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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

SOUND: Guitars made of wood from the "bones" of old New York City

Every weekend, no matter the weather, Rick Kelly bikes across the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades to see the trees. “I love the trees,” he says. “The trees speak to you.” When he gets back to Manhattan, he usually swings by McSorley’s Old Ale House for a pint. Rick has had his his eye on McSorley’s wood for a while now. He knows that hidden in its grains is not only history but music waiting to be released.

Rick makes guitars made of wood reclaimed from “the bones of New York,” as he always phrases it. He calls these limited-edition instruments Bowery Guitars. His first New York City guitar was made from wood from Jim Jarmusch’s loft; clients have included Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan, among others he’s too modest to name-drop. The shelves of his storefront and workshop, which occupies the converted backyard of an 1827 speakeasy on Carmine Street, are stacked with beams etched with their provenance, a veritable wooden library of New York landmarks.

Rick likes to ruminate on how much of the city—from roof rafters to floor joists—is built from “the king’s wood”: during the Revolutionary War, King George put a claim on East Coast virgin white pine forests to use for masts of his navy’s ships, as there were no native pine forests in Britain. The wood from those same forests was eventually brought on barges down the Hudson to build New York City, and it still hides in the frames of some of its oldest buildings.

The King’s Woods; image from http://www.ableebenezer.com/
As Rick discovered, “the king’s wood” is perfect not only for masts but for musical instruments. As the pine ages, its resins settle and create different resonances. Most of his guitars are modeled on 1950s Fenders, and the aged wood makes a new guitar sound almost like a vintage instrument: “Like a best-loved pair of jeans, it already feels loved and worn-in.” 

But perhaps more important, each guitar’s tone embodies the character of the building it’s made from. If you listen, maybe you can hear bacchanalian soirees in wood from the Chelsea Hotel, or incantations in the charred beams from the Serbian Orthodox Church that burned down in 2016. Wood from the bell tower of Trinity Church, taken down after September 11 because of heat damage, contains 160 years of ringing bells—and perhaps also resonances of that day of disaster. Imperfections—nail holes, knots, gouges, burn marks—only add to each guitar's patina.

On the morning I visit, he’s working on a guitar made from Chumley’s wood—the same model he made for Bob Dylan, who allegedly asked if his instrument contained dregs of all the beer he spilled on the legendary speakeasy’s floors over the years. Rick says Chumley’s wood always “has that smell, you know when you walk by a bar? Like stale booze.” In a fairly typical acquisition scheme, he acquired the wood one night as he was walking past the bar’s hidden entrance and saw construction workers gutting the building and throwing the old beams into a Dumpster. These days, he often gets tips in advance, but part of the adventure is always stumbling into history as it’s being cast aside.

As Rick chisels out the belly of a guitar, he periodically taps the wood to see what note it sounds: “tap tones” are wood’s natural resonances, and there’s only a certain amount a guitar maker can do to influence it. “It’s a vibration thing,” he says. “The guitar tells you what note it wants to be.”

From a guitar’s ingrained tap tones to the personality the wood acquires over generations of city life, each instrument is born not only to play notes but to convey the secrets of the city. Rick would rather see New York’s centuries-old buildings stand, but he figures at least he gets to give these landmarks a new life in music. As he puts it, “Every guitar has a story.”

Carmine Street Guitars is located at 42 Carmine Street in Manhattan.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

SOUND: "Breather" room in Rockefeller Center at Christmastime

It’s December in New York. You’ve walked, you’ve shopped, you’ve dropped something off and picked something up, you’ve seen a doctor, a show, a movie, you’ve waited on line, grabbed a drink, taken a walk—and now all you want is a few moments of quiet. What if—in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world—you could pay by the hour for a few square feet of solitude?

Enter Breather, an app that allows you to rent a private space in the city for between half an hour and several hours. You can use the space to work, take a nap, make a call, have a meeting, take off your shoes, charge your devices—or simply to breathe, as suggested. The simple and tastefully furnished rooms come equipped with pencils, chargers, free WiFi, a candy jar, A/C, and a yoga mat. At your appointed time, you unlock the door with a code sent to your phone.

On the afternoon of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I reserved a room in a “well-appointed office center” at Sixth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street (app description: “This hidden gem in the heart of midtown is the perfect place to host a meeting before catching a train back to the ‘burbs’”) and was soon pushing my way through tourists in Santa hats, panhandlers with soggy cardboard signs, and jewelers mumbling deals into cell phones.

The lobby was the paragon of anonymity, complete with “Wet Floor” signs and snowflake decorations. The room was appointed with an easy chair, table, a rack of light reading, a yoga mat, and a classic New York view of a brick wall.

