A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant Nature Walk

The day before Thanksgiving, I decided to whet my appetite by going on the “nature walk” at the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. Newtown Creek separates Brooklyn from Queens, and is one of the most polluted industrial sites in America, containing raw sewage, toxins, and oil that has seeped into the waterway from a massive oil spill beneath Greenpoint.

This fact apparently inspired artist George Trakas, who designed the trail, but navigating the quarter-mile of cement and steel made me sad more than anything else. Trakas put so much tenderness into his design: handicapped accessibility, plaques beneath each plant detailing its historical uses, plenty of spots for silent contemplation, graceful and sturdy construction echoing the themes of boats and water, even a fragrance garden and an etched path for raindrops to simulate the creek’s flow. But these details were so overwhelmed by the stench, the sludge, and the inescapable sound track of industrial churnings that I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr. Trakas’s elegant vision wasn’t really a giant wink at the prospect of such a polluted waterway ever becoming a nature sanctuary.

The trail begins at the corner of Paige Avenue and Provost Street in Greenpoint, otherwise an industrial no-man’s-land. Two boulders mark the entrance, and painted fish on the sidewalk lead you past a Time Warner Cable facility to a steel gate, which “has a wave shape to mimic the movement of water.” (A wink here, surely, as Newtown Creek is notoriously stagnant.) Once through the gate, there’s a choice: to a “fragrance garden,” or to the trail. It being November, there were no fragrant plants to mask the sewage reek. On the bridge, made to mimic a ship’s hull, portholes offered views of pipes and helmeted workers, and a distant church steeple. A loudspeaker bleated, “Time out! Time out!”

A walkway with jaillike cement and steel-bar walls abutted an asphalt factory, where I detected my first glimpse of nature in some scruff grass. It ended in the so-called “blooming lily,” a rotunda with a tree, benches, and steps leading right into “the placid waters of Newtown Creek.” The bottom few steps were rimmed with slime. I sat on a bench and watched a crane lift automobile carcasses and drop them onto a barge. Nearby I noticed an emergency call box, a “trash barrel” (representing Greenpoint’s cooper heritage), and a water fountain (what would spurt out if you pressed the button?). A brisk breeze ruffled the water. Seagulls swarmed in the scrap-metal dust.

The most impressive part of the walk is the gated “Whale Creek Path,” at the end, which features weeping willow trees, kayak landings, and a picnic bench affording a view of the gleaming onion domes of the plant itself. Next to a warning sign about a raw-sewage discharge point, a bayberry bush was planted (“Aromatic wax on berries rendered into sweet-smelling candles,” read the plaque). In the distance, the Pulaski Bridge hummed and arced against the Manhattan skyline, and a billboard for the Shriners Hospital asked, If you could improve a life, would you? If you could change a creek, would you? Yes, and yes! the native plans answer, but there’s no one but me around to hear them.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

TASTE: A slice, New York City–style

The most important rule of eating pizza in New York City is not to plan to do it. You’re feeling a little peckish, so you pop into the nearest pizza shop, grab a slice and maybe a soda, and about eight minutes later you continue on with your day. A slice of pizza in New York is not an event.

My real pizza-eating story takes place on a recent chilly evening, around 9 pm. I was on my way to a cocktail party in Manhattan. I’d eaten dinner hours before but felt I needed some sustenance for a night on the town. So I ducked into Not Ray’s Pizza in Fort Greene (the parodic name is purely coincidental). Fluorescent lights. An intimidating, high counter of thick plastic sheltering stagnant pizzas on beat-up tin trays, and calzones and a bowl of garlic knots as afterthoughts. Glass shakers of faded red-pepper flakes, oregano, and Parmesan. Tippy stools, Formica-topped tables. I approach the counter and say, “Just a slice” (not “Can I please have one slice of plain pizza to go? Thanks!”). The counter guy jabs the pizza wheel across the pie, flips the cutter onto its side, and uses the blade to heft my slice onto a crenellated paper plate with a wax-paper sheet, then into the oven--all in a single fluid motion. Four minutes later he flops the plate onto the countertop. I pay, wordlessly, and sit by the window. The crust is so hot I can’t touch it, so I use the plate to fold the slice in half, taco-style. (N.b.: Another common New York pizza-eating style is to take the slice outside at this point, the plate protecting your hands from the heat, and nudge the slice forward, tip first, eating it one-handed as you walk.)

