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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

SOUND: The Upper East Side on a spring day

In celebration of the March 2016 opening of the Met Breuer, the organization MetLiveArts commissioned sound artist John Luther Adams to compose music to accompany the walk between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the museum’s new contemporary art space. Collectively titled “Soundwalk 9:09,“ the piece comprises two tracks, each nine minutes and nine seconds long, the time it takes the average person to walk between the two museums. One track is intended to be listened to while walking uptown, the other during the stroll downtown. Adams used nothing but recorded sounds from the blocks between the two museums for his composition, “sculpted and filtered ... to reveal resonances that lie hidden around us all the time.”

On a recent spring day, when the tulips along Park Avenue were in full bloom, I decided to give “Soundwalk 9:09” a try. But as I was walking and listening, I kept wanting to take off the headphones and listen to the live sounds around me, sounds that reflected this actual April afternoon, rather than ones Adam had recorded months ago. I found his piece was more inspiring to listen to at home—but it also made me realize the richness of the soundscape of an ordinary New York City day.

The strains of an underground trumpeter issuing from a subway grating, accompanied by the rattling of an approaching train.

A dry cleaner’s metal rolling rack rattling over the sidewalk carrying swaying bags of freshly laundered doormen’s uniforms.

The joyous shouts of children at recess from the schoolyard of PS6.

The uneven flapping footsteps of a woman breaking in a new pair of spring flats.

The splat and fizzle of a man hosing down the windows in his courtyard.


Birds chattering and caroling as they swept in and out of their nest atop an air conditioning unit, carrying sprigs of branches.

A bulldozer rumbling and grinding and clattering and beeping as it excavates the front steps of a townhouse.

The horns and shouts and brakes squealing and the slamming taxi doors of impatient customers as a whining ambulance struggles to push through gridlock.

The sibilant hiss of steam escaping from a manhole from one of ConEd’s orange chimneys.

The jingling of dogs’ collars as they patter past, tethered to their walker.

The groans and grunts and gasps of a professional carting truck with a surprisingly mellifluous name.

Also: the screech of a toddler in a spring dress throwing a tantrum, the jingle of charms hanging from a woman’s purse zipper, a woman saying into her cell phone, “I don’t remember: was it the Hampton Bays maybe?,” a nanny singing to her young charge as they cross Park Avenue, and a fat bee circling a tulip, buzzing lazily, then burrowing in.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

TASTE: Bagel blasphemy? The Rainbow Bagel

“This place used to be so peaceful before the Rainbow Bagels came,” says the guy beside me at the Bagel Store. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for ten years, never seen anything like this.” The South Williamsburg shop’s generic name belies the line that reliably snakes around the corner, tourists and locals alike queuing up their Instagrams for a #nofilter shot of the store’s signature creation, which is experiencing a recent and somewhat inexplicable craze.

In fact, owner Scot [sic] Rosillo was making the psychedelic bagels for about twenty years before they became a trademark, and he has another outpost on Metropolitan Avenue, where the line is reliably shorter. “I don’t normally get hyped about stuff like this, but they look awful purty,” purrs one woman, craning her neck to peer into the shopwindow, her toddler dozing in a stroller. The line inches forward under the spring sun. “They should have, like, a stand and a little credit-card swipey thing,” another customer suggests. The crowd’s mood is bewilderingly cheerful and patient for New York City.

The Rainbow Bagel’s swirl pattern varies: as an object it is undeniably beautiful. A fascinating video of the baking process reveals a child’s Play-Doh fantasy: great slabs of colored dough layered atop each other into a great jiggling brick, sliced, rolled out, and twisted with a snap of the wrist into rings. The dough is made in vanilla and various fruit flavors, and there are unconventional cream cheeses to accompany them. The go-to combination—and the most photogenic—is a Rainbow Bagel with Funfetti cream cheese, made with rainbow-sprinkle cake batter.

Of course, the classic New York bagel taste, the taste that is impossible to replicate anywhere else, is the crunch and pop of sesame seeds and poppy seeds and crust, yielding to warm, yeasty dough, then the tang of cream cheese punctuated by the briney slash of a piece of lox, and then the same thing in the reverse order on the other side, the whole thing sour and salty and creamy and sweet and peppery in each bite, squishing together and oozing out the sides in a finger-licking mess.

