Look for a new post the first week of every month!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

TASTE: Kava, a body-altering beverage

“Bula!” chants the crowd around the bar, raising their plastic coconut shells and downing the muddy contents in one long gulp. This is really the only way to drink kava, an ancient and foul-tasting beverage made from the ground roots of a South Pacific plant.

Kava promotes a state of intense bodily relaxation known as a “body high”; technically, it has no effect on the mind—but of course the mind tends to follow the body. “Bula” is the Fijian version of “Cheers,” and it resounds twice a day through the small East Village storefront of Kavasutra, Manhattan’s only kava bar. (New York City has just two other kava bars, Brooklyn Kava and House of Kava, both in Bushwick.)

Each day, at 1 p.m. and 1 a.m., Kavasutra offers one-dollar “shells,” as the plastic bowls are called (kava is traditionally served in coconut shells), on the condition that the drinker downs the contents before the clock strikes 1:01. As it turns out, this isn’t hard to do: if sipped, kava’s flavor would be almost unbearable to most people. The bar provides a slice of pineapple as a courtesy chaser.

As today’s weekday afternoon crowd attests, kava is becoming increasingly popular as a legal, FDA-approved alternative to alcohol—though mixing the two is not recommended, for risk of liver damage (mixing kava with acetaminophen is also discouraged). Unlike alcohol, kava has a reverse tolerance effect, so the first time you try it you have to have a strong dose, or a lot, to feel any effects. For my first tasting, I eschew Kavasutra’s “Punch in the Face” in favor of the “Ed shell,” a blend of powdered and liquid kava that the menu describes as “very strong and effective.” At the call of “Bula,” I nervously raise my shell to my lips and tip it toward me.

The milky brown, lukewarm liquid fills my mouth: it's frothy, chalky, and bitter, like what I imagine a chalkboard would taste like if licked. I gulp and gulp, steeling my taste buds into numbness. As the grainy dregs slide over my tongue, the flavor becomes more minerally. A fellow patron remarks, “It tastes like cigarette butts and dirt,” which isn’t far off. I grab the pineapple slice, the sharp sweetness cutting through the coating beginning to form at the back of my throat. Then I sit back on the barstool and wait for the effects to kick in. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d discovered kava in college,” one guy muses.

Beneath the bar’s tiki wall hangings and carved totems, the crowd hunkered over the bar is young and scruffy and mostly male. It takes only a few visits to realize that Kavasutra has created a sort of low-key New York City underworld: almost everyone seems to be a regular, in for their daily fix, bent comfortably over laptops and phones, popping in and out for smoke breaks, slapping each other on the back. An androgynous person sketches; a guy scribbles in a journal. Some guys in hoodies discuss interstate cigarette smuggling. The Velvet Underground plays. A group of stunt artists talk about a friend who can bend his rib cage to contort into any container, and another group discusses numerology in Harry Potter.

I soon learn there is also a secret menu. A guy sidles up to the bar and murmurs, “Did you get the good stuff in yet?” A chic young woman strides in and orders “the red top,” earning glances of respect from some of the guys. The bartender unearths a murky glass growler from beneath the bar, which I later learn contains kratom, a controversial (but legal) Thai stimulant that is brewed into a tea.

After about ten minutes, the top of my mouth has become tingly and my lips have gone numb. I panic for a second and consult the bartender, but he assures me this is normal and just to relax and enjoy it. Next, my limbs begin to feel warm, spongy, and heavy, but my mind is still mostly clear. Over the bar, a flat-screen TV is playing a video of a winged drone flying down a snowy mountain and smashing slalom-style through a series of paper hearts mounted on poles. I begin to wonder if kava has hallucinogenic effects despite its claims otherwise, and I realize I need to get out of there.

As I saunter toward Second Avenue, feeling loose-limbed and increasingly loose of mind, I catch sight of Zoltar, the patron genie of Gem Spa, beckoning from beneath the awning of the historic candy store and newspaper stand. I insert my two dollars into his booth and he comes to life, nodding and spitting out his yellow paper fortune: “Don’t let opportunity knock on your door in vain.”

Taking his words to heart, I decide to knock on opportunity's door and go inside to order one of Gem Spa's famous egg creams, purportedly the best in the city and mixed up right behind the cash register.

