New Yorkers call it “the five-dollar umbrella,” but it’s usually four dollars if it’s not raining and six dollars if it is. This is the black umbrella with the beak-shaped handle, the kind that materializes for sale in buckets outside subway entrances and at pop-up sidewalk stands just before a rainstorm, and disappears just as swiftly. In their wake, these umbrellas leave a jumble of broken aluminum spines jutting out of curbside trashcans.
Unlike West Coast cities, New York is an umbrella city. New Yorkers refuse to compromise fashion or risk dampness by wearing parkas or hooded raincoats. The only solution is to wear what you’d normally wear, and carry an umbrella to protect it. But often rainstorms catch us by surprise: the day starts bright and sunny, but around 2 p.m. rainclouds threaten and we realize, with a certain amount of desperation, that we don’t have an umbrella. That’s where Conch umbrellas step in. For practically pocket change (bargain!), anyone can buy a temporary shelter from unexpected downpours, and one is virtually guaranteed to find a Conch umbrella within a few blocks.
Conch umbrellas are made in China by Elite America Corp. and distributed from a warehouse in Bushwick, which also houses a showroom featuring the brand’s many rain-coverings, from raincoats to patio umbrellas to personal umbrellas (including the popular but unsightly stick umbrella with a collapsible white plastic sheath that sits like a cup on the tip).
The local favorite, however, Conch has dubbed “Man’s regular umbrella.” It’s about a foot long, and its textured, curved handle provides a secure grip in slippery, windy weather. With the press of a silver plastic button, the Conch unfolds in a double whoosh, as the carriage slides up the rod and the ribs spring open. As you’re waiting to cross the street, you can fiddle with the wobbly ribbed collar above the handle.
Since the Conch umbrella is made of cheap nylon, and the ribs are attached with flimsy double cotton threads, New Yorkers learn to aim it headlong into wind that’s coming toward them, and to tip it behind their heads when the wind is coming from behind. If held straight overhead, the Conch is likely to get blown inside out. Though this can happen to any inexpensive umbrella, the vacuum-like sensation of the Conch’s undoing is preceded by an ominous trembling in the center rod, and despite attempts to pull down on the carriage, there’s no going back. Indeed, some might say you can identify a native New Yorker by how he handles his Conch.
It does seem fitting that in this city we choose the abrupt separation from our surroundings that umbrellas offer as opposed to the oneness with the elements evinced by our West Coast friends. Conch umbrellas are cheap, disposable, and satisfying to hold. Their ubiquity is comforting. And as we see our fellow New Yorkers wrangling with their Conch umbrellas in a spring storm--aiming the inverted cups into the wind in the hopes of blowing them back to shape, bearing them like swords to blaze a path down a crowded sidewalk, raising and lowering them as they pass beneath scaffolds with seamless choreography, hurling their broken ribs into the trash--we feel solidarity. Protected from our surroundings, we unite with them, much like a conch in its shell, drifting over the rocky shore.