Ladies Who Launch

Hillary Clinton kept making unexpected appearances at the opening of an exhibit on first ladies at the New York Historical Society on March 21. She had one scheduled visit, sure-when she arrived around noon in a black pantsuit and fuschia blouse, toured through the collection of dresses, papers and memorabilia and spoke to a luncheon in the library upstairs. But, as if the building’s occupants had been seized by one collective Freudian slip, Mrs. Clinton’s name kept tumbling out of ladies’ mouths all afternoon when-they “swear-they” meant someone else.

An example: Sarah Simms, a psychotherapist (so she should know better), was looking prim in a white pantsuit, walking through a collection of letters, photographs and personal items from New York’s first great first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Transom inquired what pieces she found most interesting, and she said, “I liked some of the quotes, the excerpts, of when Hill-oh, when Hillary! When Eleanor, I mean, wrote to Jackie and when Jackie wrote back to Eleanor.”

Her friend Virginia Mailman, outfitted in another Clintonesque power suit, added: “They were both wonderful. One was an activist, and one was what we expected the first lady to be. She was so feminine and so interested in all the feminine things. Eleanor Roosevelt obviously set the stage for Jackie-er, for Hillary Clinton.”

What’s going on here? The ever-suspicious Transom guessed: Perhaps there’s been a plot to hypnotize every pearl-wearing woman on the Upper West Side, oversaturating them with Clinton 2008 gossip until it starts pouring out of their ears? Did someone slip lithium into the mimosas? Either way, the gathering had a distinct, hazy feeling of a Junior League pre-presidential Democratic fundraiser. Sensing we were onto something, we set out looking for Bob Shrum.

Instead we found Amy Weinstein, the associate curator of 20th and 21st century collections for the Historical Society. She explained that no, nothing insidious was afoot. The Eleanor/Jackie display was merely their companion exhibit to a touring show of first lady gear from the Smithsonian. Any women entranced by such items as Mrs. Roosevelt’s 1957 gun permit or Mrs. Kennedy’s Chapin report cards (“She would be well-liked by the other children if she were more kind and considerate of their rights,” wrote her teacher Reba Wright in 1938), was so captivated of her own accord. Some of the ladies who lunch, who were lunching then in the library upstairs, agreed as they sat quietly awaiting a speech by Mrs. Clinton, to come later in the hour.

In the meantime, we wondered if the Historical Society would consider adding a Clinton to its display of great New York Presidential spouses. Without missing a beat, Ms. Weinstein smiled and said, of course, there’s always room for memorabilia from “a First Husband-oh, um, from the First Lady, I mean.”

-Rebecca Dana

Meet the Racist

“O.K., this is how it goes,” said Ben Stiller at the top of yet another Off Broadway offering from playwright Neil LaBute, This Is How It Goes, which debuts at the Public Theater on March 26. Imagine Greg Focker after a game of Quarters with double espresso shots: “I mean, went. This is the way it all played out, or is going to. Or is, right now. Doesn’t matter, you’ll figure it out. I think. No, you will.”

This is how the play goes: Ben Stiller, Amanda Peet (who stepped into the role when Marisa Tomei dropped out) and Jeffrey Wright form an interracial love triangle. Ms. Peet is married to Mr. Wright. Gasp! Mr. Stiller, whose crush on Ms. Peet dates back to high school, is a racist. Oooh. Mr. Stiller isn’t really a racist. Aaah. Mr. Stiller is … oh, just go see the damn play if you want to figure it out.

The Late Nite Committee of the Public Theater hosted a special performance of the play on March 17, along with Steven Rubenstein, bespectacled heir to the Rubenstein Associates public-relations throne, Vanity Fair maiden Vicky Ward and LaBute alumna Rachel Weisz.

After the actors took their post-show bows, Stacey Bendet, owner of Alice and Olivia-whose name might be familiar to anyone who’s ever glanced at an invitation from a benefit host committee in this city-bolted from her seat. Maybe she knew what was coming up next: an overly serious discussion moderated by Brent Staples, New York Times editorial board member, with the cast and the play’s director, George C. Wolfe.

“Neil wants to implicate you in his machinations,” Mr. Staples said in his lengthy opening. “He wants to pull you in and implicate you in his sense of the human self. As we’ve seen, his sense of the human is that, especially men, we are somehow-at the very core-a rotten kind of carnivores who play with our food. Carnivores usually kill to eat, but we play with our food and amuse ourselves at other people’s distress.” Uh, O.K.

Asked by Mr. Staples if he enjoyed the role of a carnivore who plays with his food, Mr. Stiller looked as if he would rather be getting tortured by his cinematic father-in-law, Robert De Niro-or getting his scrotum trapped in his zipper. “Did everybody have fun tonight?” Mr. Stiller said, delighting the crowd before turning serious. “I think he always poses a lot of interesting questions in his plays. I always find them very interesting, because there are aspects of us that are not usually paraded out in public. I find that to be what usually connects with me. He says things and has characters say things in plays that you don’t usually hear said out loud.” In this case, a few utterances of the “nigger” and one mention of “thick black cock.”