I closed the door and was immediately encased in those two rare New York conditions: silence and solitude. If I pitched my ears I could hear the soothing whir of what might have been a white-noise machine implanted in the ceiling, the faint scratch of a speaker-phone conference call down the hall, and distant sirens and horns, but for the most part I experienced a few moments of serene, anonymous stillness.

Suddenly, I was struck by a frantic urge to take full advantage of the $14.50 I’d paid for half an hour in this 102-square-foot space. I unrolled the mat, did some stretches—then grabbed a throw pillow and lay down on the floor for a rest. I was checking things off a to-do list—no different from what I’d be doing outside.

I was even starting to feel a little lonely when I noticed that through the glass panel next to the door, a man in a blue V-neck was peering at me from his office across the hall. Feeling self-conscious, I hopped up and grabbed a photo book about cats from the wall rack and settled into the armchair beneath a duet of succulents in wall planters.

Time was running out and I realized I hadn’t yet used the table or looked at all the books. I swapped the cat book for How to Find Fulfilling Work. I checked the elapsed time on my phone, hopped up again, and craned my neck past the brick-wall view. I could imagine the sounds in my mind, but it was like watching a silent movie: police setting up barricades, crowds pushing through toward Fifth Avenue, Salvation Army Santas ringing bells, throngs of honking taxis in light rain. I saw the reflection of my quiet room, coat hung on the door, set against the city.

My phone alerted me that my Breather time was almost up. I threw my ID badge into the trash (other contents: a Dentyne Ice package and a Starbucks napkin) and exited down the hushed hallway.

Out on the sidewalk, I got trapped behind a pack of girls and women decked out shades of pink and purple, headed toward the tree lighting.

“We have to make sure we don’t lose Grandma or Laurie,” the little girl’s mom said.

“Why?” the girl asked.

“It’s just a busy place, that’s all.”

“New York never stops,” said the little girl, with awe and exasperation.

“That’s what they say,” her mom replied.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TASTE: The lost autumn flavor of Hungarian gesztenyepüré

With autumn in New York comes the iconic Midtown smell of roasted chestnuts warmed by incandescent light bulbs in foil pans hung from hot-dog carts.

But a lesser-known urban chestnut experience is a relic of New York’s immigrant history: gesztenyepüré (pronounced “GEST-en-yay-pur-day”)a traditional and still-popular Hungarian dessert of pureed chestnut paste mixed with a splash of rum and vanilla, pressed through a potato ricer into vermicelli-like strands and topped with whipped cream. In the early 1900s, gesztenyepüré was a menu staple at the Hungarian restaurants on the Upper and Lower East Side. As far as I know, today gesztenyepüré is served at only one remaining restaurant in New York: Budapest Café and Restaurant, also known as André’s Café and Bakery, at Eighty-fifth Street and Second Avenue in the heart of what was once New York’s Little Hungary.

Walking into Budapest Café on a recent afternoon, I was greeted by an almost entirely Hungarian clientele, hunkering down over plates of chicken paprikash and queuing for fresh bread and strudel at the front counter. The warm chestnut tones of the narrow dining room—which features brick walls decorated with photos of Budapest and a pressed faux copper ceiling—quickly whetted my appetite for this sweet incarnation of the city’s favorite street nut.

When the glass dish of gesztenyepüré and a spoon were finally slapped down on my table by the harried waitstaff, it was a sight to behold: at once beautiful and hideous. You could appreciate it as a nest of golden, delicate chestnut noodles spilling over the brim and crowned in whipped cream—or as a dish of delicate dog food (crowned in whipped cream).

The taste is also a paradox: gesztenyepüré is at once ethereal and leaden. Though they look dense, the chestnut vermicelli are actually fluffy, almost Styrofoam-like, dissolving under the lightest touch. But the flavor is rich and heavy: a sweet, grainy nuttiness, a faint tangy kick of rum and vanilla, melding with the smooth whipped cream, here both on top of and below the pile of chestnut. The dessert appears moist but on first bite is dry, quickly becoming saucy as it melts into mush. It looks like it might be warm, but is in fact chilled. It appears crumbly but is actually squishy.

It’s rare to find a dessert that inspires as much mid-bite rumination as gesztenyepüré. In New York City, the flavor of chestnuts signals autumn, but to a Hungarian immigrant a hundred years ago, the flavor of chestnuts must have signaled home.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

TOUCH: The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House

One recent Tuesday afternoon I found myself in an ice shack in a palm-tree-lined lot in Far Rockaway, submerged in a mud pit, drinking a glass of seltzer.

