A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

SMELL: Sidewalk Christmas-tree stands

Few things make me happier at holiday time than, in the midst of my frenzied errands, passing through a sidewalk Christmas-tree stall and being enveloped for a few moments in the tingly, prickly, resinous redolence of a pine forest.

Vendors—many seasonal immigrants from Europe and Canada—make the stalls their own despite the similarity of their wares. There are seats made from folding chairs or upturned buckets; sawhorse footrests; shelters ranging from plywood-and-tarp lean-tos to heated RVs parked curbside; ornaments as elaborate as inflatable Santa Clauses and carols fizzling from a portable tape deck to a simple string of lights; and offerings from just trees to handcrafts fashioned by the vendors themselves: twig reindeer, candleholders made of tree stumps, homemade ornaments, even the obligatory menorah.

Every stand has the magical steel tree-wrapper, which cloaks the tree in a straitjacket of nylon mesh for its trip home on woolen shoulders or on the roof of a car or alongside red-cheeked children in a little red wagon. At night, and even sometimes during the day, strands of Christmas lights glow from street corners, and the red bows of wreaths hang from chain-link fences alongside tables of tinsel icicles, spray snow, simple tree balls and tree-top stars, small potted fir trees and poinsettias, Santa hats, boxes of lights, and, of course, tree-disposal bags (despite a prohibition from the Department of Sanitation).

During one of the most crowded and frantic seasons in the city, these momentary, fragrant winter wonderlands—just a few squares of city sidewalk--offer a welcome respite.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SOUND: The wild parrots of Flatbush, Brooklyn

One recent Saturday morning, twelve people gathered outside the gates of Brooklyn College, in Flatbush. Some carried coffee cups. Some carried cameras with telephoto lenses. Others carried bags of millet. Wild parrots, they had been told, love millet, and the wild parrots of Brooklyn were what they hoped to see.

So what are tropical birds doing in Brooklyn? In the 1960s and ’70s, parrots became popular household pets in the United States. Quaker parrots (also called monk parrots) were imported from South America to meet this trend. It is believed that a number escaped from their crates on their way through JFK Airport, flew away, and landed in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where they found the temperate climate to their liking, as well as plenty of twigs for their several-hundred-pound nests, and the stadium lights of the college sports fields in which to build them. They began families, and they decided to stay. Today, a Brooklynite named Stephen C. Baldwin, who is fascinated by the birds’ presence in his borough, leads regular, free “wild Brooklyn parrot safaris.”

On this Saturday, the first sign of the parrots was their song, which alternated between prrree! and prrrah!: a hoarse, squeaky twitter, rather like a plastic doll being squeezed repeatedly. We looked up toward the sound and saw the parrots flitting in and out of masses of twigs mounded in the stadium lights. It was a brisk day, and the dense nests maintain the birds’ native temperature.

We passed by a pocket park whose fence had been adorned with metal parrot silhouettes. Then we cut through a suburban enclave to a tree that was home to an enormous parrot nest about five feet overhead; Steve swore us to secrecy about its location. We heard a racket of cackling as we approached, and, once we were beneath the tree, contented chuckling and a faint clattering of twigs as the parrots worked on their nest, deftly snapping branches with their beaks and rearranging them in the structure. Bursts of green feathers darted among the branches, and orange beaks and bright wings poked out of cavelike holes in the sides of the nest. The parrots, seen closer, are smaller than pigeons, with light green hoods and darker green wings.

The safari group twisted their telephoto lenses up into the tree, scattered their millet on the sidewalk, circled the tree like so many eager cats as cars whished by, a jackhammer thundered in the distance, and a wind chime on a neighboring house tinkled in the breeze.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

TASTE: Contraband Raw Milk

My first encounter with New York City’s raw-milk counterculture took place in a Bushwick church basement in 2003. Directed there by a series of hush-hush emails from an undercover milk group, I found dour, suspendered Amish farmers doling out unmarked containers from coolers on folding tables. My fellow pasteurization dissenters slipped in and out with bulging bags and refused to make eye contact.