The spine cracks, and lurid orange grease oozes into the crease. I shake on cheese and flakes. I dab at the grease with a wad of napkins. I tip the slice into my mouth and the cheese slides toward me, leaving a naked, damp, bumpy crust in its wake. The taste: a crisp crack of folded crust, an easing of salty, stretchy cheese into the mouth mingling with the bland crunch of the crust, followed by a swig of effervescent, tangy Diet Coke, swallowed in one searing hot, icy cold gulp. I leave with a scalded tongue: the true aftertaste of a slice of New York City pizza.

Side note: A few weeks later, for thoroughness, I made a planned trip to “the One and Only Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village,” purported to be the definitive New York City Ray’s. (The business pages list at least fifty-four Ray’s Pizzas in the city.) It was authentic to the core, and improved on Not Ray’s only by having fountain sodas, high, round tables at the front with no chairs (there was a seating area in the back that seemed only for tourists), and local customers who didn’t speak their orders but held up one or two fingers to indicate the number of slices.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

TOUCH: The floors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I heard that one could navigate one’s way around the Metropolitan Museum of Art blindfolded, using only the texture of the floor beneath one’s feet as a map, I was intrigued. How many times had I visited the Met and fixed only one sense—my vision—on only one thing—the walls? What would it be like to ignore the artwork and focus solely on the feeling of my footsteps as I made my way through this vast institution?

So I set out to do this one recent weekday morning, when the museum was not too crowded and I could absorb the full sensory experience of walking through the galleries: the different colors of the floors, the sound my feet made passing from room to room, the textures of the surfaces. I should note that I was wearing a pair of especially thin-soled sneakers that always make me feel rapid and stealthy. I therefore didn’t mind when the security guards eyed me as I photographed their floors.

Hellenistic floor

I began in Hellenistic Art, where the roughness of the black and white mosaic tiles offered a pleasant friction. The second floor of art from Cyprus was wood parquet, and my feet encountered more stickiness as I moved across it, perhaps as a result of floor polish. In African Art, a supple, almost creamy rose-colored marble greeted me. The photography wing—an exhibit of beatnik photos at the time of my visit—was squishy, almost bouncy dark gray carpet, soothing and noise-dampening, and so plush that visitors left a faint trail of footsteps in its nap. In the Twentieth-Century Art Wing, however, the carpet turned more utilitarian, almost itchy in its synthetic nubbiness. I exited quickly down a rare internal staircase. My sneakers made a satisfying “pat-pat” sound on the marble. The risers were the shallow type that give you the illusion of floating up and down them.

Cyprus floor

In French Art Deco, the floors were buffed concrete with stylish cracks. My sneakers made an unavoidable and conspicuous “slap-slap.” It was a relief to enter the Modern Design Collection, where slick black marble and bricked tiles with waves in them allowed me to ice-skate through the wing. The parquet in French Rococo Furniture was a dark, stately basketweave, offsetting the faux candlelight, fireplaces, and the stately beds. The Medieval galleries presented the most unforgiving floor: matte stone with brittle grouting, offering not even the faintest reflection of light.

