A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

SIGHT: Blind dining at Camaje

“My eyes are getting hot in this blindfold. Can you fan me?” I heard one of my fellow dinner guests ask her date. In the distance, a woman was insisting to the maître d’, “I eat fish but not fish in things. Absolutely no cream sauce. Oh, and I’m gluten-free.”

We were standing outside Camaje, a West Village bistro, waiting to place our hands on a stranger’s shoulders and be escorted over the threshold for a four-course “dinner in the dark.” Just moments before we had been handed our deluxe blindfolds (which featured inlets to accommodate eyelashes). As my companion and I fastened the Velcro around each other’s heads, we realized how much trust we were putting in our hosts, and in our fellow New Yorkers. 

One might expect that, at a blindfolded meal, the four other senses would be heightened. This, however, was not our experience. The menu was revealed only at the end, and we were shocked to realize how often we had misidentified the food, and how much taste depends on sight. What tasted like tomato soup turned out to be leek and cauliflower; what smelled like white wine turned out to be red. Perhaps because our senses of taste and smell seemed dulled, both my companion and I felt desperate to touch things. As soon as I was led to my seat I found myself groping around, and was relieved to find a wall to my left and my companion’s knees under the table.

We quickly abandoned our flatware, finding it more satisfying to eat with our fingers. Somehow raising an unknown food to one’s lips on the end of a fork required too big a leap of faith: through touch we could gain some sense of the food’s texture, temperature, size, pliability. At one point I jabbed my fork toward my plate and was astonished by its weight when I lifted it up. I bit cautiously: a whole sweet potato. 

As we were encouraged to do, we tried feeding each other everything from wine to salad, aiming our utensils blindly across the table. We also fed each other with our hands, fumbling first to find each other’s mouths, but somehow this gesture felt too forceful. At one point a server came around and gave me a gentle and thrilling shoulder rub, though it would have been unwelcome in another context. Somehow, much like at a doctor’s office, we stopped caring what the wait-staff thought of us as we entered our own dark worlds more completely over the three-hour meal.

At restaurants it’s easy to be distracted by the conversation of the diners around you, but because we couldn’t see anyone we found it was impossible to eavesdrop. By contrast, our own conversation seemed especially focused and intimate, though if there was a pause we both felt unmoored. Between courses, musicians performed on unidentifiable instruments, and we could hear pots and pans clattering in the kitchen behind us. We experimented with blind lip-reading (a test of intuition), then attempted to read each other’s lips pressed into our hands, Helen Keller–style. Each sound, taste, smell, and texture—though muted—used up a moment in its entirety. We were more present for this meal than we had been for any meal in a long time. 

The staff also encouraged us to take photographs, so with some assistance navigating my phone, I took blind photos of my surroundings. Emerging back onto the sidewalk at the end of the evening, I was astonished to realize how small the room had been, and how bright. I also noticed that the room was hung with mirrors, witnesses to twenty or so New Yorkers unexpectedly blessed with vulnerability and presence. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

SMELL: CB I Hate Perfume

Instead of perfume, I prefer the changing scents of my experiences in the city to permeate my day. When I heard about CB I Hate Perfume’s scent library, where one can linger, pressing one’s nose into the tops of hundreds of glass vials containing the scents of seasons, memories, daily tasks, even emotions, it seemed I had found my perfume mecca.

According to the sales clerk, the store was started by a former taxi driver, Christopher Brosius (CB), who was revolted by the medley of cloying perfumes and odors that mingled in his cab. He decided to create an antidote, hence the store’s name. On a business card available at the counter, a quote from CB reads: “Perfume is too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same unnatural shape… an arrogant slap in the face from across the room… People who smell like everyone else disgust me.”

The narrow storefront, in north Williamsburg, is spare and inviting, with a nose-level “library” of single-note scents arranged by category—from “Water” to “Skin,” “Smoke” to “Clean”—and quotes from literature elaborating on each theme. Scents from this library are combined into the ready-to-wear perfumes that line the opposite wall, with names like “In the Summer Kitchen,” “Gathering Apples,” and “Burning Leaves.” These fit into existential categories, like “Experience,” “Secret History,” “Reinvention,” and “Metamorphosis.”

