A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

TASTE: The perfect New York City snack from Lahore Deli taxi stand

Every time I'm in SoHo, whether I'm hungry or not, I duck into the shadows of Crosby Street and head toward the glowing sign: Lahore: Feel the Taste of East.

Twenty-four hours a day, this Pakistani cabby stand, wedged between an air shaft and a dermatology practice, serves up the perfect New York City snack: a vegetable samosa and a cup of chai tea. 

Besides the taste—a melding of sweet and savory, soft and crispy—the perfection comes from the deli itself and the locals who frequent it: taxi drivers and professionals, fashion editors and students, construction workers and cops.

The 175-square-foot space is a masterpiece of efficiency and a microcosm of cross-culturalism and New York City's cabby subculture. The cooks duck in and out of the kitchen via a three-foot swinging door beneath the counter. Ketchup and salt abut canisters of mixed pickles and chaat masala. 

Clamshells of special cake rusk and Peanut Pistas flank the orange Coleman water cooler hulking in a corner beneath tubs of mayonnaise, boxes of rubber gloves, toilet paper, a TV screen, and a tangle of ethernet cables 

The battered door sports a bulletin board peppered with handwritten pleas and offers: for night-drive shifts in Canarsie, for single bedrooms for rent in Elmhurst, for DMV and TLC summonses attorneys. Folded kilims are tucked into a metal file sorter beside bundles of paper towels.

This stretch of East Houston was once known as Gasoline Alley for its many filling stations; until it closed, in 2016, cab drivers would refuel or change shifts at the BP across the street, then pop into Lahore for a chicken cutlet sandwich, tea, a packet of Pepto-Bismol, or to use the bathroom, which has a glowing "in use" light above the door. The BP has been replaced by a gleaming office building, but the cab drivers still find their way here.

The man behind the counter will greet you with "Hello, Brother" or "Hello, Sister," looking up from a cricket game fizzling from a TV tucked beneath the counter. You'll reply: "A samosa and a chai with two sugars, please." The samosas are kept in a glass case, alongside trays of rice and other halal meat and vegetable dishes, all delicious. But you're here for the samosa.

He will slip the deep-fried pastry into a paper bag and pop it in the microwave while he ladles out your chai. The samosa, pleated and folded into a puffy sailboat shape, emerges pillowy and soggy, but the edges retain their crispness. The grease saturates the napkins and the paper bag, but that's part of the charm. Take a seat on one of the four wobbly counter stools and eavesdrop—or perch beside a construction cone on the stoop outside. The cool bumps of the glass bulbs in the steps add another dimension to the experience. 

Bite off one of the two crisp corners and a plume of microwaved steam will rise from the filling. Your teeth sink through the crust into the mush of potato and peas spiked with fennel and cumin. Flip back the plastic lid on your cup of chai; the little flap will hit you in the nose as a prelude to the hot swish of milk and rush of sugar.

One afternoon as I was sipping my chai, a customer strode in. "Hello, Brother," he was greeted with a nod. "You know," the man said, pushing a pair of Beats headphones onto his temples, "you guys never tell me about all the good stuff you got back there. What’s that—fish sandwiches or what? On a bun or over rice or what? You got white rice? I don’t want white rice! You don’t have gold rice? All right, gimme the rice, put some fish over it. Little okra on the side." Two minutes later: "Brother, that'll be ten dollars." The customer slapped the bills onto the counter and bestowed smiles all around. "It’s great food," he said, pushing his headphones back over his ears. "Like a secret spot." Then he bounced down the stairs and out into the afternoon.

Monday, February 10, 2020

SMELL: Ice skating and hot-tubbing... at the airport?

Sure, there are many unusual places to ice skate in New York City: by the seaside at Abe Stark Rink in Coney Island, on the rooftop of Brooklyn's William Vale Hotel, or in a narrow courtyard between buildings at Industry City. Last winter, there was even an ice rink tucked into the men's department at Bloomingdale's.

But this winter, the TWA Hotel—housed in the iconic Eero Saarinen terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport—has installed a Runway Rink.