African floor

After my journey, my senses were heightened enough to appreciate the genius of the Main Hall, the atrium one enters upon arriving at the museum. Its gold-flecked floors were either granite or an intricate mosaic of red and orange stones, and they absorbed the sound of footsteps so thoroughly that all one could hear was the grand, echoing murmur of voices and a faint underlying shuffle of anticipation.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SOUND: The Hua Mei Bird Garden

Every morning, rain or shine, and before the alternate-side parking regulations kick in, the Hua Mei birds and their owners converge in a pine grove just south of Delancey Street. The Hua Mei Bird Garden is at the northern tip of one of the segments of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, between Forsythe and Chrystie streets, and surrounded by a chain-link fence and marked with a sign in Chinese and English: “Respect the Birds. Respect the Plants.” Approaching from the north, it’s easy to miss the garden: the blaring truck horns, idling buses, and lurching taxis all but drown out the trilling of these exotic, diminutive birds. But if you step off the sidewalk into the cobblestone shadows, you’ll see ornate bamboo cages swinging from poles and tree branches and strung along a nylon clothesline. Behind the bars, bright-eyed birds chirp and preen and fly about, their wings fluttering against the spindly bars of their cages. Each has a unique song. Their owners—almost exclusively Chinese men—perch on nearby benches, cradling paper coffee cups and comparing notes on their birds. Every so often, a few men enter the garden to turn back the cotton cover on a cage, or chuckle at their birds the way one might at a baby.

On a recent Sunday morning, a yellow bird with an orange head and three porcelain water bowls let out a rich warble. A gray bird with a pink beak nibbled on a piece of bok choy and offered a tentative tweet in return. A bird with ringed eyes flitted around its cage. A yellow bird with gray wings called out, “Cheer, twittle tweet!” And a gray and brown bird with a russet head and tangerine breast murmured, “Chick a chick chick chick.” A man in a green Izod shirt wiggled his finger between the bars of its cage. The nearby birds erupted into song, and he moved the cage deeper into the trees. A Hua Mei with gray feathers as fluffy as a newborn chick’s tucked its head beneath its wings. A regal beige bird in an enormous cage with a cover held aside with binder clips uttered a shrill, full-throated call and did a series of back-flips, landing each time on an infinitesimal bamboo swing. The yellow bird whistled in response, its chest rippling, its beak fluttering and quivering “Putta pee, putta pee!” Then it dipped toward its water dish. Up above, huge, silent pigeons soared.

A community group was erecting tents and a plywood stage for a street fair in the adjacent square. A man climbed onto the stage and barked into the microphone, “Testing! Testing!” The microphone squawked. A father passing by with a toddler in a stroller pointed up. “See the birdies?” And a teenage kid crossing the park stopped at the sight of the birdcages, and, without removing his headphones, sat on a bench to listen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

TASTE: Egg Cream with Ice Water Chaser

The secret behind the best-known New York City beverage—the egg cream—is so well known it’s almost not a secret at all: namely, that the drink contains neither eggs nor cream but rather seltzer, flavored syrup (Fox’s U-bet brand, no other), and milk. Yet there’s something in the persistence of its name that, I’ve always felt, lends the drink a richness that its low calorie content belies. Just saying the words egg cream, especially to a gristly, decidedly uncreamy Manhattan diner waitress, immediately cants my taste buds toward a creamy experience.

At the Lexington Candy Shop, on the Upper East Side, the egg cream lives on in true form. It’s served in a weighty glass with ridges up the sides, with a straw whose paper wrapper quickly wilts from the wet-cloth marks still swirling across the tabletop from the previous customers. The foamy head is thick enough to lift with the tip of a straw. When you press the straw into the foam, it leaves a puncture that immediately fills with egg-cream fizz. The sweetness of the first sip dissipates quickly on the tounge; it’s sharp, tingly. The coffee syrup swirls through the lightness of the seltzer, and the combination produces the illusion of “egg creaminess.” Slurp noisily until all that is left is a lacy filigree on the inside of the plastic glass.

But at the Lexington Candy Shop, there’s more: the water chaser: cold New York City tap water arrives in a wax-paper cone resting in a stainless-steel cup-holder, not unlike a hard-boiled-egg cup. The whole contraption has a pleasing weight, and the paper cone is cool and downy and giving, like a tiny bag of flour. Moreover, you can chew on the edge of the cone so bits of wax flake off in your mouth and mingle with the cool rush of the water, which “chases” down the coffee-milky-creamy-sparkly egg cream like nothing else. When the cups are empty, there’s the slap of a ripped-off bill on the table. Swirls of ballpoint pen—no smiley faces or heart doodles here—and like the straw wrapper the bill dissolves in the wet rings left by your drink cups. Settle up, move on into the glare of the sidewalk: what could be more New York City than that?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

SMELL: Church Avenue, Brooklyn, in summer

According to nonofficial sources, the area around the 11218 zip code, in the Kensington/Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. I’ve taken a couple of summertime strolls down Church Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, and each time I’ve been struck by the changing landscape of aromas.

