The Cardstacker (Who Doesn’t Watch House of Cards)

Bryan Berg's recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards.

Bryan Berg’s recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards. That’s more than 55,000 playing cards.

“There’s this notion that a house of cards is fragile,” says Bryan Berg, who has perfected the art of stacking cards over some 20 years. In fact, he explains, intricate houses can weigh in at hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and often require leaf blowers to take down. “Fragility is relative, right? I can put a brick building up to a tornado, and then you realize that it’s fragile, too.”

Berg, a Guinness World Record Holder at age 38, maneuvers around his freestanding constructions using ladders or scaffolding. His tallest creation, the Dallas skyline, is more than four times his height, towering at 26 feet – the holder of the Guinness World Record for Tallest House of Cards.

Hotels, television networks, and city governments approach Berg with requests for replicas of existing buildings or objects, like creating the largest casino in the world – the Venetian Macao Resort-Hotel in China – during the Chinese New Year in 2010. It took almost two months and 4,000 decks of cards to construct.

Below, Berg describes his 7- or 8-hour workdays, which he mostly spends in silence (except for crunch time, when he cues up electronica on his iPod) and wearing socks.

Age: 38
Graduated from: Bachelor of Architecture from Iowa State University; Master of Design Studies from Harvard
Based in: New Mexico
Years in the business: About 19
Previous jobs: I worked at my dad’s construction company throughout high school, college, and even after. That was part of what allowed me to get my footing with cardstacking.

I captured my [first] Guinness World Record in 1992 when I was a senior in high school. It was 14 feet and 6 inches tall, much higher than anything I had ever built before. But my first paid project didn’t happen until two years later.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong's largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong’s largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Did a passion for architecture segue into cardstacking, or vice versa? My interests in the built environment led me to cardstacking, and cardstacking led me into the pursuit of architecture.

When did you realize you could make a living by stacking cards? Well through college – if not, after. I considered every project to be an anomaly. Over time, I realized it was more than a fluke, and I took it more seriously.

Do you use novelty cards? Initially, I used whatever I could get my hands on – the cheap decks from the local grocery store. But that created a problem, since [each card] varied in quality and characteristics. So I partnered with this Belgian company Cartamundi to create cards with the ideal height-to-width ratio. I also worked with them to create a special buildable set, with a patent-pending gadget – it’s essentially a training wheel to learn how to stack cards.

Do you use any gadgets? No. But I’m not placing cards in a random or haphazard way – I design every single arrangement in a geometric and orderly method. But there’s no bending or manipulation of cards.

By nature, your art is impermanent – you can’t exactly transport a house of cards. I’ve only used glue with two projects, and I’m very upfront about them: Once, for the Holiday Inn, I glued together key cards for a life-size hotel recreation. Another time, for the World Series of Poker, I glued together poker chips for a full-scale “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign that hung in the air. Watch the time lapse below:

Your technique: There are two principal ways to stack cards: horizontally and vertically. I use both. I also produce a computer-generated rendering for my clients, but the finer points take a lot of improvisation. The musical analogy is that you’re given the time frame and key signature, but you have to fill in the notes.

The deconstruction process: I don’t get upset about knocking [a project] down, as long as I’ve got some good pictures. It’s part of the process; it doesn’t feel complete until I’ve knocked it down. I usually use a leaf blower.

It really requires that much force? A common question I get is, What if you sneeze while you’re working? People don’t realize that a house of cards is very heavy – hundreds and hundreds of pounds. A sneeze won’t do anything. Any damage while I’m building is isolated; it doesn’t spread because of all the partitions.

Best part of your job: Being able to be artistic and to do what I like.

Most challenging part of your job: When people come to us without a clear vision of what they want, or too hardened of an idea.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Actually stacking the cards takes a pretty small amount of time compared to planning and coordinating with everyone involved. My wife, Kristin, holds up the business end of things.

Berg was commissioned to break his own record at The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world. The project took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record.

Replicating the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world, took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record for Largest House of Cards.

How do you navigate around structures that are taller than you are? With ladders or scaffolding. You don’t want to stack yourself into a corner.

Have you dabbled in real bricks and mortar? I’m actually building a real house for myself right now. I’m the general contractor, so I have a crew.

Any interest in Netflix’s House of Cards? I’ve heard about it, but haven’t seen it.

Some structures must be impossible to recreate using cards. Yes, like the Statue of Liberty’s arm or the Golden Gate Bridge or an airliner’s wings. There’s nothing to support it.

Your required reading: Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. It’s about how he made his life fortune by going against the advice of his financial advisors.

Your favorite architectural work: The temples at Angkor in Cambodia and the wooden architecture in Japan.

