A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

MULTISENSORY: Celsious luxury laundromat

“What’s a modern laundromat?” a girl asks her friend as they stop before a slick new Williamsburg storefront. Outside, tulips peek out from behind millennial-pink railings. Inside, palo santo incense wafts over a display of raw chocolate and facial mist, hip-hop thrums faintly, scrolls of soft hand towels rest above a sink, live plants dangle their tendrils over reclaimed-cork walls, and a sign advertises today’s special: bone broth. 

In the doorway stands Theresa, co-owner with her sister, Corinna, of Celsious, a self-described “modern, sustainable, and luxurious” laundromat that is reimagining the way New Yorkers do their laundry—or at least aspire to do it.

Laundromats are an essential but demoralizing fixture in most New Yorkers’ daily lives. As the Snorri Bros. observe in their photo book about laundromats across the five boroughs, public laundries are one of the few industries that have held out against chain takeover, and their mom-and-pop signage is a ubiquitous feature of the streetscape. They also function as social and sartorial melting pots, where strangers of all backgrounds engage tube-sock-to-negligee in one of our most intimate chores.

Photo of Nice Laundry at 332-2 Hooper Street in Brooklyn from Laundromat by Snorri Bros. (PowerHouse Books, 2013)
Celsious, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the typical Launderama—it’s a laundromat revolution.

The high-powered, energy-efficient Electrolux appliances have you in and out within thirty minutes, for one. And though you can feed quarters into slots the old-fashioned way, these machines take credit cards and Apple Pay.

But a thirty-minute cycle is hardly enough time to enjoy a locally sourced turmeric latté in the Clean Café upstairs, take advantage of the WiFi on the back patio, or peruse the events listings (talks on “Design, Policy, and Progress” and organic skin care) while waiting for your machine to text you when your cycle is done.

Ethereal and soft-spoken “laundry gurus” pad about in canvas aprons, proffering lavender-infused wool dryer balls ($1 to rent), glass jars of three-ingredient eco-detergent (complimentary), and washing advice (key lesson: cram in the clothes for optimal friction). When you thank them, they don’t say “You’re welcome” but murmur “Of course.” (There is a tip jar.)

One load of washing and drying at Celsious costs between seven and nineteen dollars, depending on the setting—considerably more than your local Stop ’n’ Wash. There are cycles for wool, down, and even one called “active” (“for when you have your whole load of Lululemons,” I was told, which speaks to the clientele). You can even sanitize the basins before loading your clothes, obliterating the previous occupants’ cooties and any chance of having to pluck out a stranger’s damp underpants.

Walk into Celsious on a Saturday afternoon, however, and one thing is conspicuously absent: customers. During my two visits, empty carts and silent machines gleamed beneath the globe lights. Despite their obligatory blue IKEA bags, these were not your typical laundromat patrons: all were stylishly dressed, and most appeared to be European, or tourists, or both. I was, admittedly, a tourist myself: I am lucky enough to have my own washer-dryer but had come to Celsious for the experience.

But at least I had brought laundry. At least once every five minutes, a passerby would peer in the window, or step in to ask, “What is this place?,” to which one of the sisters would patiently explain, “It’s a laundromat! But our dryers are the best on the market—they save gas, electricity, and water—so you can get your clothes washed and dried in thirty minutes.” The voyeurs would reply, “Cool! We’ll have to stop by with some laundry!” and exit into the afternoon.

Despite the vision of customers folding their clothes in the sun on the reclaimed-stone tables out back, or sipping the foam off a latté while treating their clothes to DIY pampering, perhaps New Yorkers—with all their other aspirations—just don’t have time for this one, and it’s their loss. You can, after all, drop off your laundry for bespoke garment care, and rest assured knowing your clothes are being treated to the “thoughtful folding” that’s part of the Celsious promise.