I’ve had a cappuccino and a half by the time Phil Oh, forty minutes late, finally locates my favorite little brunch joint in a labyrinth of alleys on the Lower East Side, but his level of energy still kicks the shit out of mine. Rosy-cheeked, with a tousle of precisely mussed hair, a gravelly layer of party-boy stubble, and slick geek-chic glasses, he explodes into the restaurant, sheds layers of beautifully made, artistic clothes that anyone less confident would look like a total arse wearing, and apologizes profusely. Don’t sweat it, I tell him; I’m perpetually late, and rather needed to bond with my cappuccini.
“I just got back from Fashion Week in Paris,” he breathes, breathlessly. “And Berlin. It was crazy. This was the first time I had a press pass, too, so I didn’t have to be all” (here he slits his eyes, preens his voice, and hams it up) “Ah, hel-lo! I am ah-ssistant to fehmous Japanese phot-hoh-grapher! We leave pass at hoh-tel! Ai-yah!”
The man has clearly resorted to such tricks before, and has his schtick down. I like him already.
Originally from Chicago, Phil dreamed, at the age of six, of morphing into a Wall Street tycoon. “I never dreamt I’d end up a muckraking journalist,” he says. “I played the Trump board game, you know? I was so on my way to becoming a corporate raider.” On the way, he studied history at NYU (“It was the only place I got in,” he says, merrily. “My essay really blew”). His first business consisted of selling Beanie Babies out of his freshman dorm room. It was the height of the late-nineties Beanie Baby craze, and leaving a Broadway show one night (Ragtime), he noticed a series of Beanie Babies sold exclusively on Broadway. On a whim, he bought sixty, went home, and traded them online for more valuable Babies owned by people unable to acquire the elusive, sought-after Broadway variety. “It became a little embarrassing,” he remembers ruefully. “I knew them all. I even went to conventions. I could go and be like, ‘That’s a third-generation coral fish, not a second!’ Or, ‘That Bronty’s a fake!’” He blushes charmingly, and his hands flutter towards the coffee.
Phil, fortunately, exited the Beanie Baby business before its 1999 crash, when moony-eyed adults all over the country found themselves in baffling possession of hundreds of worthless pellet-filled animal toys. Today, if you visit the Beanie Baby website, you’ll still find founder Ty Warner answering questions from fans, like the latest, submitted by ‘fairylady.’ “What’s your favorite flavor of jelly bean?” she wonders. “I like all flavors of jelly beans,” answers Ty. “But if I had to pick just one…licorice!”
At least Phil came out in the black on that one. But then there was a failed Internet startup, of which Phil says, grimly, “I’m still bitter. Don’t want to talk about it.” He waited tables to make ends meet, compiling a restaurant CV—Spice Market, 66, Park, Ruby Foo’s, Jewel Bako—long enough to make any lifer nod in appreciation. The monologue is so blistering it makes my head whirl. “Sunday was gay night at Park. I worked the penthouse, serving cosmos to the boys in the hot tubs. God, I made a shitload of money. Man, do I feel bad for the bus boys who had to clean it all up.” He was fired or quit every job in rapid succession. “I got canned at Ruby Foo’s the day after the blackout. Drinking on the job. And then I got fired from Jewel Bako for what they call ‘not knowing the finer points of sushi service.’ Um, hello? Isn’t that what training is fucking for??”
I ask him about apartments. “Wow. I think I’ve lived in more apartments than I’ve worked in restaurants.” I put the pen down; there’s no point in letting my eggs go cold. There’s one abode of note, though, besides a nine-room revolving door of fauxhawks and Phil nostalgically deems the Hipster Hotel. That would be the model dorm.
“My friend was a booking agent for models,” Phil reminisces. “The girls arrive fresh off the boat from Ukraine or Argentina or whatever, and they get placed in these dorms all over towns, where they live with other models while they’re looking for work.” In between apartments, Phil ended up crashing at the model dorm for about a year. He’s just published a book about the experience, called Secrets of the Model Dorm. The book came out right when a Brazilian model died of anorexia. There was a flurry of press—Seventeen, OK, the San Francisco Chronicle—that died down relatively quickly. Phil and the booking-agent friend no longer talk.
"How’s my fashion sense?" I ask Phil, half-joking. The curl in his lip makes me regret the question. “Urgh,” he utters faintly. I return to my baked eggs, chastened.
At this moment, we are interrupted by a friend who has come by to pick up her pocketbook. In one of those serendipities that reduces the world to an appealingly human level, she’d left the pocketbook in a cab the night before, only for Phil (who apparently hailed it next) to find it. The engage in the following otherworldly exchange:
“I can’t tell you how relieved I was when you called, it’s so hard to find a pocketbook that fits a passport these days.”
“Well, the pocketbook is pretty fabulous, but I was more intrigued by everything inside. The receipt for the razor clams? The recipe for vinaigrette?”
“It’s a great vinaigrette recipe. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
“And what’s the $600 of Citarella cheese for?”
“I love cheese.”
Wholly in line with the lifestyle that depends on who you know and what they wear, Phil’s new project is a global style blog called StreetPeeper. His book advance allowed him to hire a Portland design firm (the one Flavorpill employs) that uses a ‘hip’ Internet language known as Ruby on Rails. “Hopefully StreetPeeper will work out,” says Phil, “otherwise I’ll have to move on to Plan D. I’m getting to the point where my peers are kind of taking off, and I feel bad fucking around.” He admits to still writing ‘student’ on immigration forms. “What else would I put? ‘Web entrepreneur?’ Kill me.”
Currently Phil lives in East Williamsburg (Bushwick) with his boyfriend. His parties are incontestably legendary. A campy Warrior-themed Halloween party for which he booked Afrikaa Bambaataa and expected 500 people received 4000 RSVPs and a priceless shout-out in Gawker, arbitrator of cool. He admits, however, to going out much less than he used to. “Getting fucked up isn’t such badge of honor any more,” he says, glumly. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Phil’s story resonates with me in a way that few of the other strangers’ has: his future feels at once boundless and, claustrophobically, like it’s closing in. He exhibits the malaise when it comes to aging that afflicts those of us who balk at sacrificing the perks of self-involvement for the sake of maturity.
I wish him luck in the next endeavors. As long as he keeps the campy Japanese accent and cute blush at hand, I think he’ll do just fine.