A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TASTE: Roasted chestnuts

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is up, and Midtown—that hub of New York City holiday fanfare—is starting to fill with its yuletide smell of pine needles, wet wool, hot-dog steam, mingled perfumes—and roasted chestnuts, the quintessential holiday treat, available around an open fire or, if you’re an urbanite, from the same street cart that peddles pretzels and Gatorade.

The city’s fleet of diminutive orange “NUTS 4 NUTS” carts plies street corners year-round, copper pans brimming with oily mountains of honey-roasted cashews, coconut bits, almonds, and peanuts. Chestnuts, however, are available only in the colder months, and are harder to find.

There are usually a few carts stationed near Fifty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue, their tinfoil-lined chestnut pans clipped to the edge like a hand on a hip, an incandescent bulb keeping the nuts warm. [image 2] The flashiest chestnut cart features no fewer than five sunshades and a digital sign scrolling, in mid-November, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Vendors slit the chestnuts’ outer skins, then roast them till the yellow nutmeats peek out like grinning gnomes. Five dollars buys you a scoop in a paper sack. It’s worth postponing your snack to carry the bundle around in your pocket for five minutes, enjoying the warm orbs tumbling around beneath the paper.

The nutshells are smooth and woody, and as satisfying to peel as mahogany veneer from an old end table; the shell slips off with a papery crackle. You can take the whole nut out, or bite into it while it’s still half in its shell pocket. The meat is dense, sweet, slightly rubbery, and drier and more grainy than most nuts; it lacks the oil of a cashew or peanut. Laid bare in the palm, the nut is fleshy, wrinkled, and vulnerable looking, its interstitial crevasses creating a pleasing pop with each bite.

Be warned: a few roasted chestnuts go a long way. Carry your treat with you as you as a talisman while you imbibe the rest of Midtown’s sensory delights: the tolls of Salvation Army Santas’ bells, the white beard of smoke issuing from a manhole smokestack, the unexpected swishing of ski jackets as we jostle our way through holiday throngs.

Monday, November 5, 2012

TOUCH: Roosevelt Island Tramway

Despite the views and the novelty of an airborne form of public transportation, the thrill of a ride on the Roosevelt Island Tramway really comes down to a single moment: when the tram is suspended over the East River, just before plunging into its port on Roosevelt Island.

As the tram begins its journey from the Manhattan side, there’s the same clutch of inevitability experienced at the start of a roller-coaster ride: you are putting your life in the hands of a metal box on wheels and a narrow track, in this case hardly more than two metal strings looped across the river. But all is smooth, rumbling efficiency as you are scooped up out of the terminal and begin to climb over the rooftops. You feel weightless as the East Side shoreline slips away, a sensation rare among the canyons of skyscrapers you’ve left behind.

Ahead lies Roosevelt Island: apartment buildings crammed together like too many teeth in a mouth, an unfamiliar breed of buses, narrow streets, outdated shops and restaurants, patches of grass, the rusted blisters of the tennis-court domes, the sinister hulk of the hospital at the southern end. It’s cozy inside; tourists jostle good-naturedly for window space, and even the locals don’t seem to be jaded by the view.

But as the island looms, you realize the tram is going to have to land, and there’s not much space in which to do so. You look around you: what will become of the baby fussing in the stroller, the girl with a tennis racquet poking out of her backpack? To the right are the pink towers of the Queensboro Bridge; to the left is sky. Below is gray green water and white wakes of boats, a slumbering barge or two, some birds, some buoys.
The cables mutter; the terminal is at once so close and so far below. The brakes clamp and tremble, there’s a rumbling above, the whole car vibrates as the tram grips the wires and inches down them, like a child on the bunny slope. You can see the great spools of cables winding and unwinding in the terminal below; the whole operation suddenly seems too rudimentary. In that instant you feel a thrilling buoyancy—and a deep distrust. How can this little red box slip down the cables without crashing? Then the tram bumps and grinds over the top of the support tower and begins its terrifyingly steep final descent.
But the tram slows, and somehow, at the end of it all, practically tiptoes into the dock. The doors swish open; your pulse slows. Above the turnstiles is the mechanism responsible for this feat of engineering and vertigo: coppery cable threading through a hole in a Plexiglas window that looks like it was hacked out with an X-acto knife. The power and force rumbling back and forth through that little manmade hole humbles you, like touching a rivet in the side of a skyscraper.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

