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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Touch: Professional cuddle in Financial District

It’s 9.30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I am squeezing through the commuter crowds on my way to get professionally cuddled. In my tote bag is a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush, as I’ve been instructed to wear comfortable clothes and to have fresh breath.

Say what? Well might you ask. Some background: The woman I am meeting is named Alison, and her company, Cuddle U, touts the benefits of “nurturing touch therapy”: lower blood pressure, higher serotonin levels, a stronger immune system. She also claims that “love is touch”—that we are hardwired from birth to thrive from human contact. CuddleU is one among a growing roster of professional cuddling businesses, among them BeSnuggled, in London, Cuddle Up to Me, in Portland, Oregon, and the Snuggery, in Rochester, New York. All are explicitly nonsexual and have strict behavior guidelines. Most of Alison’s clients seek out CuddleU because they are undergoing stressful life experiences, because they not did not receive adequate nurturing in their childhoods, or because they don’t have someone in their present lives to hold them compassionately. Most are male; Alison describes her cuddling style as “motherly.” As my visit was purely experiential, and I did not fit into any of those categories, I was a different sort of client (and told her as much).

New Yorkers receive intense human contact daily, as my commute to CuddleU reminded me. But intentional, loving touch is, of course, quite different: as we know all too well from the subway, accidental contact between strangers often ends badly. How many people move to New York and immediately open the doors of their apartments, not to mention their own bed covers, to strangers? Alison started CuddleU last November, after moving here from California. She discovered the human yearning for nurturing touch—and her aptitude for providing it--through her experiences working in a convalescent home. 

I ring the doorbell and Alison answers, wearing yoga pants and a purple V-neck T-shirt. She gives me a brief hug—nothing too “cuddly” or strange. We exchange a few pleasantries. Her studio apartment—where she also lives—is spare and immaculate. I preview the places where I will soon be cuddling: a white shag rug, a bed with neatly folded comforter and a box of tissues is perched beside it. New-age music plays, mingling with the rumble of the West Side Highway. After I change, I find her waiting on the couch; she pats the seat next to her. We chat for a little bit: we could be any two strangers getting to know each other (except that I am in my pajamas). 

 Finally she says, “So, want to cuddle?” I reply, “Sure?” She sets a timer and draws the blinds. We start by sitting side by side. Needless to say, it is strange to be in my familiar striped pajamas, resting my head on a stranger’s shoulder, and to have her stroking my hair and hand, the workday world spinning outside. I try to imagine it as a massage, which, if you think about it, is just as odd, just more culturally accepted.

We don’t talk. I hope I am clean enough; I can smell her brushed-after-coffee breath and a not-unpleasant lotion smell. When my neck gets a crick, I ask if we can try the carpet. She brings over some pillows and lies down next to me, spooning me with the comforter over us. There’s a zing of static as we settle in, and we chuckle, which breaks the strangeness. Just as I am becoming nervous about drooling on her pillow, she says, “It’s okay to drool; everyone does.” She must see it all, I think. I can see how this might feel comforting—a “next-best thing”--for someone who doesn’t have a regular nurturing connection in their lives, but I can’t help comparing it to the cuddling I receive regularly at home. 

My arm starts to fall asleep so we switch to the bed—her most popular cuddling spot --and I try putting my head on her chest and she drapes my arm across her body. My mind wanders. A few days ago my son cut his lip on some ice and I cradled him in almost the same position; I could feel his body relaxing into mine as we breathed together and his cries subsided; our energy was intrinsically connected. Despite the intimacy of the situation, she manages to maintain an air of professionalism, and I feel completely safe. Safe, but the absence of emotion casts the whole experience in a strange light.

Alison suggests a forehead-to-forehead position, creating a heart shape between us. This is intense, breath-wise, and because we are looking at each other directly. I decide to talk, which eases the awkwardness—for me, anyway—and find that she’s very easy to talk to, and wish I had done this earlier. The timer goes off. With some relief, I change into my street clothes and pay her eighty dollars via PayPal. 

Outside her building, an orange-striped ConEdison chimney spouts steam. Plastered to it is a sign: “Nothing sometimes feels like everything.” This makes me think of the disconnect that sometimes happens between sense and meaning: that you can have the sensory experience but miss the meaning—or have the meaning without a direct sensory experience, such the knowledge of being connected to someone even from afar. That said, it makes me smile to think that in New York, you really can find anything you need. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

TASTE: Atlantic Salt Company on a winter day

The windchill was below zero and the sun piercing on the morning I visited Atlantic Salt Company, located off Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, on the shores of the Kill Van Kull. The day before, the Key Frontier, a freighter based in Panama, had just arrived with about sixty thousand metric tons of road salt from the salt flats of Chile. 