Raw milk—that is, straight from the udder, unpasteurized, unhomogenized, no vitamin D added—is illegal to sell in New York State unless it’s purchased on the premises of a certified farm. Some say it is risky to drink because it can contain E. coli and other harmful bacteria. But its fans credit it with improving immunity and curing digestive and skin disorders. The first time I tried it—on a farm upstate—I was won over by the grassy, sweet, unctuous taste, the golden color, and the head of cream so thick I had to slice it with a knife to let the milk pour through.

My second encounter was a year later, at a potluck supper in an East Village tenement apartment. There was no doorbell so the host, an herbalist, threw down the key from her window in a baby sock. She served nettle tea to the group, which included a man who claimed raw organ meat had done wonders for his health. As we filled our plates, someone revealed that you could buy raw milk at a local holistic pet-food store. Admittedly, it was dyed green to make it unappealing for human consumption but legal to buy for your shih tzu. Everyone nodded as he insisted that it tasted every bit as good.

It was only a matter of time before the raw-milk crowd moved from basements and tenements to the Internet. I was thrilled to find a site where I could order my raw milk delivered fresh to my doorstep on Sundays, C.O.D. As a neat, smiling deliveryman handed me a plastic bag of very cold milk, he said, “Next time try the 6.8” (6.8 percent fat, that is), and I felt I was joining the ranks. The following Sunday his call came after midnight, and I waited in pajamas in my building vestibule, clutching a wad of cash, as the unmarked van pulled up to the curb and he handed me my stash, which was, unfortunately, warm. Concerned about bacteria, I called to complain, and a cheerful woman reassured me that raw milk tastes even better warm and is perfectly safe. “I learned it from the Russian people!” she said, adding, “They leave their milk out all day and, to tell you the truth, it looks like vomit, but they stir it up and pop it in the fridge and, well, it’s not to my taste, but—son of a gun! I’ve got to get this other call.”

I decided to try moderated Russian-style and let a glass of the 6.8 sit out for half an hour. Without the chill, the sweetness dominated, and a layer of cream solids marbleized the surface. The cream slipped into my mouth ahead of the rush of milk, and I could taste a bouquet of the grass and flowers the cows had eaten. I don’t know if it was the undercover, conspiratorial purchase or the contented Amish cows or some combination of the two, but this milk was the real deal.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The Hole, I had been told, is the Wild West of the Brooklyn-Queens border. It’s a no-man’s-land. There are cowboys on horseback, boarded-up houses, brand-new condos, pond-size puddles, no public sewers, buried mobsters, vacant lots.

As I found out, the Hole is all of these things (well, I’ll keep quiet about the corpses). It’s a five-block wedge of land, straddling East New York, Brooklyn, and Ozone Park, Queens, but claimed by none. It earned its moniker because it’s thirty feet below grade—in other words, the land is too sunken to be connected to the city sewer system. The neighborhood around the Hole isn’t bad: brick houses with lawns, a Rite-Aid, a diner. You might pass right by the Hole on a drive to JFK—unless you happen to pause at a YIELD sign and notice the miniature Conestoga wagon, horse trailers, and Western-wear shop just off the shoulder of South Conduit Avenue. The Federation of Black Cowboys stables its horses at the edge of the Hole, where they teach Western-style equestrian skills to inner-city children.

But if, rather than proceed to the airport, you hang a sharp right, and a sharp right again, you’ll find yourself in the Hole, and there will be no doubt that you are there. Stop signs, sidewalks, and stoplights abruptly disappear. Boarded-up houses with smashed windows abut brick condos with perky FOR SALE signs, lampposts, and lion statuary. Sewer- and drain-cleaning companies have found their niche market in local phone-pole signs. Deeper in, I spotted a cornfield in one resident’s backyard and a motorboat in the driveway (apparently, boats are handy for evacuation in the likely event of a flood). One blue home has a neat paint job and bright, flowering shrubs. A busted-in car wallows in a deep puddle that takes over most of a block, shaded by a magnificent weeping willow tree. Houses are gap-toothed, more window-and-door than house. Streets (named “Ruby,” “Emerald,” “Amber,” “Dumont”) are edged in trash bags and upturned appliances. Outside Hosanah Christian Daycare, plastic tricycles blister in the sun. Men hunker under car hoods. Construction workers trundle wheelbarrows of fresh cement. Like the houses, everyone has hooded eyes. In between the puddles and the fresh mailboxes lie vast tracts of cornflowered reeds tall enough to hide just about anything.