How do you calculate your rates? It’s a day rate that includes any travel costs. A big part of this is learning to suggest a reasonable price that isn’t a rip-off for [the client] or for me. Over time, you learn what something is worth.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Look at the work of others, but realize that sometimes the best ideas might not come from the human element. They might be outside in nature or in some totally unrelated realm of data or experience.

Follow Bryan Berg on Cardstacker.com, his Facebook page, and at @cardstacker on Twitter.

Next: Meet the SNL cue cards guy, who makes a living with a very different type of cards.

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The World-Class Juggler

“I turn regular juggling into a living organism," says Mark Nizer, whose show is in "4-D." Photo: twitter.com

“I turn regular juggling into a living organism,” says Mark Nizer, whose juggling show fuses standup comedy, music, and technology. Photo: twitter.com

Forty years ago, during Mark Nizer‘s first juggling lesson, something inextricable sparked in his brain. He likens the rush to that of drug addicts.

When he began his juggling and standup comedy routine in college, Nizer collected about $15 per street show. But as he replaced ping pong balls for bowling balls and bowling pins for torches and machetes, he began raking in $1,200 in a single weekend.

Now, at 52, Nizer has left his street performing days behind. His shows at performing arts venues are spectacles laden with fog, motion-sensor lasers, and propane tanks whizzing through the air. Audience members don depth-perception glasses, and Siri – the iPhone personal assistant – narrates his stream of consciousness.

Age: 52
Graduated from: University of New Hampshire and San Diego State University; degrees in psychology and zoology; minor in dance
Based in: Charlottesville, Virginia
Years in the business:  30
Previous jobs: I’ve never really had a job besides this, except for working at a lumberyard in high school. In college, I was a street performer. It was awesome; I was performing outside in a free space, with no rules or regulations.

Do you miss that setting, compared with the limitations of performing on stage? I’m basically a street performer cleaned up for the stage.

Your mentors: I watched Michael Davis a lot, the first juggler ever on Saturday Night Live. I also toured with Bob Hope and opened for Ray Charles and George Burns.

What catapulted you from performing on streets to opening for Ray Charles? Somebody videotaped my performance at a college talent show and sent it into the American Collegiate Talent Showcase. I then won first place in the International Juggling Championships, and was named the Comedy Entertainer of the Year in 1998.

When traveling for a show, you don’t leave home without: My iPad and laptop. I plug into the light plot and sound system with my laptop and run everything remotely from stage.

You’re fueled by: Sitting and playing. Mega playtime is critical to coming up with stuff. That’s what we don’t do enough in our lives. That’s how I came up with using Siri’s voice to narrate my show.

Most dangerous items you toss around: I juggle an electric carving knife, bowling balls, propane gas tanks, and lasers. None of that stuff is difficult for me – it happens in slow motion. But fire marshals require that my clothes be treated with a flame retardant.

Who taught you to juggle? When I was in seventh grade, my mom was sick of three teenagers lying around the house, so she signed us all up for juggling class. As soon as I started, something turned on in my brain. I started practicing 10 to 12 hours every day.

Best part of your job: Seeing the world and playing with it, figuring out what works, what doesn’t. Forced creativity can be painful, but it forces you to stumble upon things you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Most challenging part of your job: It’s exhausting having to say Look at me! all the time, trying to get hired for shows. It’s also hard to come up with brand new ways to play with balls and bowling pins. Every day, some kid in Denmark or Africa is thinking of new ways to play with them, and it spreads around the Internet like wildfire.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Some tricks take years to develop. And some are disasters. I once built a laser harp with fake laser beams that plays music when it senses your fingers. But it was impractical, and weighed hundreds of pounds. So now I have a bunch of lasers, worth thousands of dollars, sitting in my basement.

Number of shows per year: About 120.

Your most impressive trick: There’s one I call the Impossible Trick. You spin a ball on your right index finger, and another ball on your right foot. You throw the ball [the one spinning on your foot] to your forehead, let it roll down your neck and back, and kick it with your heel so it goes over your head and lands on top of the other ball spinning on your finger. I worked on that trick for seven years before I could get it to work one time. It took another three years before I started performing it.

“There’s a bit of society pressure that says, You’re a homeless street performer,” Nizer explains. That claim isn't unfounded; most performers only collect a few dollars per show by passing around a hat or guitar case. Photo: dwfestivals.aristotle.net

“There’s a bit of society pressure that says, You’re a homeless street performer,” Nizer explains. That claim isn’t unfounded; most performers only collect a few dollars per show by passing around a hat or guitar case. Photo: dwfestivals.aristotle.net

Where do you practice? Any open space indoors with a high ceiling. For shows, I need a space with a 12′ ceiling or higher. Blackout capability is nice for the lasers and other special effects, but not required.