Walking east from the corner of Westminster Road, the smell of hot oil seeps from beneath the door of No. 1 Restaurant, followed closely by spice and charred meat from a barbecue joint. Then comes the warm-scalp scent of hair relaxer from Paris Hair Design, balanced by cold gusts of linoleum, freezer burn, and wet mop from C-Town, with its tins of export soda crackers and CafĂ© Bustelo. The Rugby Road intersection offers a refreshing waft of mown grass, but this is quickly overwhelmed by gusts of diesel bus exhaust from the B35 outside the DNA Paternity Testing Center at Burlingham Road (sign outside: Does he really have his father’s eyes?).

The entrance of Bobby’s Department Store yawns open with the plastic smell of cheap rubber sandals spilling from cardboard crates, mingling with more grease from neighboring Chin Chin Wu restaurant. Kids race their tongues against melting ice pops from a jangling Good Humor truck, with its sugary cold breath. Next comes rancid fish from S&A Fish Market with its flashing fish logo, then one of my favorite urban smells: the warm floral gusts of Tide and Downy from the Super Li Laundromat. Near the corner of East 17th Street I detect the tang of ketchup from a mysterious source. On the next corner, bags of star anise, cinnamon, mangos, pineapples, and enormous foam-padded bras spill from the open panel door of a curbside van.

Men’s cologne and synthesized piano music drift through the iron door grate of the Brooklyn Gospel Assembly Church, with its rows of folding chairs beneath fluorescent lights. The laundry a few doors down offers no smells through its bulletproof windows, nor does the shuttered Brooklyn Islamic Center, near the roti shop with its banners advertising “ Recession Meals” in the form of the “Micro mini” and “Super mini” plates of Caribbean food. I turn around at the corner of St. Paul’s Place, with its confluence of fruit stands smelling like the cool inside of a just-cut squash. At J&S discount, across the street from Bobby’s, the air smells like human body odor, relieved a few doors down by syrupy cologne from La Chic Ladies Fashion.

As I am nearing the end of my journey, a woman in a high-Sunday suit passes me, carrying a box of roses. I wish I could say the fragrance lingered in her wake, but it quickly gave itself to the larger bouquet of these iconic few blocks of Brooklyn.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TASTE: Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda

Shelved between the Frappuccinos and the Red Bull energy drinks, Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda is an often-overlooked New York City deli staple. I’ve never seen anyone buy it, and the label is so mysterious it borders on sinister. A head-banded vixen dims her eyes and drapes her long-gloved arm around the neck of a pomaded, mustachioed man, who appears not only unmoved but annoyed. Perhaps it is because an espresso percolator and brimming cup await him, just out of reach, in the foreground of the fuzzy cameo-cloud in which this couple floats, a silhouette of the New York City skyline looming behind them. The words “Since 1895” arc above the cloud, though the couple looks more flapper than Victorian.

I picked up a bottle at my local deli, intent on unbottling the secret to more than a century of local shelf life. The clerk turned the bottle in his hand, as if he hadn’t noticed he stocked it. “Have you tried this?” he asked, peering at the label. “Looks like it’s made in Brooklyn. And it’s made with real sugar!” He rang me up for a dollar fifty, seemingly impressed and reassured.

At home, I pried off the metal top. Caramel bubbles rose to the lip with a soft fizz, forming a crest that slowly sank. The first sip had all the bitter graininess of espresso, with the unmistakable tongue tingling of real sugar and a prickling of carbonation. The glass bottle was a nice weight and fit comfortably between two fingertips--not unlike an espresso cup. But the drink quickly devolved into a too-sweet soda, lacking the creamy, lip thickening, pulse-quickening quality of real espresso.