The Hole is urban abandonment and renewal thrown into stark relief: hope and despair in adjacent lots, crawling with graffiti and flowering weeds. A vacant lot houses a decrepit tour bus. On the front, in the spot for the destination city name, scroll the words GOD BLESS AMERICA and BLESSED—SAVED BY GRACE.

Monday, August 1, 2011

TOUCH: Water balloons

At the height of an urban summer, playgrounds and public water fountains throughout the five boroughs become freckled with snippets of colored rubber, the fallout from a hot-weather city-kid game: water balloons.

Here’s the ritual. Stretch the open end of the balloon over the brass mouth of a drinking fountain, and hold it with a pinch it so it stays put. The lip of the balloon curls up against your thumb and forefinger with rippling tension. Make sure the pinching grasp is out of the way of the balloon so it doesn’t get trapped as it fills up. Press the metal button with your free hand and watch the limp balloon swell into a luminous orb, blooming from the brass fountain tip. Watch the water bubbles rising through the now-sheer rubber, the color fading from neon to pastel as it expands. Now pinch the rubber at the base of the balloon bulb, just above the fountain nozzle, and give it a few twists before releasing your other hand. Tie a stretchy knot.

Take a moment to cradle the filled water balloon in your cupped palms. Feel the cool, smooth weight, shifting as the water moves. It’s impossibly delicate, like an unhatched egg; it has an inner life of its own restless energy. Now raise it over your head… and smash it onto the ground! Or simply open your hands and let it drop. Or step on it! Or throw it to a friend—or at him. Kersploosh! Smack! An instant puddle spattered with two ends of broken balloon, now shrunken to colored glimmers. (Don’t forget to pick up the scraps.)

Another option is to arrive pre-armed, like stashing a snow fort with snowballs before a fight. Plastic shopping bags of prefilled water balloons sag from bike handlebars, or fill the upturned hem of a T-shirt like a basket.

Regardless, nothing says summer like the roughness of a gaggle of kids of all ages and background clambering around a public water fountain, the gentleness with which they fill and protect their ammunition, and the joy of a burst of water, sudden in the sun, and soon to disappear.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SIGHT: Seven Random Delights

This month, I offer a smattering of small sights around the city that make me happy every time I see them.

1. 167 Concord Street, Brooklyn

White picket fence, white “clapboard,” white birch tree; red shutters, red car, and red no standing sign: perfection.

2. Clothesline poles at sunset, Carroll Gardens

Few people use these poles—or clotheslines—anymore, but still they climb into the sky, rusty pulleys and scraps of rope still clinging to them.

3. PUSH door handle

On art deco building on Fifth Avenue in the Forties, the letters nestle so neatly.

4. Old subway-line names

On the platform at the Dekalb Avenue station in Brooklyn is an illuminated sign (which still works) listing these old names: recite them out loud and they roll off your tongue like poetry: “Fourth Avenue Brighton Sea Beach West End.”

5. “Brown”stones on St. Felix Street, Fort Greene

Colors like a box of macaroons.

6. Arrow-theme wrought-iron fencing

Complete with fletching.

7. Construction workers’ breakfast orders

Scribbled on a two-by-four scrap: “Bagel Jelly Iced Cup French Vanilla Bagel Butter” for these hardworking men.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE: The Franklin Avenue Shuttle

The Times Square–Grand Central Shuttle train may have two major New York City landmarks as its termini, but the lesser-known Franklin Avenue Shuttle, which cuts across Crown Heights from Franklin Avenue to the eastern edge of Prospect Park, carries local commuters and offers a brief but idyllic, train trip along its five-mile, mostly outdoor track.

