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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

SOUND: The steam engines of Pratt University

On a recent Saturday afternoon, ten strangers carrying bags of cat food gathered beneath a smokestack in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. In about half an hour, passersby might have noticed puffs of white smoke issuing from the chimney and drifting over the rooftops of Pratt Institute.
Belowground, Conrad Milster, age seventy-nine, chief engineer of Pratt’s Victorian-era engine room, had just fired up the oldest steam-generated power plant of its kind in the northeastern United States. The room features an observation balcony overlooking three immaculately restored steam-powered generators from 1888.
The direct-current generators ran daily at Pratt until 1977, and they still run during the winter months, when their exhaust steam is fed into the university’s heating system. The steam is heated by an oil-burning boiler.

The engine room is also home to a crew of award-winning stray cats, who curl up among the pipes and in the corners. Conrad has suggested that his three generators have distinct personalities, much as his cats do, and he tends to both species with the same devoted affection.
Pratt’s chief engineer since 1958, Conrad has lamp-chop sideburns, aviator eyeglasses, and a hunched back. As he talks, he gesticulates with graceful fingers that one can easily imagine manipulating the levers and gears of the turn-of-the-century machinery.

Among the many impressive aspects of the Pratt engine room (the vintage chandelier and marble switchboard, the smell of steam and cat food), the most striking are the sounds.
A low, continuous hiss of steam fills the wood-paneled room, like a kettle kept on low boil. When Conrad switches on the generator by turning a spigot, water slaps onto the metal and then fizzes into steam. The pistons rumble and click into action, and the flywheel spins, faster and faster, chugging like an old steam train. The governor clangs; the flywheel wobbles. The gears turn in a wheezing singsong.

Conrad’s steam-powered gadgets extends beyond the generators. Each New Year’s Eve, for about fifty years, he played his collection of steam whistles, which includes train whistles, a handmade calliope steam-organ, and a whistle from the ocean liner Normandie. Today, he runs a stick over the cylinders, creating a cascade of metallic notes like a xylophone.
When he’s not tending to his full-size generators, Conrad creates scale-model generators in the machine shop below the power plant. The scale models replicate the sounds of their full-size cousins upstairs, but this afternoon they have to compete with strains of opera radio. “They’re playing Trovatore today—one of my favorites!” he says.

As the tiny generator begins to spin, it illuminates a strand of Christmas lights. Conrad is retiring this year. He expects that it won’t be long before the engine room is demolished; if that happens, he doesn’t want to know about it. He’s keeping one foot in the Age of Steam. Today, as he puts it, “the world isn’t what you’d want it to be.”
In the lobby next to the engine room sits the movement of a clock-tower clock that Conrad restored. Its steady ticking is the last sound today’s visitors will hear.

Many thanks to Atlas Obscura for organizing a tour of Pratt's engine room.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

SIGHT: The only taxidermist in the five boroughs

It all began with a tiger-skin rug.

Family legend had it that my grandmother’s suitor had shot it for her in India and offered it as a token of his love. After decades spent in an attic, it needed a little TLC—and that’s when I headed to Middle Village, Queens, to see John Youngaitis, the only taxidermist in the five boroughs.

John has a trim white beard, sharp teeth, and piercing eyes. He took one look at our rug and said it was not worth repairing—yet in the way he cradled the tiger’s head in his tattooed hands, I could see his affection both for animals and for his craft.

I returned a few months later to watch him at work. He greeted me wearing a Harley T-shirt tucked into jeans, exposing his sleeves of tattoos. One project that day was finishing up a scene of a raccoon peering out of the knothole of a tree.

John was puzzled because the client had requested that the tail hang down from below the knothole. “It doesn’t make any sense!” he snorted.

A bifurcated raccoon isn’t the craziest request he’s had. “I’ve got stories,” he told me, reaching for a dusty photo album. He began his career in taxidermy growing up in East New York, as a child apprentice to his father.

He’s fashioned a lamp out of a moose spine, mounted a dog’s head on the dog’s favorite stick, refurbished a raccoon to go in a customer’s kitchen to scare his wife, and taxidermied everything from a baby elephant to a goldfish: “If you can think of it, I’ve worked on it.” John says his favorite jobs are creating scenes, or, as he puts it, “inter-reactions—where things are happening.” Then he gets artistic license.