What are you working on now? I’m into hang gliding right now, and I’m messing with metal tubes a lot. I also want to use my two big air circulators to make things fly.

One trick you can’t seem to master: I’ve been trying forever to use a new camera that can sense body position. There’s also this dimension beam that uses infrared light to sense body position, which I’ve been trying to use without much success.

Salary: Per show, I charge anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
People say that you don’t need to a college degree to do what I do. I disagree. Economics, marketing, and advertising classes will all help with positioning yourself as a performer.

NEXT: Meet the millionaire’s magician, another No Joe Schmo who will make you question your eyes.

By the way, in case you were wondering: Mark Nizer wasn’t totally crazy during his first juggling lesson, when he felt something “turn on in his mind.” It’s true: learning to juggle stimulates an unused part of one’s brain.

Foodie Friday: The Dog Food Tester

Food fit for a king (Charles Spaniel). Photo: Nancy Rica Schiff 2006 from her book, Odder Jobs, More Portraits of Unusual Occupations

Patricia Patterson samples food fit for a king (Charles Spaniel). Photo: Nancy Rica Schiff 2006 from her book, Odder Jobs, More Portraits of Unusual Occupations

“It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Patricia Patterson remarks thoughtfully. She remembers its porous surface – it resembled lava rock. She inserted a chunk into her mouth, moved it around for a few seconds. Spit and repeat. Spit and repeat.

At the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University, Patterson, a former restaurateur, analyzes a slew of products for flavor, texture, and color – fragrances, fruit, gelato, coffee, air fresheners, and fabrics. But dog food is the product that makes people raise eyebrows and cock heads.

“I admit, there’s a certain stigmatism to eating dog food,” Patterson said. “But I don’t eat it. I taste it and analyze it.” In fact, its distinct flavor is harder to identify than many might imagine.

Age: 65
Graduated from: Business school in Salina, Kansas
Based in: Manhattan, Kansas
Years in the business: 12
Previous jobs: I started out as a secretary, but I got bored sitting behind a desk. I wanted something more people-oriented, so I went into the bar and restaurant business. I did that for a good many years, but I got burned out.

You left one food job for a very different food job. I basically retired from my restaurant job, and I was looking for something part-time. I saw this newspaper ad for the job at Kansas State University, which appealed to me because it said something like, “If you like to work with food, people, and products.”

Human vs. canine food: a sometimes-blurry line. Photo: businessweek.com

Human vs. canine food: a sometimes-blurry line. Photo: businessweek.com

No mention of dog food. No.

Tell me about your first day on the job. Well, before you’re accepted and trained, you have to pass a test. You have to describe and differentiate between different products. Take cinnamon, for example. They want you to say brown, sweet, woody. But an individual who hasn’t been trained doesn’t think about those things. They might just say that it smells good. 

So developing a lexicon filled with rich adjectives is part of the training. Yes. We’re always coming up with descriptive terms and definitions. It comes with time and experience.

Preparation and special tactics: We don’t prepare the products, so we don’t need gloves or hairnets. But we wear white lab coats [when testing], and stay away from perfume or anything scented. No flavored lipstick, no hand lotion or hairspray, no detergent. We work in a clean conference room, with a table, chairs, blackboard, and sink to wash your hands.

How did you react the first time that dog food appeared on the table in front of you? I was like, yuck, nasty! Animal food was a totally new area we hadn’t approached before.

Have you ever dined at a restaurant and thought, Wow, this kind of tastes like dog food? Yes. Sometimes, you’d like to shut it off, but you can’t.

Your objective in taste testing: We’re not told specifically what we’re looking for; others extract the information they need. We just examine the aroma, flavor, and texture. We determine attributes using references.

Do you mean points of reference? Yes. We have about 40 references for dog food, for attributes ranging from smokiness to mustiness to fishiness. We have references for its appearance, too: color, shape, size, and surface texture.

Testing dog food wasn't half bad, says Patterson. Her worst memories stem from testing cat litter. Photo: Sensory Analysis Center

Patterson has also tested cat litter (for aroma, not taste). “It’s one of my least favorite products,” she says. Photo: Sensory Analysis Center

Your beef with dog food: We had one that tasted like sponge rubber. But we also had one that was very, very good. I’m sorry, but it was. It was meaty and had vegetables.

Did you swallow it? No – you don’t want to mix the flavors. You leave it in your mouth for a certain amount of time, maybe moving it around, maybe chewing it. Then you expectorate it.

Skills required for the job: Patience. A testing can take one day, or it can take weeks, months, or years. It depends on the project. You also need to be unbiased; it doesn’t matter whether or not you like the product.

