A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Thursday, December 17, 2020

SOUND: Quiet pandemic ice skating at Rockefeller Center

Though I am a native New Yorker and have lived in the city for more than twenty years, I had never been ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Like the tourists, every year I pushed through the crowds to gaze down at the lucky skaters twirling and slipping and laughing and holding hands beneath the massive twinkling Christmas tree. But, always, the lines were too long, it was too expensive, the rink seemed too small with the crowds.

Not so this year. I bought a timed-entry ticket on a Monday and showed up at 9:20 a.m. the next day to a deserted Rockefeller Center. Forty-Ninth Street was a canyon dotted with social-distancing stickers, metal guardrails, and security guards patrolling the emptiness with eagle eyes above dark masks. The music from the rink echoed all the way to the shuttered Radio City Music Hall.

I approached the tree and found I was its only visitor. It was so quiet, I could hear the whisking of a custodian's broom sweeping up its shed pine needles. It felt like I had a backstage pass to the epicenter of the American holiday season.

Music streamed out of rink-side speakers—"Run, Run Rudolph," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." A lone man in a sweatsuit danced by himself on the sidewalk, grinning at me. The pulleys on the gold and silver flags plinked against the flagpoles as they flapped in the breeze.

Down below, the Zamboni made its rounds, swishing across the ice and leaving a glassy trail in its wake. 

Though I noted that Prometheus was wearing a mask this year, the wire angels lining the promenade blasted their trumpets with little regard to the risks of wind instruments. The line to take the iconic shot from Fifth Avenue stretches around the block most years, but today a guy jogging past barely broke his stride to take a selfie. (Imagine taking a morning jog through Rockefeller Center at peak Christmas season!) 

Finally, my appointed time was called and I hopped down the stairs to the rink alongside three or four other people. The rink was so empty, the strobe lights created paths across the ice.

Disinfected skates strapped on, I soared across the ice past the usual suspects, all wearing one mitten and clutching a cell phone in the other hand: the little girl pushing a penguin helper; the hosts scratching across the ice in a wide-angled brake; the diva in Spandex practicing twirls in the center; the giggling couple holding hands and clinging to the side rail; a group of smooth-haired twentysomethings adjusting their "Bonjour Bitches" ski hats before cocking their heads for a photo. It was a rare thrill to speed through Midown, skyscrapers towering above, the scent of pine in the air.

I stopped for my own masked selfie with Prometheus. I could hear the frothing fountain above the strains of "Holly Jolly Christmas." That supreme trickster tried steal my hat, but there was no one around to notice.

Friday, November 20, 2020

SIGHT: The Most Socially Distant Spot in New York City

According to naturalist and native Staten Islander Bruce Kershner, author of the book Secret Places of Staten Island, the wildest place in New York City is on the northern edge of Hourglass Pond, in the middle of the Staten Island Greenbelt. Kershner defines "wildest" as "that natural point of land (not water or marsh) that is the most remote from streets and homes," two conventional markers of civilization. When you are standing at this place in the forest, he claims, the nearest street or home is 1,700 feet to the east or west; 3,200 feet to the north; and 2,500 feet to the south: in other words, many multitudes of six feet away. 

Detail of map from Secret Places of Staten Island

One recent afternoon, I decided to leave behind the urban landscape of "six feet apart" floor stickers and feet spray-painted on sidewalks and follow Kershner's arrows to make my own footprints in the local forest. How would it feel to be optimally socially distant from other New Yorkers?

With Kershner's book in hand, I followed his turn-by-turn directions and yellow and blue tree blazes into High Rock Park. After passing a few hikers and one mountain biker, I was alone with the crunch of leaves, the distant whishing of the Staten Island Expressway, and the drone of an occasional airplane. Prickly chestnuts plopped onto the path. Squirrels chattered. The wind sighed through branches.

But although there were no streets or homes within sight, signs of humanity—and reminders of current global events—continually emerged among the trees. 

