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

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.

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.