A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Thursday, November 3, 2016

SOUND: "Breather" room in Rockefeller Center at Christmastime

It’s December in New York. You’ve walked, you’ve shopped, you’ve dropped something off and picked something up, you’ve seen a doctor, a show, a movie, you’ve waited on line, grabbed a drink, taken a walk—and now all you want is a few moments of quiet. What if—in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world—you could pay by the hour for a few square feet of solitude?

Enter Breather, an app that allows you to rent a private space in the city for between half an hour and several hours. You can use the space to work, take a nap, make a call, have a meeting, take off your shoes, charge your devices—or simply to breathe, as suggested. The simple and tastefully furnished rooms come equipped with pencils, chargers, free WiFi, a candy jar, A/C, and a yoga mat. At your appointed time, you unlock the door with a code sent to your phone.

On the afternoon of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I reserved a room in a “well-appointed office center” at Sixth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street (app description: “This hidden gem in the heart of midtown is the perfect place to host a meeting before catching a train back to the ‘burbs’”) and was soon pushing my way through tourists in Santa hats, panhandlers with soggy cardboard signs, and jewelers mumbling deals into cell phones.

The lobby was the paragon of anonymity, complete with “Wet Floor” signs and snowflake decorations. The room was appointed with an easy chair, table, a rack of light reading, a yoga mat, and a classic New York view of a brick wall.

I closed the door and was immediately encased in those two rare New York conditions: silence and solitude. If I pitched my ears I could hear the soothing whir of what might have been a white-noise machine implanted in the ceiling, the faint scratch of a speaker-phone conference call down the hall, and distant sirens and horns, but for the most part I experienced a few moments of serene, anonymous stillness.

Suddenly, I was struck by a frantic urge to take full advantage of the $14.50 I’d paid for half an hour in this 102-square-foot space. I unrolled the mat, did some stretches—then grabbed a throw pillow and lay down on the floor for a rest. I was checking things off a to-do list—no different from what I’d be doing outside.

I was even starting to feel a little lonely when I noticed that through the glass panel next to the door, a man in a blue V-neck was peering at me from his office across the hall. Feeling self-conscious, I hopped up and grabbed a photo book about cats from the wall rack and settled into the armchair beneath a duet of succulents in wall planters.

Time was running out and I realized I hadn’t yet used the table or looked at all the books. I swapped the cat book for How to Find Fulfilling Work. I checked the elapsed time on my phone, hopped up again, and craned my neck past the brick-wall view. I could imagine the sounds in my mind, but it was like watching a silent movie: police setting up barricades, crowds pushing through toward Fifth Avenue, Salvation Army Santas ringing bells, throngs of honking taxis in light rain. I saw the reflection of my quiet room, coat hung on the door, set against the city.

My phone alerted me that my Breather time was almost up. I threw my ID badge into the trash (other contents: a Dentyne Ice package and a Starbucks napkin) and exited down the hushed hallway.

Out on the sidewalk, I got trapped behind a pack of girls and women decked out shades of pink and purple, headed toward the tree lighting.

“We have to make sure we don’t lose Grandma or Laurie,” the little girl’s mom said.

“Why?” the girl asked.

“It’s just a busy place, that’s all.”

“New York never stops,” said the little girl, with awe and exasperation.

“That’s what they say,” her mom replied.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TASTE: The lost autumn flavor of Hungarian gesztenyepüré

With autumn in New York comes the iconic Midtown smell of roasted chestnuts warmed by incandescent light bulbs in foil pans hung from hot-dog carts.

But a lesser-known urban chestnut experience is a relic of New York’s immigrant history: gesztenyepüré (pronounced “GEST-en-yay-pur-day”)a traditional and still-popular Hungarian dessert of pureed chestnut paste mixed with a splash of rum and vanilla, pressed through a potato ricer into vermicelli-like strands and topped with whipped cream. In the early 1900s, gesztenyepüré was a menu staple at the Hungarian restaurants on the Upper and Lower East Side. As far as I know, today gesztenyepüré is served at only one remaining restaurant in New York: Budapest Café and Restaurant, also known as André’s Café and Bakery, at Eighty-fifth Street and Second Avenue in the heart of what was once New York’s Little Hungary.