I decided to dip my nose into the “Clean” section, which contained a manageable number of bottles. A brief quote from Colette introduced the collection: “That sugary smell of new blue cottons.” The scent “Eucalyptus Leaf” brought me straight to the Tenth Street Baths’ sinus-clearing steam room.

“White Camphor” was like the inside of your grandparents’ medicine cabinet. I had expected sweat and floor cleanser in “Locker Room” but instead got the mingled fragrances of shampoos and deodorants. “Clean Sheets” evinced just that: downy, pillowy, inviting, and even suggested a breeze through a screen window. “White Soap” contained the aroma of a Dove bar, with its creamy edges softening beneath the fingers. It was hard to know what to expect from “Plain Old Soap,” but to me it smelled like the paper-wrapped kind found on the bottom shelf of a bodega. “White Pine” was the redolence of pine floor soap, to some the epitome of “clean.” “Beautiful Launderette” was more floral than I’d expected: like the scent of dryer sheets that wafts from Laundromat vents. I had to ask the clerk about the last scent, “Ozone Air,” but he pinpointed it as the sweet smell exuded by photocopy machines. I’m not sure why that smell is “clean,” but nevertheless it was spot-on.

Moving across the room to the ready-to-wear scents, I selected “November.” The store describes it as “pumpkin pie, fallen apples, bonfire, wood smoke, dried grass, fallen leaves, wet branches, damp moss, chanterelle mushrooms, and a hint of pine forest.” Unfortunately, to me it smelled like a Christmas Tree Shoppe: potpourri and “apple pie” scented candles mixed with pine room spray.

A few weeks later, I found myself taking a taxi uptown to a dinner party, an apple-rosemary pie on the seat beside me. Needless to say, I sniffed to see if I could discern the inspiration for CB I Hate Perfume. This cab smelled like a just-uncapped stick deodorant, a ladies’ dressing room in a department store, the vinyl of the seat upholstery, with an undercurrent of cigarette smoke. Through the cracked window came the chill air of a November night. The once-fragrant pie beside me was no competition for these smells of the city.

Monday, September 30, 2013

SMELL: The engine room of the tugboat Pegasus

New York City harbors a small but vibrant community of restored ships and workboats. Among them are the fireboat the John J. Harvey, which was brought out of retirement to assist in 9/11 rescue efforts, Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, which houses Red Hook’s Waterfront Museum, the once-sunken lightship the Frying Pan, the oil tanker the Mary Whalen, the steam-powered lighthouse tender the Lilac, and the tugboats the Cornell, the New York Central No. 113, and the Pegasus.

All have fascinating stories, as do their owners, who wrangle the funds, supplies, berths, and volunteers necessary to maintain and operate these ships for education, tourism, and, occasionally, the work for which they were built. 

I am fortunate enough to volunteer on the tug Pegasus, built in 1907 to serve Standard Oil’s waterside refineries and terminals, and now owned by Captain Pamela Hepburn, with a cushy seasonal berth in TriBeCa.

On my inaugural trip, on a misty Sunday afternoon, the Pegasus was hosting a family from Austin, who had chartered the boat for a two-hour trip as a birthday gift for the father. He had worked on a tug in the army, and his wife and son told me it was his dream to ride on a tug again. As soon as the lines were thrown and the wake began to churn, I thought I could see the memories flitting across his face.

Ratatatta flap flap flap, ratatatta flap flap flap: the deck began to vibrate beneath us with the enormous power of the tug’s engine, and we moved out onto the Hudson. The horn blasted from a rusty pipe.

Onboard a tug, it’s impossible to escape the presence—and especially the smell—of the engine room, which in the Pegasus’s case houses a nine-hundred-horsepower General Motors diesel engine, converted from a steam-powered engine in the 1950s.