TOUCH: Waterless shampoo at Mian Tian Sing

Girls on a budget have long known about “blow-out row” on Pell Street in Chinatown, where you can get your tresses professionally blow-dried for half the prices charged by uptown salons, no appointment necessary. These places are no frills and no nonsense: the staff speaks little English; the products are generic; no complimentary backrub or cup of tea will be proffered. But just a few blocks north, on Canal Street, and up a narrow flight of stairs is a Chinese-run hair salon, Mian Tian Sing, which provides the same services with one intriguing difference: the stylists shampoo your hair while you are seated in a salon chair before a mirror, fifteen feet away from any sink or water source.

The stylist tucks a towel into your collar, then administers a brisk neck-and-shoulders massage. She slips a plastic sheet over the towel, much smaller than one might expect, and suddenly you feel a cool squirt of shampoo dribbling down your scalp, right over your dry hair. This is perhaps the best part, akin to plunging hot feet into an ice-water bath: it feels both wrong and more tantalizing than it should.

It would seem the women who work here have retractable claws that spring from their fingertips: their long, hard strokes rake your hair, and there doesn’t seem to be a fleshy part to them as they plow furrows into your hair, pushing the hair back and forth rhythmically, both hands in sync, scrubbing around the ears, tilling the neck, pressing the temples. During one visit, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” happened to be playing in the background, and the shampooer synchronized her kneading to the music. Your head rocks back and forth like on a fast-moving subway. The stylist’s hands whip, press, scratch, delve, swoop. The shampoo and hair rise to a creamy bouffant, and not one dribble runs down the neck. It’s a miracle.

Fifteen minutes later, your head tingling, she leads you to an alcove of sinks. Water! At last! Somehow it seems a shame to deflate this foamy creation. Instead of the conventional chair, these sinks feature horizontal beds, and the neck cradle does not feel like draping your head over the edge of a toilet, as it does in so many other places.

For the record, you can also get your face professionally washed for $5 following your rinse-out. This is a sensory experience in its own right, but suffice it to say your shampooer's claws transmogrify into fluttering butterflies, flapping up and down your cheeks and tickling your jaw, and the wash ends in a startling curtain of water over your face. 

At the end of the rinse, the stylist whacks your scalp a few times with the head of the retractable faucet and plunges a dry washcloth into both ears simultaneously to remove any lingering lather. Like the hair squirt, this feels wrong, and better than it should.

The blow-dry is conventional enough, though it is performed not by the shampooer but by one of a coterie of well-coiffed young men, some of whom wield two blow-dryers threaded between the fingers of one hand, blasting your hair as if with a double-barreled gun. With the press of a flat iron, your hair sizzles and steam rises above your head. You emerge forty-five minutes later with gleaming, flounced hair, better equipped than the uptown girls for any surprises the night may offer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

SMELL: Corner of Water and Pine streets at lunch hour

If names evoked smells, one might expect the junction of Water and Pine streets in the Financial District to be a fragrant one: a clear stream babbling beneath resinous evergreens. Though there are no pines, there is water: a pocket park across the street featuring a man-made waterfall, and Café Water, a corner deli unremarkable in all but one respect: the fetid gust of steam-table food smell wafting out of its garage-door-size kitchen vent.

At 10:45 one Friday morning, just past egg-on-a-roll hour but before cheese-steak time, the scent was of soy sauce with undercurrents of vinegar. Inside, workers were stocking a steam table running the length of the room and crowned with turrets of plastic clamshells.

The vent’s emissions were confirmed: at $7.79/lb, glossy orbs of chicken studded with sesame seeds, slayed asparagus spears festooned with a stripe of chopped pickled peppers, squirming heaps of lo-mein. 

