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

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 “Po√™me, 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/.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

SIGHT: The Treasure in the Trash Museum

It’s not surprising that the best mongo is found on Fifth, Park, and the Upper West Side. People in those districts throw out perfectly good stuff with the diapers and coffee grounds. Nelson Molina, a thirty-plus-year veteran of New York City’s Department of Sanitation and the curator of the Treasure in the Trash Museum, picks up in the Manhattan East (MANEAST) 11 district, in East Harlem, but since he’s been dubbed “the Mongo King,” workers from other districts contribute to his collection. Supers save things for him. His partners tolerate his habit with affection. “Go do your thing, Nelson,” they say. 

Technically, sanitation workers aren’t allowed to take items (“mongo”) from the trash that they are paid to remove. But once you step inside Molina’s museum, which occupies the loft-like second floor of his district’s garage, it’s easy to see why his hobby has been condoned. 

Since 1981, Molina, who has close-cropped hair beneath a ball cap, a hawk-like nose, and wistful eyebrows, has lovingly arranged each square inch of found trash, reclaiming the affection once conferred on these objects: a Radio Flyer tricycle, a stuffed rabbit, a wedding album.

All these “treasures” were once objects of a human gesture (eggbeaters, violins, rotary phones, doorknobs), but now they are in Molina’s hands. There’s a tenderness in his touch as he opens a diary, or presses a button to make a stuffed rocking horse play a tune.

Ray Charles duets fill the space (on a found CD on a found CD player). An electric fireplace glows. Rows of found chairs form “theaters” throughout the museum where one might sit and contemplate this display of everyday life. The items are organized thematically. There’s a guitar corner, a diploma collection; sections for “Africa,” “China,” and “American Indian”; a shelf of rubber balls and a table of brass hardware. 

Vacuums, typewriters, roller skates, stained-glass church windows stand at attention. The walls are neatly crammed with paintings, posters, and signs, also arranged by category. If you ask Molina, “Where’s that needlepoint pillow with the dog wearing a bandanna?” he can walk straight to it—and to any other object. 

Molina began finding treasure in the trash at age nine. “We didn’t get too many gifts,” he said of his childhood in the East Harlem projects, so he learned to fix things he found that were broken. Over the years, he developed an eye for diamonds in the rough, which he tucks into a vestigial side bin on the sanitation trucks during his route. As soon as he finds, say, a toy frog in ballet slippers, he can envision where he’ll put it. After he signs out at 1.45 pm each day, he comes up here and dusts, rearranges, makes small repairs, finds a home for the day’s treasure, and sometimes consults his logbook.

In the locker room off the main museum space is the tiny closet “where it all began.” A fountain burbles; a sound track of birdsong plays. Curled up on the back of an easy chair—Molina’s private refuge—is a stuffed lion cub. Patting its head, Molina says, “I just put it in the wash cycle on gentle.”

Thanks to Nelson Molina and Chief Keith Mellis, and to Professor Robin Nagle for her enlightening book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. The Treasure in the Trash Museum, which is in the MANEAST 11 garage, on 343 East 99th Street, is not open to the public. Access is granted on a by-request basis: call the DSNY Bureau of Public Affairs at 646-885-5020.