The Rainbow Bagel taste, on the other hand, is to some (myself included) a form of blasphemy: lurid cake-flavored bread slathered with cloying icing. The bagels themselves are eerily lightweight, rubbery, stretchy; the dough in cross section is shiny, not unlike plastic. The vanilla bagel is more tolerable than the fruit flavors, which taste like Froot Loops or Starburst candy and have a lingering artificial aftertaste.

For Saint Patrick’s Day this year, the shop reimagined the standard-issue New York City deli’s annual green bagel special as a green, orange, and white bagel, symbolizing “the luck of the Irish.” I decided I would give the Bagel Store another shot. The dough was supposedly spiked with Irish whiskey and the recommended accompaniment was a Baileys Irish Cream–inflected cream cheese. 

The counter guy wore a shamrock hat, a shot glass on a string around his neck, and a T-shirt depicting a dancing leprechaun and the words Get Jiggy With It. My skepticism soared. “I’m actually having the worst day of my life today,” he confessed as he popped open a paper bag. “But you wouldn’t know it, would you?” He sidled over to the counter and hurled a bagel onto a cutting board, and was I imagining it or did he do a little jig as he slapped on the cream cheese?

To my surprise, the concoction was delightful: the dough retained both the spike and the smoothness of the whiskey and was not too sweet, and the gaudiness of the liqueur was mitigated by the tartness of the cream cheese. Perhaps this was such a far cry from the classic version it deserved a judgment of its own.

Maybe it was the dancing leprechaun, the previous contents of his necklace, or "the luck of the Irish," but some kind of magic was clearly at work in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

SOUND: Valentine's Day tour of a sewage treatment plant

Love is in the air when I arrive at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant for its annual—and hugely popular—Valentine’s Day tour, now in its fourth year.

The hundred or so attendees snatch handfuls of red Hershey’s Kisses from a basket near the door as they take their seats for the introductory presentation, which will explain what happens to New York City's waste after it disappears down the drain, toilet, and curbside sewer grate.

The talk is led by plant superintendent Zainool Ali, an animated man wearing a bright red sweatshirt, I assume in honor of the occasion. 

Arrayed on a table in front of Ali is a rank of plastic bottles of sewage in various stages of treatment. Visitors flock around the table, picking up the bottles, peering through the plastic, and shaking the contents. One bottle contains a hazy fluid flecked with brown bits (“That’s what you flush down the toilet,” Ali explains cheerfully). Another is packed with wads the baby wipes and tampons that get trapped by filters. One is labeled “dewatered sludge ‘cake,’”and it looks almost as rich as the flourless chocolate cake in a February 14 prix fixe.

The backdrop to Ali’s talk is the humming rumble of the plant’s machinery, which operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, serving 1.1 million people over 25 square miles and processing 720 million gallons of wastewater each day. It’s one of fourteen wastewater treatment plants in New York City. “The digester just hums love. It grows love,” I hear Ali tell another visitor. Listening to the plant’s sounds is crucial to his job: “You hear a certain sound, smell a certain smell, you know something’s not right,” he tells me later.

As his audience munches happily on their chocolates, Ali breaks down the wastewater treatment process candidly, interspersed with wry acknowledgment of an uncomfortable topic. In brief, raw wastewater enters the plant, passes through two sets of screens (which catch the baby wipes, street litter, and some solids), then a detritor (a tank that settles heavy grit). The filtered-out solids from the screens and detritors go to landfill. The remaining wastewater passes into an aeration tank, where biological treatment occurs utilizing beneficial bacteria. It then flows into a settling tank, where the solids (known as biosolids) fall to the bottom and get collected for further treatment. The biosolids then go into the digester eggs, the eight gleaming crowns of the plant, which are basically like giant stomachs that digest the sludge and make it safe to return to the environment. The sludge is stabilized by anaerobic bacteria and kept at 98 degrees for fifteen days, producing methane gas, which can be used as fuel. The water that results from the treatment process is disinfected with sodium hypochlorite and then discharged into the East River. The sludge is carted away by boat for further processing and then disposal.

After the presentation, the guests stroll toward the digester eggs, some hand-in-hand. 

