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

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. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Touch: Professional cuddle in Financial District

It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I am squeezing through the commuter crowds on my way to get professionally cuddled. In my tote bag is a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush, as I’ve been instructed to wear comfortable clothes and to have fresh breath.

Say what? Well might you ask. Some background: The woman I am meeting is named Alison, and her company, Cuddle U, touts the benefits of “nurturing touch therapy”: lower blood pressure, higher serotonin levels, a stronger immune system. She also claims that “love is touch”—that we are hardwired from birth to thrive from human contact. CuddleU is one among a growing roster of professional cuddling businesses, among them BeSnuggled, in London, Cuddle Up to Me, in Portland, Oregon, and the Snuggery, in Rochester, New York. All are explicitly nonsexual and have strict behavior guidelines. Most of Alison’s clients seek out CuddleU because they are undergoing stressful life experiences, because they not did not receive adequate nurturing in their childhoods, or because they don’t have someone in their present lives to hold them compassionately. Most are male; Alison describes her cuddling style as “motherly.” As my visit was purely experiential, and I did not fit into any of those categories, I was a different sort of client (and told her as much).

New Yorkers receive intense human contact daily, as my commute to CuddleU reminded me. But intentional, loving touch is, of course, quite different: as we know all too well from the subway, accidental contact between strangers often ends badly. How many people move to New York and immediately open the doors of their apartments, not to mention their own bed covers, to strangers? Alison started CuddleU last November, after moving here from California. She discovered the human yearning for nurturing touch—and her aptitude for providing it--through her experiences working in a convalescent home. 

I ring the doorbell and Alison answers, wearing yoga pants and a purple V-neck T-shirt. She gives me a brief hug—nothing too “cuddly” or strange. We exchange a few pleasantries. Her studio apartment—where she also lives—is spare and immaculate. I preview the places where I will soon be cuddling: a white shag rug, a bed with neatly folded comforter and a box of tissues is perched beside it. New-age music plays, mingling with the rumble of the West Side Highway. After I change, I find her waiting on the couch; she pats the seat next to her. We chat for a little bit: we could be any two strangers getting to know each other (except that I am in my pajamas). 

 Finally she says, “So, want to cuddle?” I reply, “Sure?” She sets a timer and draws the blinds. We start by sitting side by side. Needless to say, it is strange to be in my familiar striped pajamas, resting my head on a stranger’s shoulder, and to have her stroking my hair and hand, the workday world spinning outside. I try to imagine it as a massage, which, if you think about it, is just as odd, just more culturally accepted.

We don’t talk. I hope I am clean enough; I can smell her brushed-after-coffee breath and a not-unpleasant lotion smell. When my neck gets a crick, I ask if we can try the carpet. She brings over some pillows and lies down next to me, spooning me with the comforter over us. There’s a zing of static as we settle in, and we chuckle, which breaks the strangeness. Just as I am becoming nervous about drooling on her pillow, she says, “It’s okay to drool; everyone does.” She must see it all, I think. I can see how this might feel comforting—a “next-best thing”--for someone who doesn’t have a regular nurturing connection in their lives, but I can’t help comparing it to the cuddling I receive regularly at home. 

My arm starts to fall asleep so we switch to the bed—her most popular cuddling spot --and I try putting my head on her chest and she drapes my arm across her body. My mind wanders. A few days ago my son cut his lip on some ice and I cradled him in almost the same position; I could feel his body relaxing into mine as we breathed together and his cries subsided; our energy was intrinsically connected. Despite the intimacy of the situation, she manages to maintain an air of professionalism, and I feel completely safe. Safe, but the absence of emotion casts the whole experience in a strange light.

Alison suggests a forehead-to-forehead position, creating a heart shape between us. This is intense, breath-wise, and because we are looking at each other directly. I decide to talk, which eases the awkwardness—for me, anyway—and find that she’s very easy to talk to, and wish I had done this earlier. The timer goes off. With some relief, I change into my street clothes and pay her eighty dollars via PayPal. 

Outside her building, an orange-striped ConEdison chimney spouts steam. Plastered to it is a sign: “Nothing sometimes feels like everything.” This makes me think of the disconnect that sometimes happens between sense and meaning: that you can have the sensory experience but miss the meaning—or have the meaning without a direct sensory experience, such the knowledge of being connected to someone even from afar. That said, it makes me smile to think that in New York, you really can find anything you need.