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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

TOUCH: United City Ice Cube Company

One August afternoon, I was strolling through Hell’s Kitchen when I spotted a delivery truck with gusts of frost billowing from the open back door. Inside the truck, a man was tossing sacks of cubed ice down to man with a dolly, who carted them into United City Ice Cube Company, a fourth-generation family business tucked into a tiny storefront on West Forty-Fifth Street. I stepped out into the street right behind the truck. Standing in the frosty air was almost as refreshing as passing through a playground sprinkler, without the inconvenience of getting wet. I decided to linger awhile.

United City Ice is little more than a walk-in freezer and a couple of blue plastic dry-ice storage tubs, a corrugated metal hallway slick with melted ice, and a windowless back office where the phone rarely stops ringing and one member or another of the Palmadessa family jots order notes on the paper desk blotter.

A queue of dollies awaits deliveries on the sidewalk, beside a metal chest labeled with a frost-covered word: “ICE.”

“People say it’s just frozen water, but for us it’s about timeliness and service,” said Dave Palmadessa, thirty-four, one of the owners. United City Ice Cube is the only storefront ice shop in Manhattan. The company doesn’t make its own ice. Cubed ice is delivered daily from Arctic Glacier, an ice factory in Westchester; dry ice comes in from chemical factories in South Jersey and Philadelphia.

When Dave was a child the business was run out of his grandmother’s apartment; in those days they delivered three-hundred-bound blocks along a scheduled route. In testament to these good old days, a bulletin board next to the office displays old family photos and mementos.

As ice machines have become more prevalent in restaurants and delis, the business has become increasingly “emergency-based,” as he put it. Restaurants come to them when their ice machines have broken or they are otherwise in a refrigeration pinch. Natural disasters, such as the blackout of 2003 and Hurricane Sandy, also bring lines around the block, as does Halloween, when customers want dry ice for “smoke” effects. Other regular customers include high-end caterers working on sites with no refrigeration, art galleries, and Broadway shows (again, for dry-ice smoke). A well-Xeroxed handout offers instructions on how to create “Graveyard Mist” and “Witches Brew.” 

The tools of the ice trade are simple: dollies, a couple of shovels and a flat-bladed ice-breaker, an ice pick, a metal ice scoop, tongs for hoisting blocks of dry ice, and white plastic buckets for customers who don’t want to risk carrying ice in leaky plastic bags.

The narrow hallway of the store was a refreshing place to be during the delivery, as frigid blasts swirled in the air from the open door of the walk-in fridge, stacked high with bags of cubed and crushed ice. The dollies trundled in and out as workers traded banter about the World Cup.

While I was sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk, a man with glasses and a close-cropped beard approached. “Could I get a slice of dry ice?” he asked one of the workers, as simply as any New Yorker ordering a slice of pizza. He was from the Union Square Farmers’ Market, where he sold meat, and needed the ice for his cooler. “A slice is ten pounds—that what you want?” a worker asked, flinging open one of the chests and releasing more clouds of smoke. He hefted out a block of dry ice wrapped in butcher paper, fished around for an ice pick, chipped off a slab from the top of the block, spearing it into a butcher-paper bag, then tied it with twine. The customer dropped the ice into his Eastport backpack, received a hand-written receipt from the back office, and strolled away. Every element of the transaction, from the dialogue to the tools to the delivery, could have happened one hundred years ago just as easily as today. 

On my way home, I passed a chalkboard sign outside a coffee shop, complete with hashtags and Google trivia. It appears ice has entered the twenty-first century and is here to stay.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SOUND: Seven Random delights

1. Subway turnstiles

Surely something that won’t be around for long: the satisfying crink-a-crunk as your hips push against the metal bar.

2. Macy’s wooden escalators

You can ride the old-fashioned escalators close to the Seventh Avenue entrance to the department store. They make a nutty rumbling as the slats slide up the slope and into the floorboards.

3. Corrugated metal wall at Erie Basin Park outside Ikea, Red Hook

Run your fingertips over the bumps in the wall as you jog alongside it, making a delightful bumpety-bumpety noise.

4. Street-sweeper bristles

Best listened to while still lying in bed in the morning, the rumbling swish-a-swish is the sound of our city’s works in action. Sometimes you can even find broken bristles lying near the curb: a true New York City souvenir (and, some say, good luck charm).

5. Brownstone cement

Strolling the sidewalks of Brownstone Brooklyn, you are bound to come across a basin of this iconic mix of Portland cement, lime, sand, crushed stone, and powdered pigment being mixed with shovels in preparation for a renovation: a heavy, gritty, sloshing sound.

6. Fort Greene Park saxophonist

On spring and summer afternoons, his beautiful strains seem to issue from the treetops in this photo, and are especially plangent in the rain.

7. The Queen Mary 2 departing from Red Hook Cruise Terminal

Curious onlookers can get surprisingly close to this behemoth of a cruise ship and listen to the elegant bee-ohhhhs of her whistles as she sets sail for the Atlantic Ocean. Note the crewmembers on the pop-out windows in the side of the ship.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

SIGHT: Bottle Beach at Dead Horse Bay

The most common treasures to be found at Bottle Beach, off Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay, include shoe soles, ceramic light-bulb fixtures, perfume bottles, chunks of horse bones, pieces of porcelain toilets, shards of china plates, horseshoe crab carcasses, tangled pantyhose, and glass citrus reamers. The treasures—though some might call them trash—form mosaics in the sand all along the shore. 

