A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TASTE: Charlotte Russe from Holtermann's Bakery

Once an iconic New York City street food, the Charlotte Russe is a Push Pop–style confection encased in a cardboard shell with a movable bottom. Inside, a disc of sponge cake is topped with a dollop of jam and crowned with spirals of whipped cream and a nut-dusted Maraschino cherry. As you eat it, you push the bottom up with your thumb, permitting access to the pastry’s deeper layers.

My search for the elusive treat led me to Holtermann’s Bakery, reportedly the only place in the five boroughs to make Charlotte Russes today (until a few years ago, Bay Ridge's Leske's sold a delicious version available by pre-order). Founded in 1878, Holtermann’s is the oldest family-owned bakery on Staten Island.

The pastry, however, receives no fanfare at Holtermann’s: there’s no banner proclaiming the shop the last bastion of Charlotte Russes in New York; the little turbaned pastries are not set apart on a golden tray. In fact, they sit in a corner of the display case on a plastic tray alongside their pastry peers. While I'd raced across the Verrazano, afraid they'd sell out, on the day of my visit the other customers were buying rye bread, doughnuts, and apple cake.

According to an article on the lost foods of New York, the Charlotte Russe—reportedly pronounced “Charley Roosh” and nicknamed “the Brooklyn Ambrosia”—was sold in the early to mid-1900s from street carts, candy stores, and bakeries as a quick after-school treat. Kids loved the novelty of pushing the cake upward, licking their way through the layers of cream, jam, and cake, and the challenge of achieving the right proportions of each in a single bite.

Though it looks heavy, the Charlotte Russe is actually airy. Removing the cherry—and savoring its waxy, syrupy, one-bite burst—reveals the enticing hole at the center of the cream spiral. The only way to eat the cream is to scoop at it with one’s top lip, rotating the cardboard shell as you go. Once the cream has leveled out with the scalloped top of the cardboard (which can be licked clean later), you start to crave a new texture. It’s time to start pushing it!

You position your thumb at the center of the bottom of the shell and urge the pastry upward. With a squeaky rasp of waxed cardboard, the concoction rises like an elevator, revealing the golden coin of cake and leaving the Swiss-dotted cardboard behind like a discarded pinafore.

After conquering the pastry’s crown, the real joy of the Charlotte Russe begins: the contrast of textures between the cloud of cream; the cool, sticky dab of jam; and the spongy, grainy cake. As one schoolchild I know observed, it’s not unlike a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the Charlotte Russe’s successor in the realm of after-school treats: sweet and salty; smooth and crumbly; creamy and acidic. No matter how many times we’ve eaten it, it always surprised and delights us with its symphony of contrasts—not unlike New York City itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SIGHT & SOUND: Ken Butler's hybrid instruments

Ken Butler, a self-described “urban bricoluthier,” carries an Altoids tin in his pocket at all times. Anytime he feels the urge, he pulls it out—and music emerges. The Altoids tin holds a strip of dental dam called a Vibraband, which he plays like a trumpet. This is just one of Ken’s countless playful hybrid instruments, which range from a broom violin to a chessboard guitar to an egg-carton piano. But the mint tin, he insists, “is a thousand times more interesting than anything in here.”

“Here” refers to Ken’s studio and home, in an old loft building on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Ken is an artist and musician who creates instruments—as well as performances and installations— from everyday and found objects. His work explores the boundaries between sculpture, music, visual art, and film, and also, more abstractly, between sound and silence, the mechanical and the electrical, and construction and deconstruction.

Entering his studio, I feel like I’ve stepped into a New York City bohemian dream. He’s been living and working here since 1988. In the old days, he had to sleep wearing a wool cap, as the basement was being used as a refrigerated storage unit. Over the years, as various tenants have come and gone, his creations have continued to proliferate. His artist’s statement reads, in part, “From this storehouse of forsaken objects and hardware I, the urban bricoleur, further dismantle and reassemble the consumer society into functional assemblages in the form of musical instrument/objects, then coax them to sing for their supper.”

Instruments line the walls and floor; his neatly made bed is tucked into one corner. A huge slot-car racing track is set up off to one side—for breaks. At the center of the loft is Urban Grand Piano: each key is connected to a different local radio station, and lights project images and colors on the open lid. The result is music that’s a mashup of mechanics and the random sounds from the city ether: politics, music, Spanish radio, baseball. “My vision for it would be to have it in the center of a bar and someone would get inspired and do their little piece, drinking, smoking pot,” he says.

