A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, July 8, 2019

SIGHT: Seven sights for the seventh month

In Sense & the City tradition, I present seven of my favorite sights from the past year in honor of the seventh month.

Only in New York would there be a line to get into a laundromat. The Cornelia Street Laundromat must be a pretty special place to wash clothes.

A visit with ninety-five-year-old grocer John Cortese at his Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables is always worth the trip to Flatlands, Brooklyn.

Barkaloo Cemetery, the smallest graveyard in Brooklyn, features only two graves (the others are monuments), and is wedged between a shady side street and a school bus depot.

Perhaps the fanciest basketball court in the city was carved out of Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre in Fort Greene in the 1960s and is now home to the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, 

Kingsland Wildflowers, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, converted an industrial rooftop into a field of wildflowers native to New York City to attract pollinators. Cast against the silver digester eggs of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the scene presents an eerie hybrid of wild and industrial rarely found in the city.

CW Pencil Enterprise on the Lower East Side proffers iconic New York City colors in pencil form: SoHo Scaffolding, City Bike Lane, Taxi Cab, F Train Seat, Street Pretzel, Bodega Mums, Harlem Brownstone, Manhattan Bridge, Asphalt, and Subway Station Tile.

I stumbled upon this mysterious find on the uptown 4/5 platform at Lexington and 59th Street: a vintage subway record book chronicling escalator repairs and a tiny green lock.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

TASTE: Chive momos at a secret Tibetan food counter

Much as snippets of chive are hidden within the folds of a momo, a dense Tibetan dumpling, the restaurant Lhasa Fast Food is hidden within a labyrinthine minimall in Jackson Heights. Though unmarked restaurants have become almost a cliché in 2019 New York City, in this case the restaurant’s reclusiveness does not seem intentional or subversive. There’s no dim lighting or velvet banquette to reward your sleuthing. In fact, Lhasa Fast Food’s ambience is as unassuming as its signature snack.

My first attempt to find the food stall led me into the mall and directly down a flight of stairs, where I was met with a store stripped of its contents but for some half-deflated party balloons and a sign for “New Jackson Tailors” and a striking couple in traditional Indian clothing. A mirror propped on a taped-together bureau revealed a reflection of several tailors sewing in a distant corner.

Heading back up the stairs and veering to the right, I stumbled upon a money transfer shop, a spice merchant, and a shoebox salon specializing in keratin treatments and eyebrow threading—two neighborhood specialties.

Turning around again and catching my reflection in the narrow glass-walled corridors, I passed You and Me Wireless, packed with customers brandishing their mobile devices, and Yamuna Jewelry (“Share Moments, Share Jewels”). At the end of a long, dim corridor was my first glimpse of Lhasa Fast Food:

The restaurant is all peeling tangerine paint and sky-blue ceiling, a shawl-draped portrait of the Dalai Lama, an American flag tucked into a plumbing pipe, a file cabinet holding utensils and a thermos of butter tea labeled with masking tape, and a security camera impaled through a banner of a Himalayan mountainscape. A flat-screen TV plays the YouTube music channel Tibetan HeartBeat. 

Finally, the chive momos arrive, six to a bamboo basket.

Each momo is crimped at the top and waves an infinitesimal flag of chive. When burst with the prong of a chopstick, they release a puff of steam and reveal a slick pile of chives. The only other ingredients, according to the menu, are oil and salt, but the flavor explodes on the tongue. The dough's pleats are thick and chewy, while the rest of the skin is nearly translucent and falls from the chopsticks. A squirt of fiery hot sauce provides the final touch. 

Paired with a bowl of salty, creamy, tangy butter tea from atop the file cabinet, the snack disappears.

Now it’s time to find your way home.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

TOUCH: International Pleating

Once you start looking, you’ll start seeing pleats everywhere in the city. In the plastic awnings on Queens rowhouses. In the air filters stacked at a Brooklyn auto-repair shop. In the curtains at the Metropolitan Opera. In the folds of a bulldog’s nose, and in the metal wall at Erie Basin Park in Red Hook (below).

But on the fourth floor of a building in the West Thirties, above a garage for hot dog carts, you'll find International Pleating, the last remaining pleating factory in the Garment District. You’ll also get to shake the deft hands of Leon and George Kalajian, its father-and-son owners, who are carrying on their family’s 150-year tradition of textile manufacture and manipulation.

George, who recently released the only extant textbook on pleating, is gradually taking over the business from his father. Leon is officially retired, but “you can’t stop him,” say George. Leon declares that no one knows anything about pleating anymore except the Kalajian family. At one point there were almost forty pleating factories in the Garment District; since then, most of the work has moved to China.

