A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, September 20, 2021

SMELL: The fragrance of One World Observatory

[Note: This post was written just before the pandemic lockdown of spring 2020. I imagine that any noteworthy scents in the observatory today might be stifled by masks or, for certain patrons, by lingering COVID-related anosmia, or loss of smell.]

Some might not even notice it at first: a floral scent that wafts through the lobby of One World Observatory. 

The scent, named "One World," was designed by a fragrance manufacturer to evoke trees native to New York: to aromatically root the city's tallest building to the earth, 1,700 feet below, from behind hermetically sealed panoramic glass windows. Earth and sky, the high and the low, connected through each visitor's nose.

Just before the pandemic, in spring 2020, I decided to get a perspective on this elusive scent from those who spend all day immersed in it. First I talked to Michael, a security guard posted at the entrance to the One World Observatory elevator bank. "I guess it’s supposed to evoke New York?" he said, wrinkling his nose. "No, I’m not a fan," he said after a pause. "It’s a little much, to tell you the truth."

The perfume's citrus notes intensify as you proceed down a screen-lined hallway and stifle any damp, mineral-y smell one might expect in a tunnel carved through the actual bedrock supporting the 104-story tower.

The One World Scent is surreptitiously diffused through air conditioning vents—tucked behind skyline silhouettes—which frame the observatory's windows.

At the top of the elevator, as you make your through a gaggle of tour guides hawking the "One World Explorer iPad" upgrade, there are hints of dental office: mint, rubber. 

Near the café, the smell mingles with that of coffee and reheated pizza. A food service worker fans a paper plate over a grill of spinning hot dogs, sending curls of meaty steam into the One World mist.

In the gift shop, where two women in sun hats fondle sweatshirt sleeves, the smell acquires a hint of hot, floral dryer lint. Three women pressed to the window debate ordering an Uber to their dinner reservation at Cipriani.

When I asked a security guard named Kareem if he'd noticed the signature scent, he reflected a moment, then told me, "I don’t want to call it a 'new car smell,' but to me I guess it does smell new, clean. It’s an office smell—like, to help with the experience?" 

A man with a selfie stick extended his arm like an archer poised for a shot as a couple of backpacked women rummaged through brochures. All were within inches of the scent diffusers, but did they notice in the lofty air an essence of roots, of bark, of history? Dani, a "tour ambassador" in a red vest, pressed her lips closed when I asked her about the scent. “We’re not allowed to talk about it.”

Sunday, August 22, 2021

SOUND: Macy's wooden escalators

In summer, many New Yorkers head to Coney Island to ride the Cyclone, delighting in the rattles and creaks of the roller coaster's wooden trestle as they hurtle through its turns and drops. For wooden-ride aficionados looking for some mellower ups and downs in the off-season, I recommend Macy's escalators, about the same age as the Cyclone but, as it turns out, a bit harder to find. You enter the department store on the Seventh Avenue side and follow some encouraging signs.

Your hopes rise when you glimpse the handsome wooden escalator bank, hewn from original oak and ash in the 1920s and '30s, when the moving stairs were constructed by the Otis Escalator Company. But you soon find that the treads are made of aluminum and utter hardly more than a mechanical purr.

You mount one metal escalator after another, climbing into the aerie of one of the largest stores on earth. You glide past Better Sportswear, the Fur Salon, Hosiery, Pinkberry, trailing your fingers along the wooden slopes, which still have evenly spaced bumps to catch stray handbags, packages, or small children. Cupping your hand around these worn knobs in passing offers reassurance that maybe the full handrailfanning experience is to come.

And finally, as you round the bend onto the eighth floor (Housewares, Bridal Salon, De Gustibus Cooking School), you hear it: the rattling, clattering ba-bump, ba-bump. As it turns out, there are only two wooden escalators left in the store, shuttling passengers between the eighth and ninth floors.

It's a chewy, bumpy sound, the hardwood creaking as the wooden treads slide from between the teeth of the comb plate. The stairs are bordered on each side by a length of bristles, intended to keep debris from falling through the cracks—but which also provide a shoeshine en route.

You can feel the life force in the wood of the treads beneath your soles, a warmth: it's almost calming, if an escalator can provide comfort. There's a springiness to the half-inch-wide cleats, which have been worn down by decades of shoppers' feet. At the eighth-floor landing, where the old passes its baton to the new, I noticed some repair work being done. Anyone wishing to descend to the seventh floor has to use the elevator.