I board the train on a drizzly Wednesday morning, just pass rush hour, at the Franklin Avenue station. In front of the turnstiles, a man plays slow jazz on an electric guitar. A breeze greets me at the top of the escalator, and I step off onto the outdoor platform. A wall of stained-glass windows leads from an elevator bank onto the platform and creates a dancing rainbow path as the tree branches filter light through the colored panes. Through an opening in the platform fence, I can see a row of townhouses whose rain-darkened brownstone sets their painted lintels into bright relief.

Soon I feel a quickening of the breeze and hear the hiss of wheels on wet tracks. I am pleased to see the shuttle has orange seats and a dark speckled floor, my favorite combination. As we wait, I watch through the open doors as a Verizon employee empties the quarters from a platform pay phone with a rich, heavy rattle.

The last passenger squeezes in and the train lurches into motion. Leaves of passing trees brush the windows, making wet streaks. We pass an industrial linen laundry, a girl in red on a bike moving down a rain-slicked street, a roof with a folding chair set on it, apartment buildings with windows propped open with bottles of shampoo, walls of graffiti. The wheels make the crun-a-crun sound that trains make only on outdoor tracks. We pass over one bridge and under others, through tunnels and around bends. At the final stop, Prospect Park, an MTA employee boards and mops the train, refreshing its antiseptic cinnamony smell. Every eight minutes, another ending and another beginning.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TASTE: Reben Luncheonette’s morir soñando

From the door of Reben Luncheonette, you can watch the JMZ train catch the light as it rounds the bend in the elevated tracks and soars over the East River, hissing and clacking and clanging across the Williamsburg Bridge. Beneath, traffic jostles, fruit stands spill, nail salons reek through smudged doors. But it all seems like one harmonious urban symphony, because you’re holding a morir soñando, a drink whose name means “to die dreaming.”

The morir soñando is a Dominican version of the American orange Julius, and at Reben it consists of fresh-squeezed orange juice, milk, and sweetened condensed milk blended together into a frothy shake and poured over ice. The cheerful, aproned counter staff slap it down on the counter in a fluted ice-cream-soda glass, with a straw alongside. You can wedge yourself in between the mirror and the counter (the whole place is only about twelve feet wide) or, better, sip your drink just outside the door and take in the view.

It’s creamy, sweet, milky, with a faint fizz and acidic bite. Flakes of orange pulp drift up through the straw and offer discrete tangy bursts in the syrupy sweetness. The chilling clack of ice against the teeth only adds to the flavor, as the froth from the blender limns the cubes in a lacy foam. It must be consumed right away—and then, perhaps, immediately again, like a good novel. Last time I was there I had two or three in a row.

The Reben is not shy about advertising its house drink: the awning boasts Morir Sonañdo #1” beneath the luncheonette’s name. The name glows in neon in the window. Inside, a hand-painted sign above the counter offers: Morir Sonañdo: You taste it: If you don’t like it, don’t pay, and this sign abuts a painting of a man and a woman touching foreheads, gazing into each other’s eyes, and sipping a morir soñando from twin straws. Just beneath is a row of cardboard Advil and Tylenol dispensers—in case the dream doesn’t kick in right away, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


First, let me make clear that I seldom laugh. Jokes, comedians, movies all fail even to make my lips twitch. So when I heard about laughter yoga, I thought I would put it to the test. That it was taught by a chiropractor in a basement office in Midtown only added to the appeal—and to my skepticism.

On a Monday evening, I arrived at Better Health Chiropractic, on the tails of two elderly women who were having trouble navigating the door buzzer. This confusion elicited the first laughter of the evening—the kind of nervous, conspiratorial chuckling that mitigates awkward urban encounters. As I waited for the class to begin, surrounded by brochures about back pain, I eavesdropped on my fellow laughter yogis. “So I’ll be laughing at the U.N. at noon tomorrow….” “I’m always happy to meet anyone who laughs.” “Oh, he’s a natural!” “Do you know Laughing Laura? She was on the World Laughter Tour.” There was talk of people named “Vishwa” and “Kitaria.” One man spontaneously stripped down to his LAUGHTER YOGA T-shirt and gave me an encouraging grin.

