A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, February 10, 2020

SMELL: Ice skating and hot-tubbing... at the airport?

Sure, there are many unusual places to ice skate in New York City: by the seaside at Abe Stark Rink in Coney Island, on the rooftop of Brooklyn's William Vale Hotel, or in a narrow courtyard between buildings at Industry City. Last winter, there was even an ice rink tucked into the men's department at Bloomingdale's.

But this winter, the TWA Hotel—housed in the iconic Eero Saarinen terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport—has installed a Runway Rink.

How many chances will you have to ice skate right on the tarmac, in the shadow of a 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane–turned–cocktail bar, with the scent of jet fuel in the air? Though air travel is often marked by halting progress, here you can glide past the battalions of Smarte Cartes, the honking taxis and flashing hazard lights, the harried travelers bumping their suitcases over the curb.

Though the rink is just steps from JetBlue's Terminal 5 departures gates, you feel worlds away from with a box of Sno-Caps in your pocket (purchased from the rink-side ski chalet) and Beyoncé thumping through the loudspeakers.

The 56-by-44-foot rink is made from 3,500 gallons of New York City tap water kept frozen by tubes filled with coolant that run between the tarmac and the rink. A mini Zamboni makes the rounds every so often, keeping the surface slick.

On a recent Sunday, the rink was almost empty: just two tween girls choreographing selfie videos and an Orthodox Jewish family taking their toddlers for their first spins aboard complimentary plastic push-and-ride ice whales.

After a tour of the ice, you can retire to the plush red Sunken Lounge, where you can sip a Shirley Temple and watch the skaters spinning in circles through the canted windows, an uncanny sight at one of the largest airports in the country.

Or... you can head up to the 64-foot-long rooftop "infinity pool–cuzzi" overlooking one of the airport's busiest runways. The ninety-five-degree water splashes over the edge, seeming to cascade onto the tarmac, where planes roar past, lift into the sky, and bump down to earth. Steam rises from the 95-degree water, mingling with the scent of chlorine, jet fuel, tar, and rubber. Though during the summer months, the pool may require a day pass, it's free to all in the winter.

On a recent windy February afternoon, one corner of the pool was occupied by a plane spotter, margarita in hand, snapping photos as a Swiss Air jet soared into the air. Then a group of hipsters arrived, complete with New Yorker tote bags and knit beanies. "It wasn't so hard to get here," one of them said, bobbing in the water as an Iberia airlines jet taxied to the gate. "We just took the L train to the A...."

Friday, January 10, 2020

MULTISENSORY: Luxury Escapism: a virtual reality spa

It's true that at Luxury Escapism, a new multisensory spa in DUMBO, you'll find waffle-weave robes, dim lights, and a decanter of cucumber water.

But in place of lavender eye masks, you'll find electronic goggles called "eye massagers." In place of massage tables draped with towels, you'll find vibrating beds with gravity blankets. In place of almonds, you'll find Hi-Chew "intensely chewy candy." In place of new age music, you'll find a "sonic sauna." And in place of flickering candles, you'll find strobe lights and virtual reality goggles that transport you into geometric projections of infinity.

"I feel like I'm in a cross between West Elm and the Sharper Image," my companion whispered as we padded around the basement space in our courtesy slippers and robes. The pink light notwithstanding, the room—divided into eleven experiential zones—had that familiar millennial immersive-experience vibe: all tactile surfaces and activity stations and, arrayed on every surface, VR goggles. Here was self-care with a thrumming bass line of tech. It goes without saying that the entrance to Luxury Escapism is through an unmarked basement door.

However, even though the spa advertises its Instagram handle on its postcards, the posing-and-posting impulse is held in check by two ground rules: no phones and no talking above a whisper. (I got a press pass.) Instead, the spa promises to connect you with the present moment through "technology that actually feels good." If you're expecting a facial and a hot-stone massage, you've come to the wrong place—though there are faux hot stones set around an electric campfire.

On the night I visited, the ten or so other spa-goers were mostly young couples who seemed thrilled by a novel New York City date night. And while it is true that (as far as I know) there is no other place in New York City quite like this, our expectation of novelty—foundational to the immersive and pop-up experiences that abound these days—is becoming increasingly familiar.

