A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

SIGHT: The most beautiful alley in New York City

If you’re walking east on Seventeenth Street approaching Union Square, you might not notice a pair of iron gates on the south side of the street, sandwiched between Rainbow Falafel and Starbucks. And you might not decide to glance furtively to both sides and then duck through the gates (which are almost always open). But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with what is arguably the city’s most beautiful alley—particularly so on a rainy day.

What’s more, you’ll have the rare experience, in New York, of becoming invisible to passersby while still being able to observe them. “Alley ceiling” might seem like an oxymoron, but this alley has one: pressed-tin, in two patterns, accented by red and silver paint.

The air hums with gusts from ventilation fans. It smells like kitchen grease. Metal pipes and airshafts soar up the backs of the buildings, connected to an infrastructure of AC units, switches, and wires. Walk deeper into the alley and it reveals a hidden corner, where another vista opens up: tiered fire escapes and a plump water tower, more air shafts and pipes.

The Dumpsters, though, are the stars of any alley, contributing bursts of color to the gloom. Their stenciled name tags, representing some of the city’s largest private waste contractors, seem to impart a sense of motion and optimism to the stagnant air: Elite, Action, Mr. T, Five Star. 

An especially surly Dumpster is tasked only with kitchen grease, its spattered maw yawning open. Its contents get carted off to New Jersey by one “J&R Rendering.”

The grease Dumpster’s partner in crime is most certainly the baling press, another alley essential, used to squash cardboard boxes into dense cubes for recycling. Look to the right and you’ll see a battalion of ladders propped up against the wall. Like the Dumpsters, their colors and order belie their sinister surroundings. Who uses all these ladders? Where might one climb on them?

On the day I visited, the litter in the alley consisted of cascades of cardboard boxes, an exploded plastic deli clamshell and a Stacy’s pita chips bag, a broken hard drive, a sodden page-turner titled Anya’s Echoes (later research revealed it is a Holocaust story), and a plastic bucket of black grease with a rubber glove sunken in it. 

As I was pondering the bucket of grease and watching oil rainbows skid across puddles in the slight breeze, the door of the adjacent freight elevator opened and a man in coveralls emerged carrying a toolbox. With a nod to me, he slipped through the iron gates into the city. A Starbucks worker in a green apron flounced a trash bag into a Dumpster from the coffee shop’s rear stoop. It sailed through the air and landed with a moist smack. A woman passing by on Seventeenth Street, a dachshund tucked under her arm, followed up with a telltale blue New York Times delivery bag. A bare light bulb swung above the door in the breeze. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

SMELL: Kings County Distillery

It is said that the flavor of a whiskey is imbued with the scent of the place it is brewed. So it follows that the bourbon barreled at Kings County Distillery, located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, should take on some of the aromas of this historic industrial zone. One autumn day, I went on a tour of the distillery to take in the smells of the Brooklyn brewing process. 

At only four years old, Kings County Distillery is the oldest distillery in New York City and the first to open here since Prohibition. (The first distillery in the United States opened in Staten Island in 1640.) It’s housed in the old brick Paymaster Building and has a jewel-box corn and barley field beside it, from which the company produces about three gallons a year of local Navy Yard whiskey (not for sale). 

The whiskey is aged in barrels stacked in the twin turreted gatehouses at the Sands Street entrance to the Navy Yard. Squashed kernels of stray corn trace a Hansel and Gretel path between the gatehouse and the distillery. 

The smell hits you as soon as you enter the ground-floor fermentation and distilling room: tangy, pungent, malty—like yeast and like vinegar and like alfalfa. Somehow the smell manages to be both moist and dusty.

Industrial bags of white corn wait on pallets next to the fermentation tanks, where the corn will get heated up along with yeast to form a bubbly vat of “grits.” Since three hundred pounds of corn will ultimately distill into twenty-five gallons of spirits, it’s no wonder the air is redolent here. This viscous stew will sit in the vat for five days, revolving slowly with the force of its own fermentation, until it becomes a sort of corn “beer.” The vats have no cover, which allows the brew to take on the flavors of the air, which, when I visited, smelled like wet leaves with undertones of tar and tire.