Saran Wrap rolled back over each tray gave the impression that the food was napping under a sheer blanket.

The back wall of the deli offered a vista of soft drinks behind rubber flaps. The bathroom was the kind of place where you flush with your foot and open the door with a scrap of paper towel. Café Water received a C on its most recent inspection by the Department of Health. I noticed a clip-art sign posted to the steam table. It featured a yellow armless hand (a glove?) fondling two chicken drumsticks: PLEASE DO NOT SAMPLE FOOD

A family of jet-lagged tourists slouched at a table overlooking the Pine Street alley, nursing a bottle of strawberry Nesquik. A few businessmen twiddled with their smartphones in front of the panini bar, where stacks of wan sandwiches awaited pressing.

Outside, I made a pass by the vent again. Fried chicken. It was approaching 11 a.m., when the early lunchers would begin to trickle in. Moving away from the vent, I realized the odor trailed me all the way across Water Street, where the waterfall beckoned. The chlorinated smell—almost as astringent as pine—soon obliterated the greasy musk. The splashing water tickled my toes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

TOUCH: Inwood Hill Park caves

On a recent sweltering summer’s day, I traveled to the northern tip of Manhattan. I crossed the Inwood Hill Park soccer field, took the left fork in the trail, and soon found myself alone in a forest filled with birdsong that might have been heard by the Wiechquaesgeck Indians who, centuries ago, inhabited this woodland—and the caves that lay just steps ahead in the park’s eastern cliffs. 

On the Place Matters website, a commenter had recommended visiting the Indian caves on just such a summer’s day “to suck up the cool air that gets thrown out from the caves. It feels like instant air conditioning... free too! It’s a place that transports you to a time, a people and way of life far removed from ours.”

Though I’d been prepared for spelunking, almost immediately I spotted recesses and craggy overhangs in the rocks above the path. In fact, there was a makeshift trail that appeared to wend between them, and a campfire pit at the base, suggesting that the caves were frequented by Boy Scouts, s’mores-toasting tourists—or people in need of warmth and shelter. 

The first cave was wide and shallow—more of a grotto—and emitted no cooling air, just a lazy swarm of flies. I continued up the hill.

The second cave I came to was deeper and narrower; a Sapporo can glinted in the back. As I ducked in, however, I was struck not by a refreshing rocky breath but by more flies, this time a buzzing horde, which bombarded my face and swarmed around my head. They all but drowned out the birdsong. I recoiled, swatting at my eyes in the sudden bright sunshine.

Peeking in again, I saw that the cave walls were indeed studded with flies—the beady, blue-tinged sort. This time I forced myself to linger in the entrance, and soon the swarm subsided. Only then could I appreciate the damp, stony coolness of the air; it felt like placing a clay mask over my face. It smelled thick and sharp. Frayed cobwebs caught the light. Flecks of mica flickered. I noticed candle wax dribbled on a rock by the entrance.

I continued up the hill to the few other caves, stopping to pluck a wineberry from a thorn bush and to perch on a rock in the leafy light, trying to detect an ancient presence.

The caves had transported me to a people and a way of life far removed from my own. But it wasn’t the one I was expecting. The air they gave off was less refreshing than spooky. It wasn’t just the flies. It wasn’t just the bread tags, toilet paper, dime bags, and discarded clothing I turned up among the leaf litter. The stories told in their buzzing, swarming, mineral breath were of stolen moments, illicit activities, homelessness, decay: the stories of desperation that lurk beneath so much of our city’s dappled light.

Monday, July 2, 2012

SMELL: Seven random smell delights

This month, as last year, I offer seven sense delights for the seventh month. Last year, sights; this year, smells.