Best part of your job: Seeing so many different products. I also like the international travel. I’ve been to Germany to work on cheese; Thailand to work on soy sauce and a variety of miniature fruits; and Italy to work on gelato.

Most challenging part of your job: Coming up with new terms and attributes. But it’s a group effort; that’s why we have panels of sensory analysts.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s not an eating job. We taste, over and over and over. It’s very repetitive.

Woof. Source: 4gifs.tumblr.com

Woof. Source: 4gifs.tumblr.com

You mentioned that you own a dog yourself. He must benefit from your sophisticated palette. He’s spoiled rotten. I cook for him a lot – chicken, beef, potatoes, rice, carrots, and pork. But if I’m traveling, he does get dried dog food.

Recently, the radio show This American Life investigated a story about meat plants selling pig intestines as fake calamari. It suggested that consumers couldn’t differentiate between the two. Do you think the same goes for dog food and certain “human foods,” like chopped liver? I have to say, some of the dog food we had was better than people food.

Salary: $10 to $16 per hour.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
There’s a certain satisfaction in improving and developing products that eventually end up on shelves. It’s very rewarding. It’s also interesting to be exposed to products that consumers may never see – the things that don’t make it to the shelves.

Like Patricia Patterson, many No Joe Schmos started out in more ordinary professions. Meet the tech entrepreneur turned pooper scooper and the real estate agent turned hot air ballon pilotThen, check out more of the cutest dog GIFs of all time.

The Graveyard Guide

Jeff Richman’s Halloween tours attract many first-time visitors to Green-Wood. “When you love something, you want to share it with people. You want them to appreciate it as much as you do,” he says. Photo: Jeff Richman

Monk parakeets caw on the 106-foot spires of the Gothic-style arch at the entrance of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Purple-grey clouds settle atop weather-worn brownstone mausoleums.

One may mistake it for the opening of a Stephen King novel.

But Green-Wood’s full-time historian, Jeff Richman, spends a lot of time trying to convince people that cemeteries are nothing to be afraid of. Among other responsibilities, he organizes year-round tours across the cemetery’s 478 acres, the most popular of which are the “murder and mayhem” Halloween tours. For those, Richman dons a top hat and kitschy pumpkin-embroidered purple vest.

Richman brags about Green-Wood’s more famous “permanent residents,” like Boss Tweed and Leonard Bernstein, as a proud mother might describe her daughter’s straight-A report card. When asked about his retirement plans, the grey-haired 63-year-old laughs: “We’ll see how this week goes.”

Age: 63
Graduated from: Stony Brook University, political science major; New York University School of Law
Based in: Long Island, New York
Previous jobs: Practiced criminal defense law for 32 years

Years in the business: In 1990, I started giving tours of Green-Wood and researching to write a book about the cemetery. I realized there was a ton of misinformation and incomplete information, and I wanted to clear that up. In 2000, I became a part-time historian here, and went full-time five years ago. 

What initially brought you to Green-Wood? When I was young, I collected stereoscopic views, which are images placed in a stereoscope to create a 3D effect. I kept coming across images of Green-Wood from the 1860s and 1870s, so when I saw an ad in the newspaper for a photography tour of Green-Wood, I wanted to see whether it had changed in 130 years.

Did you have an “aha” moment during that tour? As I walked through Green-Wood, it occurred to me: This was a landscape in the middle of urban Brooklyn that had remained unchanged for over a century. I immediately knew it was the place for me, so I returned again and again, and soon started leading tours while practicing law part-time.

Green-Wood, which was founded in 1838 as one of America’s first rural cemeteries, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Photo: green-wood.com

Responsibilities as historian: It’s pretty varied. I lead weekly tours, blog for Green-Wood.com, and pick out plants for the gardens. I’m involved with curating exhibitions, writing books, and collecting things pertaining to the cemetery itself or the people buried here. I also work with our cutting-edge restoration team. Using an old photograph, we identified the broken remains of a monument in the cemetery, and then helped restore it.

Is Halloween your busiest time of year? Yes. This year, we had 450 visitors for our Halloween tours, which tend to draw a lot of first-timers.

Your Halloween tour attire: It’s been the same for years: black top hat, cape, Halloween vest, and jeans. I also use props, like a walking hand, spiders, and George Washington’s chattering teeth. I try to entertain the visitors to the extent that I can.

Yearly visitors: Between 200,000 and 300,000. Our trolley allows us to do themed tours throughout the year, like the Women of Green-Wood and the Pioneers in Baseball of Green-Wood tours. We also host a number of book talks followed by custom-prepared trolley tours throughout the cemetery.

Most famous permanent residents: Horace Greeley [founder and editor of the New York Tribune], William Magear (“Boss”) Tweed, and Leonard Bernstein. We also have Wyckoff Van der hoef, who died at sea on the Titanic, and more than 100 people from the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876.

