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

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


It’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning before Christmas, and inside Brooklyn’s 60th Precinct station I’m strapping on a bulletproof vest. In the office behind me, police offers josh each other beneath a banner advertising the Six-O Holiday Party, which is happening tonight at El Caribe Restaurant ($70 cover). The air burns with New York City’s trademark cinnamony disinfectant smell. I’m here for a Ride-Along, an NYPD community-affairs program that gives civilians the chance to accompany police officers on patrol. 

The summer is the busiest time in this precinct, which comprises Coney Island and Brighton Beach. You never know what will happen in four hours (hence the vest), but being that it’s a rainy winter day, the officers tell me, the “jobs” we’re most likely to see on our “tour” (“tour of duty”) are traffic violations and family disputes (that’s “DIS-putes,” not “dis-PUTES”).

Our first stop is a corner deli (not a Dunkin’ Donuts). Officer G., the talkative one, with silver hair and an open face (and who mentions, over the course of our tour, both a wife and a girlfriend), grabs an egg-and-cheese and a coffee. Officer B. is his partner, African American and more taciturn.

The car fills with egg smells. Then the CB radio fizzles with a female voice that will offer a nearly continuous litany of the day’s disasters in acronym form. We get our first job: a curbside emergency-call box has been pulled. We sidle up to it, and the officers duck into the neighboring C-Town to see if there’s been any trouble: negative, a prank. 

Next job: a thirteen-year-old possible runaway. He might be at his grandmother’s apartment. As we walk toward the entrance, both officers look up. “Whenever you enter the projects, you gotta always remember to watch for air mail,” Officer B. says. 

Apparently police are so unpopular here that they get pelted with objects from upper-story windows. Inside it smells like half a century of cigarette smoke. The fluorescent lighting flickers so intensely we look like we’re in a disco. The officers assume formation to the side of a door wrapped in Christmas paper. “Never stand in front of a door you’re knocking on,” Officer B. says. No one answers. They shine their flashlights up and down some stairwells. As we leave, a call from Central tells us that the kid “ran away” to school.  As we wait for the next call, we take the car on a spin along the boardwalk, chasing away some seagulls and a man doing calisthenics in a Speedo.

After each stop, we idle in the car while Officer G. scribbles notes in a fat notebook and Officer B. radios in a report to Central Dispatch. There’s a lot of handwritten paperwork involved in a cop’s beat despite the military-grade computer in the console.

We cross Seventeenth Street and Neptune Avenue, an “APL” (accident-prone location) because of the confluence of a car wash, two gas stations, and a left-turn-only lane. 

As we drive past schools, gated communities, housing projects, and stores, the officers give me the rundown of what types of crimes to look out for. In Brighton Beach, public intoxication is a big problem; in Coney Island, it’s gang shootings. They begin to warm up, and soon stories of suicides and jewelry heists issue from the front seat.

Next: a laptop and a replacement headlight were stolen from a Mercedes last night outside a strip mall.

The victim, a voluptuous Russian woman, is trying to cover her broken window under a cheap umbrella in the pouring rain. Her single license plate reads NOGUILTY. When Officer G. runs the plate through the computer, it turns out its mate has been reported as stolen. This causes some consternation. She tells us it got swept off the car during Hurricane Sandy, but she never forfeited the matching plate because she didn’t want to lose her rights to the message. 

We take her back to the precinct for questioning. She slides into the backseat of the car in a waft of perfume and Lycra and frustration; she’s late to work and can’t be bothered. Back at the station we take her through a door marked Detectives. Facing the cubicles is an empty cell with bars and a fairy-tale-worthy skeleton key. When she’s finally dismissed, Officer B. asks if we can swing by a 7-Eleven. He emerges with a fistful of Bazzini nut bars. “It’s the only place that carries them around here,” he says, leaning across the console to offer me one. “They’re gluten-free.” Officer G. records the snack stop in his notebook, tucks it under the visor, and we resume our tour through the Six-O.

Note: Because photography is not permitted on the Ride-Along Program, all photographs were taken a few weeks later at the locations we visited.