In the house in Lebanon where Leon was born, his mother kept a secret room for her couture sewing work. Leon was in charge of placing hot irons outside her closed door. “Then one day, she let me in,” he says. From that moment, there was no going back. As his mother taught Leon the basics of hand-ironing, he began to come up with new ways of doing it “my own way.”

He started to experiment with fabrics, and began selling garments on consignment at a local shop. By the time he was fifteen, his business was going strong. His goal was—and remains—to create something new with each project. He claims he’s made twelve thousand different patterns since then.

The factory’s single room, with large windows framed by pleated curtains, is a clutter of machinery and paper. There’s not as much fabric as you’d expect. Most of it is sealed away in molds—tubes, cones, or flat stacks—being pressed into its final pleated form.

Pleats are a symphony for the senses. Running one’s fingers over the springy crenellations, the heights and shadows, creates a satisfying tactile rhythm. Pleats are precision, edge, and depth.

Perhaps equally satisyfing is the sound of a paper pattern unfurling from its mold—bump-a-bump-a-bump—revealing a tricky pleated shoulder cap for a sleeve.

As I tour the factory, fingering silks and cottons and synthetics, I learn that there are only four types of pleats—accordion, box, sunburst, and side—and also that the world’s oldest woven garment is pleated, dating back five thousand years to ancient Egypt.

Photo from https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2017/11/worlds-oldest-dress.
How do you pleat fabric? For straight pleats, you use a machine: International Pleating's green behemoth is a German model so old that one one except the Kalajians knows how to repair it anymore.

Other types of pleats require a mold. You spread the fabric over stiff cardboard, which is shaped into the pleating pattern, place the mold in a rack, and place the rack in an industrial oven, which effectively irons the pleats into the fabric with heat, pressure, and steam, then let the fabric dry on racks. George has developed a code for each form. There are many things to consider before pleating: the direction of the fabric grain, the fabric weight, whether a pattern is preprinted or will be printed after pleating, the direction of the pleats.

“Even today I always say to George, ‘We are not working for money; we are working for quality,’” Leon tells me. Passing on their family’s knowledge of pleating is the Kalajians’ contribution not only to the fashion world but also to their adopted city. “I want to do something to save the city,” Leon says. “Not the world—the city.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

SMELL: The Alley Pond Giant, the oldest living organism in New York City

A few steps from the diesel roar of the Long Island Expressway, at the edge of Flushing’s Alley Pond Park, there grows a tulip poplar tree. Honestly, it’s not much to look at. Drifts of candy wrappers, torn homework pages, Amazon Prime packaging—the detritus of modern life—buffet the chain-link fence surrounding its base. Even its height, an impressive 134 feet, is masked by an adjacent embankment. You would not notice it if you were passing by on foot, much less in the Hampton Jitney.

This is the Alley Pond Giant, rumored to be not only New York City’s tallest tree but, at somewhere between 350 and 400 years of age, also the oldest living organism in the five boroughs. The tree is challenging to find, particularly in the warm months, when the forest shrouds it with foliage. I decided to visit in early spring, when its branches are still spindles against the sky.

After following a paved trail that skirts the shoulder of the expressway, I headed into the forest in what I hoped was the right direction and followed a faint path through the underbrush to the Giant.

Circling the tree, I found a narrow cavity, about twelve feet tall, that led into the hollowed-out base—it was unclear whether from fire or age or both. With utmost care to touch the tree as seldom and as reverently as possible, I slipped inside. The fumes of the highway, and all traces of the modern city, melted away as I was enveloped by the scent of history.

The air inside was loamy, redolent of leaf rot and earth, with a minerally tang. It was easy to imagine that the tree had smelled exactly like this for four centuries, and when, reputedly, George Washington passed close by on his tour of Long Island, and the Matinecock Indians shuffled past.

This being New York, many trees vie for superlative titles. In fact, the Parks Department has compiled a database of sixty of the city's Great Trees, and one intrepid fellow blogger has set out to visit them all. Besides the Alley Pond Giant, my favorite contestant is the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Tree” located on a sleepy suburban block in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, and maintained by one man for the past twelve years. (Needless to say, it is not included on the Parks Department list.)

Unlike some of its kin, the Alley Pond Giant is humble. It holds its secrets inside, in the furrows of its hollow trunk, in the scent and texture of its hoary bark. Like a true New Yorker, the Giant minds its own business as it lives and grows in increasingly unlikely surroundings, getting what it needs from the city's light and air, and from the unexpected visitors and messages that find their way to its roots.