The heady smell wafts from the engine-room door, a viscous mix of tar, diesel, engine oil, salt water, mildew, paint, and fanned hot air. No one but the captain and engineer are allowed in the engine room while the boat is under way, but you can catch a glimpse of the machinery through the slots in the grille floor and down the rickety metal staircase.

The gear arrayed in the engine room echoes the sweat and no-nonsense power of this engine: safety ear muffs, chains, lines, work gloves, spray bottles, chains, and wires were draped over the railings, and buckets, fire extinguishers, and even an ax were arrayed beneath the peeling cabinets.

A fellow volunteer once gave me a tour of the engine room; the thrumming of the engine makes it impossible to hear, so I got only a sense of how exactly all the hulking metal tanks, gears, gaskets, and spigots were connected.  

Being close to so many ancient and powerful parts, slicked in oil and churning away, I felt worlds apart from the breezy deck above, and I had a sense of why so many people love tugboats: the capable, cheerful exterior coupled with the immense power lurking beneath.

Up in the bridge, Captain Hepburn was turning the tug around beneath the Brooklyn Bridge with a tiller no larger than her thumb.

The Austin father stood right behind her, gazing across the river, where a rainbow had sliced through the mist and made an arc over lower Manhattan. Someone poked their head in with a Tupperware tub of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Out on the deck, a chart weighed down with two steel pulleys flapped in the wind.

To find out more about the tugboat Pegasus, including upcoming cruises, events, and charter opportunities, see http://www.tugpegasus.org/.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sound: Steel-pan yards dueling with Pentecostal tent revival

Though we’ve brought along a GPS as well as a map of Brooklyn, we are told the best way to find the pan yards is to roll down the car windows and listen. The moon is full, and the breezes in East Flatbush feel almost Caribbean.

Finally, as we cross Beverly Road, we hear some clangs that seem to issue from a parking lot next to a tire shop. We U-turn, jostling with a throng of cars spilling out men in dark suits with bibles tucked under their arms. Could this be tonight’s audience for the Crossfire Orchestra pan yard? It seems unlikely. But we don’t wonder for long. Suddenly, a voice booms through the car windows: “I am asking you to graduate to a deeper experience with the Lord!”

Across the street, in another vacant lot, is a vast tent filled with folding chairs, flat-screens, and jumbo speakers: a Pentecostal tent revival is just getting into full swing. Uh-oh, I think: tough competition. We follow a stray cat through a gap in a graffiti-covered fence into the pan yard.

A group of mostly teenage girls in jeans and Converses are warming up their steel drums for a night of practice under tents of their own: metal shelters strung with Christmas lights and Carib beer flags. In one corner of the lot is a Porta-Potty; in another is a makeshift bar, though the scene is hardly intemperate. In contrast to the cries of salvation across the street, the mood here is one of relaxed concentration.
This is ironic, because the event Crossfire is preparing for is the annual Labor Day West Indian American Day Carnival, a pre-Lenten bacchanalia, pageant, and parade that begins before dawn and moves down Eastern Parkway to the pulse of steel-pan music. Each summer the streets of Brooklyn, and particularly of Flatbush and Crown Heights, are filled with the music of bands practicing to compete in the Steel Band Panorama Competition, an essential part of the carnival and the largest of its kind outside of Trinidad (where steel-pan music originates). The bands have no sheet music; the eight-minute arrangements of calypso music are learned by rote. Stakes are high: the winning band takes home about twenty thousand dollars, and the bands’ arrangers are traded like coaches in professional sports. The names of local steel-pan impresarios are as jingly as their instruments: Figgy, Popo, Melody, Bumpy, Zebra. The pans, cut and hammered from steel oil drums, are arranged on tented rolling racks, so they can follow the parade.

Tonight, the band’s arranger sits at the center, sipping a Slurpee, his dreadlocks swaying to the beat. “All right, everyone, together and in unison!” he calls. The muscles of the band members’ arms gleam in the floodlights as they raise their mallets. Across the street, the congregants raise their bibles at the urging of their pastor. Crossfire’s name now seems apt, as does the term “tent outreach.”