Walking into Budapest Café on a recent afternoon, I was greeted by an almost entirely Hungarian clientele, hunkering down over plates of chicken paprikash and queuing for fresh bread and strudel at the front counter. The warm chestnut tones of the narrow dining room—which features brick walls decorated with photos of Budapest and a pressed faux copper ceiling—quickly whetted my appetite for this sweet incarnation of the city’s favorite street nut.

When the glass dish of gesztenyepüré and a spoon were finally slapped down on my table by the harried waitstaff, it was a sight to behold: at once beautiful and hideous. You could appreciate it as a nest of golden, delicate chestnut noodles spilling over the brim and crowned in whipped cream—or as a dish of delicate dog food (crowned in whipped cream).

The taste is also a paradox: gesztenyepüré is at once ethereal and leaden. Though they look dense, the chestnut vermicelli are actually fluffy, almost Styrofoam-like, dissolving under the lightest touch. But the flavor is rich and heavy: a sweet, grainy nuttiness, a faint tangy kick of rum and vanilla, melding with the smooth whipped cream, here both on top of and below the pile of chestnut. The dessert appears moist but on first bite is dry, quickly becoming saucy as it melts into mush. It looks like it might be warm, but is in fact chilled. It appears crumbly but is actually squishy.

It’s rare to find a dessert that inspires as much mid-bite rumination as gesztenyepüré. In New York City, the flavor of chestnuts signals autumn, but to a Hungarian immigrant a hundred years ago, the flavor of chestnuts must have signaled home.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

TOUCH: The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House

One recent Tuesday afternoon I found myself in an ice shack in a palm-tree-lined lot in Far Rockaway, submerged in a mud pit, drinking a glass of seltzer.

This situation was made possible by the Nothing Mud and Seltzer House, the brainchild of Frank Traynor as part of his ongoing project the Perfect Nothing Catalog. The mud bath, now in its second summer, is housed in an abandoned wooden ice hut that Traynor and a friend acquired in upstate New York. The hut is located in the now-vacant courtyard of the Palms, a food and event space. The shack’s first reincarnation, from 2013 to 2105, was as a curiosity shop in a backyard in Greenpoint, selling items ranging from fossilized dinosaur poop to handmade witches’ knives. Another iteration was a sauna in a Bushwick gallery this past winter. Frank says the project, as its name implies, is about reduction. Over the years it has been moving increasingly toward nothingness: less stuff, more intimacy, a deeper aesthetic experience.

It took a momentary leap of faith to disrobe and step into a four-foot-deep mud pit, but once I started to sink into the cool, viscous, lumpy (and odorless) matter, I was hooked—especially after Frank handed me a hobnail Mason jar full of his home-carbonated seltzer. (Frank: “I carbonate everything.”)

The bubbled glass pattern was its own sensory delight, like the seltzer made tangible.

The lightness of the bubbles contrasted with the heaviness of the mud. As it sucked me slowly into the pit, the seltzer seemed to lift me up, tingling against the roof of my mouth. After about half an hour of trying to squish myself deeper, I was still only up to my waist; Frank says some people have managed to sink in over their heads. As if in sympathy with the seltzer, bubbles formed and disappeared on the mud’s surface. Bits of twigs and leaves rasped against my skin; I even spotted a few critters.

Frank made the four-person mud pit from a lined concrete construction cylinder sunk into the ground and filled it with one ton of “organic, local” mud. The mud is not hot, as in a traditional spa mud bath. Frank says he intended the “primordial” mud, which sucks in everything and digests it, to contrast with the evanescence of the seltzer. This contrast is palpable as you sit in the hut, a breeze filtering through the vines that have twined over the cracks in the walls. Somewhere, a cricket chirps.

There’s no post-mud shower here; this isn’t a high-end spa, and that’s part of the point. The only way to rinse off is to walk one block to the ocean. On hot days the mud dries on the skin like a mask. Frank says his neighbors have become accustomed to seeing mud-swathed people streaking down the block, though I got an astonished stare from a Con Ed worker and a thumbs-up from a woman in an SUV.