Goggles of many sorts abound at Luxury Escapism. I decided to begin in the Yogibo Lounge, where I picked up my first pair: an electronic eye-massaging mask. It felt sort of like a blood pressure cuff inflating and deflating over my eyeballs while emitting wheezy puffs. A set of VR goggles catapulted me into a 3-D jungle; thankfully, the comfortable Yogibo beanbag kept me grounded. Soon an attendant beckoned me to "Rainbow Therapy," one of the spa's two timed experiences.

I lay down on a water bed and closed my eyes. The room darkened and the bed began to convulse. Strobe lights pulsed through my eyelids. Though I could control the intensity and vibrations, I felt a panic attack coming on. To stay sane, I silently chanted the mantra, "I am healthy and fit. Probably I will not have a stroke."

Next, I ducked into what would be my favorite experience, the Kinetic Sand Dome, a yurt with kinetic (moldable) sand, scoops, and slicers. The tactile experience was heightened by—goggles! But these were a non-VR pair with a lens that somehow separated my hands from my body. As my friend put it, "I feel like I'm watching an instructional video of myself in real time."

The next stop was called Lux TV: a couch in front of a TV showing grainy footage of ASMR installations, and a table of fidgets to calm your hands.

As my friend and I were playing in the Sound Stones playpen—a gravel-floored space outfitted with simple, childlike musical instruments and a headset you could use to manipulate the sounds—we were called into the Sonic Spa, the second timed experience. After the door closed on the small, windowless room, we plunged into total darkness alongside several strangers: panic attack #2. But then the soundscape began—a melange of birdsong, sticks breaking, snow crunching, cicadas. The darkness ended up being a welcome break from the audiovisual input.

VR goggles had greeted me at nearly every turn, from the Fuzzidarium, a room swathed in white fur; to a pair of hammock chairs; to the vibrating beds of the Senscape, where I took a float down a virtual stream; to the Cosmic Steam Room, where, using hand gestures paired with goggles, you could manipulate images projected on a scrim.

As the two hours were nearly up, I decided to cleanse my sensory palate with a Hi-Chew, one of those candies that is simultaneously stressful (it's claustrophobic! it fills the mouth entirely and sticks the teeth together! it seems it will never be swallowed!) and satisfying (the burst of fruit flavor! the teeth-sinking texture! the intensity!). For the forty-five seconds it takes to consume one, you can think of little else: it forces you into the present moment.

So it was for me at Luxury Escapism. Then I swallowed a paper cup of cucumber-infused water and the candy was gone.

Monday, December 16, 2019

SIGHT: Secret Christmas tree memorial for departed pets

It could take hours to find—or minutes, if you happen upon the right sequence of paths in the labyrinthine Ramble of Central Park

At first it's just a flutter in the corner of your eye, a pattern to the light. Then it emerges from behind a tangle of bare branches: an ordinary evergreen tree, not too different from the two trees flanking it, except that on Sunday in mid-December, it seems to be receiving an unusual number of visitors.

Get closer still, and you'll see why. The tree is bedecked in dozens of Christmas ornaments. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice that most of the ornaments are homemade and are dedicated to pets who have died. Photos of each animal have been laminated and strung with ribbon or encased in Ziploc bags to protect them from the weather.

There are dog treats for good behavior in heaven,

a beribboned collar as a reminder of favorite city walks,

or a bit of honey for the afterlife.

There are curious talismans, including one made of hair, glitter, and ribbon—with a checkered taxicab theme.

There are no backyard chickens or urban sheep. Ming the tiger, who was raised in an apartment in a Harlem housing project and died this autumn, has not yet been commemorated. Most of the pets are cats or dogs, but there are a few outliers: a bunny named Winnie,

a box turtle named Sherman,

and a budgie named Buddha.

Some of the ornaments are simply a photo and a Sharpied name. But others have odes to the lives of pets in the heart of a big city.

I had brought with me an ornament—laminated for free by a sympathetic Print Services worker at Staples—memorializing our family's two goldfish, Ralph and Frank. They turned out to be the only fish on the tree.

As I walked away, I heard the plastic ornaments rattling against one another in the breeze. In this secluded grove in one of the few wild places left in Manhattan, these homemade offerings provide an intimate glimpse into the lives, apartments, and hearts of New Yorkers and of the creatures who offer them unconditional love and predictability in an unpredictable city.

The location of the pet memorial tree is kept a secret by its keepers, but if you are lucky you may stumble upon it during a stroll through the Ramble.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

SOUND: ASMR sound bath in a Bushwich church basement

I first discovered ASMR one evening as I was standing in my then boyfriend's kitchen, idly rolling a grapefruit across his marble countertop. It made a thuddy, rubbery swishing sound. "Do you hear that?" I asked. He listened, then replied judiciously (wistfully?): "Hm. I just don't hear it the way you do." Though we eventually got married, we still don't always hear things the same way.