Next comes the distillation process, where the alcohol that’s formed during fermentation evaporates out of the corn brew in the copper stills that sit at the locus of the room.

The unripened whiskey that emerges from this process, called “moonshine,” has a raw, searing taste—especially when slugged from one of the distillery’s signature glass hip flasks. But to begin its transformation into bourbon, the moonshine is poured into new oak barrels (one of the legal requirements of the “bourbon” label) and carted away to the Sands Street castles, where it rests for seven or eight years under the watchful eye of the round tower window. 

From the peeling paint to the gaping holes in the walls, from the faded NYPD logo on one wall to the vines that creep across the backyard, the gatehouses have a musty and decidedly sinister atmosphere suffuses the whiskey during its residence there. 

This seems all the more appropriate for a bourbon that is brewed in Vinegar Hill, which used to be known as “Irish Town” for the whiskey makers who fled to the neighborhood from Ireland to avoid the high taxes being levied on distillers there. Allegedly, the cobbled streets of the area became “rivers of whiskey” during the so-called Whiskey Wars: the post–Civil War government crackdown on tax-evading distilleries in the area. All this local history no doubt still lingers in the air, imbuing the oak barrels with the spirit of freedom and rebellion. 

It might be a stretch to say that a swig of Kings County Distillery bourbon tastes of the smell of wet leaves and tire rubber, of peeling paint and whiskey-soaked cobblestones—but it’s a good bet for passing around on a tar-paper roof in Brooklyn on a chilly autumn night.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

SOUND: The ball machine at the Waterfront Museum

On a breezy Thursday afternoon, there’s practically no better place to be than aboard the retired hundred-year-old railroad barge anchored off a pier in Red Hook that is home to the Waterfront Museum.

Among the museum’s many wonders is the audio-kinetic sculpture that I call “the ding-dong ball machine.” Cross the gangplank from the pier and enter a dim, creaking, magical maritime mecca overseen by David Sharps, a former cruise-ship juggler, who lives with his family belowdecks.

Just ask, and David will flip the secret switch that sets the ball machine in motion. A vertical chain fitted with a series of forked lifts scoops up golf balls, hoists them along the chain, and then expels them into a couple of tubes that set the sequence of clatters, chimes, knocks, and tinkles in motion.

At the crown of the sculpture, an orange metal chicken occasionally flaps her wings and opens her beak, when various gears are activated. The ball gets spun through a loop-de-loop, shoots out into a cage with a wind chime dangling inside, travels down a wire tunnel, where it runs over a couple of levers attached to wooden knockers that then bang on a few metal pipes, then falls through another cage, along the way setting off a percussion of four balls that knock against hollow wooden boxes.

Finally, the ball slams into a blue ship’s bell and rolls along the wire causeway at the bottom of the machine, only to be scooped up again by the forked lifts, continuing the kinetic sound tapestry. 

The sequence of sounds is always the same, since the sculpture is fixed, but David varies the intensity by spacing the balls at different intervals, creating a burst of percussion as several balls career through the sculpture, followed by a long, anticipatory pause as the next balls make their way up the chain—a pause filled, not uncomfortably, by the lapping of waves against the hull, the creaking of the wooden barge, a distant ferry or tugboat horn, or another visitor playing with David’s collection of nautical bells, which are scattered throughout the museum: fog bells, captain’s bells, dinner bells, ferry bells. 

The ball machine was created by artist George Rhoads in 1989. The barge, officially named Lehigh Valley Rail Road Barge #79, was built in 1914 and plied the waters of New York Harbor, transporting railroad cars full of merchandise from one port to another before the advent of bridges and tunnels. David bought the barge in 1985; when he found it, it was sunk in the mud off of Edgewater, New Jersey. It is currently the only surviving floating barge of its kind that is able to receive visitors.

It’s a rare treat to spend a half hour away from it all, standing in the middle of a gently swaying barge on an Oriental-carpet-strewn floor, admiring tugboat paintings and all manner of nautical relics, with the breeze coming in the wide-open doors, redolent of salt, seaweed, old carpet, dust, wood, and a faint undercurrent of sewer, and watching a series of balls zinging and zooming, leaping and falling, adding in their small way to the urban soundscape.