With tortoiseshell glasses and neatly combed hair, Ken is loquacious and easygoing. As a child, he always had a talent for painting and drawing and was formally trained in the viola. While living in Portland, Oregon, and experimenting with collage art, he began sneaking into a recycling place and photographing details of the discarded objects. One day an idea occurred to him: “Why not use the real objects and collage them together?” That idea rapidly evolved into the question of how to bring still art forms to life. “Painting is light, shade, color, form—but once you finish it, it just sits there,” he says. Instrument-making would bridge music and sculpture, and the idea that his creations are ideas rather than compositions appealed to him. Ken says he turned out to be a better musician than he ever thought he’d be.

In 1978, Ken found an ax in his basement and, in a flash of inspiration, tucked it under his chin like a violin. He soon found that the tool fit perfectly into a three-quarters-size violin case he had from childhood, and an idea was born. Within an hour, he had rigged it up with a contact microphone, plugged it into an amp, and was playing music on the ax. (The contact mike is the linchpin of Butler’s improvised instruments. It senses audio vibrations through its contact with solid objects, but it is almost completely insensitive to air vibrations.) The ax violin took one hour to make, and not only did it play music but it “sang”—and it was graceful to boot.

Other creations include guitars made from a tennis racquet and a shovel, a snowshoe viola. a sitar golf club, and cellos made from a mannequin and a crutch, whose main sound-producing element is “a very cool piece of Styrofoam” he found (which, he discovered, creates great resonance).

As Ken puts it, “Every object that can be vibrated is playable. The eyelash of a bee is playable. My intention is a poetic relationship: the sound is the by-product.”

For more information on Ken Butler's Hybrid Visions, please visit his website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

SOUND: Lou Nasti Mechanical Displays

On the streets of New York in August, ice cream trucks jingle, playground sprinklers splatter, flip-flops flap against sidewalks. Inside a warehouse in East Flatbush, however, elves are ice skating, bears are hammering, a polar bear is snoring, and dolls are waltzing to the strains of a miniature piano. Here, the sounds of summer have been replaced by the whirring and humming of minuscule motors, tinkling music, and the repetitive motions of dozens of mechanized creatures, most of whom appear to be in the throes of the winter holiday season.

This is the workshop of Lou Nasti, a Brooklyn-born Gepetto who has spent decades creating mechanical toys and displays for customers in Brooklyn and around the world. On the day of my visit, as I squinted to read the faded sign on the building, an auto mechanic in the next lot waved me down with his shop cloth. “You looking for Lou Nasti?” he called out. “Amazing guy. You’re going to love it in there.”

Locally, Lou is the brains behind the famous Christmas lawns of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, with their soaring Santas and marching soldiers.

Photos of 1145 84th Street, Brooklyn, from NY See Tours 
But other creations have made their way from Farragut Road to places as far-flung as Australia, Trinidad, and Morocco. With a white handlebar mustache and bushy eyebrows, wearing a canvas apron and suspenders, Lou Nasti looks every part the Sicilian toymaker.

He greets me ebulliently and escorts me through the workshop, flinging open doors to reveal singing angels, Christmas greenery woven into garlands, a reindeer under wraps, humongous revolving motors, an LED light tunnel with piped-in harp music, and rows of mute plastic heads.

At Lou Nasti Mechanical Displays, the Christmas season begins in March, following the International Toy Fair, where he meets many of his clients. Among Lou's most-requested displays is a “lost Santa” scenario for department stores. Generally, the plot revolves around Mrs. Claus and the elves tracking down Santa through various window scenes, ending up in the store itself as a lure to shoppers. (Lou notes that in his field, he has to be careful not to equate Santa with Christmas.) Another perennial request is talking trees: Lou does the voice himself.

Even at age five, Lou was making puppets with string and dancing them around his family’s home in Marine Park. In high school, he apprenticed for the Abraham & Straus display company, where his boss  inspired him to pursue mechanical toys as a career. He started his own company at age nineteen, but it grew so fast that he decided to scale it back to keep the personal touch. Lou’s shop looks like a caricature of a toymaker’s workbench, with hammers and wrenches strewn about, wooden bins filled with metal parts, the walls lined with clipboards outlining each project, from sketch to completion. 

Lou typically spends twelve hours a day here: “They’ll have to carry me out of here,” he says. “I eat, breathe, and drink this”—though he admits that sometimes he likes to unwind in the evening with his sketchbook and a beer at a local bar. Scattered around the room are the rotating motors that make the displays come alive.