How many chances will you have to ice skate right on the tarmac, in the shadow of a 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane–turned–cocktail bar, with the scent of jet fuel in the air? Though air travel is often marked by halting progress, here you can glide past the battalions of Smarte Cartes, the honking taxis and flashing hazard lights, the harried travelers bumping their suitcases over the curb.

Though the rink is just steps from JetBlue's Terminal 5 departures gates, you feel worlds away from with a box of Sno-Caps in your pocket (purchased from the rink-side ski chalet) and Beyoncé thumping through the loudspeakers.

The 56-by-44-foot rink is made from 3,500 gallons of New York City tap water kept frozen by tubes filled with coolant that run between the tarmac and the rink. A mini Zamboni makes the rounds every so often, keeping the surface slick.

On a recent Sunday, the rink was almost empty: just two tween girls choreographing selfie videos and an Orthodox Jewish family taking their toddlers for their first spins aboard complimentary plastic push-and-ride ice whales.

After a tour of the ice, you can retire to the plush red Sunken Lounge, where you can sip a Shirley Temple and watch the skaters spinning in circles through the canted windows, an uncanny sight at one of the largest airports in the country.

Or... you can head up to the 64-foot-long rooftop "infinity pool–cuzzi" overlooking one of the airport's busiest runways. The ninety-five-degree water splashes over the edge, seeming to cascade onto the tarmac, where planes roar past, lift into the sky, and bump down to earth. Steam rises from the 95-degree water, mingling with the scent of chlorine, jet fuel, tar, and rubber. Though during the summer months, the pool may require a day pass, it's free to all in the winter.

On a recent windy February afternoon, one corner of the pool was occupied by a plane spotter, margarita in hand, snapping photos as a Swiss Air jet soared into the air. Then a group of hipsters arrived, complete with New Yorker tote bags and knit beanies. "It wasn't so hard to get here," one of them said, bobbing in the water as an Iberia airlines jet taxied to the gate. "We just took the L train to the A...."

Friday, January 10, 2020

MULTISENSORY: Luxury Escapism: a virtual reality spa

It's true that at Luxury Escapism, a new multisensory spa in DUMBO, you'll find waffle-weave robes, dim lights, and a decanter of cucumber water.

But in place of lavender eye masks, you'll find electronic goggles called "eye massagers." In place of massage tables draped with towels, you'll find vibrating beds with gravity blankets. In place of almonds, you'll find Hi-Chew "intensely chewy candy." In place of new age music, you'll find a "sonic sauna." And in place of flickering candles, you'll find strobe lights and virtual reality goggles that transport you into geometric projections of infinity.

"I feel like I'm in a cross between West Elm and the Sharper Image," my companion whispered as we padded around the basement space in our courtesy slippers and robes. The pink light notwithstanding, the room—divided into eleven experiential zones—had that familiar millennial immersive-experience vibe: all tactile surfaces and activity stations and, arrayed on every surface, VR goggles. Here was self-care with a thrumming bass line of tech. It goes without saying that the entrance to Luxury Escapism is through an unmarked basement door.

However, even though the spa advertises its Instagram handle on its postcards, the posing-and-posting impulse is held in check by two ground rules: no phones and no talking above a whisper. (I got a press pass.) Instead, the spa promises to connect you with the present moment through "technology that actually feels good." If you're expecting a facial and a hot-stone massage, you've come to the wrong place—though there are faux hot stones set around an electric campfire.

On the night I visited, the ten or so other spa-goers were mostly young couples who seemed thrilled by a novel New York City date night. And while it is true that (as far as I know) there is no other place in New York City quite like this, our expectation of novelty—foundational to the immersive and pop-up experiences that abound these days—is becoming increasingly familiar.

Goggles of many sorts abound at Luxury Escapism. I decided to begin in the Yogibo Lounge, where I picked up my first pair: an electronic eye-massaging mask. It felt sort of like a blood pressure cuff inflating and deflating over my eyeballs while emitting wheezy puffs. A set of VR goggles catapulted me into a 3-D jungle; thankfully, the comfortable Yogibo beanbag kept me grounded. Soon an attendant beckoned me to "Rainbow Therapy," one of the spa's two timed experiences.

