A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

SIGHT: Christmas decorations at Rolf's German Restaurant

Rolf's German Restaurant, on the corner of Twenty-second and Third, is unremarkable in most respects: bland and overpriced food, surly staff, a phone that's never answered, and a faded exterior lurking beneath a scaffold. Yet each December, droves of tourists line the sidewalk and peer in the windows from noon to closing, waiting up to two hours for a quintessential New York City bucket-list experience that seems to be off the radar of most locals I know.

Beyond Rolf's wooden doors is a Christmas decoration extravaganza that puts even the famous Dyker Heights lawn displays to shame. 

The restaurant is bedecked with over fifteen thousand ornaments and hundreds of thousands of lights. Colored orbs, ribbons, glass teardrops, interlacing tree branches, gilded chandeliers, and icicles dangle over the crowd, which is packed sequin-to-sweatshirt into the bar area, craning over shoulders to snap selfies and maneuver their holiday cocktails without spilling. The room smells of body heat, lotion, and wool. As I hunker beneath a coat rack, peering at a couple wrangling with a piece of schnitzel, the bourbon-laced eggnog provides a welcome antidote to the claustrophobia.

The decorations reportedly cost the restaurant almost seventy thousand dollars a year and take six weeks of overnight work to install. They appear in early fall and stay up through the spring, but Christmas is the best time to visit Rolf's. The crowds of revelers are part of the experience, complete with Santa hats and rosy cheeks, raising their glasses of mulled wine to the dolls that stare down, unsmiling, from the pressed-tin ceiling.

"We need a SWAT team. And a helicopter," mumbles a woman, slithering past puffer jackets and ducking under beer steins. “I hope we’re only staying for one drink, because this is not happening," huffs his friend. “And I waited in the cold for this!” “It’s an experience," she insists. "At least now you can say you did it!”

But I say give me any of the city's other crowded holiday attractions—Rockefeller Center with its armed police, Serendipity 3 with its hour-long wait for frozen hot chocolate, Macy's with its lines of Santa-bound toddlers, and even Dyker Heights, with its lurching queue of cars—or give me Rolf's, where the jam-packed-ness of it all is the very reason you are here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

SIGHT: The House of Collection

Oil cans. Propellers. A box of desiccated rodents and a row of crop dusting tins. Antique locks and tire chains. A tangle of discarded toe shoes. Chemistry glassware. Tugboat ropes and embroideries of flowering herbs. Buddha statues, a jackalope, and a taxidermied buck head in drag.

These are among the objects you will find at the House of Collection, a loft in western Williamsburg filled with thousands of (mostly) found and gifted objects curated by Paige Stevenson for almost thirty years. “It’s the human part of the things I love, even though it’s all about the stuff,” Paige tells visitors one recent evening. “This is my way of having a roadside museum.... I emphasize a less commercial approach to acquisition.”

In preparation for our visit, Paige has lit dozens of candles to illuminate the treasure cave into which we are spelunking. Two former bodega cats slink about between the low seating, which encourages visitors to look up and around. A pressed-in ceiling from Virginia and columns found in an abandoned hoard in Brattleboro, Vermont, demaracte the space, with other partitions made of cubbyholes, a piano soundboard, and a hideaway walled in plants.

Resplendent in a tiara and vintage dress, Paige pours mismatched cups of tea and ushers her guests between rooms, regaling us with stories of how the House of Collection evolved out of her itinerant youth, which instilled in her an appreciation for communal living, manual labor, and anti-consumerism.

Born in Virginia in the sixties to hippie parents, Paige spent parts of her childhood in a tepee in a California commune, an off-the-grid goat farm in a redwood forest, and a Victorian house in San Francisco where her bed was on top of a bathtub. Through her wanderings, she grew to love “the Americana, back-to-the-land aesthetic” of decorating with found objects. In particular, she was drawn to barns, which are often decorated with everyday objects like tools and taxidermy. 

