiently interesting to me to prompt a bit of research, and I ended up writing this shorter piece on "the saké loophole" for another journalism class.  Enjoy!

(PS: In case you were wondering, Tony Stark has precisely zero identifiable alcoholic drinks in Infinity War and Endgame, another subtle influence of The Mouse.  However, in his three Iron Man movies and the first Avengers, he manages to down 4 scotches, 3 glasses of champagne, 2 glasses of wine, a bunch of champagne from the bottle (three separate instances times), 2 hot sakes, and a martini.  Here's a list and screenshots from the first two Iron Man movies and the Avengers.)

 

The Fervor Over Fermented Rice:

The Saké Loophole


Los Angelenos have long associated saké with izakaya, Japanese public houses, rows of which occupy Little Tokyo and West Hollywood. But saké is slowly migrating into restaurants that serve American cuisine, and the reason why is simple: It’s not regulated as a spirit, but as a wine.

A saké sommelier and restaurant manager, Joshua Wolf has been exploiting the “saké loophole” for years. Deemed a “wine,” saké falls under the jurisdiction of beers and wine, as opposed to spirits; in restaurants that only have license to serve beer or wine, saké is able to pick up the slack for cocktails that would otherwise be illegal.

“Try this,” says Wolf. What he’s serving me now is a Manhattan. The taste of the saké is indistinguishable from whiskey; that’s because Wolf is using a brand called Sabe, which mixes saké with spirits. This particular variety, Sabe Copper, is 60% saké and 40% whiskey, again loopholing this particular brand into the category of “wine and beer” instead of “liquor,” making it more accessible for restaurants that lack full liquor licenses. It’s also less expensive to buy, which means higher profits for restaurant owners. While I’m speaking to Wolf, a man orders a double shot of “whiskey” and forks over $22 (minus the four-dollar tip).

It makes sense to me that “Japanese rice wine” should fall under the classification of wine and beer, but Wolf is swift to correct me. “It’s not wine,” he says. “It’s a spirit. The fermentation, it’s fermented with yeast, like beer, but it’s got a lot more kick than beer.” Several times, when I call it “rice wine,” Wolf corrects me and calls it a spirit. When I ask how the spirit falls under the category of “beer and wine,” he laughs, shrugs and says, “Don’t ask me, man, I don’t write the law.”

In Japan, “saké” literally translates to liquor; the stuff Wolf is mixing into drinks is called “seishu,” or clear liquor, which has its own category in Japanese liquor law. But America hasn’t yet caught up, and federal liquor laws have only three categories: wine, beer and “distilled spirits.” Although saké is a spirit with an alcohol content of anywhere from 15% to 30%, because it is brewed by fermentation, it currently occupies a grey area in beer-and-wine jurisdiction.

Wolf is a graduate of the Saké School of America, located in downtown Los Angeles. Endorsed by Saké Service Institute International, the largest organization of saké sommelier certification in Japan, the Saké School of America offers a three-day, $1,050 course. Wolf describes the course as being “worth every penny, even though I didn’t remember a lot of it. Woo, it was a wild ride.”

Wolf is not alone in exploiting this legal loophole. Many bars have begun serving saké or saké blends in lieu of other spirits.

The discovery of the “saké loophole” comes at an opportunistic time, not only for restaurants who are looking to save some cash, but for the Japanese saké industry as well. Since the 1970s, domestic consumption in Japan has dropped by about 30%, but imported saké sales have been on the rise; the last year alone, they rose 20%. The United States is the largest market for imported Japanese saké, accounting for a third of all saké exports, because it has only 21 domestic breweries. The rise in popularity of saké has created a huge demand, one that is bolstering the Japanese industry while also creating unique opportunities for U.S. businesses.

Wolf offers me a taste of another cocktail: a margarita made from Sabe Blanco. Using only saké, lime juice and simple syrup, he has created a remarkably palatable facsimile. Mixed in a small keg and hooked up to a tap, I doubt this is what Wolf’s saké sommelier course intended when it had him try over 23 varietals in small, ceramic clay cups. Then again, maybe it was; saké is an evolving industry, and as it moves into new markets, its consumption is expanding into new and unexplored territories.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A New Quest at the Dragon and Meeple

It was sometime last year, October or November.  Football season.  The leaves had just began to turn.

In LA, of course, that means something different.

I was driving to a therapy appointment and realized, too late, my grave mistake.  My therapist's office at the time was inconveniently located within walking distance of the stadium, and I had scheduled an appointment at the same time as the Rams game.  Parking was nowhere to be found; the streets were packed.  A few people with large driveways, paved yards, or empty lots were sitting by the gates, entrepreneurially holding signs.  $60, $120, even $150 for a day's parking.  My anxiety bubbled to the surface as I circled the block fruitlessly searching for a spot, well aware that every minute that ticked by was cutting into my time, and that if I missed the appointment, I would be charged a $100+ no-show fee.

Finally I drove up to a lot that was only half-full.  Sitting outside was a man with a pale copper beard.

 A ray of light shone upon him, indicating he might have a quest for me, if I chose the right dialogue options.

"Listen, I have a doctor's appointment across the street.  I really, really, really need to park.  I swear it'll only take a half-hour.  Can I park here?" I asked.

He frowned.  "I usually sell all the spots in the lot... it's a game day," he said.

"I know, I know, but I'll be out before the game even starts, I swear.  If I'm not out in forty minutes you can tow my car.  Please," I begged.  "I'm gonna get charged a huge no-show fee."

He wavered and finally said, "...alright, fine."

Heart pounding, I parked in the back of his lot and ran into my appointment.

When I emerged a half-hour later, I tried to give him the money I had on hand (a paltry $3) but he refused.  I thanked him profusely; he brushed off my gratitude casually, as if he hadn't just saved my ass.

We got to talking, and at some point he noticed my tattoo, a dragon and D20 on my left leg.  I was wearing cargo pants, my keychain dangling at my hip, also displaying a D20.  He mentioned he was opening a restaurant, a "nerd bar," and told me to swing by sometime.  He handed me a palm flyer, which I took.  It was pinned to the cork board in our kitchen.  I followed the social media pages; it was six months before the restaurant opened.  When the "soft opening" weekend was announced, I went there, feeling that I had to debt to pay to the man who had done me a kindness.

When we came to the bar we discovered a massive space and, happily, excellent food.  In fact, after having an appetizer, a half-pound sandwich, and dessert, I promptly went home and puked.

Undeterred, like some sort of modern-day Bacchus, I stomped back the next day to ask for a job.  I had joked, when I left my job as a research scientist, that I would probably end up being a taxi driver or a bartender.  Well, the Lyft gig was getting old and, knowing my freelance contract work would dry up, especially since Disney had acquired Marvel, I had decided to get a "real" job.

Months later, I am pleased to report that serving and bartending turns out to suit me wonderfully.  Who doesn't love slinging drinks and playing board games?

"I would like to finish my funnel cake."
"But you already ate several pounds of food."
"I want to finish my funnel cake."
"Fine.  Roll for will."
"...nat 20!"
"You finish the funnel cake despite already being full.  ...roll me a constitution save."

Without further ado, here's a piece I started for journalism class about the Dragon and Meeple, but later abandoned, as I felt my position there would compromise the integrity of the piece.  (Names have not been changed.)

One last thing: in case you are wondering what a Meeple is, it's the little wooden people in the board game Carcassonne (though it can also refer to any token piece in a board game, such as the top hat in Monopoly or the mice in Mousetrap).

Here is the unfinished first draft of my article on the Dragon and Meeple, complete with bracketed notes to myself.  If you'd like to read something that was finished but not written by me, check out Geek& Sundry's review here for more info. 
 

[TITLE PENDING - Chris Buskirk, and the Dragon and Meeple gastropub]

2000

The Dragon and Meeple

There are easily over a dozen bars in and around USC’s southern campus, but the bar model isn’t what Dragon and Meeple is aspiring to as a business. Certainly, it is listed on Yelp and Google Maps as a gastropub, and its business license lists it as a restaurant. But the Dragon and Meeple is a different sort of bar. The Dragon and Meeple is defined by the adjective that precedes its noun; D&M is a gaming bar.

With the recent surge in popularity of superhero movies and fantasy franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones,” it is unsurprising that other elements of what some call “nerd culture” have entered the mainstream entertainment industry. Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop roleplay game, experienced record sales in 2017 after its feature in the Netflix series “Stranger Things” the year prior. But for those who are only just discovering the niche community of tabletop gaming, the learning curve can be steep.