1. Horse manure and hay
Exiting the N/R/Q subway station at Fifth Avenue–Fifty-ninth Street, where all the carriage horses line up outside the Plaza

2 Fabric softener on a rainy day
Gusting from air vents from a laundromat, a little breath of faux-freshness as you walk down a sidewalk

3. A just-opened bag of brown sugar
The NYPL Rose Main Reading Room smells like this, inexplicably

4. Syrup and powder, menthol and talcum: classic old-fashioned pharmacy
Behrens pharmacy in Fort Greene

5. Wet dog, stagnant mop-water, mildew, and rotting flesh, for no immediately obvious reason
Outside 284 Broome Street, reportedly the smelliest spot in the city

6. Rotisserie chicken, salted hanging deli meats, bakery, cold lettuce, floor cleaner
Gristedes at Twenty-fifth Street and Eighth Avenue

7. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
Rosehips, saltwater, and sand, cool waftings of the marsh, and a faint tinge of burnt rubber and tar

Monday, June 4, 2012

SOUND: Wave Hill’s copper beech tree before a rainstorm

There’s something different about the air at Wave Hill, the public garden in the Bronx on the cliffs above the Hudson River. Perhaps it’s because the wind usually comes from the west, straight from the Palisades across the river and hits you right there on the bluffs.

Perhaps it’s because the garden’s juxtaposition of sweeping vistas and intimate nooks creates unpredictable air currents. Or perhaps it’s because the trees here are generally not clustered in groves but stand alone, free to interact with the elements on all sides. When the wind blows, all sides of the tree move with it, and often don’t touch any other trees. Walking through the garden on a windy day is rather like meandering through an orchestra pit in the midst of a symphony: as you pass each tree, its unique tone sounds out for a moment against the sibilance of the trees around it.One such tree is the venerable copper beech located on a quiet patch of lawn between the aquatic garden and the shade border. More than a hundred years old, it has elephantine bark, silvery gray and in places marked by wrinkles so intricate it seems to be melting. The boughs dip to brush the ground.

One afternoon last week, as I wandered the gardens, I felt the breeze stiffen, and the sun shuttled behind clouds. A stray raindrop splattered onto my bare arm. I took shelter beneath this beech tree and was struck by the sound of the leaves rustling in the building wind: a susurration that moved in a wave around the circumference of the tree. The leaves whispered with brief pauses in between movements, almost as one might to soothe an anxious child: shhhhh (now) shhhhhh. And as the breeze died, the sound died in a hiss almost like the tide receding along a sandy shore—only to build again.

I moved to stand closer to the leaves, which were thick, oily, and mahogany colored, gently cupped like hands waiting to receive the coming rain. But up close, the sound was not nearly so remarkable, more of a papery touch, barely audible.

Stepping back from the tree into the garden, I saw the tree’s bodily sway in the breeze was just as soothing, as parental, as its sound: a listing to accommodate the strange, changing air, just enough to keep it flexible, just enough to keep it strong.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SOUND & TOUCH: Sitting in the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room

Every aspect of the Rose Main Reading Room, in the New York Public Library’s main branch, at Forty-second and Fifth, seems designed to encourage long visits and to foster serious accomplishment. Two marble candelabras flank the entrance to the room, which measures the length of two city blocks. 

The forty-two long, wide oak tables ensure you’ll never brush elbows with fellow patrons—or read over their shoulders. In addition to the light from chandeliers and sunlight slanting through cathedral windows, intimate bronze-shaded lamps spill warm puddles of (soon-to-be-forgotten incandescent) light over the writing surface. A trash can awaits at the end of each row, dictionaries on pedestals (with individual reading lamps!) await at the other, and white stripes run along both sides of the center aisle, like the emergency lighting on an airplane, keeping your mind and body from straying. Black numbers designate table spaces in front of each wooden armchair. 

And what chairs these are! As far as wooden chairs go, the Rose Main Reading Room's model seems designed to hold you and keep you, providing a firm launching pad for your loftiest thoughts. 

In these chairs, no amateurish, collegiate study positions are tolerated. Your feet rest so solidly on the floor, they will never seek out under-table ledges or chair rungs; they will not curl up beneath you. The arms, a graceful slope of polished wood, support the arms all the way to the table edge, where they meet it at perfect ergonomic height for typing or writing. The seat features a slight depression for each thigh. The curved chair-back hits just below the shoulder blades, and the carved central slat ensures your spine is straight. The legs are not on casters, and it takes a forceful nudge to wrest them from their spot, making it even easier to just stay put. 