The bath in the ocean was the ideal antidote to the bath in the mud. Like the mud, the ocean sucked me in, but with roiling rather than quiet force. The waves were as frothy and ephemeral as the seltzer. Though I’d struggled to sink into the mud, I was no match for the ocean’s own “primordial” force, which tumbled me onto the sand, leaving me with a mouthful of saltwater (a palate cleanser for the seltzer?). But as the water rinsed over my skin, my skin and face tingled and I felt more refreshed and purified than I had in a long time. When I returned to the mud and seltzer house, Frank dropped into my hand two cherry tomatoes from his garden, warmed by the sun. They exploded in my mouth with hot, tangy sweetness.

The journey had one more stop: Fort Tilden, where stage three of the Perfect Nothing Catalog takes the form of an inward-reflecting Infinity Pool in an abandoned military building. Inside the cool, spare room at the Rockaway Artists Alliance gallery, Frank installed a round, four-foot-deep above-ground pool bisected by a swimming lane with mirrored walls.

Shells scattered on the bottom of the pool rearrange themselves in the swimmers’ currents. The semicircular spaces on either side of the lane, he says, are “the void.” Frank handed me a vintage scuba mask, and I climbed the ladder and jumped in.

As I repeatedly dove down to the bottom (which was weirdly hard to do: the water seemed almost as buoyant as the mud), I could see myself and the shells reflecting endlessly in the mirrors, seeming to transcend the walls of the lane, the pool, even the room.

Sipping from a cup of fresh-brewed seltzer, Frank said that he intended the aseptic gallery swim to contrast with the messiness and intimacy of the mud and ocean plunges. But in the gallery’s corners are subtle inklings of aesthetic life, both manufactured and rampant: the cricket who sings from a gathering of dried invasive grasses, the life preserver Frank recovered in raw orange silk, the three faux natural stones—even a chat bird who one day flew in and curled up in the scuba mask, an unexpected visitor seeking its own transitory experience.


The Infinity Pool will be open for its final weekend this Saturday and Sunday, September 24 and 25, from noon to 4 p.m. It is located at the Rockaway Artists Alliance gallery in building T-6 in Fort Tilden, 169 Breezy Point Blvd. The Nothing Mud and Seltzer House is open by appointment only; to reserve a spot, text Frank at (218) 240-9350 or (preferred) direct-message him on Instagram @theperfectnothingcatalog.

Monday, September 5, 2016

SIGHT: Harding Park: tiny houses, roosters, and a salt marsh in the Bronx

Though New York City’s celebrated beachside communities have their share of relics—Coney Island’s roller coaster ghosts, Far Rockaway’s bungalows, City Island’s retro seafood joints—few people know about one of the city’s strangest waterfront communities: Harding Park. The twenty-acre neighborhood is at the southwestern edge of Clason Point, in the Soundview section of the Bronx, where the Bronx River joins the East River. Stretching toward the water, some streets are so tiny, they don’t even have names.

From the surrounding neighborhood of high-rises and strip malls, the entrance to Harding Park's world of country lanes and picket fences is nothing if not abrupt.

You turn a corner and find yourself in a time-warp of minuscule houses, crowing roosters in a waterfront garden, a surprise salt marsh at the end of a dead-end street, vintage cars, roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary, low-flying airplanes, and panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline.

Many of the 250 or so bungalows are tidily kept and brightly painted, with porches and yards ornamented by statuary, whirligigs, or flags.

Others, however, clearly succumbed to Hurricane Sandy, though are evidently inhabited.

In the early twentieth century, the neighborhood’s waterfront locale attracted an amusement park, dance halls, and resorts; a ferry shuttled visitors across the river from College Point, Queens. In the 1920s, the first bungalows were built and the neighborhood was named after the current president, Warren Harding. The housing shortage that followed World War II led many tenants to transform the bungalows into permanent residences. 

