Look for a new post the first week of every month!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

SIGHT: Seven random delights

In honor of Sense & the City’s annual tradition, I offer seven sensory delights for the seventh month.

1. Mother Pigeons soft-sculpture pigeon “flashflock” pecking at felt pizza slices in Union Square

2. An unexpected geometry beneath the pergola in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden, Harlem

3.  A fan of coupon flyers tucked into a brownstone fence in Fort Greene suggests an artist hiding behind this unsung urban job

4. Delivery trucks hand-painted with the New York City skyline

5. Found love note, Bed-Stuy (with a few trial pen scribbles and a mysterious elision)

6. Rain streaks making chain marks on the window of the downtown 3 train

7. A patch of Astroturf mounted on a Midtown alley wall to make a less-sinister view for diners inside the restaurant to the left

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

TOUCH: The last four curbside phone booths in Manhattan

I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that the first time I made a call from one of the four remaining enclosed curbside pay-phone booths in New York City, it went to voicemail. Not many people answer their phones anymore—especially if it’s a call from an unknown number. So the next time, I arranged the call in advance.

At the appointed time, I made my way to the most scenic phone booth: on the corner of 90th Street and West End Avenue, outside a stately apartment building and overhung with leafy boughs.

Enclosed curbside phone booths are different from unenclosed ones. There’s something precious about having a defined three-square-foot space to yourself in the city, with glass on all sides so you can see the street but are also protected from it: it confers the rare sense of privacy among the throngs. All four booths are on West End Avenue: at 101st Street, 96th Street, 90th Street, and 66th Street. A program called LinkNYC is gradually converting more than 7,500 street pay phones in New York City into kiosks complete with free Wi-Fi and a keypad for free domestic calls, charging stations, and tablets for Internet browsing. Mostly for reasons of historical preservation, the four Upper West Side booths escaped this fate, though the original cabins were replaced, in February 2016, with four uniform refurbished booths procured from a Canadian warehouse.

The doors on the new booths are actually Plexiglas flaps that require considerable resistance to press through; they don’t accordion-fold like the old ones did. One of the debatable charms of old-school phone booths was their reliable state of disrepair and remnants of prior habitation: dribbling soda cans, graffiti perhaps immortalizing a break-up made in that very booth, sinister smells and lingering traces of perfume, slashed cords and coin slots jammed with bubblegum. These four are relatively pristine, though the doors are prone to coming off their hinges.

Neither the doors nor the walls meet the ground, so there’s not the same degree of selusion their predecessors had. Still, once inside, I had the rare sensation of being in a space entirely my own in the city. The traffic sounds were hushed, I was sheltered from the breeze, and even though it was obvious from the quizzical glances of passers-by that I was far from invisible, I still experienced the illusion of privacy with a fishbowl view of the city. There’s something about the simplicity of the booth that makes you feel safe, like you can do or say or be anything—even, as Clark Kent famously discovered, someone else entirely.

Photo from http://tinyurl.com/jzeqvvo
I was reassured to find that the satisfying tactile sensations and sounds I most remembered about pay phones were the same as ever—and noted how they built anticipation about the call in a way that a cell phone can’t. The coiled tension of the metal cord that always whips around to hit you in the wrist. The springiness of the receiver hook clacking up into place the weight is lifted. The smoothness of the receiver itself (sometimes unsettlingly warm, from the previous user’s hand) nestling against my ear, feeling almost preposterously large and clumsy. And then the major-key sound of the dial tone echoing through the ear piece like an expectant smile: cell phones, after all, have no dial tone. 

Then, the snug rolling of the quarter into the slot (unnecessary, as I later learned: local calls from these phones are free). The notches of the COIN RELEASE knob that fit the fingertips perfectly, and the grinding of gears as I crank it to the right, following the arrow. The wiggly-tooth feeling of the number keys, and the anticipation as you tap-tap-tap the numbers in.

And then . . . the interminable wait while the call is connected, during which you have time to read the text on the phone itself assuring you of its possibilities of reaching the World! (in English) and Tu PaĆ­s! (in Spanish, “your homeland”). 

When the call finally connects, I am told my voice sounds “distant and lonely, smaller and more vulnerable than usual.” The voice on the other end sounds a little scraggly; there is a faint buzzing, crackling sound, almost cozy, like the burr of an LP. As we talk, and as cabs and dog-walkers brush past, I feel a sense of stillness and a twinge of discomfort: I am standing still and talking on a city sidewalk, not moving toward my next destination or ducking umbrellas or dodging strollers or pressing through the throngs. I am doing one thing only: talking to someone. 

We keep expecting our call to be interrupted after three minutes with “Please deposit twenty-five cents for the next three minutes,” but nothing happens. As I later learn, local calls from these pay phones are not only free but indefinite. As I replace the receiver, I hear my quarter plummeting into the PUSH FOR COIN bin, and I press in the little metal flap. Perhaps the previous user hadn’t known about the free calls: I discover not one but two quarters resting inside. But what is that metal bump? A relic of the phone's past? Or a button that, if pressed, might transform me into a new "super" version of myself?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

SOUND: The Upper East Side on a spring day

In celebration of the March 2016 opening of the Met Breuer, the organization MetLiveArts commissioned sound artist John Luther Adams to compose music to accompany the walk between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the museum’s new contemporary art space. Collectively titled “Soundwalk 9:09,“ the piece comprises two tracks, each nine minutes and nine seconds long, the time it takes the average person to walk between the two museums. One track is intended to be listened to while walking uptown, the other during the stroll downtown. Adams used nothing but recorded sounds from the blocks between the two museums for his composition, “sculpted and filtered ... to reveal resonances that lie hidden around us all the time.”

