A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, January 14, 2019

TOUCH: Mother Pigeon's touchable street pigeons and rats

Mother Pigeon, a.k.a. Tina Trachtenburg, makes soft sculptural pigeons and rats out of fabric and wire. You can sometimes find her in Union Square Park, sheathed in her handmade feathered oufit, with her “flash flock” pecking at the pavement around her. As she adds whiskers to a rat’s nose or wraps a pigeon’s foot in yarn, she receives visitors—both human and avian—who are alternately fooled, startled, repulsed, charmed, and intrigued by her lifelike creations. For Mother Pigeon, an animal activist focused on the rights of urban pigeons and rats, this is all part of a day’s work.

Crafted from acrylic felt, fake fur, and fabric scraps, and stuffed with recycled clothing and polyester, her handcrafted birds and rodents are, unlike their living cousins, touchable—even cuddly. Customers cradle them in their arms, nuzzle them against their shoulders, stroke their heads. Often, New Yorkers’ love-hate relationship with the animals transforms on the spot.

A few weeks before I met Mother Pigeon, I encountered one of the objects of her activism at one of New York City’s free Rodent Academies, also known as “Rat Trainings,” where community members learn how to combat the city’s rat population. Held in a Hunts Point coffee shop after-hours, the seminar—which offered free wine and free rodent-proof trash bins to attendees—provided tips for making your building and neighborhood unwelcome to rats. “Stress the pest” was the mantra. One technique that definitely wasn’t suggested was snuggling with the pest.

“It would be nice if we weren’t constantly torturing them,” Mother Pigeon told me. “I can’t bear to see them suffer.” She admires street animals for surviving under extreme circumstances, in the shadow of popular disgust, and facing unreliable food sources (though some New Yorkers might beg to differ). 

Mother Pigeon’s animals are born in her Bushwick home workshop, where I visited her just before the December sales rush: it turns out velvety vermin are a popular holiday gift. As we talked, two rats nibbled on a slice of felt pizza, a sight that would likely horrify most apartment dwellers.

Mother Pigeon creates three styles of rats—the roughed-up Pizza Rat and Subway Rat (above), and the more-refined Park Rat,

as well as two types of pigeons: the Times Square Pigeon (downtrodden and grouchy) 

and the rakish Park Pigeon.

She also feeds live pigeons in her neighborhood—one hundred pounds a week of organic Amish pigeon food. She knows all the regulars, just as she does in the park.

Once or twice a week, her husband helps her transport her suitcase of sculptures by subway to Union Square, where she holds court, fielding questions, smiling for photos, and greeting customers, while advocating for her cause. 

Some typical comments: “That scared the shit out of me!” “Look, the real ones are confused.” “I hate pigeons—but I like yours.” She tells me, “My favorite is when people come by and say they hate pigeons, and I give them ‘Adoration of the Pigeon’ [her screed], and they come back and say they are now feeding the pigeons.” Often, people purchase the sculptures to convert an intractable friend or family member. “I still wait for the day when someone buys the whole flock,” she says.

There’s even a soft sculpture of Mother Pigeon beside the donations box. So far, though, no one—not even the pigeons—has mistaken her for the real thing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

SIGHT: Christmas decorations at Rolf's German Restaurant

Rolf's German Restaurant, on the corner of Twenty-second and Third, is unremarkable in most respects: bland and overpriced food, surly staff, a phone that's never answered, and a faded exterior lurking beneath a scaffold. Yet each December, droves of tourists line the sidewalk and peer in the windows from noon to closing, waiting up to two hours for a quintessential New York City bucket-list experience that seems to be off the radar of most locals I know.

Beyond Rolf's wooden doors is a Christmas decoration extravaganza that puts even the famous Dyker Heights lawn displays to shame. 

The restaurant is bedecked with over fifteen thousand ornaments and hundreds of thousands of lights. Colored orbs, ribbons, glass teardrops, interlacing tree branches, gilded chandeliers, and icicles dangle over the crowd, which is packed sequin-to-sweatshirt into the bar area, craning over shoulders to snap selfies and maneuver their holiday cocktails without spilling. The room smells of body heat, lotion, and wool. As I hunker beneath a coat rack, peering at a couple wrangling with a piece of schnitzel, the bourbon-laced eggnog provides a welcome antidote to the claustrophobia.

The decorations reportedly cost the restaurant almost seventy thousand dollars a year and take six weeks of overnight work to install. They appear in early fall and stay up through the spring, but Christmas is the best time to visit Rolf's. The crowds of revelers are part of the experience, complete with Santa hats and rosy cheeks, raising their glasses of mulled wine to the dolls that stare down, unsmiling, from the pressed-tin ceiling.

"We need a SWAT team. And a helicopter," mumbles a woman, slithering past puffer jackets and ducking under beer steins. “I hope we’re only staying for one drink, because this is not happening," huffs his friend. “And I waited in the cold for this!” “It’s an experience," she insists. "At least now you can say you did it!”

But I say give me any of the city's other crowded holiday attractions—Rockefeller Center with its armed police, Serendipity 3 with its hour-long wait for frozen hot chocolate, Macy's with its lines of Santa-bound toddlers, and even Dyker Heights, with its lurching queue of cars—or give me Rolf's, where the jam-packed-ness of it all is the very reason you are here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

SIGHT: The House of Collection

Oil cans. Propellers. A box of desiccated rodents and a row of crop dusting tins. Antique locks and tire chains. A tangle of discarded toe shoes. Chemistry glassware. Tugboat ropes and embroideries of flowering herbs. Buddha statues, a jackalope, and a taxidermied buck head in drag.

