A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SIGHT: Dennet Place, the Street of Tiny Doors

When you move to a new neighborhood—as I did about six months ago—you suddenly find yourself more open to wonder and surprise. Carroll Gardens, my new home, has offered up its share of delights: the taste of tiny balls of fresh mozzarella dipped in salt water from Caputo’s deli, the old Italian men in sports sandals and tube socks puffing cigars in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, the startling sunsets over the BQE, the sound of the evening bells from St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic church.

While circling the neighborhood one evening looking for parking, I discovered a one-block-long side street called Dennet Place running between Nelson and Luquer streets and Smith and Court streets. Each stoop of the tidy two-story row houses had a tiny door built into its base at street level, beneath the stairs. The doors were no more than four feet tall—the average adult would almost certainly have to duck to enter. But in all other respects, they appeared to be functional doors to the garden-level apartments. Painted a variety of colors, the miniature doors were complete with mail slots, peepholes, doorbells and knockers, numerals, and deadbolt locks. Some even had octagonal windows beside them festooned with pumpkins and Thanksgiving decorations, and when I peered inside I saw umbrella stands, coat hooks, hall lamps, and dustpans and brooms.

When I got home I did a little cursory research on Dennet Place and its miniature doors. My search turned up nothing but fellow admirers, no insights at all into why the apartment doors on this particular block were built on such a small scale. Whenever I’ve passed the street since and glanced down the block, its residents appear to be of average size.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: Bryant Park’s Public Bathrooms

When I read that the public restrooms in Bryant Park were voted “Best in the Nation” in 2002 by CitySearch, I was intrigued. How nice could they really be, just blocks from the tourist traffic and former sleaze of Times Square?

In fact, the restrooms, housed in a grand stone building just off Forty-second Street, right behind the library, offer a multi-sensory experience fit for all but the most discerning of public-bathroom-goers. The queue was miraculously short for a seventy-degree summer day at the height of tourist season. A marble urn of fresh flowers, backed by a wood-framed full-length mirror and floral wall mosaics, greeted visitors in the foyer separating the men’s and women’s rooms. The signs depict the usual stick-figure man and woman, but bearing leaves at the end of outstretched arms to point the way.

Inside the women’s room is a marble changing-table and a marble sink, graced with yet more floral arrangements in bud vases. The stalls are dark polished wood. Natural light filters through an oval window. A discreet air-freshener box high on the wall emitted a clean smell, though the green-and-white tile floor was spotless, and a decidedly non-grimy white terry-cloth towel was folded by the sink to wipe up water spots.

Upon entering the stall, a floral-printed sign instructed me to push a red button for a new Hygolet toilet-seat cover. I pushed, and a scrim of plastic snaked around the perimeter of the seat, pushing the used portion into a receptacle at the other end. The toilet paper was unexceptional, but soft enough.

I was delighted to discover that the soap dispensers offered a plump pouf of white mousse—my favorite kind of dispenser soap. And to top it off, the air-dryers (no soggy paper towels here) are the gleaming chrome Xlerator brand, issuing a hand-free blast of hot air that dries the hands in seconds.

Exiting the restrooms, I noticed two janitorial workers chatting by a patch of pacasandra. Even their uniforms were a delight: leaf-green pants and a contrasting polo shirt, tucked in, with bright blue rubber gloves.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: Canoeing the Gowanus Canal

One evening not long ago, I decided to take advantage of the free canoe rides offered by the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club and treat myself to a more intimate look at the infamous Brooklyn canal than I was accustomed to from bridges and subway platforms. The club itself turned out to be a trailer filled with canoes, paddles, and life jackets with “Gowanus Yacht Club” scrawled across the back in marker. After strapping one on, and installed in my own canoe, I was blatantly marked a tourist of the canal, but no matter: it’s hard to be a mere nine inches from the Gowanus and not become part of it.

Within moments of paddling away from the dock, spooky currents in the seemingly stagnant water spun my canoe in circles. I consider myself a competent paddler, but as I tried to regain control of my boat, fetid water splashed onto my lap and pooled in my sneakers. The air smelled of gasoline, tar, damp cement, moss, and burnt rubber.

Finally I got past the currents and steered down one of the canal’s several branches. There were few signs of life besides the hiss of the subway clambering over the Smith–Ninth Street trestle and the thrum of cars passing over the metal drawbridges: pa-plank, pa-plank, pa-plank. The occasional bedraggled seagull swooped overhead; sirens moaned; cranes from scrap-metal factories transferred fistfuls of rattling metal onto barges tied to the canal’s banks. The wind rustled through rough leaves.