The chiropractor, a cheerful gray-haired man in a white lab coat, ushered about a dozen of us into a small exercise room. We stood in a circle and introduced ourselves. Most were white professionals in their mid-thirties. There were three rules: (1) make eye contact, (2) go with the flow, and (3) “fake it till you make it.”

After an introductory speech, the class began. We were set loose in the room to interact with our fellow yogis. The exercises involved building from a giggle to a full-blown laugh, producing a snort-laugh, pretending to laugh and then pretending to suppress it, walking like a penguin, and speaking gibberish. I tried to avoid looking at myself in the mirror. At the end of each exercise we chanted, “Ho ho ho, ha ha ha!” in unison and returned to the circle to receive instructions on the next exercise and information on the health benefits of laughter—which kind of killed any levity the exercises may have kindled.

I definitely felt self-conscious and was happy to be able to resort to the common vocabulary of fake-laughter gestures to ease my path around the room: raised eyebrows, sidelong knowing looks, throwing back the head in a “gale” of laughter, leaning forward conspiratorially, clapping each other on the shoulder, holding one’s stomach or slapping one’s knee, jabbing an elbow. At first it was hard to tell whether my classmates were “faking it” or “making it.” But then I noticed heads turning toward one woman, who was obviously overcome with real laughter: tears streamed down her cheeks, she had to lean against the wall to stay upright, and she couldn’t suppress her giggles even during the statistics. The sight of her was the only thing that brought a genuine smile to my lips.

I was relieved when the class was over. Laughter is indeed a full-body workout. My neck and stomach ached, my cheeks hurt, I felt a quiver in my chest, and my throat was raw. But I didn’t feel the adrenaline rush that comes with exercise or that follows a bout of real laughter. Instead, I felt the exhaustion of insincerity—and relief at being free to shrug on my coat and return to my usual, humorless self.

N.B. A few weeks later, I read a column in the New York Times: A FAKE SMILE CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

SIGHT & SOUND: Plane View Park

It was one of those startlingly bright winter days when metal gleams and everything in the city seems hard and sharp: the perfect day for plane-viewing.

Plane View Park, in Astoria, overlooks the takeoff runway at LaGuardia Airport. It consists of a curved path of cracked asphalt, a semicircle of parched grass, and a few benches affording a view of the airport through a chain-link fence; next door is Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, and close by is the airport control tower. The air is heady with the smell of jet fuel, and the BQE roars past between the park and the tarmac.

Looming over the highway, through the diamonds of the chain-link fence, I saw the gleaming hulks of American planes queuing up for takeoff, their tailfins lurking above the sound-barrier wall like a line of hungry sharks. One Delta 747 inched forward, then rounded the bend at the end of the runway, near a red and white striped wall. The heat waves from its exhaust pipes blurred the low-slung Queens skyline in the distance. It waited again, wings spread, and a few moments later came the roar as the wheels spun, burning rubber, and it was off—into the startling blue day, with a high-pitched whine.

The planes didn’t seem to be moving as fast as it feels when you are a passenger. In fact, from the vantage of Plane View Park, it seemed improbable that the plane would actually make it off the ground. As I stood in the frostbitten snow at the edge of the park, I thought of the passengers encased in these planes and that feeling of no-going-back that you get as your plane taxis up the runway. There they all were, just meters before me, buckled into their seats by their scratched plastic windows, screens glowing in the seatbacks before them, perhaps pretending to relax or read, but really thinking about the impending rise into the air, the lurch, the sucking back into the seat, the impossible speed, the captive feeling of fatalism—and then the sudden silence as the wheels leave the ground and there is just tilted blue sky: a violent departure for a more peaceful place.

As I walked back to my car, a flock of winter birds swooped over my head and scattered into the day.

