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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

SMELL: Corner of Water and Pine streets at lunch hour

If names evoked smells, one might expect the junction of Water and Pine streets in the Financial District to be a fragrant one: a clear stream babbling beneath resinous evergreens. Though there are no pines, there is water: a pocket park across the street featuring a man-made waterfall, and Café Water, a corner deli unremarkable in all but one respect: the fetid gust of steam-table food smell wafting out of its garage-door-size kitchen vent.



At 10:45 one Friday morning, just past egg-on-a-roll hour but before cheese-steak time, the scent was of soy sauce with undercurrents of vinegar. Inside, workers were stocking a steam table running the length of the room and crowned with turrets of plastic clamshells.



The vent’s emissions were confirmed: at $7.79/lb, glossy orbs of chicken studded with sesame seeds, slayed asparagus spears festooned with a stripe of chopped pickled peppers, squirming heaps of lo-mein. 



Saran Wrap rolled back over each tray gave the impression that the food was napping under a sheer blanket.



The back wall of the deli offered a vista of soft drinks behind rubber flaps. The bathroom was the kind of place where you flush with your foot and open the door with a scrap of paper towel. Café Water received a C on its most recent inspection by the Department of Health. I noticed a clip-art sign posted to the steam table. It featured a yellow armless hand (a glove?) fondling two chicken drumsticks: PLEASE DO NOT SAMPLE FOOD



A family of jet-lagged tourists slouched at a table overlooking the Pine Street alley, nursing a bottle of strawberry Nesquik. A few businessmen twiddled with their smartphones in front of the panini bar, where stacks of wan sandwiches awaited pressing.

Outside, I made a pass by the vent again. Fried chicken. It was approaching 11 a.m., when the early lunchers would begin to trickle in. Moving away from the vent, I realized the odor trailed me all the way across Water Street, where the waterfall beckoned. The chlorinated smell—almost as astringent as pine—soon obliterated the greasy musk. The splashing water tickled my toes.