A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York 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.