Prior to this hike, I'd consulted ecologist Rebecca Means, the cofounder, along with her husband, of Project Remote. Together with their young daughter, they are mapping the most remote spot in each state and enlisting citizen scientists to record other remote places. When I asked her where that place in New York City might be, she said she didn't have that data yet, but offered these thoughts: "How you define 'remote' definitely matters! There are many definitions... and where you want to travel to be remote depends on what kind of remoteness you are seeking. Is it distance from services? people? roads? cities? human structures? trails? Also, does the spot have to be on land (inhabitable), or can it be in the middle of a lake or ocean? The other side of this, when seeking remoteness, is what you can actually measure. There are not data for every foot trail and human structure or sound, so that complicates your ability to say you are far from those variables."

About ten minutes into the hike, the trail skirted a cemetery, its monuments festooned with flowers and American flags. Dump trucks trundled mounds of fresh dirt. A sedan pulled up and a hunched man in a face mask got out and shuffled toward a grave, where he stopped and bowed his head.

A few minutes later, I glimpsed a strip of bright green beyond the tree trunks and heard the drone of a lawnmower. It turned out to be a golf course, with the Brooklyn skyline hazy in the distance.

A little farther on, along the shores of a lake, the darkened lean-tos of a camp belonging to the now-scandalized Boy Scouts lurked through the trees. 

Triangulating between Kershner's book, Google Maps, and a Greenbelt trail map, I scrambled downhill and came upon a fallen tree. With its X shape, I decided it unofficially marked the most socially distant spot in New York City. 

I sat down and watched stately Canada geese drifting past on Hourglass Pond, whose name seemed fitting for autumn 2020, with its surging death tolls and countdown to a new administration. From this spot, there was no sign of cemeteries, lean-tos, or golf courses. Wild woodland and glassy ponds stretched far in every direction.

As Rebecca Means pointed out, "No matter how you define 'remote,' it is an adventure trying to get there"—especially in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

TASTE: The perfect New York City snack from Lahore Deli taxi stand

Every time I'm in SoHo, whether I'm hungry or not, I duck into the shadows of Crosby Street and head toward the glowing sign: Lahore: Feel the Taste of East.

Twenty-four hours a day, this Pakistani cabby stand, wedged between an air shaft and a dermatology practice, serves up the perfect New York City snack: a vegetable samosa and a cup of chai tea. 

Besides the taste—a melding of sweet and savory, soft and crispy—the perfection comes from the deli itself and the locals who frequent it: taxi drivers and professionals, fashion editors and students, construction workers and cops.

The 175-square-foot space is a masterpiece of efficiency and a microcosm of cross-culturalism and New York City's cabby subculture. The cooks duck in and out of the kitchen via a three-foot swinging door beneath the counter. Ketchup and salt abut canisters of mixed pickles and chaat masala. 

Clamshells of special cake rusk and Peanut Pistas flank the orange Coleman water cooler hulking in a corner beneath tubs of mayonnaise, boxes of rubber gloves, toilet paper, a TV screen, and a tangle of ethernet cables 

The battered door sports a bulletin board peppered with handwritten pleas and offers: for night-drive shifts in Canarsie, for single bedrooms for rent in Elmhurst, for DMV and TLC summonses attorneys. Folded kilims are tucked into a metal file sorter beside bundles of paper towels.

This stretch of East Houston was once known as Gasoline Alley for its many filling stations; until it closed, in 2016, cab drivers would refuel or change shifts at the BP across the street, then pop into Lahore for a chicken cutlet sandwich, tea, a packet of Pepto-Bismol, or to use the bathroom, which has a glowing "in use" light above the door. The BP has been replaced by a gleaming office building, but the cab drivers still find their way here.

The man behind the counter will greet you with "Hello, Brother" or "Hello, Sister," looking up from a cricket game fizzling from a TV tucked beneath the counter. You'll reply: "A samosa and a chai with two sugars, please." The samosas are kept in a glass case, alongside trays of rice and other halal meat and vegetable dishes, all delicious. But you're here for the samosa.