Here’s how the magic unfolds. A customer comes to him with a vague idea for a scene (a typical one: “Lou, can you make me a winter wonderland?”), and he has to trust his imagination to transform it into something unique. He brings his morning coffee into the workshop and sits in front of the set, envisioning the directions it could take, until an idea begins to gel. Little by little, he fills in the details.

After his first sketches, he builds a mock-up and presents it to the client, but not even the model can prepare his customers—or Lou—for what happens when he flips the switch for the first time. It’s that moment that keeps his spark alive: “Watching a customer go absolutely Wow.” 

In addition to Christmas lawn scenes for private clients, Lou has a few pet projects from his past. He transformed an Indiana car wash into a rain forest, where gorillas beat their chests and cars are doused by a herd of elephants. At the Quaker Bridge Mall in New Jersey, he created a crystal palace with trumpeting angels, mirrored arches, and ballet music. 

Once, he even staged a Halloween party for the king of Morocco. So clandestine was the project, even Lou didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing until he stepped off the plane, was swept past customs, and was asked to turn over all his belongings except for his tape measure and a pen. As a limo ushered him down a long drive and into the palace rotunda, he realized where he was. He remembers saying to himself, “Not bad, a little guy from Brooklyn comes here!” Guess who called Brooklyn a few months later to ask about staging a holiday party.

Wedged between a cinder-block factory and an auto body shop, Lou Nasti's workshop revives my faith in wonderlands that lurk in the most unlikely places, places where our city's wizards wait to transform your dreams into sight and sound. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

SMELL: Seven smells for the seventh month

In Sense & the City tradition, I present a collection of seven sensory impressions for the seventh month, this year with a focus on local smells, both iconic and underappreciated.

1. Golden Gate Fancy Fruits & Vegetables, Flatlands, Brooklyn
Pre-war paint layers, fruit skins, old wood varnish, cardboard box, newsprint

2. Crushed ginkgo berries on sidewalks in autumn (here with collectors)
Acrid vomit

3. Metal buckets of road asphalt heating up curbside over a fire
Tar smoke, sticky blackness, butane

4. Glaser's Bake Shop, Upper East Side
Strudel, cinnamon, warm sugar, cool icing

5. Overthrow Boxing Club, SoHo
Sweat, leather, old sneaker, basement

6. Orange manhole steam chimneys
Hot air, mildew, wet cement

 7. Tottenville subway platform, last stop on Staten Island Railroad

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

SIGHT: The Sisyphus Stones

You could say Uliks Gryka was destined for the water. He was born in Albania, in a town at the confluence of two rivers. Like his namesake, Ulysses (which he also answers to), he has been on an odyssey that, last summer, led him to the shores of the Hudson River, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. There, he has been erecting a series of stone sculptures that have come to be known as the Sisyphus Stones. Now, Uliks says, “I’m bathing in the ocean.”

He never expected that his creation would one day be on Google Maps, that he would be written about in the New York Times, that what began as a deeply personal gesture would gain renown. On a recent afternoon, I find him sitting near the shore by his bike, which he uses to commute here from his home in Riverdale, sipping water and gazing out at the river. He is also watching for vandals. Since he began building the sculptures, in summer 2017, his work has been destroyed in its entirety twelve times.

Uliks, who is thirty-three, is slim, with a neat beard and muscular limbs. Like the flecks of mica in his rocks, his quick smile catches the light and illuminates him. He wears a stone amulet that he fingers as he talks.

The origins of the Sisyphus Stones can be traced back to Uliks's childhood, when he hung tree roots on the walls of his family’s home. Even then, he sensed that nature creates its own “art beyond the human.” When his family moved from Albania to Milan in the early 1990s, after the fall of communism, he began to compare these conceptions to the idols he discovered in Western European art. He eventually became attracted to the idea of a faceless, primordial form of the human idol. In 2007, Uliks won a green card in a lottery and moved from Milan to Riverdale. Soon after, a friend introduced him to Sufism, a mystical tradition rooted in Islam, whose adherents believe there is a divine presence in everything.

“The site chose me,” Uliks says of this narrow, rocky beach, due west of 171st Street, along the Hudson River Greenway. One night in summer 2017, as he was watching the sunset from this beach, he noticed that some of the stones around him seemed to have faces. That evening, he built thirteen sculptures. He has been coming here every day since, building his own “garden of creation” by following the energy of the rocks. Each day when he arrives, he tells me, “I bow my head in respect”—not in worship, but in reverence.