Disappointed with my first experience, I decided to try Manhattan Special the way I drink my morning coffee: in a glass with ice and a liberal dousing of half and half. What a revelation! The cream mellowed out the cloying sweetness and acidity of the coffee, but the carbonation still adds an unexpected effervescent texture to each sip. The head poured out rich and foamy, like a nice stout, rather than dissolving into a vaguely chemical lace residue as it had when drunk plain.

On a recent trip to the Gravesend, Brooklyn, Italian diner Joe’s of Avenue U (which deserves an entry in its own right), I noticed that the beverage menu comprised soda, seltzer, mineral water, coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and Manhattan Special. Apparently the parts don’t add up to the whole, which puts this local beverage in a class of its own.

N.B.: Check out the company website for a slide-show history and “guestbook” rich with local reminiscences. I called the factory—on Manhattan Avenue, in Brooklyn, hence the soda’s name--for more information about the couple on the bottle, but they could not help me.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

SIGHT: Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard

On a hazy day in early spring, I made my way down a shabby stretch of Arthur Kill Road on the western shore of Staten Island, past Big Nose Kate’s Saloon, Guy’s Tire Buys, and Crazy Goat Feeds pet-food store. From the gravel shoulder where I parked, a flight of stone steps led up to the Blazing Star Burial Ground, a hillside knoll where lilacs droop over gravestones dating back to the 1700s. Not half a mile in the distance lurked the bald green pate of Fresh Kills landfill. And just ahead, through a sweep of tall grass, was what I had come to visit: the rusted hulks of ancient ships that have, like Blazing Star’s occupants and the trash of the five boroughs, also come to Rossville for their final rest: at Staten Island’s boat graveyard, otherwise known as Donjon Marine Company salvage yard.

After donning tall rubber boots, I pushed my way through the grasses, teetering across landfill sludge—Santa hats, flyswatters, shampoo bottles—on ancient ship beams studded with nine-inch rusty nails. The air smelled like sulfur and stagnant mud. In the distance, spring birds twittered over the rush of the West Shore Expressway. In the rippling water, Canadian geese drifted between empty shells of ships sunk in the mud. Their hulls canted to port and starboard; portholes pointed toward the sky. Splintered wooden wheelhouses toppled onto decks, where crusty cleats held limp bowlines strewn with algae. In some places the hulls were paper thin, almost lacy, and the metal curled at the edges; one could imagine it rustling and tinkling in the wind. Gears, pulleys, and capstans clung to the decks of the ferryboats, tugboats, barges, and fishing boats like desperate sailors on a stormy sea, only the waters here were so stagnant that I spotted a few mussel colonies growing in the shallows.

For a different view, I drove a few yards down the road to the official entrance of the salvage yard and managed to snap a few pictures. As I was admiring close up the sunset patterns the rust made on the hulls, a pickup truck ground up beside me and two guys hopped out. “Hey Mike, see that? A brass valve, right on the front!” They stood beside me for a moment, assessing the wreckage, before we were both chased off by a firm if somewhat lackadaisical guard. Apparently that’s part of the reason the ships are here: so they can continue to serve the public, if not by ferrying goods and people, by offering a brass fitting or an old tiller wheel.

Just before I left, I saw a rubber raft with an outboard motor puttering among the ships, and then a shiny red tugboat streamed past, its fresh white wake splashing up against the rusted shells of its ancestors.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

TOUCH: The New York Earth Room

“It’s just dirt,” the man in the overcoat warned me as we passed in the hallway outside the New York Earth Room: he was leaving, I was arriving. And it’s true: at first glance, the New York Earth Room is just a room full of dirt. What could be so great about that, in a city that already has more than its fair share?

The long-term installation, by artist Walter De Maria care of the Dia Art Foundation, has resided in a SoHo loft on Wooster Street since 1977. It’s open free to the public: you just press a buzzer, climb a flight of stairs, walk across some creaky gallery floorboards down a narrow hall, and the space opens up: an expanse of raw, fragrant dirt spread out like a fertile field among the white columns, walls, and huge windows of an otherwise typical downtown loft.