Mr. Wright addressed the notion that Mr. LaBute fancies the audience as a fourth character-a word of caution to future theatergoers. “There were a couple nights [in previews] that I thought that it kind of ran away from us-us as playwrights, us as actors,” Mr. Wright said. “The audience, I thought, got off a little easy in some ways. They were titillated by some things that I found … worrisome. I just wouldn’t let them get away with it next time.”

Ms. Peet answered the same question, but her piercing blue eyes were too distracting to hear the reply.

A short time later, a kindly-looking gray-haired woman piped up. “I think it’s interesting that it’s clear-and I hope I’m right-is that the writer is white,” she said. “Isn’t that correct? The reason I say that is because the white protagonist is the only the person really interesting in this play-complex and interesting. The black man is one-dimensional, very difficult to really believe, stereotypical, and I don’t think the writer knows really much about black people.”

“Neil LaBute’s mother,” Mr. Wolfe joked, nodding his head in the direction of the woman. The crowd was amused; she wasn’t.

-Andrew Stengel

Euro Envy

East Village Wines, on First Avenue between St. Marks Place and Ninth Street, is the type of place where the co-owner inquires about his customer’s “sweethearts” and runs product-giveaway contests for the most original palindrome. The store has been a fixture since the early 1960′s, long before the neighborhood became a haven for iPod-laden hipsters and overpriced walk-up studios. But as the East Village has become more gentrified, so too have East Village Wines’ fiscal policies. To keep pace with a globe-trotting clientele, the store accepts and exchanges euros, the currency that unites the 12 nations of the European Union and is currently slapping the dollar silly.

The store’s euro guidelines were initiated by co-owner and currency buff Bob Chu three years ago, when the euro debuted in paper form (it has existed as an electronic-trading device since 1999). “We’re not a bank,” said Chu, a stocky Chinese-American with salt-and-pepper hair and a thick Bronx accent. “It’s just a friendly bartering system. But you gotta take care of your customers.”

The store doesn’t advertise this practice, though most of the regulars know of the arrangement. For those who aren’t aware, a small chalkboard near the cash register states the offering as well as the novel rate of exchange with matter-of-fact clarity: one U.S. dollar for every one euro.

Customers traveling to Europe can thus convert enough pocket money to get them to their initial destinations at a tidy profit, compared to rates given at a bank or airport kiosk (the current exchange rate is $1.32 for every one euro). Those returning from abroad can put the euros they inevitably bring back toward a robust burgundy instead of tossing them into a drawer, though with the one-to-one rate doing so does cost a premium. Many, however, seem undeterred by this: The store’s yearly euro take exceeds 30,000.

“By the time you add the bank’s commission and the hassle of waiting in line, converting euros back to dollars is not worth it,” said a corporate lawyer for a large financial-services institution who visits Europe five times a year and is a frequent euro spender at the store (and who wished to remain anonymous). “And besides, if I don’t use them here, I’ll stash them away and forget where they are.”

On a recent visit to East Village Wines, she had euros left over from a holiday to Greece. She decided to use the overage to fund the acquisition of two bottles of organic wine-a 2002 Bordeaux and a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State.

The blond thirtysomething, dressed in blue jeans, a black nylon coat trimmed with fur and a gray Cossack hat, carried her selections to the front of the store. After a few minutes of small talk with the friendly clerks, she placed a wrinkled E50 note on the Formica countertop.

“The total comes to $30.39, with tax,” said co-owner Tom Chu, Bob’s older brother, as he nonchalantly took the currency, bagged the bottles and handed over her change in U.S. dollars.

While most of East Village Wines’ euro transactions go as smoothly, the Chus do see their share of hagglers. In fact, they recently set an unofficial $100 limit on purchases in an effort to deter customers inclined to protracted rate negotiations.

“They’re not buying a house here,” Bob Chu said. “It’s only wine.”

Accepting a wider range of currencies also increases the store’s exposure to potential fraud. So far, however, only one person has attempted to pass a counterfeit euro note. The eagle-eyed Bob Chu spotted the forged E50, questioning its authenticity but deciding not to report the man to the authorities.

Not that the brothers Chu have any reason to worry. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, East Village Wines’ currency activities are perfectly legal. Foreign exchange-”FX,” in the vernacular of Wall Street-is one of the least-regulated market activities, and there are no laws prohibiting a merchant from exchanging euros (or, for that matter, British pounds, Japanese yen or Mongolian tugriks). In terms of sales, “a retailer can accept paper clips for a good or service he provides, if he so chooses,” said a Treasury spokesman.

Given the dollar’s current status, paper clips might be an attractive alternative for Americans shopping overseas. For East Village Wines, the weak dollar has increased the frequency of euro transactions and the overall gross value of their euro-based take. “We’ve seen a bump in euro activity for sure,” said Bob Chu. “But whatever we’re making, we’re giving back on the other end.” Most of the store’s suppliers are Europeans who demand to be paid in dollars, so import costs have increased by more than 25 percent since the dollar began its downward slide in the last quarter of 2004. In the currency game, sometimes a player cannot win for losing, no matter how a nice a guy he is.

-Peter Hyman