I lay down on a water bed and closed my eyes. The room darkened and the bed began to convulse. Strobe lights pulsed through my eyelids. Though I could control the intensity and vibrations, I felt a panic attack coming on. To stay sane, I silently chanted the mantra, "I am healthy and fit. Probably I will not have a stroke."

Next, I ducked into what would be my favorite experience, the Kinetic Sand Dome, a yurt with kinetic (moldable) sand, scoops, and slicers. The tactile experience was heightened by—goggles! But these were a non-VR pair with a lens that somehow separated my hands from my body. As my friend put it, "I feel like I'm watching an instructional video of myself in real time."

The next stop was called Lux TV: a couch in front of a TV showing grainy footage of ASMR installations, and a table of fidgets to calm your hands.

As my friend and I were playing in the Sound Stones playpen—a gravel-floored space outfitted with simple, childlike musical instruments and a headset you could use to manipulate the sounds—we were called into the Sonic Spa, the second timed experience. After the door closed on the small, windowless room, we plunged into total darkness alongside several strangers: panic attack #2. But then the soundscape began—a melange of birdsong, sticks breaking, snow crunching, cicadas. The darkness ended up being a welcome break from the audiovisual input.

VR goggles had greeted me at nearly every turn, from the Fuzzidarium, a room swathed in white fur; to a pair of hammock chairs; to the vibrating beds of the Senscape, where I took a float down a virtual stream; to the Cosmic Steam Room, where, using hand gestures paired with goggles, you could manipulate images projected on a scrim.

As the two hours were nearly up, I decided to cleanse my sensory palate with a Hi-Chew, one of those candies that is simultaneously stressful (it's claustrophobic! it fills the mouth entirely and sticks the teeth together! it seems it will never be swallowed!) and satisfying (the burst of fruit flavor! the teeth-sinking texture! the intensity!). For the forty-five seconds it takes to consume one, you can think of little else: it forces you into the present moment.

So it was for me at Luxury Escapism. Then I swallowed a paper cup of cucumber-infused water and the candy was gone.

Monday, December 16, 2019

SIGHT: Secret Christmas tree memorial for departed pets

It could take hours to find—or minutes, if you happen upon the right sequence of paths in the labyrinthine Ramble of Central Park

At first it's just a flutter in the corner of your eye, a pattern to the light. Then it emerges from behind a tangle of bare branches: an ordinary evergreen tree, not too different from the two trees flanking it, except that on Sunday in mid-December, it seems to be receiving an unusual number of visitors.

Get closer still, and you'll see why. The tree is bedecked in dozens of Christmas ornaments. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice that most of the ornaments are homemade and are dedicated to pets who have died. Photos of each animal have been laminated and strung with ribbon or encased in Ziploc bags to protect them from the weather.

There are dog treats for good behavior in heaven,

a beribboned collar as a reminder of favorite city walks,

or a bit of honey for the afterlife.

There are curious talismans, including one made of hair, glitter, and ribbon—with a checkered taxicab theme.

There are no backyard chickens or urban sheep. Ming the tiger, who was raised in an apartment in a Harlem housing project and died this autumn, has not yet been commemorated. Most of the pets are cats or dogs, but there are a few outliers: a bunny named Winnie,

a box turtle named Sherman,

and a budgie named Buddha.

Some of the ornaments are simply a photo and a Sharpied name. But others have odes to the lives of pets in the heart of a big city.

I had brought with me an ornament—laminated for free by a sympathetic Print Services worker at Staples—memorializing our family's two goldfish, Ralph and Frank. They turned out to be the only fish on the tree.

As I walked away, I heard the plastic ornaments rattling against one another in the breeze. In this secluded grove in one of the few wild places left in Manhattan, these homemade offerings provide an intimate glimpse into the lives, apartments, and hearts of New Yorkers and of the creatures who offer them unconditional love and predictability in an unpredictable city.

The location of the pet memorial tree is kept a secret by its keepers, but if you are lucky you may stumble upon it during a stroll through the Ramble.