A sign indicates that the metal escalator has potential hazards involving its "pinch points" and "moving equipment," and that work would be needed to help it "maintain control."

Meanwhile, the wooden escalator clatters and clunks reliably past just a few feet away.

Monday, July 26, 2021

SIGHT: Seven sights for the seventh month

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

1. The late-night private trash trucks with year-round Christmas-colored lights bearing down on you in the dark

2. "Bizarre emergency 100% couture tailoring" with Playboy Bunny logo in Flatlands, Brooklyn

3. The halved lemons street vendors use to dip their fingertips into to make them sticky before separating a plastic bag from the sheaf

4. The beautifully arranged mop and broom display at Amigo 99-cent at 
Brooklyn Junction

5. The lurid blue and green plastic ring of the Nutcracker, a semi-contraband homebrewed beach concoction of various liquors and syrups hawked on Rockaways beaches and elsewhere: "NUTcrackers, get your NUTcrackers."

6. This gingerbread house on a side street in Charlotte Gardens, the Bronx

7. The "World's Most Famous Tree" in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, begun in 2007 by local Eugene Fellner with a stuffed tiger

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

TASTE: Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda

In the refrigerators of New York City bodegas, you can often find cans of Dr. Brown's black cherry soda, root beer, cream soda, and ginger ale. But what a thrill it is to spot a pop of bright green among the ranks: the elusive Cel-Ray, a historic New York City celery soda also known as "Jewish champagne." At some Jewish delis and appetizing shops, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray's shelf space is so sacred that it is labeled, to make sure its slots are not usurped by a pushy Dr. Pepper.

Though you can, of course, buy Cel-Ray online, I headed to the most authentic source I could think of: Gottlieb's Restaurant, in South Williamsburg. The circa 1962 delicatessen and cafeteria is one of the few remaining glatt kosher delis in the United States, and adheres to the strictest kosher standards. 

In the midcentury dining room—complete with wood-paneled walls, sconces, and tiled fluorescent lights—the coat rack was topped black shtreimel hats and draped with long black coats. A pair of tourists provided the only spot of color among the customers, though they had ignored (or hadn't noticed) the "No shorts, no sleeveless" dress code posted by the door. 

In a refrigerated case at the back, I was delighted to spot a huddle of bright green Cel-Ray cans. I'd heard that the wonders of the soda shine through when it's paired with dense, salty, fatty Jewish deli foods, so I ordered a flaky, sesame seed-studded potato knish to go.

According to Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History of More Than 100 Legendary Recipes, Cel-Ray was developed in 1869 by Dr. Brown, a physician from the Lower East Side. Though the soda had the same basic ingredients then as it does today—celery seed extract, seltzer, and sweetener (now high-fructose corn syrup)—it was reportedly so thick it was hard to swallow, earning the drink its original salubrious name "Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic." The tonic, which was doled out by the spoonful at New York pharmacies, was intended to soothe digestion and nourish immigrant children. But the US government didn't think it quite made the cut as a bonafide health tonic, and the name was changed to "Cel-Ray." In the early nineteenth century, celery was considered a superfood. Celery extract appeared in everything from soaps to chewing gum; there were even special glass vases and "boats" intended to display the fashionable herb around the home. Furthermore, carbonated beverages were coming into their own with the invention of new bottling technologies, and it was discovered that bubbles helped Dr. Brown's thick tonic go down more easily. Jewish immigrants with experience in beet-sugar processing in their home countries found ready employment in the burgeoning US soda industry, and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda took off.

I brought my knish and can home and popped the tab. The liquid fizzing into the glass was golden, like ginger ale (did I imagine a faint green palor?), but had the distinct cool, clear, vegetal aroma of celery.

The celery scent disappeared with the first sip, however. The taste was like honeyed water that tingled on the tongue, though the sweetness was undercut by the botanical notes and a slightly bitter aftertaste, with an effervescence that seemed to be searching around for something to pair with. So I cut into the knish and popped a warm, unctuous bite into my mouth, followed by a swig of Cel-Ray. The knish was greasy and salty, the tonic cool and vanilla-laced and slightly peppery. The carbonation cut through the heaviness of the hunk of dough and potato, and the yeasty smell of the pastry was offset by the tang of the drink. It was the perfect pairing.

A few days later, I called Shelsky's a modern Jewish deli in Park Slope, catering to the bagels-and-lox crowd. When I asked if they carried Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray, the guy on the phone said, "You bet we do. It's my favorite item on the menu."