Enter the Chris Buskirk. Chris has a vision: a “country club for nerds.” Two months ago, Buskirk’s vision became a reality when he opened the doors to the Dragon and Meeple, a 7,8000-square-foot gastropub that features a 400+ game library. Half “gaming space” and half restaurant, the Dragon and Meeple is in its infancy, but gaining attention. Its development, opening, and growth is more than a story of a pub opening; it is also a look into the rise of “nerd culture” and the entrepreneurial spirit of a man who is working to monetize his passion.


A Country Club for Nerds

Upon entering the Dragon and Meeple, the first things one sees is, of course, the bar. It is made of unfurnished wood and sits fairly high up; the area behind it is likewise made of beams of unfinished wood. Six hexagonally-shaped wooden shelves show off the dozens of soda and beer options. In the center of the wall behind the bar is a massive metal sheet cut into the silhouette of a dragon, with a hexagonal shape in front of it, backlit by a red light.


The dragon silhouette is Dragon and Meeple’s logo; the reason for the hexagonal motif is that this is the shape of a 20-sided die if one were looking down at it. The 20-sided die is the most common die rolled in the game Dungeons and Dragons. For those not in the know, Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game, in which players roll dice to determine the success of their actions as they navigate through a “campaign,” or story, told to them by the DM, or dungeon master.

There is no board for D&D, though most campaigns feature maps and small figures to help communicate player positions as the players navigate their characters through a fantasy world of medieval villages, haunted crypts, and castles guarded by foes to be defeated. As such, the tables at Dragon and Meeple are enormous; made of wood with a black finish, they can easily fit six to eight people each. One table in the corner has the capacity for double that. The large table is made of unfinished wood, like the bar, and calls to mind a pub from another era, one where beer would be served in steins and lighting would come from candles instead of electric bulbs.


Chris spent a lot of consideration (and money) on the decor for Dragon and Meeple. The wooden bar and long table are there by design. In the center of the dining room is an iron chandelier, and though there are no candles along the walls, the sconces are shaped like dragons. The dragons hold chains in their mouths, from which dangle round lamps that provide soft mood lighting. The wall that the gaming library rests against is all exposed brick. The overall ambiance is that of a traditional tavern, which makes sense, since most D&D campaigns begin in taverns, where heroes are given quests to complete.

Upon entering the Dragon and Meeple, guests are asked to pay a five-dollar gaming fee to access the library of board games. Five dollars reserves a table and purchases a minimum of three hours, though if it’s not busy, patrons may linger longer. While customers play board games, they can also buy food or drink. Two of the full-time staff are “gaming concierges,” who can recommend board games and help customers set up and learn how to play. The range of games is extremely broad, including classics like Monopoly but also modern indie games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s not all board games, either. One shelf in the library is dedicated to card and word games; in this area, party games like Jenga have also found a home. In the front of the store is a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot set on a small table, alongside a placard asking patrons to check in with the bar.


“There were struggles to open and even now that it's open, it's not of interest to a great deal of people that walk by,” admits Chris. Certainly, when I walk in on a Friday evening, the large space is almost entirely empty, except for one couple playing a game that looks similar to Yahtzee. A sandwich board outside of the Dragon and Meeple advertises that the pub now has beer and wine, and a bouquet of red and yellow balloons bobs merrily above it. But the target clientele is mostly young adults and college students, and now that it’s May, USC’s campus population has shrunk dramatically for the summer. Nonetheless, Dragon and Meeple has many regulars, including indie game designers. The restaurant drives business by hosting meet-ups such as gaming tournaments and contests; on the weekends, the back room has a Dungeons and Dragons league open to anyone who wishes to play, and on Friday, one of the gaming concierges hosts a large, restaurant-wide Family Feud-style game, with an ice cream sundae for the winner.

There’s a strong sense of community here. While I’m sitting at the bar, a lone patron comes in, and after sitting at the bar for a few minutes, wanders off to a table to ask some other patrons to join in their board game. These people don’t known each other, but within a half-hour, they are sharing food and cheering loudly as they roll dice and move tokens around a board.

This was Chris’s vision: a place where like-minded people could find one another and bond over a shared loved of games. Although beer is on the menu, it was never intended to be the central draw; the bar was meant to be a space for nerds to mingle over their shared love of board games and cultural interests such a sci fi, fantasy, and superheroes. Every employee and patron I talk to has fairly strong opinions on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Marvel movies. Clearly, walk-in clients aren’t the target audience of D&M; most patrons have sought out this place specifically for its atmosphere. The beer is just a bonus.

Funnily enough, Chris says that the temptation of alcohol isn’t the main draw for people who walk in off of the street. The single biggest reason people wander in is to find out what a “Meeple” is. The answer? It’s the small, wooden, person-shaped game piece for the board game Carcassonne.


Struggles to Open

Dragon and Meeple is not the first of its kind. Gaming spaces have been around for as long as games have, and gaming bars and restaurants soon followed. Long before the modern board game was created, traditional pubs offered various types of tabletop entertainment, including card games.

In fact, Dragon and Meeple isn’t even the first of its kind in Southern California. GameHaus Cafe in Glendale opened its doors in 2013 and has a library of over 1,400 games.

Games and pubs are so entwined that the first historical instance of national regulation of pubs involved pub games; King Henry VII passed a statue in 1495 restricting pub games as they were “distracting Tudor pubmen from archery.”

Henry VII’s statue restricting pub games would be called to mind centuries later as Dragon and Meeple struggled to get its business license. The initial license banned games of all sorts, including anything involved cards or dice; a provision was added later to allow “dice games.”

Chris acquired the space of Dragon and Meeple in October but it would be over six months before he could open the doors. The previous tenants at the location had operated a sushi bar and hookah lounge that nearby residential communities had found highly disturbing; Chris’s business license has dozens of provisions designed to keep the business from making too much raucous in the neighborhood. This includes bans on live entertainment or music, noise ordinances, and a laundry list of do’s and don’t’s, including a ban on the sale of liquor after 11:30 pm, even on weekends

The orc barbarian code: it's not a matter of whether or not you should, but whether or not you can.

Obtaining a liquor license was another sticky matter. The Dragon and Meeple was open for two months before Los Angeles country finally approved its liquor license. For those two months, its row of 16 taps behind the bar sat empty, and its business relied on the gaming fees and food sales to keep it afloat.

The food sales are not negligible. Dragon and Meeple has a full menu and two professional chefs in the kitchen, Rob and Mikey. Chris is a self-described foodie and on every occasion I have entered the bar, he is seated at a table in the corner with a plate of food within reach.

Another source of tales is retail. Dragon and Meeple has a retail space in the back that is about as large as the dining room. Glass cases and black pedestals display board games for sale. Dungeon and Dragon accessories (such as miniatures and dice sets) are also sold here. Retail sales are not nearly as lucrative as food sales, however. People who come to the bar want to socialize, and buying a game to take home removes the socialization component from the equation. Most patrons would rather pay the $5 gaming fee and join a table to play a game from the library instead of purchasing their own; friends aren’t included in the shrink-wrapped boxes.

Chris has been playing D&D since its infancy in the 1980s. (He was born in 1979.) When I visit the bar on Saturday, he is sitting at a large table in the back with a dozen other people, playing Dungeons and Dragons. His character is a paladin.


Chris is a heavyset man with loose reddish hair and a reddish beard. The people playing Dungeons and Dragons are an eclectic bunch; the DM is young enough to be Chris’s son, but he holds his players’ rapt attention as he describes scenery to them and engages them in imaginary battles with hell hounds, skeletons, werewolves, and other baddies. Character sheets, maps, and player handbooks are scattered around the table amidst pints of beer and plates of fries, but I never see a single item get spilled on.


Josh, Rob, and Mikey [title and paragraph in progress]

While Chris spends much of his time rubbing shoulders with the patrons and sitting in the dining area, his general manager, Josh Wolf, spends it behind the bar. Josh is not a gamer, but a restaurateur, who has been in the food business for decades. He has run several restaurants from Las Vegas and seems to be one of the few patrons not completely seeped in “nerd culture.” Wearing a pair of Ray-Bans and a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt, he plays reggae music from the bluetooth speakers and flips the channels on the restaurant’s flat screen TV between a UFC championship and a Dodgers game.

 
 A fantasy-based Twitch stream filming at the D&M.
D&M hosts nerd-related podcasts, twitch shows, and gaming tournaments.

Josh seems like an unlikely choice for the D&M’s general manager, but he compliments Chris’s knowledge of gaming with his own knowledge of running a business; it is Josh who hired the waitstaff, created the schedule, and input all of the drink options into the POS behind the bar. Josh typed up the menu and made suggestions on prices. Chris may be the owner, but Josh is the man in charge. He keeps a close eye on the bottom line, and has a million tricks to upsell customers to ensure that the D&M is profitable: pushing appetizers and deserts, offering drink refills, suggesting adding grilled chicken to salads.