For more information on the NYPD's Ride-Along Program, please visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/community_affairs/community_participation_programs.shtml.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SIGHT: The most beautiful alley in New York City

If you’re walking east on Seventeenth Street approaching Union Square, you might not notice a pair of iron gates on the south side of the street, sandwiched between Rainbow Falafel and Starbucks. And you might not decide to glance furtively to both sides and then duck through the gates (which are almost always open). But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with what is arguably the city’s most beautiful alley—particularly so on a rainy day.

What’s more, you’ll have the rare experience, in New York, of becoming invisible to passersby while still being able to observe them. “Alley ceiling” might seem like an oxymoron, but this alley has one: pressed-tin, in two patterns, accented by red and silver paint.

The air hums with gusts from ventilation fans. It smells like kitchen grease. Metal pipes and airshafts soar up the backs of the buildings, connected to an infrastructure of AC units, switches, and wires. Walk deeper into the alley and it reveals a hidden corner, where another vista opens up: tiered fire escapes and a plump water tower, more air shafts and pipes.

The Dumpsters, though, are the stars of any alley, contributing bursts of color to the gloom. Their stenciled name tags, representing some of the city’s largest private waste contractors, seem to impart a sense of motion and optimism to the stagnant air: Elite, Action, Mr. T, Five Star. 

An especially surly Dumpster is tasked only with kitchen grease, its spattered maw yawning open. Its contents get carted off to New Jersey by one “J&R Rendering.”

The grease Dumpster’s partner in crime is most certainly the baling press, another alley essential, used to squash cardboard boxes into dense cubes for recycling. Look to the right and you’ll see a battalion of ladders propped up against the wall. Like the Dumpsters, their colors and order belie their sinister surroundings. Who uses all these ladders? Where might one climb on them?

On the day I visited, the litter in the alley consisted of cascades of cardboard boxes, an exploded plastic deli clamshell and a Stacy’s pita chips bag, a broken hard drive, a sodden page-turner titled Anya’s Echoes (later research revealed it is a Holocaust story), and a plastic bucket of black grease with a rubber glove sunken in it. 

As I was pondering the bucket of grease and watching oil rainbows skid across puddles in the slight breeze, the door of the adjacent freight elevator opened and a man in coveralls emerged carrying a toolbox. With a nod to me, he slipped through the iron gates into the city. A Starbucks worker in a green apron flounced a trash bag into a Dumpster from the coffee shop’s rear stoop. It sailed through the air and landed with a moist smack. A woman passing by on Seventeenth Street, a dachshund tucked under her arm, followed up with a telltale blue New York Times delivery bag. A bare light bulb swung above the door in the breeze. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

SMELL: Kings County Distillery

It is said that the flavor of a whiskey is imbued with the scent of the place it is brewed. So it follows that the bourbon barreled at Kings County Distillery, located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, should take on some of the aromas of this historic industrial zone. One autumn day, I went on a tour of the distillery to take in the smells of the Brooklyn brewing process. 

At only four years old, Kings County Distillery is the oldest distillery in New York City and the first to open here since Prohibition. (The first distillery in the United States opened in Staten Island in 1640.) It’s housed in the old brick Paymaster Building and has a jewel-box corn and barley field beside it, from which the company produces about three gallons a year of local Navy Yard whiskey (not for sale). 

The whiskey is aged in barrels stacked in the twin turreted gatehouses at the Sands Street entrance to the Navy Yard. Squashed kernels of stray corn trace a Hansel and Gretel path between the gatehouse and the distillery. 

The smell hits you as soon as you enter the ground-floor fermentation and distilling room: tangy, pungent, malty—like yeast and like vinegar and like alfalfa. Somehow the smell manages to be both moist and dusty.

Industrial bags of white corn wait on pallets next to the fermentation tanks, where the corn will get heated up along with yeast to form a bubbly vat of “grits.” Since three hundred pounds of corn will ultimately distill into twenty-five gallons of spirits, it’s no wonder the air is redolent here. This viscous stew will sit in the vat for five days, revolving slowly with the force of its own fermentation, until it becomes a sort of corn “beer.” The vats have no cover, which allows the brew to take on the flavors of the air, which, when I visited, smelled like wet leaves with undertones of tar and tire.

Next comes the distillation process, where the alcohol that’s formed during fermentation evaporates out of the corn brew in the copper stills that sit at the locus of the room.