Gasoline formed rainbow pools on the water’s surface, reflecting the overcast sky and clouds with unexpected beauty, though drifting bottle caps, dime bags, and candy wrappers inevitably shattered them. I also spotted unmistakable lumps of fossilizing human waste, and—ominously, puzzlingly—floating rocks. Old, wet wood and frayed rope seemed barely to corral the trees that struggled toward the sky from the muddy banks, pushing through tangles of metal and piles of old tires.

As I turned to head back to the club, a power boat manned by a middle-aged man in a blue T-shirt putted toward me and sputtered to a stop to let me pass. “Where did you put in?” the man called out. I liked his use of the term “Put in.” Apparently he hadn’t seen my yuppie life jacket; I had been mistaken for a fellow mariner. But I decided to tell him about the Gowanus Dredgers and its free sunset canoe rides. He regarded me dubiously, hand on his tiller. Just ahead, we could see two more life-jacketed canoers batting at the currents with their paddles. “Well, enjoy the evening,” he said, sweeping his arm toward the sky and firing up his outboard. The murky canal burbled in his wake, then settled back to its implacable stillness.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

SOUND & TASTE: Shaved-Ice Carts

Though Marino’s Italian Ice carts are perhaps the most ubiquitous New York summertime sidewalk sight, I can never help feeling that some essence of refreshment is lost when the ice is scooped from a tub. To experience a true icy sensation, you have to find an authentic Puerto Rican piragua cart, where the ice is shaved fresh from a brick and then doused with syrup. I’ve spent the past two months of summer hoping to come across one in my travels around the city, and spotted my first cart just a few days ago, in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

The cart was parked on the corner of Church Avenue and East Seventeenth Street, distinguished from its two neighboring food vendors by a green-and-white-striped umbrella and rows of colorful glass bottles ringing the cart’s edges: green, orange, red, yellow. The vendor, who spoke little English, wore a Yankee cap over his white hair, and smiled from beneath a mustache as white and fluffy as the shaved ice itself. I asked a waiting customer what her favorite flavor was, and she pointed toward a bottle of creamy syrup: vanilla.

The vendor picked up a metal scoop, removed a damp blue towel from the ice block, and began scraping at the surface with brisk strokes. The scoop made a rasp, shuffle, shuffle sound as the ice softened beneath its edge, not unlike someone shoveling their walkway on a snowy winter day, and immediately I felt a few degrees cooler. Once enough ice shavings had collected in the scoop’s pocket, he tapped them into a soft plastic cup and tamped down on the mound at the top with a paper cone, creating a pyramid. (I later learned that the word piragua comes from agua and piramide.) He shook a few squirts of vanilla syrup onto the point of the cone, and it melted a path through the ice flakes, tainting them yellow. Then he dribbled the top with sweetened condensed milk, which solidified in a few shiny squiggles, and impaled the whole concoction with a bright pink straw.

As soon as he pressed the cup into my hand, I felt the cold seep through the thin plastic. The ice at the bottom of the cup began to melt beneath my grip. The custardy vanilla pooled at the bottom rushed up the straw, whose diameter was thin enough to admit only the purest rush of cold flavor and no bland, chewy flakes of ice. Once I’d drained the dregs, I impaled the straw in a fresh spot, chipping at the surface and then plunging it through the icy shards with a crisp rustle. Like the summer day itself, this treat, its crunch and slow flavor trickle, became something new in each moment beneath the beating sidewalk sun.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SIGHT: Staten Island’s Secret Rock Sculptures

Before I made the trek all the way to the southeast shore of Staten Island, I had verified the rumors I'd heard of Doug Schwartz’s rock-sculpture garden on the beach of Mount Loretto Unique Area (as the nature preserve is formally called). But once there, on a blistering hot July afternoon, I tried to imagine what his creation would look like to someone who had no idea it was there: A modern-day Stonehenge? The meeting grounds of a demonic coven? The work of
a marooned sailor? According to a fairly recent PBS documentary short, Schwartz has been building a pyramid a day for no other reason than that he wants to--as a temporary gesture to art and nature and the emphemeral.