The counter guy hands me a complimentary pretzel stick from the plastic bin on the counter, and I amble through the city, feeling open-hearted. The sweet, creamy, frothy mix of seltzer, syrup, and milk spreads through my tingly limbs, enlivening them. Turns out this New York classic is the perfect post-kava drink: bitter followed by sweet, chalky balanced by creamy, frothy tempered by tangy salt.

As I walked, I recalled a conversation I'd overheard at Kavasutra among a group of regulars who had been discussing a quote from the British TV show Dr. Who: “We are all stories in the end, but what’s important is we make it a good one.” With Zoltan’s fortune in my pocket, an ancient root coursing through my body, and the city streets before me, this feels as true as can be.

Kavasutra is located at 261 East 10th Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, and is open from 10 a.m. to 2.30 a.m. every day.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

TOUCH: Brooklyn's hands-on biblical taxidermy museum

“Oh my god!” exclaims a visitor in a yarmulke, stepping into the first room of what is arguably the world’s largest hands-on biblical taxidermy museum. Strolling through the sleepy, largely Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, one might be surprised to stumble across Torah Animal World, a water-stained row house emblazoned with banners and even a toll-free number (the museum is open by appointment only).

Arrayed before today’s visitor is a menagerie of taxidermied specimens of every animal mentioned in the Old Testament (leviathans, behemoths, and Nephilim notwithstanding), all free for the petting. Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the museum’s creator and curator, shuffles across the room toward a bisected giraffe erected in the corner (the ceiling wasn’t tall enough), kicking aside a pile of bones and a baby lamb. And that’s all OK; the specimens here get a lot of wear and tear because Rabbi Deutsch firmly believes that touching brings learning to life.

As the rabbi and his guest meander through the room, yanking horns and stroking pelts, a TV plays an introductory video. In a bizarre mashup of Hebrew, Brooklynese, and the BBC, the video features Rabbi Deutsch explaining which horns are suitable for ceremonial purposes and what makes an animal kosher (FYI: kosher animals chew cud and have split hooves), intercut with images of the creatures in the wild, set to a pulsing electric guitar soundtrack, followed by spliced-in footage from British nature documentaries of dueling ibexes and buffaloes fending off lions. As the video plays, Rabbi Deutsch picks up a long, twisted horn from the floor and raises it to his lips, his pate beading with sweat as the sound bellows through the room.

Besides its unique niche in the New York City museum world (the Village Voice voted it “Best Museum” in 2015), what sets Torah Animal World apart from the city’s other displays of creatures alive and dead is evidenced by two little boys cuddling up to a lioness, cradling her cubs in their arms. At the American Museum of Natural History, the lion is behind glass; at the Bronx Zoo, it’s behind an electric fence. Here, you can put your hand in its mouth.

“If you touch history, history touches you,” Rabbi Deutsch is fond of saying. Portly and balding, with a frizzy beard and wire spectacles, Rabbi Deutch is nothing short of passionate about his multisensory approach to education, and he obviously delights in children’s curiosity and fearlessness. Growing up with dyslexia, he realized the power of hands-on learning, and eventually decided to open what he initially called a “biblical zoo,” purchasing his first specimens from hunters about a quarter century ago. (No animals are killed on behalf of the museum.) He continues to expand the museum through donations and by selling old specimens to fund new ones. In addition to the complete collection of biblical animals, the museum has animals that are not mentioned in the bible but that are just cool to see up close. Rabbi Deutsch opened Torah Animal World in Brooklyn in 2008; there is an outpost in upstate New York as well. The museum serves tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of them school groups.

Experiencing these animals up close helps visitors understand their natures, which can provide a fresh perspective and deeper reading of the bible. You can stroke the soft fur on the lioness’s underbelly, cuddle with the baby sheep, fondle the ridges of an ibex horn, touch an elephant bird egg (the biggest egg in the world), stare down goats (who are arranged in a pseudo barn, complete with hay), touch the tips of the wolf’s teeth, wrap your arms around the neck of a bisected giraffe or wrap a king cobra around your own neck, and get up close and personal to a face-off between a deer and a leopard, who has been captured mid-swipe as he lunges for the deer’s groin.

Because of the museum’s hands-on mission, some of the animals are bedraggled, hastily mended, and repurposed. Ears and paws have been reattached with a glue gun; horns serve as impromptu light bulb holders; electrical cords are draped over antlers. Rabbi Deutsch is indifferent to the mess: what’s important is accessibility.