A move to Pittsburgh led her to juxtapose this rural proclivity with the romance of that city’s declining steel industry. She realized the connection was really about “liminal spaces, which are so full of possibility.” Paige found her own liminal space in 1989 in a five-thousand-square-foot loft (though it's smaller today), which she moved into with three friends, fresh out of Columbia, where she had studied welding. To build out the space, they dragged materials through streets lined with drifts of crack vials and burning cars (Williamsburg in the 1990s), and hoisted them up the building’s hand-cranked elevator. After winning a twelve-year legal battle for rent stabilization, Paige (a bookkeeper by day) decided to pay it forward by opening the House of Collection to the community for gatherings, parties, events, shows, fund-raisers, and as an artist workspace. Though she now lives alone, at its peak ten people shared the space, bringing Paige back to her roots in communal living. “It’s like an organism,” she says of her home. 

She loves objects for their own sense of self as well as for the negative space they create. After a recent fly infestation, for instance, a coil of flypaper became part of the collection, hanging from a kitchen lamp and offset by a mandala of kitchen tools and a fridge masked in envelopes found on Houston Street—a friend “skinned” them off her former fridge and adhered them to her new one, creating a palimpsest of the found, the gifted, the old, and the new that seems as representative of the House of Collection as anything.

“I like the energy of things that are worked with,” Paige says. “You can take them off the wall and use them.”

At the end of the evening, she brings out a bag of rambutan fruits she bought in Chinatown because she “liked the way they looked.” A few visitors show her how to score the spiny skins and pop out the pearly fruit, which tastes like a creamy grape. There it was again: treasure where you least expect it, revealed with the help of friends.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TASTE: Charlotte Russe from Holtermann's Bakery

Once an iconic New York City street food, the Charlotte Russe is a Push Pop–style confection encased in a cardboard shell with a movable bottom. Inside, a disc of sponge cake is topped with a dollop of jam and crowned with spirals of whipped cream and a nut-dusted Maraschino cherry. As you eat it, you push the bottom up with your thumb, permitting access to the pastry’s deeper layers.

My search for the elusive treat led me to Holtermann’s Bakery, reportedly the only place in the five boroughs to make Charlotte Russes today (until a few years ago, Bay Ridge's Leske's sold a delicious version available by pre-order). Founded in 1878, Holtermann’s is the oldest family-owned bakery on Staten Island.

The pastry, however, receives no fanfare at Holtermann’s: there’s no banner proclaiming the shop the last bastion of Charlotte Russes in New York; the little turbaned pastries are not set apart on a golden tray. In fact, they sit in a corner of the display case on a plastic tray alongside their pastry peers. While I'd raced across the Verrazano, afraid they'd sell out, on the day of my visit the other customers were buying rye bread, doughnuts, and apple cake.

According to an article on the lost foods of New York, the Charlotte Russe—reportedly pronounced “Charley Roosh” and nicknamed “the Brooklyn Ambrosia”—was sold in the early to mid-1900s from street carts, candy stores, and bakeries as a quick after-school treat. Kids loved the novelty of pushing the cake upward, licking their way through the layers of cream, jam, and cake, and the challenge of achieving the right proportions of each in a single bite.

Though it looks heavy, the Charlotte Russe is actually airy. Removing the cherry—and savoring its waxy, syrupy, one-bite burst—reveals the enticing hole at the center of the cream spiral. The only way to eat the cream is to scoop at it with one’s top lip, rotating the cardboard shell as you go. Once the cream has leveled out with the scalloped top of the cardboard (which can be licked clean later), you start to crave a new texture. It’s time to start pushing it!

You position your thumb at the center of the bottom of the shell and urge the pastry upward. With a squeaky rasp of waxed cardboard, the concoction rises like an elevator, revealing the golden coin of cake and leaving the Swiss-dotted cardboard behind like a discarded pinafore.

After conquering the pastry’s crown, the real joy of the Charlotte Russe begins: the contrast of textures between the cloud of cream; the cool, sticky dab of jam; and the spongy, grainy cake. As one schoolchild I know observed, it’s not unlike a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the Charlotte Russe’s successor in the realm of after-school treats: sweet and salty; smooth and crumbly; creamy and acidic. No matter how many times we’ve eaten it, it always surprised and delights us with its symphony of contrasts—not unlike New York City itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SIGHT & SOUND: Ken Butler's hybrid instruments

Ken Butler, a self-described “urban bricoluthier,” carries an Altoids tin in his pocket at all times. Anytime he feels the urge, he pulls it out—and music emerges. The Altoids tin holds a strip of dental dam called a Vibraband, which he plays like a trumpet. This is just one of Ken’s countless playful hybrid instruments, which range from a broom violin to a chessboard guitar to an egg-carton piano. But the mint tin, he insists, “is a thousand times more interesting than anything in here.”

