A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, November 30, 2015

SIGHT: The center(s) of New York City

According to the Department of City Planning, the geographic center of New York City happens to be in the vicinity of 365 Stockholm Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn: a brick townhouse with a bright red door. As I approach, I notice two men sitting on a stoop. “Excuse me,” I say, “but did you know that you are sitting at the geographic center of New York City?”

“No way! Right here?” says the older of the two, who’s wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a Bluetooth chip.

“Lance grew up right on this block!” his friend says. Their eyes light up. Kenny also grew up in the area. A pizza delivery car pulls up and they kindly invite me in for a slice; I decline.

Lance’s family owns the adjacent parking lot, which used to be a church where he once attended Boy Scouts; it burned down around 1970 and is now leased to the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which runs along the entire eastern side of this block, and whose flower beds seem to coordinate with the awning and fire hydrants.

The urologist a few doors down, Dr. Rosenthal, has been there “as long as I can remember,” Lance says.

Lance tells me he’s seen this block change “from Italian and German to gangland—crack, heroin, prostitutes—to yuppies.” 

“But they don’t like to be called yuppies, Lance,” Kenny interjects. “We call ’em bohemians.” And sure enough, this block at the center of the city runs the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow: at one end is a café fitted with Edison bulbs and a chalkboard. A customer with a cello strapped to her back stands at the counter.

At the other end is a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts; two teens with guitars and a cardboard sign panhandle outside. I peer at the center of the city through the center of my doughnut.

Two young children play with a ball beneath the falling leaves. “Are you Puerto Rican?” one asks. “I don’t know. My mom is Puerto Rican and I’m cold as dammit,” his friend replies. Jackhammers pound outside Yo! Orthodontic Braces.

Lance says there have always been murals in this neighborhood. The side of a Rite-Aid is painted with a poetic tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge, and a sort of electronically outfitted whale swims across some aluminum siding.

It's time to move on, as there’s a second center of New York to explore: the population center, which (according to the DCP) lies in Maspeth, Queens, near the employee parking lot for Big Geyser bottling company. The lot abuts the sulfurous shore of Maspeth Creek, at the intersection of Galasso Place and 48th Street. In the distance you can glimpse the spire of the Empire State Building, though it feels miles away from this desolate junction.

Lone men wearing backpacks pedal past on bikes, presumably coming from shifts at the nearby warehouses and factories: a Chinese importer that offers everything from bras to flashlights under one roof; Freihofer’s, whose baked goods claim to be “the pride of the neighborhood.”

As I wander along some railroad tracks that lie alongside the Big Geyser factory, I hear a whistle.

Across the street, a white-haired man, who introduces himself as Carlos, from Argentina, has just finished installing a sign for Maya Foods, an Indian spices company whose logo is “Add Flavor to Your Life,” and whose pumpkin-festooned stoop and café table add the only element of cheer—not to say expectation of human visitors.

“Did you know you’re standing at the population center of New York City?” I ask him. He looks around him at the empty streets, the empty parking lot, the stagnant creek and barbed-wire fences and trailers plugged into loading docks. He urges me to roll up my car windows, warning, “You never know who might come by around here.” Carlos agrees to pose at the population center of his adopted city, where he and I are the only people around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SMELL: United Pickle factory

The other day a companion and I sat down on the red-leather stools at the counter of Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, the 1929 diner in the Flatiron District. He ordered a vanilla milkshake and I asked for pickles, which arrived sliced in half in a brown melamine dish. They tasted just the way a New York pickle should taste: firm, rubbery, squeaky outer flesh giving way to a slightly seedy, slushy, salty inside. There was a snipping sound to each bite and a garlicky sting in the crunch.

A month earlier, in search of the roots of this iconic New York City food, I'd visited United Pickle, a fourth-generation family pickle factory in the Tremont section of the Bronx, founded in 1897 "with a horse and wagon." United also owns the trademark brand Guss' Pickles, one of the Lower East Side sidewalk-barrel vendors of the early twentieth century, featured in the film Crossing Delancey and on countless walking tours through the 1990s. Most important, however, United holds the rights to Guss' secret thirteen-spice recipe, passed down over more than a century.
Image courtesy of United Pickle
United's owner, Stephen Leibowitz, is undeniably a pickle man. He claims he was born in a pickle barrel to a pickle family, and that pickle juice runs through his veins. His business card reads "Chief Pickle Maven," and as he strides toward me across the brine-soaked factory floor he announces his arrival with "Here he is: the Big Pickle himself."

The factory smells tangy and prickly: like garlic, brine, dill, and spices, evoking the sawdust and chrome of old-school New York City delis like Eisenberg's. People think that milk and pickles don't mix, but the building used to be a Borden milk factory; today brine rather than milk drenches the historic cobblestone floors.

Walk into the factory, on a desolate stretch of northern Park Avenue, and the first thing you'll notice is cucumbers: in buckets, in bushels, on pallets, spilling out of boxes. The factory goes through about eighteen million pounds of cucumbers per year, spends $150,000 year on water (for brine and washing), and uses three trailers a week of salt.