When Los Angeles county approved D&M for a liquor license, it only allowed for beer and wine, not spirits. Josh found a loophole: rice wine fell under the jurisdiction of wine, not spirits, and one brand, Sabe Sake, was modeled to emulate the taste of tequila. The D&M now serves sake margaritas.

Josh isn’t the only innovative employee. The chefs are encouraged to experiment. While the menu has plenty of traditional pub fare, such as burgers and fries, it also includes a saltado, three poutines, orange chicken, and a southern-style shrimp n’ grits.

Rob and Mikey are as mismatched a pair as Chris and Josh; Rob is middle-aged and soft-spoken, with pale grey eyes that match his hair. Mikey is short, young, and has gauge earrings; he wears a baseball hat in the kitchen that clashes terribly with his chef’s uniform. Both love cooking and enjoy the freedom Chris and Josh have given them to try out new recipes, but Mikey is vocal about his dislike of some of the menu items. He describes the classic burger as a “pedestrian piece of shit” and says that he didn’t attend culinary school to make such standard fare.

“What’s your favorite item on the menu to create?” I ask, hopeful to pull a less acerbic quote from him.

“Something not on the menu,” he says without missing a beat. “I’m sick of making the same shit again and again.” Rob hides a smile.

Apparently Mikey’s tendency to call everything shit is well-known; later on while we’re chatting, Josh pokes his nose into the kitchen. and instructs Mikey to try to keep his usual running commentary to himself, because a large party will be dining in the back room.

Mikey laughs.

Nerds, he says, have terrible taste in food (“shit tastes”); they are used to eating “cheap shit” and don’t appreciate fine dining. One of the regular’s usual orders is a burger with only two topics: cheese, and mayo. Nerds are apparently picky eaters, and some of the memorable requests Mikey has seen has included orange chicken without the chicken, a poutine with the components served separately, and a request that a chicken sandwich be cooked “medium-rare.” Mikey vocally describes these orders as “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” Rob offers no commentary on Mikey’s aggressive stance, but doesn’t disagree with it, either.

When Rob and Mikey get bored in the kitchen because sales are slow, they experiment. Their most recent creation is a cookie sandwich; the filling is a whipped cream infused with the marshmallow stout that’s on tap. Fried food aside, desserts are a top seller; the D&M’s menu includes a sundae served in a glass chalice and an “Elvis funnel cake” that is topped with peanut butter, Nutella, and bananas.

From the kitchen’s perspective, gaming restaurants are no different than regular restaurants. They joined the D&M venture because of the freedom it offered them. Both agree that Chris is easy to work with and that they feel their suggestions on menu items is well-received; every few weeks, they feature a special or two of their own creation. This week, it’s a Swedish meatball poutine. I am disappointed that it isn’t called the Dragon and Meatball poutine and say as much, prompting a soft smile from Rob and a scowl from Mikey.


Final scene [in progress]

There’s a common trope that nerds are social outcasts, lacking in emotional intelligence and struggling to forge relationships.

When I come into the D&M one Sunday, I am startled to find it is packed with people. I find out later why: it’s Chris’s fortieth birthday. This explains the many children running around. Chris’s whole extended family came to attend a birthday party here. His parents, brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins easily occupy half of the restaurant. In attendance are many of Chris’s friends: old roommates from college, people he’s met at comic conventions, fellow players from the weekend Dungeon and Dragons league games.

They order an extraordinary amount of food; Chris sits in the middle of one of the tables, talking animatedly about his business with his family and friends.

After an hour or two, Josh comes out with a massive, store-bought chocolate cake. This is the only time Josh will ever allow outside food or drink into the restaurant. He sets the cake in front of Chris and lights the candles; the waitstaff comes out to sing “Happy Birthday” with Chris’s family. He is beaming as he blows out the candles; several of his nieces hug him and wish him a happy birthday.

A signed card addressed to “Uncle Chris” takes a coveted position on one of the hexagonal shelves behind the bar, along with a jar of hand-picked wildflowers that stays there for almost two weeks before finally being tossed out. During that birthday party, I get the distinct impression of the type of nerd Chris is. He’s a social nerd, an often-overlooked class. He is an extrovert and enjoys social interaction; his interest in tabletop gaming and fantasy adventures is not an isolating interest, but a unifying one.

Chris didn’t open Dragon and Meeple for himself; when D&M opened its doors, Chris was already enjoying a vast social support network. Rather, Chris opened the D&M for others to find their own social networks. The Dragon and Meeple encourages people to mingle and play together, to forge the kind of social connections that Chris has already been enjoying for years.
 
Nerds learning about the D&M be like...

Monday, May 13, 2019

DOG HOODS: The Micro-Industry That’s Keeping Traditional Leather-working Alive

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for a journalism class in late April of 2019. Some names have been changed.  Funnily enough, though this is the final draft (I think) that was submitted for the class, it's not my personal favorite.  But I had a rubric to adhere to, and this is the result.  One note: the scene in which I try on the leather hood is not entirely journalistically accurate.  A Spider-pup does exist (hi, Parker) and I did try on one of Claude's Marvel-themed hoods, but the hood I tried on was actually a Winter Soldier hood I ordered for myself.  I chose for the purposes of this class to remove my own involvement from the subculture.  Were I to publish this professionally, that would have to be changed.]


When classical craft techniques meet booming modern subcultures, some workers thrive. For Claude J. Vaillancourt, of P&C Creations, a livelihood has been built in the unlikeliest of places.


P&C CREATIONS

Claude J. Vaillancourt is in many ways every bit the typical American biker, and he looks the part. He sports a long, heavy grey beard and wears a Harley-Davidson hat over close-cut, salt-and-pepper hair. Like many bikers, Claude spends a lot of time in his garage. When I first met him, months ago, I was struck by the heady smell of motor oil and leather. It’s not a bad smell.

His garage is, for the most part, a typical man cave. The walls are covered in workbenches and tools hang from pegboards above them. Innumerable tackle boxes store small tools and, looking closely, one can surmise some of Claude’s interests, such as hunting. In the center of the garage is a kitchen island, currently serving as a miniature workbench. The cabinets below it store bolts of fabric. Its surface is, like the other workbenches, covered in tools: scissors, leather punches, and a couple of spools of weedwacker cord.

It’s hard to be heard over the noise. While Claude occupies the garage, the room is filled with sound, a constant staccato that makes most of our conversation shouted as I Skype in to his Michigan-based workshop.

The noise does not come from a motorcycle, as one might assume. Claude’s garage lacks a motorcycle. Claude owns motorcycles (Harley-Davidsons, of course), but they are stored elsewhere. Claude’s garage is his workshop and every inch of space here is precious. The noise is coming from a sewing machine, and that sewing machine is where Claude spends most of his time, sitting hunched over on a stool that seems too small for him.


The sewing machine is one of many incongruities to the tough, blue-blooded biker image Claude presents. Another is laid out amidst the tools on the central workbench in the middle of the workshop: dozens of pictures and drawings of cats. Claude has many cats and some of the pictures are of his own. These are serving as inspiration as Claude attempts to perfect a leather cat mask.

“A few [people] asked me if I would do a kitty mask, eventually. I had my first go at it in November. But I think I can do better,” explains Claude. He is painfully shy and doesn’t look up at the screen for most of our interview, his gaze resolutely fixed on his hands and the mask that takes shape beneath them.

This proclamation, that he can do better, is Claude in a nutshell; he is a perfectionist. His niche market, leather animal masks, sell for hundreds, and he makes dozens of masks a month. “Pup hoods” are a hot commodity among the human-animal roleplay community. According to Claude, 75% of his business is now pup hoods, while the other 25% is more standard leather fare, such as belts and motorcycle saddlebags.

Leather culture occasionally gets media attention for its titillating, niche fetishism, but it’s typically the practitioners of the culture who enjoy the spotlight: men who wear chaps, women who bear whips, packs of men who don leather dog hoods. The dramatic appearance of those wearing raunchy, sleek leather outfits naturally draws the eye. Rarely does anyone ask where the chaps, whips, or hoods were purchased. The makers of the chaps, whips, and hoods hover in the wings, drawing little attention themselves from anyone beside their customer base. In the leather community, a micro-industry quietly thrives; leatherworkers like Claude make a living for themselves by supplying bespoke leather garments to buyers. Most leatherworkers have a specialty, and Claude’s is leather dog hoods.