But then the voice of the pastor roars: “Let us keep the Sabbath from pollution!” The words are projected on one of the flat-screens beneath the tent. The Crossfire girls tighten their ponytails: “Everybody start on time and together!” Their tings and bangs resume. “The world behind me, the Cross before me!” reverberates from across Utica Avenue. Crossfire’s section leader conks out cues on a cowbell. The steel drum-tent jiggles beneath the hammering of drumsticks. The white nylon tent across the street swells in the breeze of waving bibles and raised voices. Amid the cacophony, Crossfire sets its sights on harmony, unity, and the prize, and Gospel Tabernacle Church does the same. 

A family wanders in with twin toddlers in tow, both clutching action figures. They settle into folding chairs at the edge of the pan yard, sleepy boys on laps, and listen.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

SOUND: “Sound Journey” in Bed-Stuy brownstone

I found out about the sound journey on a telephone pole on Franklin Avenue, on one of those flyers with the teeth at the bottom that you tear off. “A guided meditation followed by a journey through sounds. Lying down in deep relaxation, experience sounds’ soothing vibrations, energizing presence, and healing power.” I sent an email. Some time later, I found myself climbing a brownstone stoop in Bed-Stuy at dusk, with my yoga mat, a blanket, and a pillow tucked under my arm. I rang the bell.

A gray-ponytailed man in shorts opened the door, introduced himself as V, and ushered me into his parlor apartment. The large room was empty but for some plants, a piano, and a futon couch pushed against the wall. Recorded relaxation music played; the air was heady with incense. The other participants had unrolled their yoga mats on top of two Oriental rugs. 

In one corner a middle-aged man reclined on a slab of egg-crate foam, his head resting on a stack of books, a set of prayer chimes by his ear. A young Asian woman next to me lay in shavasana. Through some doors at the back, I could see V.’s bed and a dozen or so crystal and metal Tibetan singing bowls of varying sizes set on little pads. They caught the light of the colored LED candles flickering on top of the piano. V. slid closed the pocket doors to the lobby and announced the beginning of our sound journey.

He invited us to lie down, close our eyes, and remain completely still as we concentrated on each part of our bodies, from our toes to our ears. V.’s footsteps padded across the floor, then the drones of a didgeridoo filled the room, interspersed with snuffling as he replenished his breath. The honking twangs—unlike any other instrument—was transporting, but in my prone position I felt a little like I was being vacuumed around. Squinting, I saw that as V. played he was actually creeping between our yoga mats like a pied piper in a T-shirt. There was no room for thought: the reverberations resounded even into the floorboards.

Over the course of about an hour, the didgeridoo flowed into drumming, clattering pieces of wood, rustling tissue, bells, and the gongs and keening hum of the singing bowls. As he moved around the room, sometimes V. played the instruments to the soles of our fee, and I felt the music there like a tickle.

As the waves of sound washed over us, the only reminder of our location in brownstone Brooklyn was the creaking of the parlor floorboards under V.’s bare feet and, once, his neighbors clattering up the stairs. At the end, an ice cream truck passed by outside, and the minor shift of its fading music wove into V.’s final, ethereal singing. 

I opened my eyes; the room was darker now and felt more intimate. A gray-haired woman stretched her arms over her head and announced, “I feel full of vibrations! “Another woman sidled up to V. and asked him how she could summon more sound from her own singing bowls. I helped myself to some Brita water, in a plastic cup decorated with balloons.

On the futon couch, V. had unveiled the instruments of our journey, but I averted my eyes, content to imagine what they might have been.

I thanked him and found my car outside. As I was about to pull away from the curb, though, another car pulled up beside mine, windows down, music thumping. A man hopped out and began chatting with two men enjoying the evening beneath a tent in their brownstone courtyard. I called out my window, “Hey, I’m about to pull out. Could you move your car up?” The guy slunk back to his car, leaned in the driver’s side, and shouted to someone in the passenger seat, “Hey, can you move this shit up?” With a squeal of tires the car lurched forward. The windows went up, muffling the music.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

SIGHT: Seven random delights

In Sense & the City annual tradition, I offer seven sensory delights for the seventh month.