It doesn’t matter if you trip over a stray hoof or want to try blowing into a shofar. Here, the lion really can lie down with the lamb—and you can lie down with them both. Rabbi Deutch wants you to know which fur is soft and which is coarse, which teeth are sharp and which are dull, which ears are stiff and which are floppy, which manes are flowing and which are stiff.

On the second floor of the same townhouse is Rabbi Deutsch’s other project, the Living Torah Museum, which houses biblical artifacts, many of them thousands of years old, in wall niches. Astoundingly, the same “touch-me” philosophy prevails. Here, Rabbi Deutsch will personally cuff you with a Roman slave collar, plop a gladiator helmet or Cleopatra-era gold crown on your head, and let you pound gold with a two-thousand-year-old hammer.

But despite the appeal of these relics, I found the life force of this phantasmagoria in the animals. This is undoubtedly the only place in New York City where visitors young and old, with or without yarmulkes, can plop down on the floor next to an amputated giraffe foot and cradle a baby lamb while a wolf tail brushes them on the ear, and behind a pile of bones, a gazelle—and a zealous rabbi with a sense of childlike wonder—looks on. After all, a taxidermied elephant rhino is due to arrive in Borough Park in three weeks, and you never know what other beasts might line up to board this ark.

Torah Animal World is open by appointment only. It is located at 1601 41st Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Call 877-752-6286 and leave a message to arrange a visit.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

TOUCH: Free public ironing on a cold night

As I spritz bay rum on the placket of the denim shirt and nuzzle the tip of the iron between the buttons, a plume of scented mist rises between me and the Tuesday-night scene at Pete's Candy Store, a Williamsburg bar. French hip-hop thrums through my headphones, as well as the paired headphones of the shirt's owner, a member of the band that will play next in Pete's back room. The warm steam and the cold night, the heated fabric—which has been touching this man all day—moving beneath my fingers, and the music pulsing through our headphones mingle in a heady rush.

Appraising my technique is a man in a black suit, a green bandanna tied around his forehead. This is James Hook, a self-described “journeyman-level” ironer and founder of the North Brooklyn Ironers’ Union, Local 278 (motto: “Solving the World’s Pressing Issues”; current membership: about three). On certain Tuesday nights, James—who goes by Jamie and sometimes also Iron Man—totes his Ikea board and “Sunbeam knockoff” iron to bars across northern Brooklyn, where he irons strangers’ clothes for free.

A tall man with a brush mustache, glasses, and a winsome expression, Jamie sees public ironing as part performance art, part spiritual practice, part erotic experience, part public service, and part experiment in civic action. “Ironing is a private chore that when made public opens up doors of social engagement,” Jamie says. “People in the bar get their clothes ironed, and the bar gets an ironer. It’s an interesting filter for the city, like a pocket in the social fabric that hasn’t really been explored.”

Music is key to the sensual experience. He provides an iPod, two sets of headphones, and a splitter, so he and his clients can listen to the same song. He matches the music to the garment: an Adidas tracksuit might be serenaded by the Beastie Boys; a Japanese headscarf might be smoothed to an Okinawan folk band. Public ironing with privately shared music creates kind of an ideal bar vibe: you’re participating in the soul of the bar as well as in communion with a stranger, you have permission to be silent while also being social, there's music and a sense of purpose, and you invite curiosity and command authority.

Jamie derives spiritual pleasure from smoothing strangers’ wrinkles. “I find ironing to be incredibly sensually pleasurable, and a big part of that is how each article inspires you mystically. What I’m aiming to do is give you an intimate experience with your clothing.”

Jamie's eyes light up when he recalls a few clients from summer 2016, when he began this project. “A really attractive woman took off a pair of short shorts, handed them to me, and just stood at the bar in her underwear while I ironed them.” A couple on a Tinder date both had their shirts ironed, then dashed out the door as the guy gave a raised-eyebrows thumbs-up to Jamie. He has participated in synchronized doubles ironing, for which the partners have to have not only the same technique but an intuitive connection.