From the outside, the only indication that something unusual resides inside 141 Wooster Street is some mist on the second-floor windowpanes. But inside is a rare urban respite of air that seems to breathe—and a wonderfully vibrant silence. The 250 cubic yards of earth, which reaches about knee high (22 inches), is contained by a transparent piece of Plexiglas between the walls. You can kneel by the edge and touch the earth. It’s chocolaty, sparkling with flecks of mica and stray stones. Faint rake-marks trail across the surface, as if the earth had recently been tilled. Bare ceiling bulbs provide spotlights, but in the afternoon natural light streams through windows on either side.

The earth feels cool and firm between the fingertips, crumbling into moist, ripe clumps like floury cookie dough, or how I imagine moistened, tamped espresso grounds must feel when they’re knocked out of a filter. If you simply rest your palm on the surface, you sense a resilient vitality stirring beneath the solidity. It’s loamy, velvety. If you spend some time in the New York Earth Room, as the gentleman in the overcoat evidently did not, you realize the difference between “dirt” and “earth,” and how little contact we New Yorkers have with the latter.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SOUND: Sidewalk cobbler, Sunset Park

One recent winter afternoon, I found myself standing in my slippers on the sidewalk outside Happy House Seafood Restaurant in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. As shoppers hustled by, some glanced curiously at my slippered feet, and then at the Chinese man crouched before me, with my shoes in his hands.

As it turned out, I hadn’t needed to bring my slippers, after all: as a sidewalk cobbler, he provided a pair of courtesy rubber sandals, as well as a plastic stool to sit on, emblazoned with the words “Moon River Spice” and a cartoon woodland scene. His cobbler’s setup was simple and portable: a wooden cart, about two feet by four feet, containing a tiny hand-cranked sewing machine, a magnet with pins stuck to it, a hammer, an iron shoe tree, a few baby-food jars of shoe tacks and spare shoe parts, and a bench to sit on made of two-by-fours held together with old shoelaces.

When I first spoke to him, he had tapped his ears and furrowed his brow, apparently to indicate that he was hard of hearing, but we managed to communicate nevertheless. I handed him my boots and gestured to the worn-down heels; he slipped the boots onto his shoe tree and, amid the thronging horns of delivery trucks and the chatter of passersby, pried off the existing heel, plucked a piece of black rubber from his bench, traced the outline of my boot’s heel on the rubber with a pencil stub, sliced it out with a pocketknife, and tap-tap-tapped it into place. Then came the most satisfying part, as he turned my boot in his hand while holding a file to the edge of the sole, and a shaving of black rubber curled away from the heel beneath his thumb. Then he sanded down the edges with an equally satisfying rubbery rasping sound, leaving a small pile of black shavings on the sidewalk at his feet.

When I asked if he could polish the boots, he rummaged around in his wooden cart and emerged with a metal tube of Chinese shoe polish, nearly flattened, with only a nubbin of brown beneath the crusty cap. Still, he rubbed it into the toes of the boots with a hard old chamois cloth, making a pff-pff-pff sound, and presented the boots to me, one on each fist.

The re-heeling and polish cost five dollars. Admittedly, a month later, the heels had worn down again, and I had to turn the boots over to a more modern cobbler with access to Vibram rubber and a more abundant supply of brown shoe polish. But I’d say the experience was worth every penny, and every time I heard my heels click beneath me on the sidewalk, I thought of his little stand and the sound of his hammer, and smiled.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

TOUCH: Buying tickets at Grand Central Terminal

There’s no doubt that Grand Central Terminal offers a host of sensory experiences. There are slippery, salty oysters on ice and crunchy, buttery cinnamon babka, the smell of tar and heat on the tracks, the echo of heels clicking on marble and muffled voices beneath a vaulted green ceiling of stars.