The Waterfront Museum is open year-round on Saturdays from 1 to 5 pm for free tours when the barge is docked in Red Hook. It is also open in the warm months on Thursdays from 4 to 8 pm. The barge is located on the pier at the end of Conover Street, right across from the Fairway parking lot.
For more information, see http://www.waterfrontmuseum.org/.

For more information on George Rhoads, see http://www.georgerhoads.com/.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

SOUND: Urban camping at Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn

When I think of the sounds of a summer camping trip, what come to mind are cicadas and tree frogs, a campfire crackling, the wind in boughs, the trickling of a brook, and—perhaps—the pop and fizz of a meteorite blazing through the darkness.

So as our family made its way down Flatbush Avenue one recent evening, past wailing fire trucks and honking airport vans and teenagers peddling “ice cold water, water, water” from traffic islands, we didn’t expect to find any of these at the end of the road, which in our case was literally the end of this particular cross-Brooklyn thoroughfare: Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and former naval air station, now home to aviation sports and, incongruously, the only campground in the five boroughs.

We checked in at a trailer, where a National Park Service ranger told us about all the amenities available just beyond our campfire ring. If we got bored of stargazing, Floyd Bennett Field features a video arcade with a food court, rock climbing, and an ice-skating rink. “The police dogs patrol the campsite between 11 and midnight,” she warned us, and gave us a number for the park police that we could call on our cell phones at any hour if “anything, anything at all” made us “uncomfortable.” We bought a bundle of logs for ten dollars and rolled our suitcase into the campground.

Our campsite, spacious by city-apartment standards, was at the edge of a clearing and ringed by about five other campsites. Setting up our tent, I unearthed a nickel bag of marijuana and a pair of women’s thong underwear. On our left was a group of twentysomethings sharing a bag of Snappea Crisps and checking their iPhones. On our right was a family from Chelsea who had made it here by public transportation, carrying all their gear in a backpack. Across the clearing was a multigenerational family barbecuing and lounging in chairs with cup-holders built into the arms. 

As dusk settled, the Chelsea family produced a soccer ball, and the children in our area raced around the clearing. Their shouts and volleys met the tapping of tent stakes, the snap of twigs being broken for campfires, the roar of low-flying jumbo jets on the flight path to JFK, and crickets in the surrounding shrubbery. As night fell, fireflies emerged, and the children tried to catch them in hands sticky with roasted marshmallow. Someone came around with a box of sparklers. 

Soon after dark, the campground grew quiet, except for the occasional sounds of tent zippers or the hiss of a campfire log settling. Around 2 a.m., some were awakened by the pulse of techno music. The Chelsea family summoned the park police, who identified the culprit as a party boat in Jamaica Bay—outside their jurisdiction. Around 4 a.m., the music faded and was replaced by the crickets and the breeze, only to be superimposed around dawn by the whirring of what sounded like model-plane propellers. A drive after breakfast revealed not only a group of aviation enthusiasts tinkering with their model planes, but a bicycle race and, abutting the wall of an old hangar, a bounce castle.

Despite the many temptations of Floyd Bennett Field, we sped off down the runway/road, pretending we were in a plane taking off, the cracks in the tarmac bumping beneath our tires, in pursuit of a Starbucks, located not five minutes away within the Kings Plaza Shopping Center. Iced Americano in hand, we U-turned for Rockaway Beach, where we jumped in the waves as airplanes droned overhead.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

TOUCH: United City Ice Cube Company

One August afternoon, I was strolling through Hell’s Kitchen when I spotted a delivery truck with gusts of frost billowing from the open back door. Inside the truck, a man was tossing sacks of cubed ice down to man with a dolly, who carted them into United City Ice Cube Company, a fourth-generation family business tucked into a tiny storefront on West Forty-Fifth Street. I stepped out into the street right behind the truck. Standing in the frosty air was almost as refreshing as passing through a playground sprinkler, without the inconvenience of getting wet. I decided to linger awhile.

United City Ice is little more than a walk-in freezer and a couple of blue plastic dry-ice storage tubs, a corrugated metal hallway slick with melted ice, and a windowless back office where the phone rarely stops ringing and one member or another of the Palmadessa family jots order notes on the paper desk blotter.