As we wait in line for the elevator to take us to the viewing platform at the top of the eggs, a sense of camaraderie fills the air. The couple in front of me discusses where they should eat their post-tour lunch. “So who’s your valentine?” a staff member in an EPA windbreaker asks his coworker. “My kids,” she replies. “I’ve been married twenty-eight years. I don’t expect nothin’ no more. Though for Christmas my husband did give me this ring.” She waggles her hand, on which a diamond ring glints. “It’s a Forever Us ring. Because we are ‘forever us.’” She chuckles. “We both work for the city. What can you expect? I don’t ask for much, so I usually get what I want.” “That’s the way to do it!” a visitor chimes in.

On top of the eggs, I ask Ali what is romantic about working here. He replies, “It’s a very tranquil place.” And the catwalks that run along the tops of the digester eggs are indeed tranquil: it’s warm, and there’s that comforting rumbling hum accompanied by a trickling sound of sludge entering the eggs, not unlike the burbling of a mountain stream.

The panoramic view of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan is breathtaking, and couples sidle up to the windows to take it in. “Every year, people come single, leave as couples,” Ali says. “It creates love.”
When asked by another guest what makes sludge sexy, he responds without a pause: “The color, the smooth-like texture.” He gazes proudly at his machinery, which throbs with a heartbeat all its own.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

SOUND: A boutique flophouse on the Bowery

“I spent last night at a flophouse on the Bowery.”

This bragging right is one of the amenities that the Bowery House, a boutique hostel that aims to re-create the flophouse experience, offers “individuals on a budget . . . looking to enjoy the authentic nature and living history of 220 Bowery.” For about fifty dollars a night (off-season), visitors can stay in an approximately five-by-six-foot ceiling-less wooden cabin and experience a sanitized version (complete with heated bathroom floors, monogrammed robes, and custom bath products) of what was, in the last century, a seedy, crowded, noisy, and often dangerous living space.

Conspicuously not mentioned among the amenities are the four original tenants still residing on the second floor, grandfathered in when the former lodging house was purchased by developers in 2011, and  living proof of the many ironies of New York’s gentrifying skid row. They share bathrooms, common spaces, and hallways with the hotel’s guests, who pay many times more for the flophouse aesthetic that constitutes these men’s actual lives. While the third-floor lounge features leather Chesterfield couches and an expansive wood table, the second-floor space is decidedly less hip. Since the cabins are tiny, the men, who were once known as “Bowery bums,” use it as a living room, and guests tiptoe past, trying not to gape at the display of “living history.”

The Bowery House was formerly the Prince Hotel, which opened in 1927 and served as a residence for the area’s degenerate population as well as soldiers returning from World War I. Its guests were crammed into what eventually became a warren of two hundred cubicles with chicken wire in place of ceilings to allow for air circulation (and to prevent theft between neighbors).

Today's restored cubicles feature the original woodwork and bed frames fitted with new mattresses and high-thread-count sheets. An Edison bulb in a Mason jar fixture provides dim light. Furnishings are basic: a small dresser, some wall hooks, a corner shelf with a brochure about the property’s history, and a vintage film poster.

Laid atop the Ralph Lauren towel on each bed is a pair of complimentary foam ear plugs—and for good reason. Besides the original tenants, the feature that provides the closest approximation of the flophouse experience is undoubtedly the ceiling-less rooms. The sounds coming through the latticework (which has replaced the chicken wire) are probably not so different than they might have been a hundred years ago, albeit with a few modern twists.

Heels clicking on the concrete floors, coughs and sneezes and burps, someone clipping their nails. Muffled laughter and arguments, the whiskery sound of teeth being brushed in the communal bathroom, zippers zipping—and the beeps and trills of cell phones. A ceiling fan tirelessly circulates the stale air in a constant moaning whir. The interior cabins have no windows, and there is little natural light. Though the hotel is immaculate (housecleaning staff can seem to outnumber guests), it can’t mask years of stale cigarette smoke embedded in the woodwork.

Out in the common room, a guest describes to the receptionist his problems reserving an original cabin through Expedia. “Oh, you poor thing. That sounds like such a drag,” the receptionist says, handing over one of the dog-tag-festooned cabin keys.

It is apparent from the scene on the sidewalk the following morning that he was not the only person who has trouble securing shelter last night: a mattress and suitcase are splayed out on the sidewalk, just steps from the Bowery House’s front door, where the swishing of a housekeeper’s broom can be heard among the other sounds of morning.