He will slip the deep-fried pastry into a paper bag and pop it in the microwave while he ladles out your chai. The samosa, pleated and folded into a puffy sailboat shape, emerges pillowy and soggy, but the edges retain their crispness. The grease saturates the napkins and the paper bag, but that's part of the charm. Take a seat on one of the four wobbly counter stools and eavesdrop—or perch beside a construction cone on the stoop outside. The cool bumps of the glass bulbs in the steps add another dimension to the experience. 

Bite off one of the two crisp corners and a plume of microwaved steam will rise from the filling. Your teeth sink through the crust into the mush of potato and peas spiked with fennel and cumin. Flip back the plastic lid on your cup of chai; the little flap will hit you in the nose as a prelude to the hot swish of milk and rush of sugar.

One afternoon as I was sipping my chai, a customer strode in. "Hello, Brother," he was greeted with a nod. "You know," the man said, pushing a pair of Beats headphones onto his temples, "you guys never tell me about all the good stuff you got back there. What’s that—fish sandwiches or what? On a bun or over rice or what? You got white rice? I don’t want white rice! You don’t have gold rice? All right, gimme the rice, put some fish over it. Little okra on the side." Two minutes later: "Brother, that'll be ten dollars." The customer slapped the bills onto the counter and bestowed smiles all around. "It’s great food," he said, pushing his headphones back over his ears. "Like a secret spot." Then he bounced down the stairs and out into the afternoon.

Monday, February 10, 2020

SMELL: Ice skating and hot-tubbing... at the airport?

Sure, there are many unusual places to ice skate in New York City: by the seaside at Abe Stark Rink in Coney Island, on the rooftop of Brooklyn's William Vale Hotel, or in a narrow courtyard between buildings at Industry City. Last winter, there was even an ice rink tucked into the men's department at Bloomingdale's.

But this winter, the TWA Hotel—housed in the iconic Eero Saarinen terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport—has installed a Runway Rink.

How many chances will you have to ice skate right on the tarmac, in the shadow of a 1958 Lockheed Constellation plane–turned–cocktail bar, with the scent of jet fuel in the air? Though air travel is often marked by halting progress, here you can glide past the battalions of Smarte Cartes, the honking taxis and flashing hazard lights, the harried travelers bumping their suitcases over the curb.

Though the rink is just steps from JetBlue's Terminal 5 departures gates, you feel worlds away from with a box of Sno-Caps in your pocket (purchased from the rink-side ski chalet) and Beyoncé thumping through the loudspeakers.

The 56-by-44-foot rink is made from 3,500 gallons of New York City tap water kept frozen by tubes filled with coolant that run between the tarmac and the rink. A mini Zamboni makes the rounds every so often, keeping the surface slick.

On a recent Sunday, the rink was almost empty: just two tween girls choreographing selfie videos and an Orthodox Jewish family taking their toddlers for their first spins aboard complimentary plastic push-and-ride ice whales.

After a tour of the ice, you can retire to the plush red Sunken Lounge, where you can sip a Shirley Temple and watch the skaters spinning in circles through the canted windows, an uncanny sight at one of the largest airports in the country.

Or... you can head up to the 64-foot-long rooftop "infinity pool–cuzzi" overlooking one of the airport's busiest runways. The ninety-five-degree water splashes over the edge, seeming to cascade onto the tarmac, where planes roar past, lift into the sky, and bump down to earth. Steam rises from the 95-degree water, mingling with the scent of chlorine, jet fuel, tar, and rubber. Though during the summer months, the pool may require a day pass, it's free to all in the winter.

On a recent windy February afternoon, one corner of the pool was occupied by a plane spotter, margarita in hand, snapping photos as a Swiss Air jet soared into the air. Then a group of hipsters arrived, complete with New Yorker tote bags and knit beanies. "It wasn't so hard to get here," one of them said, bobbing in the water as an Iberia airlines jet taxied to the gate. "We just took the L train to the A...."

Friday, January 10, 2020

MULTISENSORY: Luxury Escapism: a virtual reality spa

It's true that at Luxury Escapism, a new multisensory spa in DUMBO, you'll find waffle-weave robes, dim lights, and a decanter of cucumber water.