The front of his shop is a showroom of mounts available for sale and for rent. The workroom is in back, behind a curtain, the walls lined with girly posters, tools, and mounted game. Boxes of animal hides rest adjacent to a bench press and the hubcaps of a truck he’s restoring. A list pinned on the wall inventories the animals in his freezer (including “2 bantam chickens” and “1 boar tail”). 

John says 80 percent of his business is from hunters; most of the rest is pets and, occasionally, road kill (a remorseful couple recently brought in a coyote they’d hit on the Taconic). People often don’t return to pick up their dogs and cats (“They just get new puppies and kittens”), but bird owners, for some reason, almost always return. “Lots of people have dreams, all these good ideas, then you never see them again,” John says.

His other job for the day is putting the finishing touches on a doe head. John touches up the tear ducts with white paint and combs blue LA Looks hair gel into the fur to smooth it. Clothespins attached to the ears help the hide mold to the plastic form underneath as it dries.  

While pet owners bring in photos, hunters have to resort to oral description: they usually want their mount to capture either the way they last saw their prey or its final wall position (gazing toward the couch, for example). John orders all his supplies from Van Dyke’s taxidermy catalog. In its flagged pages, one can find everything from a blesbok form to a warthog eyeball. 

John has no lack of work, but nevertheless, he says, “You know what it is? It’s a luxury business. If there’s a water bill, guess who’s going to get paid first? Not Johnny.”

I leave as his cuckoo clock tweets its reconstructed birdsong. The cemetery across the street is reflected in the shopwindow, superimposed on the immortalized creatures inside. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

SOUND: Coast Guard icebreaker on the Hudson River

Even during a record-breaking winter, it was a good day for icebreaking: 0 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 a.m. in the town of Hudson, New York, lower with the wind chill. On a bank of the Hudson River, a sound like distant firecrackers echoed through the air. The Sturgeon Bay, a US Coast Guard icebreaker, appeared around a bend, slicing its way through the foot-thick ice. 

Between mid-December and early April, the Coast Guard keeps at least one of its nine icebreaker tugs on the Hudson at all times. The tugs work the river from the George Washington Bridge to Albany, as ice conditions dictate, creating a shipping channel for barges and freighters. Of particular concern are the seven choke points north of West Point, where bends in the river cause ice flowing downstream to accumulate into plugs. 

The chunks of broken ice drift south with the current toward New York Harbor and beyond; the floes we see in the city waters may well have originated in Albany.

The channel is essentially a stripe of crushed ice, called “brash,” between fields of thicker “plate” ice that stretch to the shore. Without it, commodities such as home heating oil and road salt would not reach their winter destinations.

This morning, a tank barge, the Eva Leigh Cutler, is stuck in the brash, and the cutter has to break it out.

This task calls for the icebreaker’s most dangerous maneuver. The Sturgeon Bay plows toward the Eva Leigh at eight to ten knots (high speed) and, just a few feet from grazing its hull, engages a “bubbler system,” a sort of tugboat Jacuzzi that forces air out of ports below the waterline between the two boats’ hulls, relieving the pressure.  

We make several wide passes, tracing an arc around the Eva Leigh, as if in a dance where two partners come tantalizingly close for a moment, only to fling each other apart.

Up in the bridge, the seventeen-member crew, almost all guys in their twenties, is a well-oiled machine of civility and jargon: “Rudder’s amidships.” “Right standard rudder right” “Got a 180 right now.” “Left five degrees rudder right,” and, frequently, “Aye, aye, sir” and “Raaaahger.”

The Sturgeon Bay requires three people to drive it: the helmsman, who moves the rudder; the navigator, who maintains the position logs; and the officer of the deck (OOD), who follows the captain’s commands. (The crew also employs a couple of toys to help plot its maneuvers: a pair of wooden tugboats and a Magic 8 ball.)


The stream of calm call-and-response provides a counterpoint to the sounds out on the deck, like sheets of metal being thrown against each other.