Is the cemetery running out of space? It’s 478 acres, but yes, we are running out of space for new graves. In 5 to 10 years, I think we’ll be filled up.

After Green-Wood opened in 1838, the cemetery attracted close to 500,000 visitors on a yearly basis for about 50 years. Its popularity helped inspire the building of Central Park. Photo: flickr.com/ Mambo’Dan

Cemeteries often get a bad rap, not in any small part thanks to scary movies. We spend a lot of time trying to convince people there’s nothing to be afraid of in cemeteries. We held a movie series in our chapel a few years ago to bring in children, in the hopes that they would no longer consider cemeteries a place to stay away from, but instead a great space to learn in.

Do you still show kids’ movies there? We had one vociferous complainer, so we ended that series. But we often bring in classrooms, and we’re pivoting to become a community-oriented historic park, an alternative to Central Park and Prospect Park.

Number of bodies interred at Green-Wood: More than half a million.

Okay, so you’re not scared of dead bodies. What does creep you out? Leading bus tours.

Are you superstitious? Not exactly. But I do believe that there are more than just, you know, coincidences. Sometimes, it’s like certain graves are calling to us: You never noticed me before, but I’m right over here, come take a look.

Best part of your job: The people. I’m currently writing a book for the cemetery’s 175th anniversary, for which I’m collaborating with curators, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other experts in their fields.

Most challenging part of your job: Keeping track of everything that needs to get done. But that’s a good problem to have.

What would people be surprised to learn about you? I’ve always been a collector — baseball cards, duck decoys, nineteenth century primitive tools, photographic paperweights, and architectural details. And I already mentioned stereoscopic views.

If you had one hour of free time, where would you spend it? I love Acadia National Park in Maine, and the American Wing at the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art]. But Green-Wood, with all its levels of interest and discovery, is my favorite place.

Your favorite spots at Green-Wood: The spectacular marble carving of Jane Griffith, the Beard Bear, the Civil War Soldiers’ Lot, and Niblo Mausoleum on Crescent Water. Oh, and the hill above Valley Water where the Tiffanys are interred and my gravestone stands.

The tombstone of Frank Morgan, the title character in the The Wizard of Oz. Spoiler alert: this was not built with emeralds or yellow brick.

Are you dressing up for Halloween this year? No. After the tours, I’m pretty much done with Halloween. But I’ll still give out candy to the neighborhood children.

Do you plan to be buried at Green-Wood? Yes, I have a grave there. There is value in having a place where your loved ones can pay their respects.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Create a position on your own if you see a need for it. Approach the people who have funding and explain what you can do for them. In 174 years, Green-Wood has had only one other historian, and he died more than 100 years ago. Fortunately, I was able to come in and offer something helpful to our society.

Meet another No Joe Schmos bringing history to life: the guy who makes treasures from recycled waste at TerraCycle.

The PG-Rated Mermaid

Linden Wolbert, aka “Mermaid Linden,” can hold her breath for five minutes. “When I’m not in the ocean for a long period of time, I get really itchy,” she says. Photo: Ric Frazer

“People don’t realize how hard it is to be a mermaid,” Linden Wolbert explains. Sometimes, when a pool’s chlorine levels or pH balance are out of whack, she can’t see well enough to drive home. Other times, she wakes up covered in bruises from hitting the sides of small pools.

But even with cloudy, stinging eyes, Wolbert has no plans to retire to land. Six years ago, hailing from landlocked Amish Country, she plunged into “mermaiding” full-time, spending months molding a tail using fiberglass, clay, and 35 pounds of silicon, which she likens to a newborn child. A 35-pound, 6-foot-long newborn child.

Unlike other mermaids, Wolbert refuses to work bachelor parties or go topless: “I’m not that mermaid.” Quite the contrary: she feels most comfortable teaching children about ocean conservation and working with nonprofits to increase awareness about water safety.

Age: 32
Based in: Los Angeles, Calif.
Grew up in: Amish Country in Lancaster, Penn.
Graduated from: Emerson University, Bachelor’s degree in film and science
Years in the business: 6 years

Describe what you do in a few sentences. I perform in my mermaid tail, which has a real monofin inside, to spread the message about ocean conservation. I’m a geeky, PG-rated mermaid focused on wholesome entertainment and education, an ambassador of the ocean.

At children’s birthday parties, kids swim with Wolbert at warp speed. “Fins down, it’s an incredible sensation,” she says. “They see someone from Disney movies come to life.” Photo: Reuben E. Reynoso Photography

Regular gigs: I’m gone 4 to 6 months out of the year doing underwater work. When I am home, my time is split among the following: children’s birthday parties and nonprofit events about ocean education; celebrity clientele parties [for audiences including Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Christian Audigier, and Justin Timberlake]; and photo shoots for film and TV, with or without my tail.