Here's how you transform a cucumber into a pickle spear like the ones I ate that afternoon at Eisenberg's (Eisenberg's pickles, however, are made by Mr. Pickle, not United). Using a forklift, hoist a forty-bushel box of cucumbers and dump it out onto the conveyor belt.

Sort through the cucumbers and pick out the ones that are crooked or less than 4 inches long: these will get made into chips or relish.

Shuttle the cucumbers into a "shuffler," which corals the mass of slippery vegetables into orderly rows to be fed into the slicer.

Each pickle shoots along the slot in a blur, like a rocketing green torpedo,

blasts through the slicer, which quarters it, and is launched into a plastic tub, which curbs the momentum. It drops through a hole onto a conveyor belt below.

It rides up the belt with hundreds of other spears, where someone picks out any broken or otherwise errant pieces. All Guss' pickle spears are uniform.

Steve presents a perfect specimen.

The spears drop into a bucket. A worker squirts brine from huge vats into the bucket through a hose, and the buckets are capped by a machine to ensure a tight seal.

A point of pride of United Pickles is the meticulous count: Steve guarantees 270 to 300 spears per bucket, give or take 10 percent.

To this end, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours a day, a worker counts the pickles in a randomly selected barrel while a coworker watches. 

When I stepped up to the cash register to pay for our snack, the cashier charged me only for the milkshake. "The pickles are always free here," she said. Eisenberg's owner, Josh Konecky, as tall and barrel-shaped as a pickle himself, smiled at us and said, "What's a milkshake without pickles? What's Eisenberg's without pickles?" And indeed, what's New York City without pickles?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

TOUCH: Meow Parlour: New York City’s first cat café

If you’ve ever imagined a brothel featuring cats instead of people, head down to Hester Street and duck into Meow Parlour, which bills itself as New York’s first cat café. However, unlike a traditional brothel, you can’t just pop in when the mood strikes. You’ll need to make a reservation to guarantee a half-hour slot in a small room populated by thirteen cats and about as many cat lovers. Before entering, you’ll have to sign a waiver, remove your shoes, and Purell your hands. You’ll receive a laminated QR code. “It’s 2:57, so you have till 3:27, but there is a six-minute grace period,” the girl behind the counter will inform you.

From the sidewalk, there is no red-curtained shopwindow to hide the feline fondling taking place inside. Instead, there’s a picture window displaying cats provocatively nestled into the crooks of a 3-D MEOW

On the day I visit, about ten people—almost all young women—are tiptoing around the room, wielding sparkly wands, and stalking the cats, who seem to be tantalizingly just out of reach. The clean, modern space is outfitted with boxes, cubbyholes, and a wall-unit jungle gym. The litter boxes are out of sight, but the space smells (not unpleasantly) like dry cat food. New-age music plays.

“This is like a whole new thing: cats in quantity,” someone says. “If someone put me in a big version of this, it’d be perfect,” says another girl, flicking her wand in wait. “Ooo! Here comes another one!” She tries to coax the cat toward her with one hand while taking a cell-phone photo of the interaction with the other. He skitters away. She sighs.

In the spirit of the popular Japanese cat cafés that inspired Meow Parlour, you can order drinks and cat-shaped macarons to be delivered from the café around the corner. 

But it becomes evident that eating and drinking—especially on high tables, far removed from the cat action on the floor below—don’t mingle with cat-stroking, especially given the half-hour time limit.

If all the cats seem to be playing hard-to-get, the Crazy Cat Lady Game and Cat-Opoly might pass the time. To tantalize the imagination, there’s also a notebook of cats available for adoption: Allie Ann is on a raw diet; Bella’s a “party girl.” All the cats roaming the café are also adoptable, and Meow Parlour averages about one adoption per week. Amazingly, the staff said, all the animals seem to get along; there has been no marking or fighting.

A woman with a cat iPhone case videos her friend’s brief, triumphant encounter. “This cat’s my soul mate,” the friend reports from a floor cushion, where she’s succeeded in pinning down a cat. Less-successful patrons prowl the corners and cat boxes for a glimpse of willing fur. An acquisitive, competitive mood hangs in the air, mingling with an aura of faux camaraderie and shared interest, not unlike at a Manolo Blahnik sample sale.

I bite the whiskers off my macaron. A couple moves away from a white cat that’s snoozing in a wall compartment—I see my opportunity and home in. He ruffles when I pet him, then snuggles back into his cat scratcher and gently bats my hand away with his paw. I feel a flush of victory. His fur is as warm and soft and pliant as anyone could hope for. I've gotten my money’s worth in the final six-minute grace period.

As I leave, I see two cats perched in the window, resting on feather wands, waiting for their next customer with the same longing as their customers wait for them.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

TASTE: Eight random delights

1. Borscht and challah at B & H Dairy Restaurant
Cold or hot, the soup from the famous East Village diner is tangy and sweet and flecked with dill. It’s served with a dollop of sour cream to swirl into it, transforming the red into magenta, and two thick slices of crusty homemade challah slathered with butter. 

