The Guru of Good Manners

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Photo: Brook Cristopher

Myka Meier doesn’t own a single pair of sweatpants. Or jeans.

Those statements make a little more sense when you learn her background. Meier is an etiquette expert who trained under a former member of Queen Elizabeth II’s royal household, and now runs a finishing program called Beaumont Etiquette.

That might conjure memories of The Princess Diaries, or antiquated values of how a lady should act in public. (Cue eye roll.) While much of her work does focus on the outward — maintaining eye contact and good posture — it all stems from inspiring a sense of confidence and respect, Meier says.

“It’s not about holding forks and knives correctly. Etiquette is about treating others kindly, and that never goes out of style,” she says. Fair enough. Many are so reliant on technology to make connections, we’re at a loss when it comes to holding actual conversation around a dinner table of, say, new colleagues.

Clearly, Meier has hit on something salient; she sees thousands and thousands of clients each year, and her etiquette courses at The Plaza Hotel in New York City have sold out. (They’ve since opened more.) The topics covered in her classes range from ghosting to when it’s OK to sleep with someone: not your grandma’s etiquette classes.

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The Paparazzi for Hire

If you want to be famous, you can spend your life striving for success and acclaim.

Or you can hire a few actors.

Scott Cramton is the founder of Famous for a Day, which lets you rent any number of paparazzi and even bodyguards to make you feel special. The company, which he started in 2006, now operates in 25 cities across the U.S. While they don’t get many gigs in LA (“I think they’re kind of over it there,” Cramton says), in places like Kansas City, cars stop on the street to ogle the photographers just as much as the “star.”

“The paparazzi legitimately hounds you like you’re Kanye or a Kardashian, and you get that amazing feeling,” Cramton coos. By “paparazzi,” of course, he’s referring to four or five trained actors who show up with corded mics leading nowhere and cameras with enormous flashbulbs. They’re screaming your name, but only because you — or maybe your best friend or bridesmaid — filled out a form ahead of time, telling them where to meet you and what to shout.

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“It’s as close to functional magic as I’ve ever seen,” Cramton says. Photo: hirepaparazzinewyork.com

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The Guy Who Designs Puzzles for Escape the Room

If you haven’t heard of Escape the Room, you’re missing out.

The concept, which was initially inspired by online games, is much more thrilling as a live experience. You’re locked inside a web of 150-square-foot rooms for an hour, maybe with your closest friends or maybe with strangers (you decide which is scarier), where you must work as a team to find hidden objects and decipher clues in order to solve the puzzle and break free.

Behind the curtain — or in this case, behind a big TV monitor on a perch outside the room — is Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-founded several Escape the Room locations with his friend Max Sutter. (“Think of it like a karaoke bar,” he says. “Anyone can open one.”) They now have three spots: New Haven is their flagship, but the Escape Industries network, which they co-founded with local partners, also includes Sacramento and Rhode Island. They build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer, so similar tendencies are at play with the Escape the Room design,” Rodriguez-Torrent says. He’s experienced 20 or 30 different rooms, but he’s still no master: “I should be better than I am.” Here, he discusses the key to success (in Escape the Room, but also in life), how he creates puzzles in a former brothel, and the time he almost banned a bachelor party. Spoilers ahead.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Sutter.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Max Sutter.

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The Pizza Box Connoisseur

Photo: Michael Berman

“People are surprised I’m not 600 pounds,” laughs Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza company. Photo: Michael Berman

To the average American, a pizza box is a disposable, oily compilation of cardboard, taking up room in the fridge until the last slice is gone. But to Scott Wiener, a pizza box is a work of art. That’s why he holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes.

Wiener eats, lives, and breathes pizza. During the day, he runs a pizza tour company, taking groups of tourists to 40 different pizzerias around New York City on a yellow school bus. But the job takes a lot of research, he says. “It’s not just waking up, eating pizza, and getting a paycheck.” 

Nearly six years, 1,500 tours and over 25,000 tour guests later, Wiener is planning a traveling art show featuring pizza boxes around the world, from Brooklyn to Austin, Tex., to the rest of the world. Below, he reveals the country that uses the world’s most intelligent pizza box (not America), how to order pizza the right way, and where his love for dough, red sauce, and cheese first began.

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The Greeting Card Writer

Some companies that Louden works with send her copies of her published product. "I’m like a kid at Christmas," she says.

Some companies that Miller-Louden works with send her copies of her published product. “I’m like a kid at Christmas,” she says.

Greeting cards have a funny way of making the impersonal feel personal. Someone, somewhere, writes verses for a card without you in mind. Then, by chance, you select that card from a shelf of others — presumably one of thousands just like it — and those words become your own.

For 28 years, Sandra Miller-Louden has been the voice of those looking for words of humor, wryness, or sympathy. She has trained her brain to pick up on sound bytes in everyday life for fodder, just like a journalist or TV producer might do during an interview. There’s no room to mince words.

Now, in addition to writing verses for companies like American Greetings and Hallmark, Miller-Louden teaches greeting card writing courses, speaks at conferences, and has published a book on the subject. And despite the rise of birthday wishes in the form of e-cards and Facebook posts, there’s still a hungry, if niche, market for greeting card writers. After all, you can’t prop up an e-card atop your fireplace.

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The Sign Language Interpreter

Lydia Callis signingLast October, Lydia Callis – who has been signing her entire life – found herself tongue-tied. As she stood beside Mayor Michael Bloomberg, her face – and hands – were broadcast onto millions of TV sets, breaking the news about utter destruction that was sweeping  Manhattan in the form of Hurricane Sandy. She racked her brain for a visual equivalent of the loose crane trembling at the Freedom Tower.

Callis, 30, grew up interpreting for her mother and three deaf siblings, and signing was her first language. After coming to terms with signing as her destiny, she founded an interpreting program, LC Interpreting Services, and now works as a freelance interpreter. But the hurricane made her realize she has an even greater purpose: to improve life for the deaf community in New York, where she says conditions leave much to be desired.

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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.