Jinx Oil Salesman
Every weekday morning, Randy Brisman commutes an hour and a half from his kosher home in suburban Long Island to Vandi Parfums, an herbal potions store he owns on 116th Street in East Harlem. There, Mr. Brisman, a 43-year-old with a slumped posture and disheveled brown hair, mixes and sells what he describes as magical herbal remedies-potions with fantastical titles like “I Can, You Can’t Perfume,” “Lucky Lottery Fragrance Oil” and “Jinx Evil Begone Powder Incense with Genuine Jinx Oil.”
“When people have problems with their husband, with money, with evil spells, they come here,” Mr. Brisman said on a recent afternoon. “Wealthy Americans go to a psychiatrist; my customers talk to a spirit reader. Instead of a prescription for Prozac, they get a prescription for candles or a bath. The results are the same: They feel better.”
Vandi Parfums was founded as a family business in 1967 by Mr. Brisman’s father, Herbert, a Linotype operator. Herbert mixed the elaborate potions, and his father, Morris-an illustrator who drew the famous Drakes Cakes duck-designed the bottle labels. Randy, not yet 10 years old, affixed the labels to the potion bottles after school. The Brismans first sold their perfumes out of the trunk of Herbert’s car on weekends, then out of a warehouse in the Bronx. The East Harlem location opened a year ago.
Herbert Brisman is now retired in Fort Lauderdale. But over the three decades of his company’s history, Vandi Parfums has established a firm niche in the potion industry. Practitioners of Santeria-an Afro-Caribbean religion that combines elements of Catholicism with traditional West African polytheism and witchcraft-can find Vandi products in more than 800 religious herb stores ( botanicas ) worldwide. Vandi even exports its wares to the Caribbean, where Santeria originated.
There’s little sign of divine inspiration in Randy Brisman’s workshop, a clogged room with rubber hoses and tubs brimming with smelly fragrances. Though he’s an occultist by trade like his father and grandfather before him, Mr. Brisman doesn’t pretend to possess paranormal powers himself. To him, Vandi Parfums is a business. In fact, he barely understands the intricacies of his clientele’s religious beliefs.
“Haitians-they’re well known for that hoodoo-voodoo stuff,” Mr. Brisman said, somewhat off the cuff. “But all cultures have their superstitions. For instance, people burn candles because-oh, I don’t know, because they have a favorite saint. They burn the candle as a ritual to the saint. Sometimes they’ll put a special oil on the candle for the same purpose-it’s very complex. I don’t know much about it, either. People think because I own the company I know all about it, but really I don’t.
“Take rosemary,” Mr. Brisman added, as if to further his point. “What it’s used for, I can’t tell you. But it has powers.”
Vandi’s customers don’t seem to mind Mr. Brisman’s Santeria knowledge gap. That same afternoon, a regular named Antonia Hernandez entered the store and bought a bottle of Good Luck Oil for $1. Asked to explain her purchase, Ms. Hernandez said the efficacy of Vandi Parfums is a two-way street.
“It’s the faith you put into it,” Ms. Hernandez said. “I say to myself, ‘I know it’s going to work, I know it’s going to work.’ My faith pushes me and makes it stronger. If you’re positive, you have a chance it will work. If you’re negative, no way.”
Randy Brisman was more blunt. “I’m giving people what they want at affordable prices,” he said. “Am I a salesman, or what?”
-Andrew D. Blechman
Jump to Live
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with the French-Canadian documentary filmmaker Martin de Blois, who was in the city for last month’s New York Independent Film and Video Festival. Mr. de Blois, who is 40 years old and primarily a furniture designer, recently collaborated on the film Rope Around the World , an examination of the international culture of jump-roping.
“Jump-roping can be very creative and relaxing. You’re not pretentious. You don’t pretend to be, like, a champion cyclist with the matching jersey and the gloves and the helmet and all that stuff. You’re not pretending …. You can do it anywhere. You can do it for 15 minutes and get a workout.