All members of the union must travel with their own tools. Jamie’s bag—a canvas L.L. Bean Boat and Tote—contains the following:
  • a task lamp
  • two irons
  • a board
  • duct tape to prevent patrons from tripping over cords
  • a tip jar
  • a sound kit and headphones with a splitter
  • a spritz bottle filled with bay rum to freshen up fabric
  • white lab coats for him and his fellow journeymen
  • a silk courtesy robe for impromptu patrons
Tonight's clients include a thirty-year Williamsburg local with a Carhartt work shirt ("I want  a sharp crease right down the middle") and a girl with a schoolgirl miniskirt (Jamie uses a cross-handed technique to pin down the pleats) but, alas, no underwear.

Jamie approaches a British tourist in a wrinkled chambray shirt and touches her lightly on the arm (as he is wont to do). “You look like you could use an iron,” he says. She seems affronted at first, but Jamie works his charm, and a few moments later her shirt is on the board, her headphones are on, and she and Jamie are bopping their heads to John Coltrane. “When I first came in I was like, ‘Who is this guy telling me to iron my shirt?’ Now look at me,” she says. “This is a nice memory for me. This is the way to be warm in New York.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

SOUND: Guitars made of wood from the "bones" of old New York City

Every weekend, no matter the weather, Rick Kelly bikes across the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades to see the trees. “I love the trees,” he says. “The trees speak to you.” When he gets back to Manhattan, he usually swings by McSorley’s Old Ale House for a pint. Rick has had his his eye on McSorley’s wood for a while now. He knows that hidden in its grains is not only history but music waiting to be released.

Rick makes guitars made of wood reclaimed from “the bones of New York,” as he always phrases it. He calls these limited-edition instruments Bowery Guitars. His first New York City guitar was made from wood from Jim Jarmusch’s loft; clients have included Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan, among others he’s too modest to name-drop. The shelves of his storefront and workshop, which occupies the converted backyard of an 1827 speakeasy on Carmine Street, are stacked with beams etched with their provenance, a veritable wooden library of New York landmarks.

Rick likes to ruminate on how much of the city—from roof rafters to floor joists—is built from “the king’s wood”: during the Revolutionary War, King George put a claim on East Coast virgin white pine forests to use for masts of his navy’s ships, as there were no native pine forests in Britain. The wood from those same forests was eventually brought on barges down the Hudson to build New York City, and it still hides in the frames of some of its oldest buildings.

The King’s Woods; image from http://www.ableebenezer.com/
As Rick discovered, “the king’s wood” is perfect not only for masts but for musical instruments. As the pine ages, its resins settle and create different resonances. Most of his guitars are modeled on 1950s Fenders, and the aged wood makes a new guitar sound almost like a vintage instrument: “Like a best-loved pair of jeans, it already feels loved and worn-in.” 

But perhaps more important, each guitar’s tone embodies the character of the building it’s made from. If you listen, maybe you can hear bacchanalian soirees in wood from the Chelsea Hotel, or incantations in the charred beams from the Serbian Orthodox Church that burned down in 2016. Wood from the bell tower of Trinity Church, taken down after September 11 because of heat damage, contains 160 years of ringing bells—and perhaps also resonances of that day of disaster. Imperfections—nail holes, knots, gouges, burn marks—only add to each guitar's patina.

On the morning I visit, he’s working on a guitar made from Chumley’s wood—the same model he made for Bob Dylan, who allegedly asked if his instrument contained dregs of all the beer he spilled on the legendary speakeasy’s floors over the years. Rick says Chumley’s wood always “has that smell, you know when you walk by a bar? Like stale booze.” In a fairly typical acquisition scheme, he acquired the wood one night as he was walking past the bar’s hidden entrance and saw construction workers gutting the building and throwing the old beams into a Dumpster. These days, he often gets tips in advance, but part of the adventure is always stumbling into history as it’s being cast aside.

As Rick chisels out the belly of a guitar, he periodically taps the wood to see what note it sounds: “tap tones” are wood’s natural resonances, and there’s only a certain amount a guitar maker can do to influence it. “It’s a vibration thing,” he says. “The guitar tells you what note it wants to be.”

From a guitar’s ingrained tap tones to the personality the wood acquires over generations of city life, each instrument is born not only to play notes but to convey the secrets of the city. Rick would rather see New York’s centuries-old buildings stand, but he figures at least he gets to give these landmarks a new life in music. As he puts it, “Every guitar has a story.”

Carmine Street Guitars is located at 42 Carmine Street in Manhattan.