The beach overlooks Raritan Bay and, in the distance, the New Jersey shore. It’s not the first place I would choose for a casual stroll. As I followed a park ranger’s instructions and headed to the right out of the pier parking lot, I saw no sign of Schwartz’s sculptures, only a stretch of litter-strewn sand and a gangly lighthouse on a steel trestle. But after tiptoeing across a tidal stream burbling with yellow foam, I rounded a bend and there it was: a forest of stone cairns, of the sort hikers use to mark a path or mountain peak, set along a rock-edged path beneath a leafy bluff, overlooking the ocean.

Perhaps it was because I was the only visitor, but there was something enchanted about this place. The careful balance of the rocks beneath the rust-colored cliff, the smell of fish and sea salt, the lap of the tide and caw of seagulls, a string of tattered and sun-bleached prayer flags. Shells of extinguished tea lights beneath a few of the cairns brought to mind what the garden would look like at night, the sun-baked rocks cooled, the flames and shadows muting the colors: rust, ochre, slate; marbled, freckled, jagged, round. A few cairns were buttressed with crumpled beer cans or sticks or clamshells, others tangled with fishing line or feathers, but most were freestanding. One mandala of small rocks and bright blue mussel shells set flat into the beach looked like it had been rearranged by the tide. Many long benches made of washed up boards weighted with stones awaited guests.

On my return walk, I found the tide had come in, and the stream was now uncrossable. I had to duck through the underbrush to reach a gravel spit. It hadn’t occurred to me, when planning my visit, that the path might be as ephemeral as the creations themselves, subject to winds, vandalism, tides—and interpretation.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

SMELL: Bushwick’s Tortilla Triangle

When I first heard about the Tortilla Triangle, a confluence of tortilla factories in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I imagined it would greet me with a cloud of masa-scented air, not unlike swimming into a warm spot in a lake. A recent article in Edible Brooklyn magazine described the area this way: “Stepping out of the Jefferson stop on the L train is an exercise in olfactory entrancement…. The warm minerality of cooked corn stretches the block, and you can almost float on the curls of aroma into the factory, dreaming of the brown-specked tortillas that await you.”

In my experience, however, the scent of the Tortilla Triangle proved much less buoyant, and only discernible between 4 and 10 p.m., when the tortilla factory closest to the subway, Tortilleria Mexicana los Hermanos, at 271 Starr Street, rolls out its tortillas. The four other tortilla factories in the “triangle”—Tortilleria Buena Vista, at 219 Johnson Avenue; Tortilleria Plaza Piaxtla, at 915 Flushing Avenue; Tortilleria Chinantla, at 975 Grand Street; and Tortilleria Tenochtitlan 2000, at 952 Flushing Avenue—are not really close enough to each other to create a neighborhood smell, and even if they were, the truck fumes of Flushing Avenue would be strong enough to overpower it.

Nevertheless, I was enticed, and one weekday night at around 8 p.m., I surfaced from the aroma of the summer subway—hot tar, cinnamon-spicy disinfectant—onto the sidewalk of Starr Street, where I sniffed the air in anticipation. There was indeed a faint smell of toasted corn, dry and sweet, emanating from Tortilleria Mexicana los Hermanos, just a few paces down the block. Mexican music jangled from an open garage, where two men loitered next to a forklift. Adjacent was the makeshift cafĂ©: a serving counter, a stack of laminated menus, a portrait of the Virgin Mary draped in a garland of fake flowers, and a few tables topped with miniature cacti where hipsters hunkered down over tortillas heaped with meat, beans, queso fresco, crema, shredded lettuce, and salsa.

Glass walls afforded a view of the production line at the back of the garage: a conveyor belt with a big orange bucket of dough at the center, manned by about five people and overseen by two enormous gilt-framed portraits of phantasmagoric seaside cabins. Two workers collected the hot tortillas as they spun out from between the metal rollers, another counted out a stack and plumped it against her forearm before handing it to a fourth worker, who slipped them into a plastic sack, pressed out the air, and twisted it closed. She handed the packet to another man, who stacked it in a cardboard box at the end of the line, which would presumably end up on the forklift I’d spotted near the entrance.

Wanting to experience the Bushwick tortilla in its purest form, I asked for two plain tortillas to go. The women behind the counter looked bewildered. “You mean two packages?” they said, dangling a still-steamy packet. No, just two plain tortillas, I repeated. The women furrowed their brows and mumbled among each other. I am sure I heard murmurs of “loco.” Finally they flipped two tortillas onto the grill and toasted them, then wrapped them in a sheet of tinfoil, waving away my offers of money with “Nada, nada.”