Mermaid ensemble: My 35-pound silicon tail, a beautiful beaded top, and a paua shell necklace from New Zealand. It’s pointless to wear toenail or fingernail polish, and I only wear makeup when I’m performing on camera.

Where does one buy a silicon tail? I worked with special effects artist Allan Holt in Hollywood  to create a mermaid tail. It took seven months. We made a mold of my body from the waist down and filled it with fiberglass to create a fake pair of legs. Then we used about 35 pounds of clay to sculpt a tail, which I designed myself. We created a fiberglass mold of it, and the mold was then injected with a high-grade silicone. I’m normally 5’4″, but I’m almost 8 feet tall with my tail on.

Dream job as a college student: An underwater wildlife documentary filmmaker. I started scuba diving right after graduation [from Emerson], and immediately became enveloped in the underwater world. After getting open-water scuba certified, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) hired me as an underwater model to travel around the world and appear in ad campaigns and educational materials about diving.

Did you dress as a mermaid for those ads? When I saw my first monofin, I could barely contain my excitement. It’s a single bladed fin made from powerful fiberglass with two foot pockets next to each other. Freedivers strap them to their feet to get more depth and distance. After I tried one on, I knew I had to be a mermaid. I knew I had to turn it into a career.

How did your friends and family react to your decision? I’m the luckiest mermaid in the world; they are so supportive, and didn’t laugh when I told them. At parties, others will usually introduce me first: This is Linden, she’s a mermaid.

Wolbert has never visited SeaWorld, and doesn’t plan to. “I won’t put any money toward keeping animals in captivity,” she says. Above, swimming with whale sharks. Photo: Jewels Diver

Benefits of a mermaid tail: The tail creates so much thrust and torque that people have a hard time keeping up with me in the ocean. This month has been epic: I just went freediving with wild dolphins and swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. And I can’t walk with my fin, which means that I get to be carried around by strong, gallant men.

Storage space for your tail: On my bedroom floor, swaddled in towels in a cool place. I treat it like a newborn. I call it my baby.

You molded the tail at age 26. Have you grown since then? Yes, proportions shift. I have to maintain a very healthy lifestyle and stay in great physical shape. I’m currently designing a new tail with a couture designer, which is a top-secret project.

Did you always love water? I know every word to The Little Mermaid. I have been on swim team since I was a tiny tot, and my parents were both swimmers. I lived in our community pool during summers in Pennsylvania.

Breath-holding record: Five minutes. That means I can dive 115 feet – and come back up – in a single breath.

Do you prefer land or water? Definitely water. I’m in the water as often as I can, whether in a bathtub, the ocean, or a swimming pool. It makes me happy and balanced. Plus, the abundance of wildlife in the ocean is amazing.

Best part of your job: Children’s response to a mythical creative coming alive in front of their eyes. I’m really a science geek.

Most challenging part of your job: Being a one-woman show. I built an entire company around my job. A lot of critics ridicule or belittle my job, but that goes for any artist. Sometimes, I wake up after an awesome day in the pool or ocean and feel crippled. I’ll have bruises from the boat, my neck will be stiff, and my eyes will be watering and cloudy and stinging.

Freediving relies on a diver’s ability to hold his or her breath until resurfacing instead of using external breathing devices. Above, freediving in Bahamas in 2011. Photo: Walter Steyn

Would you consider wearing goggles? No.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? I say no to a lot of requests for – well, shall we say, less savory events. It’s against my ethics. I’d rather teach swimming safety to people in the Bahamas — about 80% of them don’t know how to swim.

In 10 years, you’ll be: right here. I plan to dive until I can’t walk anymore. Actually, as you age, your metabolism slows, which means you can freedive for a long, long time.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
A few words for aspiring merpeople.
1. Follow your heart. Don’t listen to the critics if this is truly what you want to do.
2. Stay honest, stick to your morals, and don’t compromise yourself for opportunities.
3. Get proper safety training, like PADI open water certification. Start with scuba diving, and then pursue freediving. Remember that not all mermaids are freedivers.

PLUS: For more amphibious (or amphibian-loving) No Joe Schmos, meet the alligator wrestler and the oyster farmer.