Currently, Claude is experimenting with holographic materials. He unfurls a bolt of fabric like a magician, revealing a shiny metallic leather. “It’s slippery and hard to work with,” he reports ruefully, eyeing the fabric. Last month, his interest was with animal hide. “It gave the masks a furry look, which was great. But it was a lot thicker and harder to shape than the regular stuff,” he says.

His pieces draw their inspiration from both real dogs (he shows off an early model of a pink poodle and a newer model with the distinctive concave muzzle of a bull terrier) and from characters (his most recent pieces include a Pennywise dog mask from Stephen King’s It and another in the style of Marvel’s Deadpool).

Claude’s interest in making leather dog masks is only about six months old, but it is a passion. And, fortunately for Claude, a lucrative one. His usual work (gauntlets, wallets, motorcycle saddlebags) does not provoke him to stay up late at night in his garage trying to figure out how to attach whiskers. His usual work also does not net him a living wage; leather dog hoods have become the bread and butter of P&C Creations.

“This was a hobby that blew up in my face and I didn’t admit that I had the addiction until it was too late,” admits Claude as he re-rolls the bolt of leather he was showing me and places it carefully back onto its place on the shelf. When I ask him about his schedule, he laughs and tells me there is no schedule. “Shit, I work 90 hours a week, 26 days a month. It never ends,” he says as he settles back onto his stool. He is quick to add that it doesn’t feel like a burden, because he loves what he does.


PUPPY PLAY

The Eagle in Long Beach is easy to miss and I drive by it twice before I realize it’s the windowless, nondescript, faded black building next to the 7-Eleven and the Vietnamese deli. From the outside, it looks very small, not much bigger than an international shipping container that’s been converted into a bar. There’s no sign and the entrance is located in an alley, where a lone bouncer checks my ID before waving me in.

It’s Thursday and that means it’s Barking Billiards: a weekly event that caters to human pups. Upon entering, I immediately espy a dog house, fire hydrant, and other canine-related props scattered across the floor. Men in dog masks and various states of undress are standing in clusters, drinking and talking; all of their drinks have straws to allow them to sip without removing their hoods.

The Eagle is a gay bar. More specifically, a leather bar. The overwhelming majority of leather pups are gay men, and therefore, the overwhelming majority of events for human pups are held at gay leather bars, where some percent of the clientele are either already pups searching for a place or gathering.

Curiously, Claude is not gay himself, though he does consider himself a “leatherman,” a part of the subculture that fetishizes leather. Gay leather bars and biker bars have a lot of overlap in terms of clientele and uniforms, and although Claude is happily married to a woman (his wife, Pam, is the “P” in “P&C Creations”), he would no doubt fit in with the crowd at the The Eagle, which has many men with the uniform grey beard and Harley-Davidson accoutrements. In fact, the owner of The Eagle, Craig, could easily be mistaken for Claude’s brother; he has the same heavy build, the same pale eyes, the same stormy whiskers, and the same gentle manner. He mans the bar in the back, wearing a pair of tight leather pants and a t-shirt with a pawprint on it. I shoulder my way to him to order a drink and ask him about Barking Billiards.

Barking Billiards began last year, and used to be held on Tuesdays, he says as he sets a plastic cup on the bar for me. It got big enough that it was moved to a more popular night. The central draw of the night, says Craig, is that this is a place where pups are allowed to wear their hoods. Because hoods are a face covering, not all bars allow them, nor do all venues. It’s a matter of safety, and also a consideration for the non-hooded patrons of the bar. Here, the patrons seem perfectly comfortable with the pups, and they mingle with them easily. Men without hoods will occasionally toss a tennis ball across the floor of the bar or offer, in passing, a behind-the-ear scratch to a man in a dog mask, prompting a delighted full-body wiggle.

Inside the Eagle, my initial impression of a shipping container doesn’t change much. There are two rooms: an enclosed outdoor patio and an indoor bar. The indoor bar is exceedingly small, low-ceilinged, and dim. The outdoor patio is enclosed by walls, but the roof is gone, replaced with military-style camo netting. Both spaces have a strange, aggressively rectangular shape, and the narrow thoroughfares make intimacy unavoidable. There is a lot of accidental skin-on-skin contact; my arms brush through warm bodies as I try to navigate the crowd without spilling my $3 beer on anyone’s leather harness, searching for any pups who might want to talk to me about their hood.

Claude’s interest in making gear for puppy play bloomed at an opportunistic time. “Puppy play,” a type of roleplay fetishism rooted in BDSM, has recently exploded in popularity. Pup play involves roleplaying as a dog, which might include barking, being on all fours, or chewing on squeaky toys. Pup play is a subculture within a subculture; it began in leather BDSM but lacked any sort of structure until sometime in the 1990s, when small human dog shows began cropping up in the U.K. By the late 1990s, there was a smattering of human dog events at gay clubs across the world, especially in urban hubs such as London and San Francisco; local communities began organizing “PAH” (pronounced “paw”) groups, short for “puppy and handler.”

Before the 2000s, there was only one source for leather dog hoods: Mr. S. Mr. S is a ubiquitous brand name for fetish gear. Mr. S has brand recognition borne from a history drenched in leather; it was established in 1979 and is currently the biggest retailer of leather and fetish gear in San Francisco. For many customers, there’s a sense of pride when the hoods are purchased from the flagship store during Leather Pride week in September, when Mr. S sees a huge spike in its business.

Mr. S offers puppy hoods in neoprene (starting around $150) and leather (running well over $300). An entire section of the flagship store in San Francisco is now dedicated to pup play, with headpieces being the most coveted item. Typical puppy hoods feature a muzzle and ears; some have prosthetic lower jaws and tongues that jut out from the mandible and give the impression of talking. But a recent New York Times article describes how Mr. S “can’t keep up with demand.” This is good news for independent hood makers like Claude. With the birth of the online market place Etsy in 2005, the options available for buying customized leather pup hoods dramatically increased.

Glancing casually around The Eagle, I count six Mr. S hoods, all similar in design but with different colors: two blue, one white, one yellow, one red, one purple. Dr. Seuss’s dream. There are also a few that are decidedly not Mr. S; the Mr. S hoods have short ears. On a pitbull, you might call them “cropped.” In the back, a shirtless Rottweiler playing pool has a pair of significantly large, pointed, bat-like ears. His markings are not in the bold, stylized style of Mr. S but resemble more closely a biological dog’s markings.

Some of Claude's "breed-inspired" hoods.

There is only one pool table in the dim, low-ceilinged bar, but the “billiards” part of “Barking Billiards” is only an excuse for the night; the pups came here to mingle, not to play pool. Their characteristics are distinctly dog-like; when I ask questions they can’t hear over the music, their heads cock and they ask “Aroo?”

“What do the colors mean?” I ask the yellow Mr. S dog over the music.

“Aroo?” he replies, head cocking.

“What do the colors mean?” I call, louder. The pups have some difficulty hearing me through the hoods and their voices are slightly muffled because of the muzzle. A few tilt their noses up so that I can better hear them.

“Watersports!” he shouts.

I ask for elaboration. Watersports is slang for a urination fetish.

“Are all of the hood colors coded for--” I begin, but he cuts me off, shaking his head in a way that make his short little ears flap against his head.

“No, the colors don’t mean anything,” he says.

Pushing his hood up onto his head like a strange hat, the muzzle now pointing directly up in a howl, he explains that pups choose their colors for a variety of reasons. Some are signaling a fetish, but others simply choose their favorite color.

Later, I ask two pups who are there as a couple what the colors of their hoods signify. They have matching hoods with blue, red, and orange, the only difference between them is the position of the ears; the pup with the upright ears is the “Alpha” and the one with the downward ears is the “beta.” Their answer is simply, “We thought it looked cool.” Another pup sporting a black-and-white hood explains that the pattern of the hood is meant to represent the breed he identifies as: a husky.

No one mentions the steep price tag; to the men at this bar, the hood was worth every penny. When I ask how much they paid, a fairly universal answer is something like, “About $270, but I got it on sale,” or, “$300, but it was for Pride.” Any time money comes up, there is a “but” qualifier that justifies the purchase. Several have multiple hoods, which they swap out depending on the event, their mood or what they’re seeking that night.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the course of my research, I did find inexpensive pup hoods from Amazon. Made of artificial leather, they were $30. I asked Claude his opinion of these; he said they were low-quality knock-offs from China and that, while they might be functional stand-ins for people who are new to puppy play, they could never replace his bespoke leather masks. This sentiment was echoed by some of the human pups I spoke to at the Eagle, who said that imitation hoods are easily identifiable and of poor quality. No one seemed to consider the $30 hoods on Amazon to be worth even discussing, and I could find no one who had purchased one for himself. (I did find one pup who had purchased four, with the intention of giving them out to new pups who did not yet have hoods. But he said that they were only meant to be placeholders until those people could purchase “real” hoods.)