Outside the factory, standing by a fire hydrant, I unwrapped the foil and took a bite. The soft, chewy edges gave way to a sweet, soft middle pocked by air bubbles. The flavor was definitely bland, and would have been improved by some salt, not to mention cheese and salsa, but it was of a piece with the Tortilla Triangle itself, whose distinct but unobtrusive scent continued to waft around me in the evening air.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

SIGHT: Manhattanhenge

“Papa, what’s staring?” asked the little girl perched on her father’s shoulders, looking out over the crowd of heads and cameras beneath her. Apparently she had learned the single rule of Manhattanhenge, the semiannual alignment of the setting sun with the east–west grid of Manhattan’s streets: don’t stare at the sun.

I had heard that the ideal spot for viewing Manhattanhenge was Tudor City Place, a tiny thoroughfare between First and Second avenues whose virtually traffic-free overpass directly above Forty-second Street offers an unobstructed view west across the island. On this clear, breezy Sunday evening, May 31, about fifty people had gathered on the bridge, with stepstools and cameras and tripods, to capture the spectacle. At 8:17 p.m., the full sun was due to slip into position, centered right above Forty-second Street, suspended for one perfect minute before sliding below the horizon.

“Staring is when you look at one thing for a really long time. Here, let’s look the other way for a minute,” the girl’s father said, turning them around to face the East River, where a lavender sky, wisped with clouds and dotted by a lone helicopter, offered a peaceful counterpart to the blazing spectacle to the west. At 8:03 p.m., the sun was still slightly to the south, or left edge, of the grid, but as the minutes passed, it slid into full, blinding view, limning the edges of buildings and casting the Hyatt hotel flag, a fire escape, and even the Chrysler Building’s fierce plumage into shadow.

Since I had not thought to bring a stepstool, I struggled to find hole in the crowd through which to see the sun, and finally located a relatively consistent passageway between one man’s ear and another’s jaw (the setting sun actually illuminated his beard stubble quite beautifully). The spectators appeared to be mostly native New Yorkers, families, couples, and two lackadaisical policemen monitoring the scene and snapping shots with their iPhones. At the peak moment, an elderly Eastern European woman let me stand on her footstool, steadying my back with her palm. At last above the crowd, I had a clear view across Manhattan. The sun’s rays radiated perfectly toward me, like an open hand, creating a golden corridor above the hush of taxicabs and buses trundling over the gentle humps of Forty-Second Street. A few old-timers in the crowd began comparing this year’s event to those in the past. (“Remember back in 2004, when it was a little cloudy? Oh, that was a good one, that was a real beauty.”)

A minute later, the sun’s orb disappeared, leaving only a peachy glow on the horizon. The crowd dispersed. As I descended into the sunset street, I felt a sense of peace and camaraderie unusual to this part of town. One woman crossing the street paused in the crosswalk, halting several lanes of traffic to snap a photo, before dashing into McFadden’s Saloon. Another couple was taken by surprise by the unusual glow to the east. “Oh! There’s the sun!” one said, pointing. I turned to look at them. “Oh! Not you,” they said, laughing. “The sun! The sun!”

Manhattanhenge will happen again on Saturday, July 11 (the half sun on the horizon), and Sunday, July 12 (the full sun), at 8:25 p.m.
For more information, see http://tinyurl.com/qetuwy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: Thursday-night bow-hunting league at Queens Archery

Find this inconspicuous garage on a suburban street in Flushing, surrounded by row houses with chain-link fences and gardens, and rent a bow, arrows, and a quiver. Take your place among the bow-hunters in camouflage, shooting at a projection of game: deer, bear, moose, rabbits. Don’t be intimidated; raise your bow and aim, focus on your breath, gauge the tension of your fingers on the arrow, and let your worries dissolve for an hour or so as you lose yourself in the rhythms and focus of repetitive precision.

Bow-hunting may not be every New Yorker’s cup of tea. It’s illegal in the five boroughs of New York City (the recent arrow shooting of a Bronx woman notwithstanding: http://tinyurl.com/cwjfyk). But, as they say, if you can find it anywhere, you can find it here.

During the bow-hunting season, which runs from October through December in the New York metropolitan area, most of the league members hunt in Long Island or Westchester, where rifle hunting is not allowed. The league is also an opportunity to swap hunting tips, prime game-spotting sights—and, of course, stories. At the moment all the members are men (including some fathers and sons), though women are encouraged to join.