On a recent spring day, when the tulips along Park Avenue were in full bloom, I decided to give “Soundwalk 9:09” a try. But as I was walking and listening, I kept wanting to take off the headphones and listen to the live sounds around me, sounds that reflected this actual April afternoon, rather than ones Adam had recorded months ago. I found his piece was more inspiring to listen to at home—but it also made me realize the richness of the soundscape of an ordinary New York City day.

The strains of an underground trumpeter issuing from a subway grating, accompanied by the rattling of an approaching train.

A dry cleaner’s metal rolling rack rattling over the sidewalk carrying swaying bags of freshly laundered doormen’s uniforms.

The joyous shouts of children at recess from the schoolyard of PS6.

The uneven flapping footsteps of a woman breaking in a new pair of spring flats.

The splat and fizzle of a man hosing down the windows in his courtyard.


Birds chattering and caroling as they swept in and out of their nest atop an air conditioning unit, carrying sprigs of branches.

A bulldozer rumbling and grinding and clattering and beeping as it excavates the front steps of a townhouse.

The horns and shouts and brakes squealing and the slamming taxi doors of impatient customers as a whining ambulance struggles to push through gridlock.

The sibilant hiss of steam escaping from a manhole from one of ConEd’s orange chimneys.

The jingling of dogs’ collars as they patter past, tethered to their walker.

The groans and grunts and gasps of a professional carting truck with a surprisingly mellifluous name.

Also: the screech of a toddler in a spring dress throwing a tantrum, the jingle of charms hanging from a woman’s purse zipper, a woman saying into her cell phone, “I don’t remember: was it the Hampton Bays maybe?,” a nanny singing to her young charge as they cross Park Avenue, and a fat bee circling a tulip, buzzing lazily, then burrowing in.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

TASTE: Bagel blasphemy? The Rainbow Bagel

“This place used to be so peaceful before the Rainbow Bagels came,” says the guy beside me at the Bagel Store. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for ten years, never seen anything like this.” The South Williamsburg shop’s generic name belies the line that reliably snakes around the corner, tourists and locals alike queuing up their Instagrams for a #nofilter shot of the store’s signature creation, which is experiencing a recent and somewhat inexplicable craze.

In fact, owner Scot [sic] Rosillo was making the psychedelic bagels for about twenty years before they became a trademark, and he has another outpost on Metropolitan Avenue, where the line is reliably shorter. “I don’t normally get hyped about stuff like this, but they look awful purty,” purrs one woman, craning her neck to peer into the shopwindow, her toddler dozing in a stroller. The line inches forward under the spring sun. “They should have, like, a stand and a little credit-card swipey thing,” another customer suggests. The crowd’s mood is bewilderingly cheerful and patient for New York City.

The Rainbow Bagel’s swirl pattern varies: as an object it is undeniably beautiful. A fascinating video of the baking process reveals a child’s Play-Doh fantasy: great slabs of colored dough layered atop each other into a great jiggling brick, sliced, rolled out, and twisted with a snap of the wrist into rings. The dough is made in vanilla and various fruit flavors, and there are unconventional cream cheeses to accompany them. The go-to combination—and the most photogenic—is a Rainbow Bagel with Funfetti cream cheese, made with rainbow-sprinkle cake batter.

Of course, the classic New York bagel taste, the taste that is impossible to replicate anywhere else, is the crunch and pop of sesame seeds and poppy seeds and crust, yielding to warm, yeasty dough, then the tang of cream cheese punctuated by the briney slash of a piece of lox, and then the same thing in the reverse order on the other side, the whole thing sour and salty and creamy and sweet and peppery in each bite, squishing together and oozing out the sides in a finger-licking mess.

The Rainbow Bagel taste, on the other hand, is to some (myself included) a form of blasphemy: lurid cake-flavored bread slathered with cloying icing. The bagels themselves are eerily lightweight, rubbery, stretchy; the dough in cross section is shiny, not unlike plastic. The vanilla bagel is more tolerable than the fruit flavors, which taste like Froot Loops or Starburst candy and have a lingering artificial aftertaste.

For Saint Patrick’s Day this year, the shop reimagined the standard-issue New York City deli’s annual green bagel special as a green, orange, and white bagel, symbolizing “the luck of the Irish.” I decided I would give the Bagel Store another shot. The dough was supposedly spiked with Irish whiskey and the recommended accompaniment was a Baileys Irish Cream–inflected cream cheese. 

The counter guy wore a shamrock hat, a shot glass on a string around his neck, and a T-shirt depicting a dancing leprechaun and the words Get Jiggy With It. My skepticism soared. “I’m actually having the worst day of my life today,” he confessed as he popped open a paper bag. “But you wouldn’t know it, would you?” He sidled over to the counter and hurled a bagel onto a cutting board, and was I imagining it or did he do a little jig as he slapped on the cream cheese?

To my surprise, the concoction was delightful: the dough retained both the spike and the smoothness of the whiskey and was not too sweet, and the gaudiness of the liqueur was mitigated by the tartness of the cream cheese. Perhaps this was such a far cry from the classic version it deserved a judgment of its own.

Maybe it was the dancing leprechaun, the previous contents of his necklace, or "the luck of the Irish," but some kind of magic was clearly at work in Brooklyn.