“Here” refers to Ken’s studio and home, in an old loft building on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Ken is an artist and musician who creates instruments—as well as performances and installations— from everyday and found objects. His work explores the boundaries between sculpture, music, visual art, and film, and also, more abstractly, between sound and silence, the mechanical and the electrical, and construction and deconstruction.

Entering his studio, I feel like I’ve stepped into a New York City bohemian dream. He’s been living and working here since 1988. In the old days, he had to sleep wearing a wool cap, as the basement was being used as a refrigerated storage unit. Over the years, as various tenants have come and gone, his creations have continued to proliferate. His artist’s statement reads, in part, “From this storehouse of forsaken objects and hardware I, the urban bricoleur, further dismantle and reassemble the consumer society into functional assemblages in the form of musical instrument/objects, then coax them to sing for their supper.”

Instruments line the walls and floor; his neatly made bed is tucked into one corner. A huge slot-car racing track is set up off to one side—for breaks. At the center of the loft is Urban Grand Piano: each key is connected to a different local radio station, and lights project images and colors on the open lid. The result is music that’s a mashup of mechanics and the random sounds from the city ether: politics, music, Spanish radio, baseball. “My vision for it would be to have it in the center of a bar and someone would get inspired and do their little piece, drinking, smoking pot,” he says.

With tortoiseshell glasses and neatly combed hair, Ken is loquacious and easygoing. As a child, he always had a talent for painting and drawing and was formally trained in the viola. While living in Portland, Oregon, and experimenting with collage art, he began sneaking into a recycling place and photographing details of the discarded objects. One day an idea occurred to him: “Why not use the real objects and collage them together?” That idea rapidly evolved into the question of how to bring still art forms to life. “Painting is light, shade, color, form—but once you finish it, it just sits there,” he says. Instrument-making would bridge music and sculpture, and the idea that his creations are ideas rather than compositions appealed to him. Ken says he turned out to be a better musician than he ever thought he’d be.

In 1978, Ken found an ax in his basement and, in a flash of inspiration, tucked it under his chin like a violin. He soon found that the tool fit perfectly into a three-quarters-size violin case he had from childhood, and an idea was born. Within an hour, he had rigged it up with a contact microphone, plugged it into an amp, and was playing music on the ax. (The contact mike is the linchpin of Butler’s improvised instruments. It senses audio vibrations through its contact with solid objects, but it is almost completely insensitive to air vibrations.) The ax violin took one hour to make, and not only did it play music but it “sang”—and it was graceful to boot.

Other creations include guitars made from a tennis racquet and a shovel, a snowshoe viola. a sitar golf club, and cellos made from a mannequin and a crutch, whose main sound-producing element is “a very cool piece of Styrofoam” he found (which, he discovered, creates great resonance).

As Ken puts it, “Every object that can be vibrated is playable. The eyelash of a bee is playable. My intention is a poetic relationship: the sound is the by-product.”

For more information on Ken Butler's Hybrid Visions, please visit his website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

SOUND: Lou Nasti Mechanical Displays

On the streets of New York in August, ice cream trucks jingle, playground sprinklers splatter, flip-flops flap against sidewalks. Inside a warehouse in East Flatbush, however, elves are ice skating, bears are hammering, a polar bear is snoring, and dolls are waltzing to the strains of a miniature piano. Here, the sounds of summer have been replaced by the whirring and humming of minuscule motors, tinkling music, and the repetitive motions of dozens of mechanized creatures, most of whom appear to be in the throes of the winter holiday season.

This is the workshop of Lou Nasti, a Brooklyn-born Gepetto who has spent decades creating mechanical toys and displays for customers in Brooklyn and around the world. On the day of my visit, as I squinted to read the faded sign on the building, an auto mechanic in the next lot waved me down with his shop cloth. “You looking for Lou Nasti?” he called out. “Amazing guy. You’re going to love it in there.”

Locally, Lou is the brains behind the famous Christmas lawns of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, with their soaring Santas and marching soldiers.