Follow Mermaid Linden on Twitter at @MermaidsnMotion, on her Facebook page, and in her video series, The Mermaid Minute

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Discovery Channel aired the documentary Mermaids: The Body Found, which examined whether or not mermaids are real. (h/t @ohquarrie)

The Naked Cowboy Reads Nietzsche

“Everyone in the world knows me, and if they don’t, they will. It’ll be Buddha, Jesus, Naked Cowboy,” Burck says matter-of-factly. Photo: facebook.com/nkdcowboy

In a dimly-lit Times Square parking lot, Robert Burck, a fair-haired man with bulging biceps and tired eyes, lounges in the driver’s seat of his pristine Cadillac Escalade. There, he remains incognito, clad in cargo shorts and a black t-shirt. Most don’t recognize him without his signature underwear and guitar strapped across his chest.

Burck — more commonly known as the Naked Cowboy — has always been one for showy displays of attention. Each morning, he drives the 20 minute commute from his motel in Secaucus, NJ, to the Icon parking lot in Times Square. By noon, he’s working the crowds, serenading tourists and posing in photos for thousands of passers-by wearing nothing but a hat, cowboy boots, briefs, and a strategically placed guitar.

Particularly prone to exaggeration and contradiction, Burck expresses an impatience for people and their faulty cameras; minutes later, he proclaims himself a “social genius.” After reading Tony Robbins’ Unlimited Power, he says, he grew obsessed with writing self-affirmations and personal goals. He reveals a stack of college-ruled papers, perhaps several hundred sheets thick, held together by a large binder clip. The papers are clearly worn: the edges fray and the dark circles and underlines on each page bleed together.

This summer, Burck’s manager sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Naked Indian, who recently started showing up in Times Square. Burck believes he is stealing his act.

The 41-year-old climbs out of his Escalade, takes off his t-shirt and shorts, and slithers into a pair of tighty-whities. They’re a boys’ size 12. “No undies when I’m not working,” he explains. A few swipes of deodorant and a quick guitar tune-up later, he swaggers out of the parking lot into more familiar territory, strumming a tune: I have tons of fun, just shaking my buns, all day long, out here in the sun. Within minutes, a crowd surges around him. Two girls giggle and point: “Oh my God, it’s that guy.” Another couple, struggling with a subway map: “This is so New York.”

Age: 41
Based in:
New York, NY; Secaucus, NJ
Grew up in: Cincinnati, Ohio
Graduated from: University of Cincinnati, Bachelor’s degree; Xavier University, incomplete Master’s degree
Previous jobs: Stripper; waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s; male model
Years in the business: About 13

Where did your identity as the Naked Cowboy originate? In 1998, I was in Venice Beach, California, shooting for Playgirl magazine. I took out my guitar, and the photographer suggested playing in my underwear. I made over $100 that day from tips. I did the same thing a few days later in Cincinnati, got arrested, and made the news. The next morning, I left town in my beat-up BMW and did the same thing driving across the country, getting arrested along the way. I finally landed in New York, and I’ve gotten better at not getting arrested.

How does one get better at not getting arrested? Don’t push the envelope, don’t be a jerk. For two years, before landing in Times Square, I would call the media and the police on myself.

Weather conditions that keep you inside: I don’t go out if it’s pouring rain, because people won’t interact with me. I stand outside during 90% of the winter and wear a full-length mink coat to warm up in between rounds. I don’t get sick; being sick is a state of mind.

A small opening in the top of the guitar collects cash. Burck also glued on a small mirror.

Source of income: I charge $1 for up to 100 photos with me, but most people stop at two. I probably make about $100 an hour, especially in the evenings. Then there’s the money from my three music albums [including an X-rated country album], my endorsement deal with Blue Island oysters, my merchandise, and the Naked Cowboy Bar and Grill that’s opening soon.

Ratio of adults to kids who approach you: Yesterday, I picked up at least 80 people off the ground, 60% of which were old people and grandmas. They’re not scared, because I’m strong as sh*t.

Your driving force: Reading and studying. I read six to seven hours a day, and have for 24 years. I read psychology, philosophy, Spanish. I want to be the smartest motherf*cker on the face of this Earth.

Currently reading: The Art of Seduction, for probably the third or fourth time. I’ve read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power at least six or seven times. And Emerson’s essays, which are sitting at my hotel – I’ve read those about 100 times.

Your hotel? For the last 13 years, I’ve lived in the Royal Motel in Secaucus, New Jersey, right outside the city. It’s only $50 per night. My mailing address is still my mother’s in Cincinnati.

Burck keeps two pairs of boots in the trunk of his car at all times. He wears each pair for two or three weeks before selling them on his website.

Where do you keep your belongings? I have a suitcase in the backseat with all my underwear, my guitar, my boots, my hat, and a few other things. My hotel room has a spare guitar, my mink coat, and a suit and tie from my high school graduation. That’s all I need.

Brand of underwear: Fruit of the Loom, which is what my mother bought me when I first started. They come in packs of six, but I always keep a seventh just in case. I wear two pairs at a time: one painted with Naked Cowboy, and one unpainted. When they get old or stained, I sell them for $50 on NakedCowboy.com.