But despite these, probably my favorite thing about visiting Grand Central is the process of buying a train ticket. These days, there are two options: the ticket counter, or the MetroNorth ticket vending machines, relatives of the MetroCard machines in subway stations. Both offer tactile experiences worth noting here.

Each time you press a button on the vending machine screens--to enter your destination, number of tickets, etc.--the machine emits a puck sound that is perhaps even more satisfying than the pop of Bubble Wrap. The buttons are just the right size to fit a fingertip, and after pressing one button the next screen appears instantaneously, ushering you through the ticket-buying process with the efficiency of a Manhattan sidewalk during rush hour. The MetroCard machines, while just as attractive and easy to use, do not make this sound. While I do like the way MetroCards shoot confidently out of a slot at the end of a transaction, there’s something wonderful about how the MetroNorth tickets flutter down into a plastic bin beneath the machine, still warm from being printed.

If you choose to buy your tickets the old-fashioned way, you can wait on line at one of the ticket windows along one side of Grand Central’s main hall. In return for your patience you have the pleasure of sliding your hand along the smooth, cool marble counter into the pool of light on the other side of the grille. There’s no bulletproof glass here: just elegant brass filigree and numbered triangular lamps hanging from brass tusks above each window, and a rack to rest your purse on beneath the counter. As you complete your transaction and let your fingertips linger over the veins in the marble, it’s possible to imagine the thousands of fingertips that have worn away this surface over the years, sliding bills (or credit cards) through and receiving a paper ticket (still paper!) in exchange.

It’s the simplest of transactions—a few buttons pushed, a few slips of paper exchanged--but in this setting the wonder comes alive in the stories behind each gesture, and behind each gesture the limitless destinations.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

TASTE: Bombay Chat

The neon sign says it all: COFFEE BAGEL MOMO. It’s the first thing that greets visitors entering Bombay Chat, a sort of Himalayan bodega/deli in Jackson Heights, Queens. The store’s name, like the sign, appears to be a wink at its role as a meeting ground for the Nepalese, Tibetan, Indian, and American communities it serves, with “chat” a play on chat, for phone and Internet services, and chaat, or Indian street food. A glassed-in booth at the front proffers phone cards, Neem toothpaste, lip balm, Motrin, batteries, and a bowl of betel leaves and brass urns of spices for paan, the breath-freshening chew. As at any other corner store, a sign taped to the window reads PLEASE PAY AT COUNTER FIRST, but here features a clip-art picture of hands pressed in the namaste blessing gesture.

Inside, a flight of stairs leads downstairs to the Internet room. Upstairs, inside a small room festooned with streamers, one can snack on samosas and momos (Tibetan dumplings), as well as other Himalayan snacks from a steam table and small counter.

Though I saw no signs of either bagels or coffee, the American-Himalayan fusion was everywhere in evidence. A group of Tibetans in wool hats hunkered over tea in Styrofoam cups. A monk in red robes and sneakers rose from his table and bundled into a ski parka. A girl walked in, slipped a McDonald’s apple pie out of a paper bag, and munched on it while she waited for her plate of momos.

I ordered a samosa and vegetable momos, which were boiled to order and arrived fresh from the pot: warm, stretchy dough with poppingly crisp carrots, peas, and scallions bursting through the puckered skin, doused in a squirt of hot sauce. Though the samosa had been plucked from the steam table and microwaved, as it is in many of the Punjabi taxi stands I frequent, it tasted just the way I’ve come to like it: limp and saggy in the middle with large, crisp, flat edges, the inside a warm, soft mush of potato, cauliflower, and turmeric flecked with cumin seeds. A chai tea finished off the meal, tickling the tip of my tongue with a sweet ting of sugar and spices and a warm wash of milk.

As I ate I looked up the portrait of the Dalai Lama hanging over the tables. He had his hands in prayer but was looking over one shoulder with a distracted and slightly bemused expression, as if he had been interrupted mid-prayer by a humorous comment. This seemed a fitting choice for Bombay Chat, which with its Duracell and its dumplings is a prototype of the cultural distraction that enriches and exemplifies our city.