“All you need is a good pair of running shoes and to find a good surface. It’s not that hard, especially with the fashion we have today …. If you don’t like it, you’re not stuck with cumbersome equipment. You just have a jump rope. You’re out and you get to talk to people. People say, ‘Oh, you’re jumping rope!’ and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh !’
“You need to stretch a little before you do it, especially the calves. You need to warm up your knees a little bit and bend your knees. You need to adjust the rope to a proper length. Jumping on a soft surface makes a difference. If you can jump on wood, it’s better. Jumping in the street isn’t as good as jumping on concrete.
“One thing that’s nice is the side swing. When you get tired, you do the side swing-you know, when you swing the rope on the side. If you keep on hitting yourself, then you have to stretch your arms out more. I haven’t got the backwards thing down yet. There is a learning curve for everyone.
“You’ve also got the twist and many positions, like the front cross and the back cross. Jumping on one foot is really difficult. Throwing the rope up in the air and having the rope slip and grabbing the handles is hard-it’s something that requires a lot of skill. It’s almost like gymnastics. Throwing one handle while keeping the other one and holding it is hard, too. You kind of whip the rope and catch the handle that’s flying around. That’s where it gets really creative. Just rolling the rope around your arm or your leg is really cool, too, because it gets your arm working and gives you a little break. All these things combined together can be really creative.”
Chick o’ the Sea
For 20 years, New York women (well, this one, anyway) relied on L’Oréal’s Mermade conditioner to conjure up a peaceful, beachy feeling, even when it was 48 degrees and tense outside.
Far cheaper than a Hamptons share, the product was a “deep penetrating cream hair treatment” in an eerie shade of pale aqua that cost about $10 for a 16-ounce tub (one could also pay $5 for a pint of the less aggressive “replenishing” conditioner).
Mermade’s smell was difficult to pinpoint-not exactly oceanic, but deeply refreshing nonetheless. Unlike many modern hair products, which strive so hard to seem organic, Mermade was a relic of a time when it was O.K., even progressive, to be chemical. Amid the many alcohols and chlorides on its ingredient list was one sole sop to nature: the magical, if vague-sounding, “hydrolyzed marine protein.” (Plankton, perhaps?)
Technically, Mermade was a trade item, not intended for distribution outside of salons, but one could usually find it at small, independent pharmacies. (We sophisticated city slickers love to feel like we are tracking down a “cult beauty product.”)
But now we might as well kneel and pray to Neptune, because L’Oréal quietly discontinued Mermade last year, and stocks are diminishing at an alarming rate.
“I have been going crazy trying to find it,” said Town and Country editor Pamela Fiori, who first discovered the substance at Stephen Knoll’s salon two years ago. “It smells like the sea, which is wonderful, just a lovely scent. I must’ve gone into five different stores. I could kick myself because the last time I thought, ‘Maybe I should get two,’ and I didn’t get two, so I am down to my last drop of it.”
According to a L’Oréal spokesperson, Mermade was elbowed out by a botanical line called Nature’s Therapy, which sounded to this reporter like a knock-off of Clairol Herbal Essences. Nothing about the sea in there.
Would-be metropolitan sirens can console themselves with Kusco-Murphy’s Beach Hair ($18 for 225 grams), an Australian hair gel that is a weird amalgam of crushed bamboo, oil of bergamot, coconut, lurid green sparkles and, it is rumored, actual sand-Earl Grey meets Club Med. Or, for $15, you can get a rubbery four-ounce bottle of Bumble and Bumble’s South Surf Spray, which contains seaweed extract and salt, smells suspiciously like CK Be, and makes your hair feel, frankly, a bit squeaky and odd. For the determinedly old-school, a red-and-gold tin can of Phytoplage oil-“depuis 1975”-costs 17 bucks for 3.3 ounces. It’s French. But it ain’t Mermade.