N.B.: I later realized that a much better “plane view park” is just feet from the park proper, parked alongside the chain-link fence on Ditmars Boulevard, where the view of the runway is closer and less obstructed. Apparently, the livery cabs knew this already, as I took my place in the queue of napping drivers.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

SIGHT: City Hall Park in the snow at dusk

City Hall Park is always a magical place, but somehow a fresh snowfall brings its Old New York charm into relief. I made two trips to the park during the recent blizzard. Standing by the fountain and looking north toward the lit windows of City Hall, I felt like I’d stepped into another era. I could almost hear the clop of horse hooves on cobblestones and smell wood smoke in the air. The park’s combination of spindly bushes and bushy pine trees created a lattice of white. The snow coated each branch and needle and thorn, each park-bench rail and each bird-shaped finial. The gilt paint of the lampposts gleamed like candlelight against the black iron and the white snow. On my first trip, a group of teenagers was having a snowball fight, and their laughter rang through the park as their snowballs smattered against bright wool coats.

My second trip was later in the evening, when I hoped the gas lamps would be turned on. I could almost hear the hush of the flames whispering within the lanterns as the snow hissed against the glass, and could imagine their flickering golden glow on the white drifts. To my disappointment, however, most of the gas fittings have been replaced by fluorescent bulbs, which hummed and cast a lifeless blue light. The lamps on the fountain were turned off entirely. Still, I circled the park and came across a snowman, with a thorn necklace, bushy pine-sprig eyebrows, and even a carrot nose. Someone had impaled a Starbucks cup on his twig fingers, and crowned him with a cardboard java jacket. I replaced my romantic vision of an old-world park with its modern incarnation.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

TOUCH: The crystal chair at Magic Jewelry

I’ve been spending some time lately in a chair in the corner of a hole-in-the-wall shop on Centre Street, just south of Canal. Despite its hectic location and cramped quarters, the crystal chair at Magic Jewelry has given me enough positive energy to drift out the doors and up lower Broadway on a cloud of relaxation, dodging tourists and taxis with hardly a trace of stress.

The first time I went to Magic Jewelry, I had my aura read by a beatific Chinese woman dressed almost entirely in pale pink. After she’d deciphered the colored blobs of my energy fields from a Polaroid snapshot, she suggested I try out the “crystal chair,” an unassuming wooden chair under a canopy in the corner of the shop, flanked by a large, pointed crystals, one black and one white, both resting in plastic boxes at waist height. I sat and, as instructed, placed my hands on top of the crystals. They were so cold I flinched at first, but also smooth and dense, and I could feel the rougher edges tapering toward the pointed tops.

Bird music was playing, and I closed my eyes to the room: the fake Christmas tree hung with red good-luck envelopes, the traffic through the neon-lit window, and a takeout clamshell heating up on the radiator. Almost instantly I felt calmed, and somehow (magically?) all distracting thoughts dissolved as soon as they entered my mind. I found I was sitting completely still, and my tense grip on the crystals relaxed as the stones began to warm a little beneath my palms, without losing their charge. There seemed to be a surge of energy traveling from the depths of the stones into my hands and arms, and permeating my core.

I waited for my instincts to tell me when to open my eyes and tune in to the chatter in the shop. Someone handed me a Styrofoam cup of black tea, which I sipped as I eavesdropped, still enveloped in a haze. A tourist had stepped in, and the rose-colored woman was explaining to him how the crystal chair realigns your energy: good energy enters through the white crystal and bad energy is sucked out through the black one. A Chinese man with a hennaed ponytail was pulling his cell phone from his briefcase, trailed by a long chain of crystals and stones, and placed the whole thing on a cloth to be “cleansed,” another of the shop’s specialties, along with the aura readings and special teas, incense, massage oils, and of course crystals and crystal jewelry, all purported to change your energy.

“Who’s that girl who always comes in here, that acupuncturist girl?” the cell-phone man was saying. “Every time I see her I feel like I’m getting a headache. I mean, I have nothing against her, but I think she’s cursing me. Maybe she’s practicing witchcraft on me or something. I mean, I have nothing against her, but last time after I saw her I felt so sick I couldn’t eat.” He rubbed his temples. “Just thinking about her, I’m starting to get a headache.” The women behind the counter laughed and teased him about all his good energy, and the tourist took a sip of his tea and looked around the shop in wonder. “Magic Jewelry, huh? I’ve never been in this place. You guys are so nice!”