Atlantic Salt also receives regular shipments of salt from Mexico, Ireland, and Egypt, from flats and from mines and distilled from the sea. Depending on the country of origin, the salt’s color might be brown, yellow, white, or even green. Brian DeForest, the terminal manager, says that his clients get attached to a certain road salt and complain of adulteration if a different color arrives. Winter is the time for road salt, and the more it snows the higher the demand. This year’s supply—bound for the greater New York City area—sits right here in several white mountains.

Atlantic Salt serves the five boroughs as well as Westchester, Rockland, and Long Island; the company has another station in the Port of Newark. It will take about six days to unload the Key Frontier. After departing New York, the hold will be washed out and the ship will pick up a load of coal in Colombia, returning to Chile to drop off the coal and pick up more salt, then return to Staten Island. Travel time from Chile to New York is three weeks. For the six days a freighter is moored in New York, forty-ton trailer trucks as well as smaller pickups rumble in and out of Atlantic Salt, from dawn till dusk; those from towns close by may make several trips a day to refill their town’s salt sheds.

The company offices are housed in a construction trailer with a sliding window next to one of the desks. It smells of air freshener and the mood is one of disgruntled camaraderie. As trucks depart with full loads, they are weighed on scales just outside this window. They receive a ticket confirming their weight from an acerbic woman with a Post-it affixed to the back of her chair reading “Out to Lunch.” 

As I walk along the waterfront, stepping over the frostbitten lines securing the Key Frontier to the pier, the wind blows the salt in great wispy drifts across the lot, and I can actually taste it on my lips. Pretty much any object in the yard is limned with salt, though Brian mentions that the salt is misted with water to prevent blowing. The salt hangs in a haze in the air; if you stick out your tongue you can almost catch it like snowflakes.

The choreography here is straight out of a child’s sandbox. Up above, a huge crane drops a thirty-ton bucket—a scoop with jaws—into one of the ship’s seven holds. The iron lines quiver, the diesel-powered crane engine emits a belch of dark smoke, and the bucket emerges, full of salt. The crane swivels and its maw opens, releasing a cascade of salt onto the top of the pile.

As it moves away for the next load, a front-end loader rams into the pile and lifts up a load, its tires buckling under the weight. Then—in a sequence of moves performed thousands of times each day—the loader reverses, turns, and drives it to the side of a waiting truck, it dumps the salt into the truck’s container. The whole process—from ship’s hold to truck—takes only a minute or so; the operation is so smooth that about sixty trucks be handled each hour. 

After a few loads, the truck is brimming with white salt and ready to deliver the salt to a Department of Sanitation salt shed, where it will be loaded into an orange salt-spreader and, ultimately, onto to city streets. City sanitation companies pay seventy-four dollars a ton for this salt. It’s never mixed with sand, as the sand doesn’t dissolve in water and clogs city sewer pipes. 

A few weeks later, in the middle of a snowstorm, I am waiting to cross a street when a sanitation truck galumphs past, spraying salt. The granules pelt my legs, and the woman next to me leaps back and yelps, “Ouch! That stuff hurts!” I lick my lips. I can almost taste it.

With thanks to Brian Deforest of Atlantic Salt, Will Van Dorp (http://tugster.wordpress.com/), and Ray Habib of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

SIGHT: Coney Island Polar Bear Club Sunday swim

It might not have been the coldest January day for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean, but though temperatures hovered in the mid-forties the wind was brisk, and the water, reportedly, was about ten degrees colder: around thirty-five degrees. On a recent Sunday in southern Brooklyn, members of the hundred-year-old Coney Island Polar Bear Club begin to file through a door in the Education Center of the New York Aquarium, just off the boardwalk. In the high season it appears to be a lifeguards’ locker room, but a placard affixed to the chain-link fence proclaims it the winter headquarters of the Polar Bears.

As the oldest winter bathing organization in the country, the club is predictably overrun with spectators and photographers, and the Polar Bears seem at peace with this dynamic: these are not shy New Yorkers, after all. The demographic seems to consist mostly of older men, but includes a surprising number of women, and even some children with their parents. No one seems to be vain: many bodies are well padded, and bathing suits tend toward the saggy and threadbare. All the Polar Bears, however, wear protective footwear, usually surfing booties: the toes are first to succumb to the cold.

The beach today is empty save for seagulls, dog-walkers, a mother singing softly in Russian to her toddler, and a couple of wild-eyed treasure-seekers prowling the sands with metal detectors and shovels. The sky is dramatic: dark clouds pierced by brief shards of sun. You’d expect the Polar Bears to rush into the water during these breaks of warmth, but no, they are cooler than this. The president of the club, Dennis Thomas, a.k.a. “Mr. Freeze,” told me: “In the thirty years I have been swimming with the club, we have never canceled a swim due to the weather.”