But in place of lavender eye masks, you'll find electronic goggles called "eye massagers." In place of massage tables draped with towels, you'll find vibrating beds with gravity blankets. In place of almonds, you'll find Hi-Chew "intensely chewy candy." In place of new age music, you'll find a "sonic sauna." And in place of flickering candles, you'll find strobe lights and virtual reality goggles that transport you into geometric projections of infinity.

"I feel like I'm in a cross between West Elm and the Sharper Image," my companion whispered as we padded around the basement space in our courtesy slippers and robes. The pink light notwithstanding, the room—divided into eleven experiential zones—had that familiar millennial immersive-experience vibe: all tactile surfaces and activity stations and, arrayed on every surface, VR goggles. Here was self-care with a thrumming bass line of tech. It goes without saying that the entrance to Luxury Escapism is through an unmarked basement door.

However, even though the spa advertises its Instagram handle on its postcards, the posing-and-posting impulse is held in check by two ground rules: no phones and no talking above a whisper. (I got a press pass.) Instead, the spa promises to connect you with the present moment through "technology that actually feels good." If you're expecting a facial and a hot-stone massage, you've come to the wrong place—though there are faux hot stones set around an electric campfire.

On the night I visited, the ten or so other spa-goers were mostly young couples who seemed thrilled by a novel New York City date night. And while it is true that (as far as I know) there is no other place in New York City quite like this, our expectation of novelty—foundational to the immersive and pop-up experiences that abound these days—is becoming increasingly familiar.

Goggles of many sorts abound at Luxury Escapism. I decided to begin in the Yogibo Lounge, where I picked up my first pair: an electronic eye-massaging mask. It felt sort of like a blood pressure cuff inflating and deflating over my eyeballs while emitting wheezy puffs. A set of VR goggles catapulted me into a 3-D jungle; thankfully, the comfortable Yogibo beanbag kept me grounded. Soon an attendant beckoned me to "Rainbow Therapy," one of the spa's two timed experiences.

I lay down on a water bed and closed my eyes. The room darkened and the bed began to convulse. Strobe lights pulsed through my eyelids. Though I could control the intensity and vibrations, I felt a panic attack coming on. To stay sane, I silently chanted the mantra, "I am healthy and fit. Probably I will not have a stroke."

Next, I ducked into what would be my favorite experience, the Kinetic Sand Dome, a yurt with kinetic (moldable) sand, scoops, and slicers. The tactile experience was heightened by—goggles! But these were a non-VR pair with a lens that somehow separated my hands from my body. As my friend put it, "I feel like I'm watching an instructional video of myself in real time."

The next stop was called Lux TV: a couch in front of a TV showing grainy footage of ASMR installations, and a table of fidgets to calm your hands.

As my friend and I were playing in the Sound Stones playpen—a gravel-floored space outfitted with simple, childlike musical instruments and a headset you could use to manipulate the sounds—we were called into the Sonic Spa, the second timed experience. After the door closed on the small, windowless room, we plunged into total darkness alongside several strangers: panic attack #2. But then the soundscape began—a melange of birdsong, sticks breaking, snow crunching, cicadas. The darkness ended up being a welcome break from the audiovisual input.

VR goggles had greeted me at nearly every turn, from the Fuzzidarium, a room swathed in white fur; to a pair of hammock chairs; to the vibrating beds of the Senscape, where I took a float down a virtual stream; to the Cosmic Steam Room, where, using hand gestures paired with goggles, you could manipulate images projected on a scrim.

As the two hours were nearly up, I decided to cleanse my sensory palate with a Hi-Chew, one of those candies that is simultaneously stressful (it's claustrophobic! it fills the mouth entirely and sticks the teeth together! it seems it will never be swallowed!) and satisfying (the burst of fruit flavor! the teeth-sinking texture! the intensity!). For the forty-five seconds it takes to consume one, you can think of little else: it forces you into the present moment.

So it was for me at Luxury Escapism. Then I swallowed a paper cup of cucumber-infused water and the candy was gone.