A queue of dollies awaits deliveries on the sidewalk, beside a metal chest labeled with a frost-covered word: “ICE.”

“People say it’s just frozen water, but for us it’s about timeliness and service,” said Dave Palmadessa, thirty-four, one of the owners. United City Ice Cube is the only storefront ice shop in Manhattan. The company doesn’t make its own ice. Cubed ice is delivered daily from Arctic Glacier, an ice factory in Westchester; dry ice comes in from chemical factories in South Jersey and Philadelphia.

When Dave was a child the business was run out of his grandmother’s apartment; in those days they delivered three-hundred-bound blocks along a scheduled route. In testament to these good old days, a bulletin board next to the office displays old family photos and mementos.

As ice machines have become more prevalent in restaurants and delis, the business has become increasingly “emergency-based,” as he put it. Restaurants come to them when their ice machines have broken or they are otherwise in a refrigeration pinch. Natural disasters, such as the blackout of 2003 and Hurricane Sandy, also bring lines around the block, as does Halloween, when customers want dry ice for “smoke” effects. Other regular customers include high-end caterers working on sites with no refrigeration, art galleries, and Broadway shows (again, for dry-ice smoke). A well-Xeroxed handout offers instructions on how to create “Graveyard Mist” and “Witches Brew.” 

The tools of the ice trade are simple: dollies, a couple of shovels and a flat-bladed ice-breaker, an ice pick, a metal ice scoop, tongs for hoisting blocks of dry ice, and white plastic buckets for customers who don’t want to risk carrying ice in leaky plastic bags.

The narrow hallway of the store was a refreshing place to be during the delivery, as frigid blasts swirled in the air from the open door of the walk-in fridge, stacked high with bags of cubed and crushed ice. The dollies trundled in and out as workers traded banter about the World Cup.

While I was sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk, a man with glasses and a close-cropped beard approached. “Could I get a slice of dry ice?” he asked one of the workers, as simply as any New Yorker ordering a slice of pizza. He was from the Union Square Farmers’ Market, where he sold meat, and needed the ice for his cooler. “A slice is ten pounds—that what you want?” a worker asked, flinging open one of the chests and releasing more clouds of smoke. He hefted out a block of dry ice wrapped in butcher paper, fished around for an ice pick, chipped off a slab from the top of the block, spearing it into a butcher-paper bag, then tied it with twine. The customer dropped the ice into his Eastport backpack, received a hand-written receipt from the back office, and strolled away. Every element of the transaction, from the dialogue to the tools to the delivery, could have happened one hundred years ago just as easily as today. 

On my way home, I passed a chalkboard sign outside a coffee shop, complete with hashtags and Google trivia. It appears ice has entered the twenty-first century and is here to stay.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SOUND: Seven Random delights

1. Subway turnstiles

Surely something that won’t be around for long: the satisfying crink-a-crunk as your hips push against the metal bar.

2. Macy’s wooden escalators

You can ride the old-fashioned escalators close to the Seventh Avenue entrance to the department store. They make a nutty rumbling as the slats slide up the slope and into the floorboards.

3. Corrugated metal wall at Erie Basin Park outside Ikea, Red Hook

Run your fingertips over the bumps in the wall as you jog alongside it, making a delightful bumpety-bumpety noise.

4. Street-sweeper bristles

Best listened to while still lying in bed in the morning, the rumbling swish-a-swish is the sound of our city’s works in action. Sometimes you can even find broken bristles lying near the curb: a true New York City souvenir (and, some say, good luck charm).

5. Brownstone cement

Strolling the sidewalks of Brownstone Brooklyn, you are bound to come across a basin of this iconic mix of Portland cement, lime, sand, crushed stone, and powdered pigment being mixed with shovels in preparation for a renovation: a heavy, gritty, sloshing sound.

6. Fort Greene Park saxophonist

On spring and summer afternoons, his beautiful strains seem to issue from the treetops in this photo, and are especially plangent in the rain.

7. The Queen Mary 2 departing from Red Hook Cruise Terminal

Curious onlookers can get surprisingly close to this behemoth of a cruise ship and listen to the elegant bee-ohhhhs of her whistles as she sets sail for the Atlantic Ocean. Note the crewmembers on the pop-out windows in the side of the ship.