Inside the locker room a cheer erupts, like a middle-school soccer team rallying before a game, and the Polar Bears file out through the door, cross the boardwalk, and parade down the windswept sand. They slap their bare torsos, hike up their string bikinis, engage in light calisthenics, and chat with friends as passersby in down coats and fur hats gape in awe and admiration from the boardwalk. Someone inevitably asks one Polar Bear how long she has been at this. “Years. I don’t know, years!” she says, with a characteristic blend of gruffness and affability. “You ever been in? Well, it’s a thrill.”

At the water’s edge, someone barks, “Okay, circle up!” and leads the group in jumping jacks and a ritual chant. Then the eighty or so Polar Bears storm into the waves, whooping and yelling. I hear no complaints of the cold and see no signs of fear, only pure exuberance. Once they’re all in the water, they circle up again and, holding hands, paddle around in a circle, tossing a ball between them. “Yaaaaaah!” “Whooo-whoooo!” they cry. No one seems eager to get out.

Finally the Polar Bears emerge from the water. Two old men with sagging bellies hold hands. “Your legs all right?” one asks the other. “They’re workin’! They’re workin’!” his friend insists.

I decide to wade in. I remove my snow boots and wool socks and tiptoe to the water’s edge across the glacier-like sand. A wave laps toward me, washing over my toes and instantly numbing them. My calves begin to quiver as I await the next wave, and this time I’m ready. It is exhilarating—already I feel refreshed, like the day has begun again. I realize I’m a long way from becoming a club member: you have to complete twelve swims on one season to gain admittance to the club. The youngest member ever to join was nine years old.

    “I’m awake now!” one woman cries, raising her arms to the sky.
    “My dingo shrunk in the water today, eh?” one old man remarks, chuckling, as he reaches for his robe.

A woman next to me is standing in the sand, still in just her suit, seemingly impervious to the cold as she gazes toward the winter ocean. Her legs look pink. I ask her how it went today. “You’re expecting it to be cold, you know? So it’s okay. It gets the endorphins going, clears the system. We get so overheated inside in the winter in the city.” She wiggles her toes in her surf booties. “Okay, I’m gonna go get my robe now.” 


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

MULTISENSORY: New York City shoeshine

It’s the aftermath of the New Year’s snowstorm, and in annual Sense & the City tradition, I need to cleanse my senses for the year ahead. This year’s mission: a genuine New York City shoeshine for the boots that have taken me on so many adventures across the five boroughs. These boots, about twelve years old, have been resoled and restitched countless times. In this city, walking is a sense in its own right, and shoes need regular cleansing for the rigors of sidewalks and subways.

Perhaps because of this, the subway shoe-shine is a quintessentially New York experience, from the hole-in-the-wall Lexington Express Barber Shop & Shoe Repair, hidden around a narrow bend in the Eighty-Sixth Street station, to the Jimmy Choo–stacked windows of Angelo’s Leather Care, just before the turnstiles at Fifty-Third and Fifth. For its ordinariness, I chose the Rockefeller Center branch of Eddie’s Shoe Repair. (Eddie’s also has a shop in Grand Central Terminal, featuring brass-and-leather thrones on wood-and-marble pedestals.)

Coming in from the slushy streets, my boots are met with concern as soon as I place them onto the brass shoe rests. My bootblack (as polishers are traditionally called) points to the wet spots and waves over the manager. They prod and shake their heads. “These parts won’t take a shine, ma’am,” the manager says. I tell him not to worry. “You just wanna spruce ’em up, eh?” He smiles. I settled back into the armchair. The podium is scattered with the tools of the trade: tins of polish, stained rags, spray bottles, brushes.

As my bootblack rolls up my cuffs and sprays the boots with a vinegary desalting mist, I settle back into the armchair. The buzz of MSNBC on a flat-screen contrasts with the whish of brushes as the other bootblacks work on drop-off shines. Tourists in snow boots and animal-head ski hats clomp past the windows through the underground concourse. He smears the boots with a leather conditioner, working it into lather with an old toothbrush. I can feel the bristles massage through the leather, into the arches and over my anklebone.

He cradles my foot in the crook of his elbow and uncaps a tin of polish with a pop. The room smells creamy and acidic: of wax and vinegar, leather and soap. As he twists a rainbow-smeared cloth into a knot around his index finger and dips it into the cake of polish, I can almost feel the wax softening and cracking.

A businessman walks in, and the manager barks, “Next!” One of the bootblacks stands to attention, ushering the man into his chair, and drops a New York Post onto his lap. The man unfurls his ear buds while the bootblack wraps masking tape around the buckles on his loafers. My bootblack picks up a boar-bristle brush and descends on my boots from a great height, his hands a blur of motion as the toes began to gleam beneath his whacks. 

The final step is a walloping with a terry towel, which makes a satisfying slapping sound. He pulls it along the heels and up and down my calf like someone drying off their back with a bath towel.

And what can beat the synchronicity of sounds, smells, and the ritualized motions of an in-person shoeshine in a subway tunnel on a dreary city afternoon—all for about the price of subway ride?