Martha Lizzio, the owner of Queens Archery, and her husband, Al, got the idea for their virtual bow-hunting league fifteen years ago. They acquired their first images of wildlife by surreptitiously photographing the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. Like a seasoned hunting team, Martha kept watch for security guards while Al snapped the shots. Back in Queens, the Lizzios converted the photos into slides, which they projected on the white back wall of the range, carefully lining up the animals’ vital organs with the soft target spots built into the wall. Now they’ve gone digital, and Al downloads and adapts the pictures on his computer. The animals don’t move or make noises when shot (as they do at certain other shooting ranges, like the small range in the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine), but the images of turkeys beneath fall foliage or wolves prowling frozen tundra are realistic enough to bring out the latent hunter in these men. The Lizzios have also set up a wooden scaffolding in the range to simulate a tree stand, so the hunters can practice shooting from different heights. Such is these men’s skill that after the image fades, one can see almost all the arrows clustered in the same spots on the wall.

At Queens Archery, the smell of Entenmann’s coffee cake and fresh-brewed coffee might not compare to autumn leaves and doe-in-rut buck lure; the sound of Lite FM might not summon that first crack of a twig that signals the approach of prey; the dry snap of pulling an arrow out of a wall might not compare to the pride and gratitude of extracting an arrow from the still-warm body of an animal. But the dozen or so men and boys who don their jeans and T-shirts (SPORTSMEN DON’T MESS WITH THE BEST; WHITETAIL HERO; HUNTING FOCUS), dust off their arrow cases, and converge each Thursday night are a testament to the determination of New Yorkers to conjure any world the city is lacking, and that “if you build it, they will come.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

TASTE: Coffee-cart breakfast

Why, I had always wondered, would New Yorkers choose to buy their morning coffee and bagel from a sidewalk cart? The streets of every borough are practically paved in the inexpensive, fresh-out-of-the-kettle bagels for which the city is known, and good-quality coffee is equally easy to find. Sure, there’s something appealing about the convenience of the carts, but often they draw a line as long as that in any Starbucks, and meanwhile force their customers to wait outdoors in heat, cold, and traffic fumes. Moreover, the bagels always looked to me like startled captives, smushed against the plastic windows, the cream-cheese-filled holes gaping out like rows of eyes. Nevertheless I couldn’t deny their indomitable New York spirit, the drivers invariably friendly yet efficient, and moreover with the gumption to rise before dawn, hitch the cart to the back of their family minivan in the outer boroughs, and haul it up onto the sidewalk to face the people and the morning.

So a few weeks ago, I decided it was time to try a coffee-cart breakfast. I’d been tempted to take the subway from Brooklyn into Midtown, where, I figured, I’d find the most authentic carts. But then I realized one of the attractions of the breakfast cart is that you pass it in the course of your commute, so I selected one on Court Street on my way back from the gym. It had the requisite steamed windows and much-amended price list, the rows of bagels and hulking, sugar-encrusted doughnuts, a basket of hardboiled eggs, and boxes of Lipton tea and Swiss Miss. And to my delight, the woman in front of me in line was not only wearing sneakers and pantyhose but gym socks over her pantyhose, and when the coffee man said, “Coffee?” she replied in a Brooklyn accent, “Yeah, wid milk no sugah.”

When it was my turn to approach the window, I experienced a moment of stage fright. I wanted to simulate the curt decisiveness of the regulars. But instead I smiled and asked timorously, “Um, I’d like a bagel with cream cheese, please--” “Whakind.” “Um, plain, I guess, and a coffee--” “Milksugar?” “Well, do you have cream?” Shake of head. “Then just a little bit of milk, please.” “Twodolla.” A humid paper bag slid across the window toward me.

I carried it home and laid out my purchase on my desk, since that seemed to be another part of the ritual. The bagel was rubbery, and chilly to the touch. The slab of cream cheese looked as if had been hacked directly from the brick. When I bit in, the bagel immediately sprung back into shape. Furthermore, the underside was marked with the perforations that indicate breads baked in industrial ovens. It had none of the yeasty, hot-water-and-salt flavor of a signature New York bagel. The coffee was similarly disappointing, in its WaWa cup with a flip-top lid that tickled my nose with each sip. Yet with the sun streaming in the window, buses honking below, and my wad of coffee-stained paper napkins by my side, it occurred to me that even without a java jacket and a creamy “smear” of cream cheese, this breakfast was as authentically New York as the one I’d grown accustomed to, and I felt as ready as ever to begin my day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

SMELL: The scent of vanilla by the Gowanus Canal

It’s true that most people don’t walk down Third Avenue in Brooklyn, near the fetid mouth of the Gowanus Canal, and under the dripping shadow of the Gowanus Expressway overpass. Third Avenue is the thoroughfare of gypsy cabs, rattling delivery trucks, and low-riders with tinted windows. The neighborhood is Sunset Heights, but not much sun shines down here.