After the Eva Leigh has been freed, we learn that a tanker, the Aphrodite, is coming downriver. Our next task is to carve out a nook off the main channel so any boats coming upriver can pull off to let her pass. (The shipping channel is typically wide enough for only one boat.)

The Sturgeon Bay’s bow, five-eighths of an inch thick along its reinforced “ice belt,” smashes into the plate ice. Cracks splinter across the ice and sever it into plates, which shift as they settle atop one another and poke up like spires of a frozen underwater castle.

The wake churns the water beneath the ice, creating a sheet of undulating floes.

A lame coyote hobbles across the river, oblivious to the 2500-horsepower cutter surging toward it. Hawks, deer, coyotes, and foxes are all common sights on the north river, the crew says.

As the Aphrodite approaches, we pull into the new passing lane, intentionally getting frozen into place so we don’t drift into her path. There’s a rare moment of silence as we simply wait. Then we start to move, and the ice hisses as it brushes the hull. Sliding back into the channel, the Sturgeon Bay sounds like an old jalopy rattling down a rutted road. Up in the bridge, the OOD announces, “Steady she goes.”

Thanks to Charles Rowe at the US Coast Guard, Lt. Kenneth Sauerbrunn, and the crew of the Sturgeon Bay. Photo of ice in Red Hook by Kate Rubenstein.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

MULTISENSORY: The Poetry Brothel on Mardi Gras

There was Penelope Strangelight, whom the menu described as “moonmilk, silver, copper, chemistry”; there was Cal the Alchemist, “magnificent, rock, young, coffee.” But the whore I chose was Von Hohenheim (“tremble, ink, eternal, ore”). We’d met earlier by the bar, and he’d let me stroke his alpaca boa.


I was at the Poetry Brothel, a monthly cabaret-style poetry reading where poets, cast in character as “poetry whores,” give private readings (for a fee) in a hidden back room of a Lower East Side speakeasy. In the main space, furnished with couches, red-shaded lamps, and nude portraits, burlesque dancing, live jazz, body painting, fortune-telling, and public poetry readings unfurl.

Tonight’s theme was Mardi Gras; masked and sequined guests sipped teacups of absinthe. The cocktail’s bittersweet sting gradually melted the edges of the room; inhibitions loosened behind masks. One of the hosts circulated, draping guests in strings of beads. 

Strewn on tables were lists of the whores available for hire. I met Yngvildr (“faering, golden, spearhead, detonate”), who wafted her hand at her throat as she asked, “Would you like to smell me?” (She described her scent as “Poême, Chanel, and a touch of musk oil.”) Tennessee Pink (“shipwreck, folk song, nightmare, scoundrel”) swaggered through the room in an eye patch, carrying a censer of incense, whose smoke mingled with the stale and woody bar smells. 

In one corner, a gypsy gave tarot card readings. I opted instead for body painting, offering my arm to the cool, moist strokes of the artist’s brush as she flicked gilded feathers onto my skin.

An accordion began to play, followed by a jazz band fronted by a nasal-voiced singer. A caricaturist lurked in the corner, sketching the night in strokes of charcoal.

The burlesque dancing began with a swoop of feathers removed in striptease. Each whore read a few lines of his or her poetry as an enticement for private sessions, and the cashbox of the “john” began to clatter.

I bought a token for a private reading and waited for Von Hohenheim to lead me through a door (hidden in a revolving bookcase) into a room draped in gauzy curtains and strewn with candles and flowers. 

A distant exhaust fan hummed, and the room smelled rather cloyingly of air freshener. But it was possible to overlook those two reminders of the conceit of the evening as I seated myself beside him. 

It was admittedly hard to focus on Van Hohenheim’s poetry as it mingled with the other private readings around us—and someone’s elbow kept nudging me through the curtain. But in a way this seemed fitting for a pre-Lenten brothel: that words and music and bodies and paintbrush strokes and swills of absinthe and sequins and scented candles and teacups jostle and merge with one another for a night—and a few poems later I merged myself back into the night through the speakeasy’s crumbling, graffitied alley, an urban poetry of its own.

For more information on the Poetry Brothel, as well as upcoming events, visit http://www.thepoetrybrothel.com/.