1. Neighborhood tree fencing

This replica of the Brooklyn Bridge is outside Ted & Honey Café in Cobble Hill.

2. Peeled pineapples cut into spirals

Beside their fully clothed neighbors, they look at once flamboyant and vulnerable, like a woman in eveningwear on a morning subway.

3. Spools of thread in streetside tailors’ windows

The tidy spools of every hue mounted on a pegboard encapsulate New York’s quick-fix economy. 

4. Fire hoses at the New York Public Library and Grand Central Terminal

Coiled behind a grillwork cage and shuttered in a wooden cabinet: like everything else at these institutions, immaculately designed.

5. Mail-carrier instructions

Lest there be any confusion. President Street, Brooklyn.

6. Chase Bank, Brooklyn Heights

Classic and imposing, the way a bank ought to be. 

7. Subway-platform candy stands

Nowhere else do nuts, candy, chips, and batteries look as beautiful as on a gray subway platform.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

TOUCH: Conch umbrellas

You know the kind of umbrella I mean. 

New Yorkers call it “the five-dollar umbrella,” but it’s usually four dollars if it’s not raining and six dollars if it is. This is the black umbrella with the beak-shaped handle, the kind that materializes for sale in buckets outside subway entrances and at pop-up sidewalk stands just before a rainstorm, and disappears just as swiftly. In their wake, these umbrellas leave a jumble of broken aluminum spines jutting out of curbside trashcans.

Unlike West Coast cities, New York is an umbrella city. New Yorkers refuse to compromise fashion or risk dampness by wearing parkas or hooded raincoats. The only solution is to wear what you’d normally wear, and carry an umbrella to protect it. But often rainstorms catch us by surprise: the day starts bright and sunny, but around 2 p.m. rainclouds threaten and we realize, with a certain amount of desperation, that we don’t have an umbrella. That’s where Conch umbrellas step in. For practically pocket change (bargain!), anyone can buy a temporary shelter from unexpected downpours, and one is virtually guaranteed to find a Conch umbrella within a few blocks. 

Conch umbrellas are made in China by Elite America Corp. and distributed from a warehouse in Bushwick, which also houses a showroom featuring the brand’s many rain-coverings, from raincoats to patio umbrellas to personal umbrellas (including the popular but unsightly stick umbrella with a collapsible white plastic sheath that sits like a cup on the tip). 

The local favorite, however, Conch has dubbed “Man’s regular umbrella.” It’s about a foot long, and its textured, curved handle provides a secure grip in slippery, windy weather. With the press of a silver plastic button, the Conch unfolds in a double whoosh, as the carriage slides up the rod and the ribs spring open. As you’re waiting to cross the street, you can fiddle with the wobbly ribbed collar above the handle. 

Since the Conch umbrella is made of cheap nylon, and the ribs are attached with flimsy double cotton threads, New Yorkers learn to aim it headlong into wind that’s coming toward them, and to tip it behind their heads when the wind is coming from behind. If held straight overhead, the Conch is likely to get blown inside out. Though this can happen to any inexpensive umbrella, the vacuum-like sensation of the Conch’s undoing is preceded by an ominous trembling in the center rod, and despite attempts to pull down on the carriage, there’s no going back. Indeed, some might say you can identify a native New Yorker by how he handles his Conch.

It does seem fitting that in this city we choose the abrupt separation from our surroundings that umbrellas offer as opposed to the oneness with the elements evinced by our West Coast friends. Conch umbrellas are cheap, disposable, and satisfying to hold. Their ubiquity is comforting. And as we see our fellow New Yorkers wrangling with their Conch umbrellas in a spring storm--aiming the inverted cups into the wind in the hopes of blowing them back to shape, bearing them like swords to blaze a path down a crowded sidewalk, raising and lowering them as they pass beneath scaffolds with seamless choreography, hurling their broken ribs into the trash--we feel solidarity. Protected from our surroundings, we unite with them, much like a conch in its shell, drifting over the rocky shore.