Harding Park is unofficially known as “Little Puerto Rico,” and indeed the tiny houses and gardens and fruit trees are reminiscent of the Puerto Rican casitas used as community gathering places throughout the Bronx.

Among the many unusual features of the neighborhood is the salt marsh in Soundview Park, which appears like an unexpected desert where Thieriot Avenue dead-ends. By contrast, just a mile north, the other end of Thieriot abuts the Bruckner Expressway.

About once a minute, an airplane from LaGuardia Airport drones so low overhead you can almost see passengers in the windows. Sailboats glide past on the East River. Shorebirds hop about in the marsh grasses.

Many of the bungalows fly American flags.

Other houses seem to cower behind fences or shrubbery.

Some feature welcoming, if diminutive, porches.

Several of the bungalows appear to be fused together into a sprawling mega-bungalow, like a child’s LEGO project.

Tiny houses have even been built to receive mail.

And this tiny mailbox boasts one of the best of the neighborhood's sprawling views of the Manhattan skyline.

In the pulse of a summer day amid asphalt and skyscrapers, a visit to Harding Park provides a dreamlike urban adventure, from low-hanging peaches

to winding roads

to Lilliputian cottages

and staggering views of the city we have left behind,

reminding us that once we think we have reached the end of our urban exploring, there are still more roads to follow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

MULTISENSORY: A subterranean salt cave in Midtown

In the heat of an urban summer, many New Yorkers associate salt with sea breezes at Far Rockaway or the sparkling rime on the edge of a frozen margarita glass. But if you’re searching for a respite from tawdry city beaches and rooftop bars, look no farther than this Midtown office building, in whose basement lurks a faux cave lined with twenty-four thousand pounds of Himalayan salt, which, for about half an hour, you can have all to yourself. What could be a more suitable antidote to the city’s warm-weather hordes than a solitary subterranean salty beach, complete with deck chairs?

The salt cave is located on the lower level of One Park Avenue, within Oasis Day Spa, and is operated by a private company called Breathe Salt Rooms. Halotherapy (halo means “salt” or “the sea” in Greek) is an ancient treatment originating in Eastern Europe, where salt-mine workers were found to have increased vitality. Naturally antibacterial and anti-imflammatory, salt is believed to release negative ions that promote overall wellness and create a feeling of clarity. People also use salt rooms to detoxify their their respiratory system, heal their skin, increase energy, and relieve stress.

I was initially surprised that I was invited to enter the salt room in my street clothes; it seemed that a light robe would permit more contact with the beneficial ions. The “cave” was a spacious room carpeted in a few inches of pink salt, and some of the walls were constructed of luminous salt bricks. Beach chairs and yoga blankets were scattered about, and salt crystal lamps on the floor created a soothing, candlelit effect.

My bare feet crunched over the coarse grains, which sifted between my toes and felt at once cool and astringent. 

A pleasant fragrance hung in the air, like the dregs of a scented candle. The bricks glowed with otherworldly fissures and striations.

I settled into one of the chairs and spread a yoga blanket over my lap. The lights dimmed and the halo-generator began to whir, a bit distractingly: silence would have improved the experience. The briny air settled on my tongue, and I felt like my sinuses and lungs were cleansed with each breath. A photo taken with a flash reveals the salt particles suspended like mist in the room.

I plucked up a grain of salt and let it dissolve in my mouth: it tasted sweet and tangy without the slightest harshness. I couldn’t resist licking one of the bricks as well (salt is, after all, naturally antibacterial). It was cool and smooth and melted away like the top layer of an ice cube. I felt at once relaxed and energized.

I closed my eyes and let the salt air envelop me. With the granules sifting beneath my toes, if I imagined the whirring of the halo-generator was the lapping of the waves and the mist a sea breeze, I could transport myself out of the Midown basement to Far Rockaway. 

When I emerged onto the street half an hour later, instead of the hazy lull and sticky skin of a beach day, I felt cleaner and clearer. And when I reached into my pocket, instead of finding dregs of gritty sand, I found a single grain of pure salt that had found its way from a cave halfway around the world to a cave in the heart of our pulsing summer city.