There is little competition between Claude and the cheap hoods on Amazon, because the Amazon hoods are emulating the Mr. S design, and Claude’s specialty is hoods with unique features. His shop currently has 83 different hood variants, roughly one “new” style for every two days he’d been making the hoods. It’s worth noting that some of these variants are stylistically the same but with only minor color alterations. A pup hood with two floppy ears is considered a variant of one that has only one floppy ear; ear placement, Claude says, is very important to people. Claude estimates that only ten to fifteen of his hoods are not pups; he has made a few cat hoods and a few bears, but dogs are the top sellers. (Currently, he says, he’s working on a bull, which he imagines will later lead to a horse and then a unicorn.)

I ask the pups at the Eagle what the general purpose of the hoods are. The responses vary, but are similar in nature. The hoods help these people get into the mindset of a dog, and signal to others that they are dogs and want to be treated as such. Why dogs? I ask four and get four different answers:

“Dogs are loyal.”

“Dogs get pampered.”

“Dogs are service-oriented.”

“Dogs are a man’s best friend.”

The dogginess of the men in pup hoods runs on a wide spectrum. Many bark at each other in greeting and then immediately begin speaking to one another in English, while others simply circle, sniff, and whine. Some lean on the bar and watch a game of pool being played, while others, on their hands and knees in a roped-off area, play with squeaky toys. Whenever a toy squeaks, heads turn. When the heads turn, upright ears flap a little, giving the hoods a very strange sense of animation, as if the ears were truly twitching.

One such pup with upright ears that I noticed earlier is a Doberman. I had initially mistaken him for a Rottweiler; he is quick to correct me once I approach him.

“Rottweiler, right?” I called.

“Doberman,” he says as he leans down and cracks a striped ball into the corner pocket. He is wearing a red beanie over his hood, which immediately endears him to me; the hat softens the sharp, stern look of the Doberman face.

He asks if I’d like to join him. I warn him that I’m terrible at pool, but he insists. He’s shirtless and offers to teach me. As he racks up the balls, he enthusiastically describes the chain collar and leash he made for himself in a machine shop, and graciously lets me try it on, in between leaning me over the table and showing me a better way to hold the cue stick. All of his gear is hand-made… except the hood, which was custom-ordered from England from a company called Wruff Stuff. “Neoprene breathes better. It’s easier to clean; you can just use dish soap,” he says. He thoroughly thrashes me in pool, but is encouraging and friendly the whole time. He is aware of Claude’s hoods and says he’d like to order a leather one, someday. I ask if he would ever try to make one for himself; he immediately says no.

There are no homemade hoods here, though there are several homemade collars, harnesses, leashes, and other accessories. I note that most of the pups here have neoprene hoods, not leather. The two main reasons I’m given, from a number of pups, are simple: neoprene is cheaper, and easier to clean. When I ask about leather, pups almost universally melt; they all clearly love leather hoods, but most found the price tag disqualifying. Nonetheless, they have strong opinions about leather hoods, and can list suppliers; all but two of the people I ask have heard of Claude’s work, and unprompted, two pups offer up the name of another Etsy leather shop: Wolf Stryker Leather.

I look up the shop later; the very first hood I see is $350.



Leather subculture is steeped in tradition and rules, called “Old Guard.” Old Guard leather was the original gay leather BDSM culture that gained popularity in the 1940s. Old Guard Leather emphasized strict roles and protocols. I could find no evidence of human pups in any texts that discussed Old Guard traditions, and when I asked around, many of the older men who had been in the leather scene a long time told me that pups simply didn’t exist. Pups that did would have fallen into the roles of “boys” or “slaves,” submissive roles. They would not have played with squeaky toys. There was no place in Old Guard for colorful, whimsical hoods; in Old Guard tradition, leather was meant to be gifted for service, and was handed down from master to slave. There was certainly no neoprene.

Every single pup I spoke to had purchased his own hood for himself. The booming pup hood business of the 2000s reflects clearly a shift in the leather subculture; gay leathermen are becoming increasingly lax about their self-imposed rules and roles. There is a small amount of hierarchical thinking that I suspect might have stemmed from Old Guard traditions; for example, a few pups speak about their “packs.” Much like leather families of the’70s and ‘80s, human pup packs have clearly defined roles, modeled after dog or wolf packs: there is an Alpha, who is a leader, and one or more betas, who are his submissives. In some packs there is a human handler, but not always.

Claude’s lifestyle seems usually tame compared to some of the pups I met at the Eagle. He lives in a normal house in Michigan with his wife and a pair of cats; on FaceBook, he shares a picture of his son along withside pictures of himself fishing. Nearly all of the pups at The Eagle are gay men in their 20’s and 30’s. Yet I do bump into a heterosexual pair, wearing matching WolfStryker Leather hoods. The man’s is black and blue; the woman’s is pink and white. When I tell her I haven’t met any other female pups, she sighs and says, “Yes, I know.”

While pup play has found a footing in gay leather culture, all seem welcome. At The Eagle, the heterosexual couple mingles easily with the packs of gay men, and at one point I see the woman in the fenced-off area, chasing a ball alongside some other pups. Dogs are dogs.

The roleplay involved in puppy play extends far beyond barking in a bar; for many, it’s a lifestyle, and even without wearing the hood, entire relationships are forged based on roles that fit into the framework of a canine-based relationship. The heterosexual couple says that even outside of their hoods, pup play has had a big impact on their relationship; they look at each other as “mates.” Furthermore, not all of the relationships based in pup play are sexual; many pups at the bar described their relationships to their handlers as a mentorship or brotherhood. And not all pups need to wear the hoods to maintain that relationship. Some are capable of channeling their inner canine without donning a mask. That being said, one pup told me, “It [the hood] helps me get into the headspace. I’m a better dog when I’m wearing it.”


A BOOMING BUSINESS

Claude admits that this isn’t his first rodeo. He was aware of the puppy culture back when it was in its infancy (or puppy stages, if you like) two or three decades ago. But back then, masks were not a lucrative business; they were simply not in demand. “I was involved in the puppy movement back in the nineties,” he says as he uses a pair of fabric shears to carve out an ear-like shape from a bolt of leather. “But it wasn’t called the puppy movement. It wasn’t [called] anything. It was really in its infancy back then. ...I left the industry in the 2002-era, that’s when the puppy movement really started to gather steam and a lot of the stuff really started coming to the surface and people started to gather with it. But I was out of it from 2002 through about 2010, 2011, and those years, it just blossomed, so when I came back, I saw this massive puppy movement that was incredible.”


Claude has been making hoods in his new shop for somewhere between six and nine months. He says that he began making the pieces because he began seeing hoods for sale online, and his reaction was, “You’re charging how much for that? Oh please, come on!” Claude says he became frustrated: “It’s an annoyance with me when I see something like that; I feel people are gouging the industry just a little too much.” He describes some hood prices as “exorbitant.” Not everyone, he points out, can afford a leather hood for several hundred dollars.

As if to underline his annoyance at price-gouging, a metal snap button he was fixing to the cat hood suddenly ricochets across the workshop. Claude does not get up to retrieve it; he fishes a new piece from one of his tackle boxes. I imagine there are a lot of tiny, warped metal pieces that have rolled under his work bench over the years.

Claude is not someone who gets easily frustrated, I find; when the button flies off, there is no break in the rhythm of his work, and he carries on calmly. His hands remain steady as they piece together the mask, making tiny chalk marks to indicate where the next button, stitch, or overlap will be placed. Claude tone does not betray any resentment towards his competitors. While he refuses to “name names” regarding which hood makers are gouging prices, he is more than happy to name names when it comes to lavishing praise. He mentioned Nigel Hill, the designer for Wruff Stuff, as well as Zeke Crowley, another Etsy artist who makes leather dog hoods for a much higher price tag, whose work he describes as “gorgeous.” Claude says that he feels the community of makers should support each other where they can, by sharing information and techniques, and by recognizing each other’s work.

Claude was recently working on a dragon-themed hood (based on Game of Thrones) but decided to delay its release for a few months when Wruff Stuff came out with a similar design; Claude didn’t want to step on any paws. He describes it as “beautiful” and says he didn’t want to “steal Nigel’s thunder.” The two of them came to an agreement (or at least, Claude did) that Claude would delay his release until July or August to allow Nigel to claim intellectual credit for the dragon design, which was made available for purchase in March.

“It’s not always about the glory and the money,” he says pacifically as he measures a pair of ears for his cat mask. He wanted Nigel to get credit for the design even though the two masks were created independently and around the same time; Claude says it’s a matter of integrity and ethics. Besides, Claude has plenty of work; his turnover time, from request to completion, is only two or three weeks, and at any given time he has dozens of hoods in the making.