In fact, the grating of the chair legs scraping the floor tiles is perhaps the most prominent sound in the room. The silence of the Rose Reading Room is the most dignified—sacred, even—of any public space I’ve encountered in the city. There is no laughter, chatter, or exclamations, only muffled coughs, the clicks of pens and the plastic buckles on backpacks. 

The distant rattles and bangs of the medieval book-delivery machine in the center of the room, which conveys books from the library’s forty-mile inner sanctum of shelves, seem to echo the churnings of the many minds bent over the tables. And if your mind should chance to wander, all you have to do is stay right there in your seat and look up to the ceiling, where, fifty-two feet above, ceiling panels painted with luminous sky and billowing clouds greet you, offering escape and, perhaps, inspiration. 

As Alfred Kazin described the room more than a hundred years ago, “There was something about the vibrating empty rooms early in the morning—light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning the smooth tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

SOUND: Faerman Cash Register Company

Whenever the door of 159 Bowery opens, a digital doorbell chimes. And occasionally the ring of Brian Faerman’s cell phone echoes down the rows of cash registers that line the countertops, shelves, and floors of his family’s third-generation shop.

But, of course, this modern music isn’t the reason passersby peer in the window, hesitate, and step inside. It isn’t the reason that Brian Faerman, the store’s middle-aged proprietor, has to prowl the aisles, answering same questions—“What’s your favorite cash register?” “Which is the oldest one here?” “Are these for sale?”—with a combination of good cheer and weary exasperation, while preventing his visitors from spilling their lattes on the old machinery. It isn’t the reason customers swoon over old machines with ornate brass and iron casings, feathered arrows or sinister fingers pointing at numbers frozen in time. And it isn’t the reason that customers bring their cash registers here—or ship them from as far away as Egypt--for the Faermans to repair, often graffitied with stickers and the Sharpied-numbers of coworkers and credit-card companies (which threaten these machines’ very existence).

The reason, of course, is that there’s something enchanting about the old-fashioned cash register, and particularly its iconic sound: the ka-ching, which is no match for the digital bleeps that increasingly punctuate our days. Indeed, each ka-ching is a sound of small victory: a transaction completed. With its prelude of whirs and clatters, the ka-ching feels like a victory for the register, too: a final “hurrah” after all the effort of calculation.

If you’re lucky and kind, Brian might “play” the registers for you, filling the shop with tintinnabulation in the role of a grudging but respectful conductor. After punching the correct sequence of buttons, divoted like typewriter keys for the human finger, the gears rattle as the numbers spin into position, then the drawer springs open with a pop, followed close on the tail by the open-drawer bell: the ka-ching. Some registers’ ka-chings are clean, clear, and crisp, like a bicycle bell; others are lower and more resonant. The newer digital models purr satisfyingly as the printer spits numbers onto a spooling paper receipt. If the registers have two drawers—one till for each salesperson---there’s a different bell for each, not unlike party-line telephones. Sometimes dust puffs out when the drawers open, relics of long-lost transactions.

In the back of the shop, Brian’s father, Bernard, repairs the registers in a denim smock, silently. From a pile of old machinery, Brian extracts a “monster bell” disinterred from a massive old cash register that had multiple drawers. Two sets of nested bells are struck by four clappers, and when Brian rings it, the effect is almost like church bells, the notes cascading.

Located on the Bowery and jostled on either side by high-rise condos, low-slung nightclubs, and chandelier stores, Faerman Cash Register Company used to be the center of a sort-of “cash register row”; now it’s pretty much a lone outpost. But the Faerman family owns the building, and Brian insists that they’re not going anywhere. He says people come to believe in “lucky” cash registers if business has done well under their aegis and will keep paying to repair them, like a patched but beloved pair of jeans. It’s hard to imagine a rectangle of plastic that could compete with that.

All the cash register sounds are recorded by soundscaper Makalé lore.is.