2. Russian pastries from the Brighton Beach sidewalk
Unless you read Cyrillic, you never quite know what you’re going to get when you select one of these flaky, cheesy, jammy pastries from the bin, which is part of the fun. Whatever it is, it’s offered simply on a paper napkin and is the perfect accompaniment for the elevated train ride home from the beach.

3. Sri Lankan roti at New Asha Restaurant
Flaky and buttery and deliciously chewy and stretchy, this bread from the Staten Island hole-in-the-wall is pretty much impossible not to keep eating, peeling off morsels and folding them into your mouth. The best part is the thick, rounded edges, where the bread is still doughy inside.

4. Mango with salt and hot sauce from a street cart
Meltingly sweet and stringy, with a bite of salt, sting of bottled lime juice, and spike of hot sauce, eaten with a plastic fork out of a ziplock bag. The carts--usually metal grocery carts filled with mangos and topped with a tray of condiment bottles--are parked on sidewalks throughout the city, especially in the spring.

5. Lahore Deli samosas and chai tea
This Pakistani cabbie takeout spot on Crosby Street serves the perfect snack 24-7: a vegetarian samosa reheated in the microwave (crisp edges, mushy middle) and a cup of milky-sweet chai tea (ask for two sugars).

6. Charlotte Russe from Leske’s Bakery
This push-up dessert from the Bay Ridge bakery is a Brooklyn speciality: layers of dryish sponge cake layered with real sweetened whipped cream and topped with a maraschino cherry, all encased in a cardboard sleeve with a movable disc at the bottom. Lick around the cream, push the cake up, lick again, and bite, creating the perfect messy ratio of cake to cream.

7. Orwasher’s New York rye
This loaf from the nearly century-old Upper East Side bakery epitomizes the iconic bread of New York City: it’s tangy, chewy, and dense, with the crunch and prick of licoricey caraway seeds and a crisp crust that clips the tongue with each bite and peels off satisfyingly in a single strip.

8. Peanut Punch from Sybils Bakery and Restaurant
This Richmond Hill Guyanese spot’s peanut drink packs a punch with hints of vanilla, almond extract, brown sugar, milk, and honey, and the chill and consistency of a milkshake that’s okay to drink for breakfast.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

TOUCH: Ice Fantasies

Joe O’Donoghue—ice artist to the stars—drinks his coffee hot. When I arrive at the door of Ice Fantasies, his ice-sculpture carving studio in DUMBO, to meet “Joey Ice” on a recent sweltering morning, I find him outside, smoking a cigarette and sipping bodega coffee. Above him is one of his kinetic ice sculptures: metal letters spelling ICE and an arrow pointing to the door. The letters are coated in water that alternately melts and refreezes, at the flip of a switch, and on this morning they are already dripping.

The basement ice studio does not provide much of a chilly relief. Josh Kalin, who does the bulk of the carving (Joey Ice is the “artist, designer, and producer”), wears a T-shirt beneath his rubber overalls, and the cement floor is slick with puddles. As Josh explains, ice is easier to work with if it has been tempered in warm air for an hour or so. “It makes it less brittle. Summer is a nice time of year to work, but you have to move fast.”

Josh is about to get started carving a liquor-bottle holder for a party at the Pierre Hotel. Before he breaks out the chain saw, though, he unhatches the door to the fifteen-degree walk-in freezer, which this morning houses a set of frozen speakers, among other ice creations. As I stomp through a drift of ice shavings, I and feel the hairs on my arms bristle.

Joey Ice sets down his coffee to show me the freezers where he makes his own giant ice cubes.

Though Joey Ice loves collaborations (his favorite project, in 1997, was transforming Harlem’s Cotton Club into an ice cave for Versace and Absolut Vodka), these days, business is less about carving shapes than creating functional ice “décor,” like ice trays, and freezing objects into ice, like the speakers. “I haven’t had a bride ask me for a swan in a long time,” he says. He did, however, offer me a peek at an icy rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's time to make the bottle holder. Josh wrangles a block of ice onto a plywood platform, scores the surface with a knife, then revs up the chain saw and hacks into the cube. Ice chips fly into the air.

Once the shape is cut, he flips the ice over and bores into the surface with a drill to make a row of liquor-bottle-sized holes. Cylinders of crushed ice rise out of the holes and crumble to the floor. 

As we pass through the studio, Joey points out the slabs of plywood, used as a base for all the carvings, scored with happenstance chain-saw marks, water stains, and dirt: tactile footprints of his craft. He’s begun selling the wooden by-product as art in its own right.

Outside, Joey Ice douses his kinetic sign with a fresh layer of water from a Pepsi bottle. Ice is an unpredictable medium, he explains: you can design and plan and produce all you want, but it keeps changing until it disappears altogether. (Hes even designed a special drainage system for his sculptures to prevent floods.)  “There’s an adrenaline to figuring stuff out,” he says as the frosty air rises from the letters. “There’s a yabba-dabba-do to getting it on with ice, but it ain’t over till it’s taken down.

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Many thanks to Joey Ice for the tour of Ice Fantasies.