Clearly Claude has a lot of respect for Nigel; he refers to him on a first-name basis and seems to consider him a sort of kindred spirit. Nigel began Wruff Stuff in 2015 and quickly cornered the market on customized neoprene hoods. Perhaps some of the respect comes from the fact that the two are not in direct competition; Nigel is based in the U.K. and trades in printed neoprene, whereas Claude is based in the U.S. and trades in sewn leather.

Then again, Claude also speaks fondly of Zeke Crowley, a direct competitor who sells highly priced, bespoke leather hoods and, like Claude, has been selling them on Etsy since 2016. Zeke, says Claude, is someone whose work justifies the price tag.

Though Zeke’s work, by Claude’s estimation, is more intricate, Zeke makes pieces by commission only; Claude far surpasses Zeke in terms of volume. Though he is happy to make custom pieces, he also has dozens of masks immediately available for purchase, ones he made for fun and that he trusts will someday find a buyer.

While many human pups purchase their hoods online, many more buy them from festivals, conventions, or leather contests. At fetish, leather, and even Pride events, many leather vendors now sell puppy hoods alongside their more pedestrians whips, gags, and chaps.

Claude has been a part of that circuit and knows it well. “Leather season” is poorly defined, with events happening all year. Some of the biggest draws include Folsom Street Fair (in September) and international Mr. Leather, a title contest (similar to a pageant) in May. Claude used to attend major events and pay to set up a vendor booth, but doesn’t nowadays. He found the travel and set-up to be exhausting.

One of Claude's booths from years past.

I can imagine that Claude would find tending a vendor booth to be boring; every time I have spoken to him, his hands have been busy at work. He rarely looks up and while we speak, he sketches out designs on cardboard, cuts out pieces to model hoods, and digs into fabric with a leather punch that clearly puts a strain on his muscles. Claude’s hands are never idle, and I cannot imagine him sitting in a booth all day, away from his sewing machine.

He still attends some local events. This year’s International Mr. Leather contest is in Chicago, a short distance from Claude, but he’ll be attending as a guest, not as a salesman. The process involved in packing up dozens of products, displaying them, and then moving back the unsold inventory was exhausting and, worse, boring. Claude’s touring days are over; now, literally everything he sells is online, a process that leaves him with far more time to spend designing and crafting.

As we speak, he pivots on his stool and reaches for one of the rolls of weed whacker cord. I was wondering about the cord; he unspools a length of about a foot, snips it, and then repeats the process, using the first piece of cord as a measurement.

Curiosity gets the better of me. “So, where is the cord going?”

The whiskers on the cat mask he’s doing, I come to find out, are made from the weed whacker cord. Claude didn’t want to use wires because they would be too much of a poking hazard in the bar scene; he wanted something springy and light that would also be safe. Inspiration hit him while he was in a hardware store. The worst part of having his shop in his home, he says, is that when inspiration hits, he has to go and immediately try out his idea; this has led to several manic 5 am hood-making sessions.

When it comes to making his hoods and improving his designs, Claude has the tenacity of a terrier.


HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

P&C Creations is Claude’s second leather shop.

Born in the 1960s to a pair of French-Canadian migrant workers, Claude spent a childhood split between Toronto and Massachusetts. His parents were apple-pickers, and Claude grew up in the countryside, where he cultivated hobbies such as hunting. This, of course, would lend itself well to his later passion for leatherwork.

In the early 1990s, in Colorado, Claude opened his leather shop, called CJ’s Leather. As he mentioned before, the logo was a dog bone, a tip of the hat to pup culture, which, back then, Claude says, “wasn’t an accepted thing; it was nothing.” Back then, he says, humans pups “weren’t even called human pups; they had no names. They were just guys who liked to act like dogs.” Claude knew about them and was happy to be involved in what community there was, but as far as his business went, hood commissions were a rarity. Most of his wares were belts, harnesses, holsters, and other such leather accessories.

Then in 2002, following a motorcycle accident, Claude sold CJ’s Leather. He says he walked away; “it was a growth thing. We were doing decent… but I just needed a clean slate.” He says he “wasn’t a very nice person back then,” and that his business was “ego-generated.” After the motorcycle accident, he took stock of what was important and decided to sell his business.

He would return to the world of leatherwork in 2013; having sold all of his assets, he was starting from scratch. He had seen the success of other leather shops on Etsy and felt he could do better work (or at least charge less for the work he was doing). The role of social media had changed the face of the leather marketplace, making it more accessible to buyers; Claude felt it was time to get back into his hobby. He created a Kickstarter to buy the equipment for his new shop, including a sewing machine for leather (a far tougher material than fabric). P&C Creations (named for Claude and his wife, Pam) has now existed for about six years; like CJ’s Leather, most of its initial offerings were saddlebags, wallets, and armor for costumes, including a recreation of the outfit worn by Marvel’s Thor.

But once Claude began making the pup hoods, they quickly outstripped all other items in their popularity.

This would not have happened ten or twenty years ago, says Claude. In the 1990s, pup hoods were a single color: black. Rarely, they might have colored piping or seams, but colorful, themed, and customized masks were unheard of. Claude attributes the rise of customizable masks to Wruff Stuff, which offering printed neoprene, creating an inexpensive and easy way to produce colorful and patterned hoods. For Claude, the puppy Renaissance was also a personal Renaissance; his love of making hoods revolves largely around the challenge of designing and mastering new techniques.



Having examined a few different styles of hoods at The Eagle, I’ve come to appreciate the wide degree of variation in how the hoods are attached. Neoprene Wruff Stuff hoods, for example, have a plastic snap buckle, while a Mr. S leather hood features a rawhide lace in the back. Claude’s designs use metal snap buttons. Three straps fold over an O-ring that rests on the back of the head, one on each side and one that goes over the top of the head. All of Claude’s hoods had three snap buttons, which allows the wearer to adjust the hood.

At a bar in Riverside called The Menagerie, I meet a pup wearing a hood that is unmistakably one of Claude’s. It’s a “pet” themed night but there’s only one pup here in a hood. It’s Spider-man-themed, one of Claude’s best sellers. I ask to try it on and the pup it belongs to agrees readily. To my delight, he introduces himself as “Parker Peters,” a spoonerism of Spider-man’s alter ego, Peter Parker.


I snap on the hood and my very first impression was that it was very heavy and smelled of leather. The eyes are wide and visibility is quite good; because Claude’s hoods lack a lower jaw, they are fairly breathable as well. The muzzle projects outward from my mouth and nose but is by no means suffocating. I would describe wearing a new leather dog hood as having “new car smell” hug your head.

Claude had pointed out some of the features of his hoods to me in an earlier conversation, and this hood sports them. For example, there are snap buttons on the ears, allowing the user to put each ear into an up or down position.

I thank Parker the Spider-man pup for letting me try on his hood and later ask Claude if he’s ever run into any trouble with copyright law, for making hoods that so clearly resembled a dog-version of licensed characters. Claude walks a fairly fine line with some of his work and says he treats some intellectual properties with a wide berth, because he doesn’t want to get slapped with a cease-and-desist. On the other hand, Claude says that hoods with pop culture themes get a lot of attention and tend to sell well; what’s more, they’re fun to make. Many of Claude’s just-for-fun projects are “themed” hoods. His most recent creation is a trio of bear masks in blue, pink, and yellow. Having been born in the 1980s, I recognize them immediately: the Care Bears.


PUPPY LOVE

Claude’s passion for hoods is unmistakable, but Claude never quite specified why: whether he himself was a pup, or a handler, or something else entirely. Probing for an answer, I ask Claude if he himself has a mask, a personal project. Claude says yes. “All of my projects are personal.”

“I meant, to wear, yourself,” I clarify.

Claude immediately says yes, he does. This doesn’t surprise me.  However, what does surprise me is when Claude admits he’s only ever worn it out in public once. He says he doesn’t feel comfortable with the attention he receives, and feels self-conscious wearing it in public. He says that he prefers to be behind the scenes, unnoticed. “I do have one for myself and what’s funny is, I don’t feel comfortable wearing the hood. I made one for myself because I liked it. I love the puppy hoods, I’ve worn them here and there, but they are - I’m extremely self-conscious wearing them. Oh my God. I just can’t do it.” For the first time in our conversation, he stops working, turns on his stool, and looks directly into my eyes. He seems genuinely mortified. “To go out in public wearing a puppy hood? I can’t. I tried it one, and I just - people looking at me, I couldn’t do it. ...if you ever see me out, I’m very very subdued in what I wear for leather. You know I have my leather pants, my leather shirt, very traditional but extremely subdued. It’s never black and navel, shiny, look-at-me, it’s usually black on black, very quiet, very subtle details. I don’t like attention. As a person I don’t like attention; as a business I love attention. But personally, oh my God. Don’t ever ask me on a stage.”