The unripened whiskey that emerges from this process, called “moonshine,” has a raw, searing taste—especially when slugged from one of the distillery’s signature glass hip flasks. But to begin its transformation into bourbon, the moonshine is poured into new oak barrels (one of the legal requirements of the “bourbon” label) and carted away to the Sands Street castles, where it rests for seven or eight years under the watchful eye of the round tower window. 

From the peeling paint to the gaping holes in the walls, from the faded NYPD logo on one wall to the vines that creep across the backyard, the gatehouses have a musty and decidedly sinister atmosphere suffuses the whiskey during its residence there. 

This seems all the more appropriate for a bourbon that is brewed in Vinegar Hill, which used to be known as “Irish Town” for the whiskey makers who fled to the neighborhood from Ireland to avoid the high taxes being levied on distillers there. Allegedly, the cobbled streets of the area became “rivers of whiskey” during the so-called Whiskey Wars: the post–Civil War government crackdown on tax-evading distilleries in the area. All this local history no doubt still lingers in the air, imbuing the oak barrels with the spirit of freedom and rebellion. 

It might be a stretch to say that a swig of Kings County Distillery bourbon tastes of the smell of wet leaves and tire rubber, of peeling paint and whiskey-soaked cobblestones—but it’s a good bet for passing around on a tar-paper roof in Brooklyn on a chilly autumn night.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

SOUND: The ball machine at the Waterfront Museum

On a breezy Thursday afternoon, there’s practically no better place to be than aboard the retired hundred-year-old railroad barge anchored off a pier in Red Hook that is home to the Waterfront Museum.

Among the museum’s many wonders is the audio-kinetic sculpture that I call “the ding-dong ball machine.” Cross the gangplank from the pier and enter a dim, creaking, magical maritime mecca overseen by David Sharps, a former cruise-ship juggler, who lives with his family belowdecks.

Just ask, and David will flip the secret switch that sets the ball machine in motion. A vertical chain fitted with a series of forked lifts scoops up golf balls, hoists them along the chain, and then expels them into a couple of tubes that set the sequence of clatters, chimes, knocks, and tinkles in motion.

At the crown of the sculpture, an orange metal chicken occasionally flaps her wings and opens her beak, when various gears are activated. The ball gets spun through a loop-de-loop, shoots out into a cage with a wind chime dangling inside, travels down a wire tunnel, where it runs over a couple of levers attached to wooden knockers that then bang on a few metal pipes, then falls through another cage, along the way setting off a percussion of four balls that knock against hollow wooden boxes.

Finally, the ball slams into a blue ship’s bell and rolls along the wire causeway at the bottom of the machine, only to be scooped up again by the forked lifts, continuing the kinetic sound tapestry. 

The sequence of sounds is always the same, since the sculpture is fixed, but David varies the intensity by spacing the balls at different intervals, creating a burst of percussion as several balls career through the sculpture, followed by a long, anticipatory pause as the next balls make their way up the chain—a pause filled, not uncomfortably, by the lapping of waves against the hull, the creaking of the wooden barge, a distant ferry or tugboat horn, or another visitor playing with David’s collection of nautical bells, which are scattered throughout the museum: fog bells, captain’s bells, dinner bells, ferry bells. 

The ball machine was created by artist George Rhoads in 1989. The barge, officially named Lehigh Valley Rail Road Barge #79, was built in 1914 and plied the waters of New York Harbor, transporting railroad cars full of merchandise from one port to another before the advent of bridges and tunnels. David bought the barge in 1985; when he found it, it was sunk in the mud off of Edgewater, New Jersey. It is currently the only surviving floating barge of its kind that is able to receive visitors.

It’s a rare treat to spend a half hour away from it all, standing in the middle of a gently swaying barge on an Oriental-carpet-strewn floor, admiring tugboat paintings and all manner of nautical relics, with the breeze coming in the wide-open doors, redolent of salt, seaweed, old carpet, dust, wood, and a faint undercurrent of sewer, and watching a series of balls zinging and zooming, leaping and falling, adding in their small way to the urban soundscape.

The Waterfront Museum is open year-round on Saturdays from 1 to 5 pm for free tours when the barge is docked in Red Hook. It is also open in the warm months on Thursdays from 4 to 8 pm. The barge is located on the pier at the end of Conover Street, right across from the Fairway parking lot.
For more information, see http://www.waterfrontmuseum.org/.

For more information on George Rhoads, see http://www.georgerhoads.com/.