He has received no protest from the city parks department, and the overriding response from the community has been gratitude. Uliks (who does not have a day job; this project, he says, is “my sabbatical”) believes stones found by the water are, “in a way, a microcosm of the universe: they contain all the elements”—earth, wind, water, and the fire from the planet’s core. Here, they also serve the city waterways by trapping garbage; he incorporates some of these gatherings into the pieces.

Uliks appreciates the towers’ fragility in contrast to the impermeability of the city. He has no formal training in sculpture, and he does not use wire or adhesive but relies on the stones’ natural shapes to hold them in place: “Ephemerality is much more important than balance,” he says. Waves, wind, birds, and the tide sometimes knock them over. These actions do not bother him. But his face darkens when he describes the human vandals. He says he feels jealous that his creations—which he considers akin to children—are giving something of themselves to someone else through an intention apart from his own.

He gathers all the rocks from this shoreline, keeping the large stone bases where he finds them and carrying over the smaller rocks. He prefers not to have big gaps between them; the placement is “a dance where each one is holding each other’s hands.”

When I ask if he has a favorite, he points to this one, which he says reminds him of a monk with his hands clasped, or a mother cradling a child.

In fact, he has seen mothers and children walking among the Sisyphus Stones and carrying on the tradition by making their own cairns nearby.

As we are chatting, a guy with a boom box mounted on his bike pedals past, music thumping, and hurls a stick in the direction of the Sisyphus Stones. It narrowly misses one sculpture and falls to the beach. Had he been aiming at the sculptures or at the river? It's impossible to know. But Uliks is philosophical about his unexpected struggle with creation and destruction. Sisyphus might seem like a loser, he tells me, but he wins each time in his perseverance: constant defeat is constant winning. As Uliks likes to say, “Do not become everybody’s mirror.”

To visit the Sisyphus Stones, take the 1 train to 157th Street, walk one block north to 158th Street, and turn left. Follow 158th all the way to the end and take the staircase down beneath the Henry Hudson Parkway. At the bottom of the stairs, turn right and walk north along the Hudson River Greenway path for about a mile. The installation is visible from the path on the left, not too far after the softball fields.

Friday, May 4, 2018

TASTE: A secret freight entrance lunch counter

I exit the sidewalk off West Thirty-Seventh Street and duck into the freight entrance of number 236, exchanging a knowing look with the man by the laundry cart and sidling past the UPS guy’s trolley. Pulling open the second pair of industrial doors, I feel like a member of Club El Sabroso, a diminutive lunch counter tucked into the back corner of this building’s loading dock.

El Sabroso is wedged between a newsstand and a coffee shop. A couple of faded signs and menus give a nod to its presence, but among the cacophony of the Garment District—with its windows crammed with bolts of fabric, its trucks disgorging racks of evening gowns—this is one place that’s not trying to lure you in.

At the six-seat counter, a few men in work jackets perch on mismatched stools, hunched over plates of meat and rice. No one speaks; the only sounds are the scraping of plastic forks against styrofoam and the buzz of a small TV propped in the corner, playing daytime soaps. In the far corner, a few messengers sit on boxes by an empty hand truck, waiting, waiting. Waiting is what you do in a freight entrance, after all—unless, that is, you happen to be eating your lunch.

El Sabroso has a basic setup: a few pots and some burners, a Bunn coffeemaker, boxes of Swiss Miss and instant oatmeal wedged between stacks of cups and napkins, a metal gate that rattles down after hours. It’s presided over by Tony Molina, who, like his restaurant, manages to be both welcoming and taciturn. Patrons know the routine and require few words, in English or Spanish. The offerings are basic Latin American comfort food: a selection of meats so tender they fall off the bone, all served with yellow rice and beans and “salad” (shredded iceberg lettuce). There’s a fridge with sodas—no diet options here. As a vegetarian, I order rice and beans and a fried cheese empanada, then find a seat at a folding table.

The empanada is a hollow slab of fried dough filled with a few chunks of mild melted cheese, but the rice and beans are superlative: firm, salty beans that melt into softness, moist grains of chewy, buttery yellow rice in satisfying clumps, all offset by the shards of crisp and cool lettuce. I heap on the smoky hot sauce from the communal tin pot: it injects tangy heat into each bite.

The concrete floor is streaked with wheel marks from carts rounding the corner. This is, above all, a place of transition. But to El Sabroso’s loyal customers—who include construction workers in hard hats and office workers in cardigans—it is a still point of calm and comfort.