This situation was made possible by the Nothing Mud and Seltzer House, the brainchild of Frank Traynor as part of his ongoing project the Perfect Nothing Catalog. The mud bath, now in its second summer, is housed in an abandoned wooden ice hut that Traynor and a friend acquired in upstate New York. The hut is located in the now-vacant courtyard of the Palms, a food and event space. The shack’s first reincarnation, from 2013 to 2105, was as a curiosity shop in a backyard in Greenpoint, selling items ranging from fossilized dinosaur poop to handmade witches’ knives. Another iteration was a sauna in a Bushwick gallery this past winter. Frank says the project, as its name implies, is about reduction. Over the years it has been moving increasingly toward nothingness: less stuff, more intimacy, a deeper aesthetic experience.

It took a momentary leap of faith to disrobe and step into a four-foot-deep mud pit, but once I started to sink into the cool, viscous, lumpy (and odorless) matter, I was hooked—especially after Frank handed me a hobnail Mason jar full of his home-carbonated seltzer. (Frank: “I carbonate everything.”)

The bubbled glass pattern was its own sensory delight, like the seltzer made tangible.

The lightness of the bubbles contrasted with the heaviness of the mud. As it sucked me slowly into the pit, the seltzer seemed to lift me up, tingling against the roof of my mouth. After about half an hour of trying to squish myself deeper, I was still only up to my waist; Frank says some people have managed to sink in over their heads. As if in sympathy with the seltzer, bubbles formed and disappeared on the mud’s surface. Bits of twigs and leaves rasped against my skin; I even spotted a few critters.

Frank made the four-person mud pit from a lined concrete construction cylinder sunk into the ground and filled it with one ton of “organic, local” mud. The mud is not hot, as in a traditional spa mud bath. Frank says he intended the “primordial” mud, which sucks in everything and digests it, to contrast with the evanescence of the seltzer. This contrast is palpable as you sit in the hut, a breeze filtering through the vines that have twined over the cracks in the walls. Somewhere, a cricket chirps.

There’s no post-mud shower here; this isn’t a high-end spa, and that’s part of the point. The only way to rinse off is to walk one block to the ocean. On hot days the mud dries on the skin like a mask. Frank says his neighbors have become accustomed to seeing mud-swathed people streaking down the block, though I got an astonished stare from a Con Ed worker and a thumbs-up from a woman in an SUV.

The bath in the ocean was the ideal antidote to the bath in the mud. Like the mud, the ocean sucked me in, but with roiling rather than quiet force. The waves were as frothy and ephemeral as the seltzer. Though I’d struggled to sink into the mud, I was no match for the ocean’s own “primordial” force, which tumbled me onto the sand, leaving me with a mouthful of saltwater (a palate cleanser for the seltzer?). But as the water rinsed over my skin, my skin and face tingled and I felt more refreshed and purified than I had in a long time. When I returned to the mud and seltzer house, Frank dropped into my hand two cherry tomatoes from his garden, warmed by the sun. They exploded in my mouth with hot, tangy sweetness.

The journey had one more stop: Fort Tilden, where stage three of the Perfect Nothing Catalog takes the form of an inward-reflecting Infinity Pool in an abandoned military building. Inside the cool, spare room at the Rockaway Artists Alliance gallery, Frank installed a round, four-foot-deep above-ground pool bisected by a swimming lane with mirrored walls.

Shells scattered on the bottom of the pool rearrange themselves in the swimmers’ currents. The semicircular spaces on either side of the lane, he says, are “the void.” Frank handed me a vintage scuba mask, and I climbed the ladder and jumped in.

As I repeatedly dove down to the bottom (which was weirdly hard to do: the water seemed almost as buoyant as the mud), I could see myself and the shells reflecting endlessly in the mirrors, seeming to transcend the walls of the lane, the pool, even the room.

Sipping from a cup of fresh-brewed seltzer, Frank said that he intended the aseptic gallery swim to contrast with the messiness and intimacy of the mud and ocean plunges. But in the gallery’s corners are subtle inklings of aesthetic life, both manufactured and rampant: the cricket who sings from a gathering of dried invasive grasses, the life preserver Frank recovered in raw orange silk, the three faux natural stones—even a chat bird who one day flew in and curled up in the scuba mask, an unexpected visitor seeking its own transitory experience.


The Infinity Pool will be open for its final weekend this Saturday and Sunday, September 24 and 25, from noon to 4 p.m. It is located at the Rockaway Artists Alliance gallery in building T-6 in Fort Tilden, 169 Breezy Point Blvd. The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House is open by appointment only; to reserve a spot, text Frank at (218) 240-9350 or (preferred) direct-message him on Instagram @theperfectnothingcatalog.