It turns out there are others who appreciate life's small, satisfying sounds. What I experienced is called an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR): the relaxing, sometimes scalp-tingling feeling some people have in response to a series of repeated sensations, usually auditory, tactile, or visual, such as the crinkling of a wrapped Band-Aid, a makeup brush against one's cheek, or a knife slicing through a just-decanted cylinder of cranberry jelly. Though arguably ASMR has existed for millennia (a crackling wood fire is a common trigger), about ten years ago it became an internet phenomenon. And on a recent night, it was what led me to a Bushwick church basement to attend Waves, an ASMR-stimulating sound bath.

After descending stairs beneath a neon sine wave and whispering a password through a peephole, I entered a basement room outfitted with a desk, a lamp, and a seashell.

Each participant was given a pair of latex gloves and a handful of glass beads. Another door opened, and we were led into a vintage gymnasium. Yoga mats with pillows were arrayed like wheel spokes around a hub of instruments. An electronic drone bounced off the shadowy basketball hoops and chiaroscuro walls. The lights dimmed to near black.

Two figures in conical hats draped with fabric strips shuffled into the room, the cottony flapping of their robes providing the first taste of ASMR. I heard a faint crackling and soon smelled the waftings of campfire smoke as the figures circled the room with sticks of palo santo incense. The tinkling of tiny, fingery bells encircled us in lacy acoustics and cleansed the air.

I wanted to offer New York City a mysterious and theatrical sound bath with music and costumes," Andrew Hoepfner, one of the robed figures, later told me. Hoepfner is the creator of Waves and co-creator of the live ASMR experience known as Whisperlodge. He told me that Waves was inspired by sound baths he'd attended that incorporated "the full smorgasbord of trappings," from disco balls to animal statuary. With Waves, he wanted instead to "shine the spotlight on little details we all like, whether or not you get tingles." Both he and his assistant--tonight a man named Will--
remain incognito throughout the experience.

With my eyes closed and reclined on my mat, I heard the hollow glugs of water being sloshed around in glass jars with tin lids. Andrew poured the water back and forth between jars, producing a simultaneous rise and descent in pitch as one jar filled and the other emptied.

They next ran their fingers along the teeth of two plastic combs, sometimes tantalizingly slowly, releasing each tine before clicking onto the next, and sometimes fast, creating a tinkling, zippery ripping, holding the combs next to each participant's ear. I couldn't help smiling, though I didn't quite get the tingles. Punctuating the ASMR noises was the plangent, elephantine squeeze of a harmonium.

Andrew ran a stick over the back of a wooden frog with a ridged spine, creating a nutty, knuckly sound.

A Tibetan singing bowl keened and hummed, like a finger run over the rim of a wineglass.

Andrew then asked us to slip on our latex gloves and rub our fingers together to "make noise for the room," then to bring our fingertips next to our ears and "softly, secretly, make some sounds just for you." The powdery whisper felt intimate and alive, like the static between tracks on an LP. When we cupped the glass beads in our gloved hands, they washed against one another with watery clicks. Then Andrew and Will swept around the room, crumpling sheets of tissue paper with a crashing roar, then bending rolls of thicker paper back and forth, which sounded like a flag whipping in the wind. Held next to my ear, the tissue had the effervescence of lather foaming on one's ears during a shampoo. Then came the springy pings of a thumb piano.

After a wafting of sage incense, Andrew played the ocean drum, which is filled with metal beads that sweep against stretched fabric like wind blowing sheets of rain across an expanse of water. Andrew flashed about the room, casting his shadow across the pressed-tin ceiling.

I realized that noises that might otherwise have annoyed me had now become part of the ASMR landscape: the rustling of a parka, joints cracking, a zipper, snoring (!), and even the meteoric growling of a rumbling stomach. My most recent Waves sound bath happened to take place on Election Day; Andrew had forgotten that the church is used as a polling site. On that night, the sounds of the show were punctuated by heavy footsteps and the scraping of table legs in the room above us. It occurred to me that this might be a litmus test for ASMR: from the pings of a hair comb to democracy in action.

For tickets to the next Waves sound bath at Gymnopedie, Hoepfner's arts and performance space in Bushwick, click here. The photos above were taken after the sound bath; no photography is permitted during the experience.