These are among the objects you will find at the House of Collection, a loft in western Williamsburg filled with thousands of (mostly) found and gifted objects curated by Paige Stevenson for almost thirty years. “It’s the human part of the things I love, even though it’s all about the stuff,” Paige tells visitors one recent evening. “This is my way of having a roadside museum.... I emphasize a less commercial approach to acquisition.”

In preparation for our visit, Paige has lit dozens of candles to illuminate the treasure cave into which we are spelunking. Two former bodega cats slink about between the low seating, which encourages visitors to look up and around. A pressed-in ceiling from Virginia and columns found in an abandoned hoard in Brattleboro, Vermont, demaracte the space, with other partitions made of cubbyholes, a piano soundboard, and a hideaway walled in plants.

Resplendent in a tiara and vintage dress, Paige pours mismatched cups of tea and ushers her guests between rooms, regaling us with stories of how the House of Collection evolved out of her itinerant youth, which instilled in her an appreciation for communal living, manual labor, and anti-consumerism.

Born in Virginia in the sixties to hippie parents, Paige spent parts of her childhood in a tepee in a California commune, an off-the-grid goat farm in a redwood forest, and a Victorian house in San Francisco where her bed was on top of a bathtub. Through her wanderings, she grew to love “the Americana, back-to-the-land aesthetic” of decorating with found objects. In particular, she was drawn to barns, which are often decorated with everyday objects like tools and taxidermy. 

A move to Pittsburgh led her to juxtapose this rural proclivity with the romance of that city’s declining steel industry. She realized the connection was really about “liminal spaces, which are so full of possibility.” Paige found her own liminal space in 1989 in a five-thousand-square-foot loft (though it's smaller today), which she moved into with three friends, fresh out of Columbia, where she had studied welding. To build out the space, they dragged materials through streets lined with drifts of crack vials and burning cars (Williamsburg in the 1990s), and hoisted them up the building’s hand-cranked elevator. After winning a twelve-year legal battle for rent stabilization, Paige (a bookkeeper by day) decided to pay it forward by opening the House of Collection to the community for gatherings, parties, events, shows, fund-raisers, and as an artist workspace. Though she now lives alone, at its peak ten people shared the space, bringing Paige back to her roots in communal living. “It’s like an organism,” she says of her home. 

She loves objects for their own sense of self as well as for the negative space they create. After a recent fly infestation, for instance, a coil of flypaper became part of the collection, hanging from a kitchen lamp and offset by a mandala of kitchen tools and a fridge masked in envelopes found on Houston Street—a friend “skinned” them off her former fridge and adhered them to her new one, creating a palimpsest of the found, the gifted, the old, and the new that seems as representative of the House of Collection as anything.

“I like the energy of things that are worked with,” Paige says. “You can take them off the wall and use them.”

At the end of the evening, she brings out a bag of rambutan fruits she bought in Chinatown because she “liked the way they looked.” A few visitors show her how to score the spiny skins and pop out the pearly fruit, which tastes like a creamy grape. There it was again: treasure where you least expect it, revealed with the help of friends.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TASTE: Charlotte Russe from Holtermann's Bakery

Once an iconic New York City street food, the Charlotte Russe is a Push Pop–style confection encased in a cardboard shell with a movable bottom. Inside, a disc of sponge cake is topped with a dollop of jam and crowned with spirals of whipped cream and a nut-dusted Maraschino cherry. As you eat it, you push the bottom up with your thumb, permitting access to the pastry’s deeper layers.

My search for the elusive treat led me to Holtermann’s Bakery, reportedly the only place in the five boroughs to make Charlotte Russes today (until a few years ago, Bay Ridge's Leske's sold a delicious version available by pre-order). Founded in 1878, Holtermann’s is the oldest family-owned bakery on Staten Island.

The pastry, however, receives no fanfare at Holtermann’s: there’s no banner proclaiming the shop the last bastion of Charlotte Russes in New York; the little turbaned pastries are not set apart on a golden tray. In fact, they sit in a corner of the display case on a plastic tray alongside their pastry peers. While I'd raced across the Verrazano, afraid they'd sell out, on the day of my visit the other customers were buying rye bread, doughnuts, and apple cake.

According to an article on the lost foods of New York, the Charlotte Russe—reportedly pronounced “Charley Roosh” and nicknamed “the Brooklyn Ambrosia”—was sold in the early to mid-1900s from street carts, candy stores, and bakeries as a quick after-school treat. Kids loved the novelty of pushing the cake upward, licking their way through the layers of cream, jam, and cake, and the challenge of achieving the right proportions of each in a single bite.

Though it looks heavy, the Charlotte Russe is actually airy. Removing the cherry—and savoring its waxy, syrupy, one-bite burst—reveals the enticing hole at the center of the cream spiral. The only way to eat the cream is to scoop at it with one’s top lip, rotating the cardboard shell as you go. Once the cream has leveled out with the scalloped top of the cardboard (which can be licked clean later), you start to crave a new texture. It’s time to start pushing it!

You position your thumb at the center of the bottom of the shell and urge the pastry upward. With a squeaky rasp of waxed cardboard, the concoction rises like an elevator, revealing the golden coin of cake and leaving the Swiss-dotted cardboard behind like a discarded pinafore.

After conquering the pastry’s crown, the real joy of the Charlotte Russe begins: the contrast of textures between the cloud of cream; the cool, sticky dab of jam; and the spongy, grainy cake. As one schoolchild I know observed, it’s not unlike a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the Charlotte Russe’s successor in the realm of after-school treats: sweet and salty; smooth and crumbly; creamy and acidic. No matter how many times we’ve eaten it, it always surprised and delights us with its symphony of contrasts—not unlike New York City itself.