This tracks with other things I’ve picked up about Claude; even his business model seems “subdued” and gentle.

Suddenly, his interest in making the hoods makes sense to me. This is Claude’s way of participating in a culture he’s too shy to directly participate in. The puppies I met at The Eagle clumped together in boisterous packs; they were outgoing, enthusiastic… dog-like. Pup play favors extroverts. For Claude, making the masks and seeing their wearers enjoy them brings him vicarious joy.

I mention that some of the pups I talked to at The Eagle said they felt safer behind the hoods. The hoods, they said, created a sort of “barrier” with the real world, and they were able to be less inhibited with the hoods on.

To this, Claude replies, “No, no, no,” and shakes his head. He simply can’t do it, he says; he’s too shy to be a puppy himself.

I ask to see a picture of Claude’s personal hood, and he shared a photo from the one night he went out. He is wearing all black leather: pants, shirt, boots. A whips hangs from his right hip. The mask is a Doberman and, like all of Claude’s hoods, lacks a prosthetic jaw. For many pups this is a good thing, because hoods that have chin pieces don’t fit will with facial hair. Claude’s long grey biker beard spills out from under the hood.


Claude he cuts a very imposing figure, but as I’ve come to discover, he’s a gentle giant. Having gotten to know him, the first question that springs to mind is: “Did you make the whip?” He did, along with the shirt and pants. (He did not, however, make the boots; that is one item Claude admits is outside of his area of expertise.)

“I try to be an instrument to create people’s visions,” says Claude as he tinkers with the cat hood. His brow furrows as he returns to his mask-making. The picture of himself in the hood has been put away and his attention is once more on the cat mask. Currently, he’s using a hook-like instrument to widen some holes in a leather strap where the pointy leather ears will go.

I ask him about expansion, a brick-and-mortar storefront where he can store and display his pieces for purchase; right now, several eyeless dog masks are staring down at us from a shelf. My favorite, by far, is the black-and-white Great Dane. Claude tells me his favorite to make was a poodle, because of the challenge of creating the curly fur. (He used macramé.) Claude has no permanent physical location to display or sell the masks; all of his masks are lovingly hand-crafted in his workshop, one by one, and most are sold online. His customers come to him from Etsy or simply from word of mouth. “One of the lessons I learned when I had my first shop was that once you develop a brick-and-mortar store, you are anchored,” he says. “And to unload that business, you’re much more constrained. When I developed this business, I developed it to be mobile. I can be anywhere in the world and do what I need to do and not worry about it.” Certainly, Claude rarely seems worried about anything; the only time I saw him exhibit worry was when I mentioned going out in public wearing a hood.

His hands don’t stop moving and he doesn’t look up from his blueprints. After he draws out his plans with pencil, he cuts the 3-D shape from stiff poster board and then models the leather around the paper shape. This cat hood doesn’t yet have an owner; Claude was asked about cat masks and he intends to create the perfect cat mask before he makes a listing on his Etsy page. There are already two half-finished cats lying on the work surface in the middle of the room. (They’re missing ears and whiskers; triangles of leather and lengths of weed whacker cord lie beside them expectantly, waiting to be attached.)

He charges between $165 and $230 for custom masks, which take three hours on average to make. A bargain for the human pup, many of whom want customizations to reflect their own personal relationship with their dog personas; a standard, plain-black leather Mr. S hood costs $320. Color customizations cost $350, and there is no option to alter the ear or muzzle shape. For Claude, customizations are standard. Even the pre-made hoods Claude has here in his shop can easily modified.

“Why not? I already have the machine,” he says, placing a hand on the top of his sewing machine. Most of the manufacturing involves measuring, cutting, shaping, and attaching. Details like a spot over the eye or a “bite” out of the ear are relatively simple to add, and give customers a sense of personalization.

Though many of the hoods are personal, one-of-a-kind commissions, Claude does churn out some “basic” hoods which can be ordered and sent out immediately. And though he doesn’t have a storefront himself, some of his pre-made pieces have been sent out to third party speciality stores to find a buyer. “Some places stock my pieces. New York, Toronto… and Men’s Room in Chicago has about… two dozen,” he says as he uses a pair of wire cutters to trim some whiskers. In the staff photo for Men’s Room Chicago, there are five people. No, wait, six. There are five people and one person at their feet, posed as a dog, wearing a familiar-looking leather dog mask. I sent Claude a message on Facebook later for confirmation.

“Is this one of yours?”

The almost sheepish reply I received was, “Yes, but that was one of my earlier ones. I’m doing better now.”

Monday, May 6, 2019

In Defense of Hulk Dabbing

The embargo against Endgame spoilers has officially lifted so here's my take on it.  If you haven't yet seen it and are trying to avoid spoilers, I would duck out now.


For those not in the know, Endgame is the long-awaited sequel to Infinity War.  It's the culmination of a 22-movie megaverse.  If you haven't seen any other Marvel movie, Endgame is probably not the movie you want to start with, because it won't make sense, contextually, without the prior 21 movies.

For the last decade, Marvel movies have been a major, if not primary, source of comfort, excitement, and guidance for me.  So naturally I had a lot of vested interest in Endgame.

I saw it thrice over the course of a weekend and my opinion wavered.  My initial reaction was one of dumbfounded disappointment.  Visually, it was stunning.  And certainly its construction could be said to be a masterpiece.  But the characterization had gone off the deep end.  And for me, a story is ultimately all about the characters.  The characters are the vehicle for the story, not vice versa; stories reveal fundamental truths about humanity, and if your human characters are weak or unrelatable or inconsistent, the story itself falls apart.

By the third time I'd seen it, I had a case of what might have been the emperor's new clothes, and I had determined that I liked it more than Infinity War.  Putting aside the characterization for a moment, it was a whirlwind of familiar references and air-tight choreography and dazzling special effects.  The fight scene at the end alone put this movie in a class of its own.

But this blog isn't about writing glowing reviews, so I'd like to dive in to the flaws that prevented me from loving this movie as much as I might have.  And then, in what is probably a hilarious ironic inconsistency, explain why it's actually totally okay.

Let's start with Tony.  Tony Stark is my favorite character.  A swaggering, selfish, emotionally stunted billionaire playboy with a guilt complex and a drinking problem, Tony's whole schtick in this movie is that he's transformed into a family man.

Granted, people change.  Granted, after a massive world genocide and a dozen traumatic battles, maybe someone like Tony actually would settle down with his One True Love and have an adorable, precocious daughter.  Personally, I don't like Family Man Tony.  It doesn't mesh with the character I fell in love with, who has always been a contradiction.  A selfish superhero, a narcissistic do-gooder, a self-important altruist.  I liked the old Tony, who got hungover and screamed at his secretary, and had foursomes with girls introduced to him by the Wu-Tang clan, and probably smoked cigars in elevators like a dick. 


Then v. Now

But since the Disney acquisition it's been clear to me that they were going to lean into a more (literally!) "family-friendly" version of Tony.  I braced myself for his life as a family man, willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that his no-nonsense businesswoman lover would even accept his proposal in the first place.  I readied myself for the inevitable fan service, for the softer side, and yes, I readied myself for Tony's inevitable death.

His martyrdom was a long time coming and it was better for him to go out in a blaze of glory than to quietly fade into old age and obscurity, things Tony would never abide.  Plus, the actor made it clear that he was ready for something different and was exiting the franchise.  So, Tony's death didn't bother me.
 
He was getting boring; they've been subtlety hinting at it for years.

What bothered me was the total abandonment of every other character trait that made him.  Tony, the urban tech mogul, is suddenly living in a bucolic lake house decorated with lace doilies and furniture from Pier 1 imports.  Where's his lab?  His fancy cars?  There's mention that he's building his wife a suit (for reasons completely fucking unknown and never explained) but we see virtually no technology.  Not even a dishwasher.  There's a whole sequence where billionaire Tony Stark is washing dishes by hand.  You know, because he's so domestic now.  Look, I don't care if you want to make him soft, but you can't just rewrite fundamental character traits.  Tony grew up in cities, lived in cities, basked in technology... his weird little cabin house is not him.  You might as well make Clint into a samurai, or Steve into a frail old man.

Speaking of which...