Photos of 1145 84th Street, Brooklyn, from NY See Tours 
But other creations have made their way from Farragut Road to places as far-flung as Australia, Trinidad, and Morocco. With a white handlebar mustache and bushy eyebrows, wearing a canvas apron and suspenders, Lou Nasti looks every part the Sicilian toymaker.

He greets me ebulliently and escorts me through the workshop, flinging open doors to reveal singing angels, Christmas greenery woven into garlands, a reindeer under wraps, humongous revolving motors, an LED light tunnel with piped-in harp music, and rows of mute plastic heads.

At Lou Nasti Mechanical Displays, the Christmas season begins in March, following the International Toy Fair, where he meets many of his clients. Among Lou's most-requested displays is a “lost Santa” scenario for department stores. Generally, the plot revolves around Mrs. Claus and the elves tracking down Santa through various window scenes, ending up in the store itself as a lure to shoppers. (Lou notes that in his field, he has to be careful not to equate Santa with Christmas.) Another perennial request is talking trees: Lou does the voice himself.

Even at age five, Lou was making puppets with string and dancing them around his family’s home in Marine Park. In high school, he apprenticed for the Abraham & Straus display company, where his boss  inspired him to pursue mechanical toys as a career. He started his own company at age nineteen, but it grew so fast that he decided to scale it back to keep the personal touch. Lou’s shop looks like a caricature of a toymaker’s workbench, with hammers and wrenches strewn about, wooden bins filled with metal parts, the walls lined with clipboards outlining each project, from sketch to completion. 

Lou typically spends twelve hours a day here: “They’ll have to carry me out of here,” he says. “I eat, breathe, and drink this”—though he admits that sometimes he likes to unwind in the evening with his sketchbook and a beer at a local bar. Scattered around the room are the rotating motors that make the displays come alive.

Here’s how the magic unfolds. A customer comes to him with a vague idea for a scene (a typical one: “Lou, can you make me a winter wonderland?”), and he has to trust his imagination to transform it into something unique. He brings his morning coffee into the workshop and sits in front of the set, envisioning the directions it could take, until an idea begins to gel. Little by little, he fills in the details.

After his first sketches, he builds a mock-up and presents it to the client, but not even the model can prepare his customers—or Lou—for what happens when he flips the switch for the first time. It’s that moment that keeps his spark alive: “Watching a customer go absolutely Wow.” 

In addition to Christmas lawn scenes for private clients, Lou has a few pet projects from his past. He transformed an Indiana car wash into a rain forest, where gorillas beat their chests and cars are doused by a herd of elephants. At the Quaker Bridge Mall in New Jersey, he created a crystal palace with trumpeting angels, mirrored arches, and ballet music. 

Once, he even staged a Halloween party for the king of Morocco. So clandestine was the project, even Lou didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing until he stepped off the plane, was swept past customs, and was asked to turn over all his belongings except for his tape measure and a pen. As a limo ushered him down a long drive and into the palace rotunda, he realized where he was. He remembers saying to himself, “Not bad, a little guy from Brooklyn comes here!” Guess who called Brooklyn a few months later to ask about staging a holiday party.

Wedged between a cinder-block factory and an auto body shop, Lou Nasti's workshop revives my faith in wonderlands that lurk in the most unlikely places, places where our city's wizards wait to transform your dreams into sight and sound. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

SMELL: Seven smells for the seventh month

In Sense & the City tradition, I present a collection of seven sensory impressions for the seventh month, this year with a focus on local smells, both iconic and underappreciated.

1. Golden Gate Fancy Fruits & Vegetables, Flatlands, Brooklyn
Pre-war paint layers, fruit skins, old wood varnish, cardboard box, newsprint

2. Crushed ginkgo berries on sidewalks in autumn (here with collectors)
Acrid vomit

3. Metal buckets of road asphalt heating up curbside over a fire
Tar smoke, sticky blackness, butane

4. Glaser's Bake Shop, Upper East Side
Strudel, cinnamon, warm sugar, cool icing

5. Overthrow Boxing Club, SoHo
Sweat, leather, old sneaker, basement

6. Orange manhole steam chimneys
Hot air, mildew, wet cement

 7. Tottenville subway platform, last stop on Staten Island Railroad