But if you do happen to be walking in the vicinity of 882 Third Avenue, between Thirty-second and Thirty-third streets (perhaps in search of cheap gas, a cheap car alarm, or a cheap XXX video), probably the last thing you expect to be reminded of is your grandmother’s kitchen. Yet a mysterious vanilla scent lingers in the air, mingling with the car exhaust and faint sewage stench wafting off the water. The source is the Virginia Dare Extract Company, whose plant is at this address, and which has been manufacturing vanilla extract, among other flavorings, for more than 80 years.

On the day I visited, right before Valentine’s Day, the breeze rattled the plastic bags trapped in the barbed-wire fence and collected the vanilla fragrance into gusts whenever I rounded a corner. Trucks idled at the loading docks in back of the plant, and lone men lingered at the water’s edge. Yet as I was approaching my car, I noticed a man climbing into a minivan parked nearby, struggling to keep hold of a bouquet of helium heart balloons, which whipped and snapped against the strange, fragrant wind.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

TOUCH: The seat by the radiator at the Brooklyn Inn

One winter evening not long ago, I was having a beer alone at the Brooklyn Inn before meeting a friend for dinner. As I arrived, the bartender was setting out tea lights along on the bar, and through the iron grille-work on the windows, I could see bare tree branches turning to shadows against a purple sky. I was delighted to find my favorite seat empty: at the end of the short end of the L-shaped bar, right next to the old mirrors and the radiator. I hung my coat beneath the bar, got out my book, ordered a Sixpoint Brownstone ale, and settled in.

After a few moments, a man walked in and took a seat a few stools down from me. The bartender appeared to have his drink—a Manhattan—waiting. After a few sips, he asked me what I was reading, and I told him. Then I returned to my book. The combination of quiet, a cool beer, and the warmth wafting up from the hissing radiator was what I’d come for, after all.

As I was heading out the door—my coat nicely warmed—the regular swiveled toward me. “Have a nice evening,” he said, extending his hand. I extended mine in return, and he grasped it with both of his. “Ah, your hands are so warm!” he said. Then he paused. “Let me do that again!” So I offered him my warm hand.

A month or so later, I was once again enjoying a beer and a book at the seat by the radiator on a winter evening. The same man walked in and glanced my way before the bartender presented him with his Manhattan. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me, but I gave him a small smile all the same. When I got up to leave, I thought he might wish me a nice evening or reach out to shake my hand, and found I was slightly disappointed when he didn’t. Instead, he picked up his drink and walked over to claim my stool. Apparently, even the regulars know it’s the best seat in the house. No doubt it was still warm.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

SIGHT: The “Toast” of Smith Street

During my first year in New York City, I would take the F train each morning from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn to Rockefeller Center, where I worked. If I happened to be standing near an east-facing window as the train descended from the elevated tracks at Smith–Ninth Street into the tunnel at Carroll Street, I would look up from the pages of The Fountainhead, where Howard Roark was constructing skyscrapers with egomaniacal glee, and look down at what I’ve come to think of as “the toast.”

Sand of varying shades has been bulldozed into five corrals at the edge of the Gowanus Canal. Apparently, each shove of a bulldozer creates slabs that resemble slices of bread leaning up against one another, or a loaf collapsing after being released from its wrapper. The dark brown sand might be pumpernickel; the beige, whole wheat; the grayish brown, rye.

Only later did I discover that my “toast” belonged to Quadrozzi Concrete Corporation—and that it would no doubt become part of the Roarkian skyscrapers of a city that, back then, I was only beginning to discover.

I tried to visit the Quadrozzi concrete yard in person on two occasions, and both times I was turned away “for security reasons.” Plus, I discovered that the toast doesn’t look quite as impressive from ground level. The magic, it seems, is in the view from above, when the hearty crusts of these unintentional loaves are set in relief against the stagnant Brooklyn canal and the towers of Manhattan sparkling beyond.