Like many, I was horrified at Captain America's ending.  It was supposed to be sweet that Steve went back in time but it raised far more questions than it answered.  First of all, how did Steve return to the same timeline as an old man?  The Ancient One already explained that when you fuck with a timeline, it creates a new timeline, a divergence.  (This totally new and original concept was the central theme of Divergence.)  If Steve went back and at any point affected ANYTHING, shouldn't he have returned to a different timeline entirely?  How did he know he would end up back with "his" Sam?

The passing of the shield was nice, although Bucky is inexplicably gone for the scene where Falcon becomes the new Captain America.


Maybe this was to distract us from the reality that, if Steve went back in time, that means he was abandoning Bucky to life of torture.  That, while Steve was dancing with Peggy in the 1950s, Bucky was being held captive by Hydra, who were torturing his brain into mush.

In fact, Steve's decision to go back in time arguably goes against Steve's two main tenants.  Steve's catchphrases are: "I can do this all day" and "Till the end of the line."  And suddenly he decides he's tired and wants to grow old in peace?  Steve is a soldier for Christ's sake.  Even if he wanted to go back to civilian life, there's the question of, can he?  Armed with a high school education from 1935 and some basic doodling skills, I'm not sure what the hell Steve planned to do once he decided to give up being a soldier; it's all he's ever known.  Abandoning Bucky for Steve would be like Tony abandoning his lab and his suits and... oh wait...

There's also the uncomfortable reality that Steve going back in time means that Captain America indirectly caused pretty much every tragedy from then until now by not preventing it.  His wife, Peggy, was a SHIELD agent, basically an FBI agent on steroids, so how is it we still had, you know, 9/11?  Bad Steve!  *sprays with water bottle*




Also, how did no one notice Steve was Steve, exactly?  Wouldn't Steve going back in time have irrevocably reversed history?  Peggy and Howard were pals; did she lie to Howard for fifty years about her husband, or did she and Steve go over for dinner and Howard just somehow didn't notice that her husband was Steve, who he had been looking for since 1944?  Steve was sort of famous in his own time; people would probably notice Steve if he came back,  Especially people like Howard who had, you know, already fucking known him.


Happily, some of my closest friends and writing partners agreed that the characterization of Steve and Tony bothered them, too.  On the bright side, Thor got an incredible character arc.  My only complaint is that his self-harm was played up for laughs.  Thor getting fat because he's sitting around all day playing video games and drinking beer isn't funny; it's tragic.  And his reaction to Steve bringing up Thanos was one of the most emotional parts of the movie.  His discovery that his net worth remains unchanged despite years of self-neglect was beautiful; the "I'm still worthy!" line was as perfectly in-character as Steve's ultimate yeeting-himself-into-the-past was out of character.

There were a few moments of awkward fan service that made me wince a little.  The part where someone asks how Captain Marvel was going to get through enemy lines, followed by the Girl Squad arriving and saying "She's not alone!" made me want to cringe myself into orbit.  Good news, Captain Marvel... Okoye is here with her spear!  I didn't like Captain Marvel, either, which was a bland, utterly forgettable origin story that felt out of place in Phase 3 of the MCU.

The thing I disliked about Captain Marvel was how inoffensive it was. It didn't feel like it was taking any risks. So many Marvel movies try to do something different. Thor: Ragnarok is a great example of a movie that went in a very unusual direction with a very unusual director; that gamble paid off. Captain Marvel was trite and predictable. Its biggest merit was that it hit everyone over the head with fan service... the whole bit about Nick Fury losing his eye to Goose was pointlessly dull to me. They sacrificed Nick Fury's badass past for some cheap laughs and an adorable kitty-cat sidekick.  I felt like I was actually watching someone in a Funko! Pop boardroom asking how to shoehorn in a "cute" character that would sell a lot of merch.  The worst part is that whenever I try to say how much I disliked Captain Marvel, people turn it into a gendered issue. It's not at all a gendered issue. 


If anything, it's a writing-and-directing issue. The writers and directors did a huge disservice to the character and to the audience by delivering something so boring and color-by-numbers.  Halfway through watching, I literally turned to my partner and whispered, "Is this a DC movie?"

I digress.  The third time I watched Endgame, I was sitting in the theater, preparing myself, and the guy beside me mentioned that he had first seen Iron Man when he was 8.  Now, 18, he was seeing the final installment as an adult.  The movies had grown with him.

I didn't like Endgame.  But I looked around the theater and I saw kids with their parents.  I saw young men clutching each other's hands and tearing up.  I saw groups of friends in costume who had literally only just met each other and were bonding over a shared experience.

Endgame wasn't just a movie.  It was a cultural phenomenon.  And what I came to realize was that the reason I didn't like Captain Marvel was that it wasn't made for me.  In the months following, I remember seeing a crayon drawing done by an 8- or 9-year-old.  It featured the female cast of the Avengers, easily over ten women, and included the words "Girl Power!"  It was sweet and childish and clearly lovingly done.  A lot of attention to detail, if lacking the fine motor control and technical ability to distinguish Black Widow from Scarlet Witch.

When I was a kid, during Disney's golden era, your best bet for a female role model was a hapless animated princess, not a warrior or a fighter pilot.  And guess what?  Looking back, a lot of the franchises I loved at the age of 8 were awful.  They were inoffensive, trite, and predictable... you know, like Captain Marvel.

I got my movies, in Phase 1 and Phase 2.  Phase 3 was never made for me.  It was made for the next generation.  I outgrew Marvel movies.  Now, the next batch of fans are just discovering it.  And they love it.  And good for them.



They're going to grow up with Rescue instead of Iron Man, with Falcon as the Captain instead of Steve, with the stupidly over-powered and frankly one-dimensional Captain Marvel as a role model... and that's okay.  I got my moment in the sun as a comic fan; Marvel movies checked all the boxes for me.  And now they're catering to a slightly different audience, one that loves what they're doing. 

Fundamentally, the messaging is the same, so what do I care?  Tony Stark had a good run.  Now it's someone else's turn.  I'd rather have a little girl grow up idolizing Captain Marvel than pretty much any of the Disney princesses.

Thinking back on it, the Russo brothers sort of planned this.  It's not a coincidence that we see dabbing and Fortnight featured in Endgame.  For the next generation, that shit is dope.  A lot of people said they found these elements a little forced.  It was a cheap laugh that probably won't age well.  But I think there were two ulterior motives to simply being a joke.  First, it was signaling to the next generation that these movies are for them, that these movies are keeping up.  Second, it was spoiler insurance.

When I joked that my favorite part of Endgame was the Hulk dabbing and Thor playing Fortnight, everyone chuckled.  It sounded fake.  The whole plot was so ridiculous that it was immune to being spoiled, at least for a little bit.  And Marvel culture has always been heavily anti-spoiler.  

 "No, seriously, he's dressed like the Big Lebowski, but it's actually super sad."

The whole anti-spoiler thing is its own cultural phenomenon.  Hell, even this entry began with a spoiler warning.

Personally, I love spoilers.  I always seek them out.  I want to know how the movie ends.  But I never give out spoilers.  The reason is that I can't guarantee, once I've given them out, that they won't float off through a chain of people, some of whom won't be considerate and will purposely spoil the movie for someone who doesn't want spoilers.  No, the buck stops here.  One of the most obvious indications of the Marvel movies as a cultural force is their social pressure against spoilers.  The "Thanos demands your silence" campaign was nothing if not a lovely example of the way social pressure, even more than legal pressure, can drive people to action.

I was recently kicked out of a group on Facebook for disagreeing with a moderator who stated, in a conversation about spoilers, that releasing intellectual property without the creators' knowledge or consent was illegal.  (We were talking about some leaked set photos from Umbrella Academy.)  Taking pictures of a set and distributing them actually isn't inherently illegal (though it might be a breach of contact, if you work on set) (this is what I was kicked out for stating).  But even if it were, it's tricky to try to prosecute people for distributing spoilers.  Social pressure plays a much bigger part in tramping them down; cultivating a sense that protecting spoilers is a personal or civic duty seems to have been much more effective in protecting the movies than legal recourse ever was.

This is the power of the superhero movie.  It's not giving us new laws or rules or anything so authoritarian.  Rather, it's a parable.  It's shaping society through gentle example.  The messages of Marvel movies have always been ultimately uplifting.  For Steve, the message was always about loyalty; for Tony, accountability; for Thor, worthiness removed from ego.  Steve and Tony have moved on and left up with a dabbing Hulk, but somehow, I can't say I'm saddened by it.  We heard their message; they gave us what they could, and now their time is over.  Now, it's time for the next batch of stories to teach the next set of spongy little kid brains what society expects of them.  If the vehicle from which they learn morals happens to be a dabbing Hulk, well... the more important thing is that they're being inspired to greater things.