Bottle Beach is an echo chamber of the past; every step offers a glimpse into the city—as evinced through its refuse—at the first half of the twentieth century. During that time, the surrounding marshland was a tiny, smelly, isolated island called Barren Island, where much of the city’s garbage and dead animals were dumped and rendered. The area was inhabited by families of scavengers—many immigrants—who eked out a living from the garbage. Eventually a bridge of landfill was constructed to connect Barren Island to mainland Brooklyn, and, in 1936, its residents were evicted. In the 1950s, the cap on the landfill burst, and decades of perfectly intact garbage surfaced and leaked onto the beach and into the bay, where they await today’s less-desperate scavengers. As if in testament to the beach’s ghosts, on a hill at the edge of the beach someone has erected an effigy: a scrap of red cloth and a garbage bag tied to a cross. 

Specters of the horse-rendering plant once located there lurk in the rubble.

Leather shoe soles trace paths across the beach, followed by the boot-prints of urban foragers, who come here to collect antique bottles, many still unbroken. 

The waves have washed sand and plants into some of the bottles, creating ready-made terrariums—or hourglasses? 

As they have for the past century, the waves lapping at the shore tumble hollow glass bottles against each other with a soothing clacking sound; the trash itself forms suggestive shapes if you take the time to look closely. 

On the day I visited, all of these apparitions might have seemed ominous if a group of ladies in designer galoshes hadn’t emerged from the trailhead and stopped to pose for photos by one of the stranded boats, saluting nautical-style. I watched them wading in the shallows, picking up shards of pottery between their fingertips and comparing findings.

A more optimistic view can be found over the hill on the right side of the beach and around the bend. On this stretch, artistically minded visitors have created sculptures from their findings. Light fixtures and toilet parts festoon an uprooted tree.

On another tree, glass bottles of all colors, many filled with water, dangle from the branches, catching the light and chiming gently in the wind.

DIRECTIONS TO BOTTLE BEACH: Take Flatbush Avenue all the way down to Floyd Bennett Field. Just before you get to the toll plaza for the Marine Parkway Bridge (don’t go over it!), you will see the parking lot for Floyd Bennett Field on your left; it’s not marked but is obvious. Park in the lot (for free), then cross Flatbush Avenue to the grassy side. If you poke around, you will find the trailhead right there. It’s a well-trodden trail, probably about half a mile to the beach.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

TASTE: The grilled deli corn muffin

Tourists often arrive in the city with a checklist of iconic New York City foods, and they’re willing to queue up before the famous names: Katz’s, Grimaldi’s, Luger’s. But there’s an under-the-radar treat that even many natives don’t know exists: the grilled deli corn muffin. You have to know to ask for it, and pretty much any old name on the neon sign will suffice. 

On a recent Monday morning, I stopped into one of the most average New York delis I know: Scott’s, off Rockefeller Center. Scott’s is frequented by office workers and tourists fresh out of the Today show corral. It shares an awning with a salon and a psychic named Angela. The long, narrow space smells of grill grease and stale coffee and mop bucket, and, like any respectable New York deli, it is plastered in more signs than it’s possible to read while waiting for a muffin to grill.

After I placed my order, the grill man plucked a gargantuan corn muffin from the regiment behind the Plexiglas, split it vertically with the wrapper still intact, slathered the cross sections with butter, and dropped it facedown onto the grill. There it sizzled for five minutes or so, soaking up the juices of the grill’s previous inhabitants.

At my local bagel shop recently, I had watched a man request a grilled corn muffin sliced horizontally—“Top off,” he’d said, slicing the air in front of him like someone signaling the end of a conversation—so I asked Scott’s grill man which way was most popular. “Up and down,” he said. “Some people, they like it across, but”—he waggled his head—“up and down—is classic.” He paused. “Some people, they get it cut three ways.” He raised his eyebrows. “But—is too small pieces for me like that.” 

He unfurled a sheet of tin foil from a box and whisked my muffin from grill to counter. I paid $2.25 and unwrapped the warm foil-wrapped mound. The cross section had caramelized into a smooth, crisp surface that, when I bit into it, had a bite of salt from grill that dissolved into a pillowy, fluffy interior of sweet, almost pearly crumbs.

The grilled deli corn muffin is really all about this interior surface, and I couldn’t resist sort of peeling it off with my front teeth, letting the non-grilled portion of the muffin crumble into shambles. As I chipped away like this, a tourist wandered in, stood on tiptoes, and peeped over the counter, “Can I have one of those marble cupcake things?” A businessman, ID tag dangling, huffed, “Small coffee, black, no sugar.” Two ladies in metallic sneakers decided to split a bacon, egg, and cheese, sawing away at it with a plastic knife.

My muffin tasted like a New York morning: fresh, but laced by what had come before it: the eggs, ham, sausage, and bacon of the morning grill; the tourist backpacks and leather briefcases; the guy selling pashmina shawls on a folding table on the corner and the Orthodox Jewish jewelers disappearing into secret doorways and tunnels down the block; the delivery trucks and the bucket sloshing milky water into the gutter; the TV tourists with their neon cardboard signs; the secretaries in pantyhose and running shoes: the corn muffin contained it all, and it was delicious.