They look really tiny. They’re a size 12, which is meant for boys who are about 114 pounds. I weigh 200-something. I haven’t missed a day at the gym since I was 17 years old.

Do you stay this tan year-round? In the winter, I supplement a little bit. Right now, even with all the sun, I have a lighter spot on my leg where my guitar sits.

How do you unwind after a long day? I go to my hotel, have a glass of wine, and write in my journal for a few hours about how great I am, how my expectations are always fulfilled, how I’m a child prodigy.

Can you read me something you wrote recently? I am the most incredibly polished, spontaneous, talented, hilarious performer of all times. [I am] the most fabulously built, ripped, and determined body and mind ever created. […] [I am] an American icon, true badass, no-fear cowboy. The only Naked Cowboy.

That seems a bit arrogant. People don’t understand humility. It’s not about downplaying yourself.

Are you religious? I’m God Almighty. The God you worship is the God you are capable of becoming, in the words of Joseph Campbell. Do you know him? J.C., Jesus Christ.

Guitar go-tos: Mostly just sh*ts and giggles, except when I play full songs and pretend I don’t see people. My guitar is just an unlikely vehicle to get people’s attention. People even tell me I can’t sing very well.

Burck meticulously documents his meals, reading logs, and schedule into black marble notebooks. To date, he estimates he has filled about 400 journals over the past 13 years.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Standing in Times Square is hard work. If people come up to me with the wrong attitude, I double their wrong attitude, and they scurry off in fear. I don’t waste time with people who are wasting my time.

Best part of your job: Freedom.

Most challenging part of your job: Nobody’s camera is ready. Nobody knows how to shoot a picture. After a few hours, I’m kind of like, I’m never coming here again. When it’s raining, it feels like it’s never going to shine again.

Are you dating anyone? I have a girlfriend who I see once every few days. She works at the Cranberry Café, where I’ve eaten lunch every single day for the past 10 years. When my last relationship ended, I ended up with her, because she was the only girl I knew.

Do you walk naked into the café? I’ve been in many places naked, but I don’t do that anymore. I have a key to the executive bathroom here in the Icon parking lot, where I’ve parked for free for 10 years. These guys are the best.

You mention that you’re the only Naked Cowboy, but now it’s a franchise. That happened about two years ago. There are four Naked Cowboys, myself included, and four Naked Cowgirls, all part of Naked Cowboy Enterprises at different spots throughout Times Square. They just came out of the woodwork and approached me about it. The black Naked Cowboy was selling comedy tickets in Times Square.

You ran for mayor in 2009 and announced a run for the 2012 presidency as a Tea Party candidate. Those both fizzled. Any future plans to run for office? When they knock on my door and beg me to run because I’m the best man for the job.

Dream job as a kid: I wanted to be the most celebrated entertainer of all time. I did whatever I could to have all eyes on me. Everyone was always telling me what I couldn’t do.

The tattoo on Burck’s right arm depicts a devil, and the one his left depicts Jesus. “It shows I can be as evil or as good as I want,” he says.

Like getting that tattoo on your arm? When I was 16, I was on house arrest, so I got this tattoo of the devil’s head. It was the coolest picture I could get for $60. Later, I got Jesus on my other arm to balance it out.

How do you spend your time when you’re not reading or in Times Square? That’s really it. I can be the life of any party, but why spend all that enthusiasm on a few people in a room when I can spend it on thousands of people walking through Times Square?

Does your family visit you here? I send them envelopes filled with money every week. I stamp each dollar with my Naked Cowboy stamper and sign each dollar coin.

Do you want kids? Nope, not for as long as I live. And I don’t plan on dying. Ever.

Visit the No Joe Schmo Facebook page for more behind the scenes with the Naked Cowboy (and to find out how he signs his text messages).

Follow the Naked Cowboy on Twitter at @TheNakedCowboy and on his Facebook page. All photos courtesy of Megan Hess unless otherwise specified.

Odd Jobs at the Olympics

Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

There are plenty of odd things about the Olympics, from the Industrial Revolution bit during the Opening Ceremonies to the crazy faces cameras capture of divers mid-catapult.

But some of the weirdest aspects may occur off the court and out of the pool. The New Yorker chronicles some of the No Joe Schmos who are the axles and gears of the Olympic Games. One of my favorites: the people who drive the remote-controlled mini-Mini Coopers that retrieve tossed javelins, discuses, shot puts, and hammers. Oh, and the men and women sitting in folding chairs during the field events and scribbling down violations on pads of paper. I like to imagine they’re actually doodling things like Mrs. Ryan Lochte.

Click here for the full article on NewYorker.com.

(h/t Kara Landsman)