Secret New York is my take on the curiosities of Metropolis. The idea was to find 200 spots that resonate with a special something: history, irony, weirdness. Mastodon food, for example, grows in Central Park. On the Upper East Side there’s a collection of authentic Modern paintings the size of postage stamps. The oldest place in the city is in the Bronx: a patch of primeval nature where the trees form a canopy like in a rain forest. During the exploring I talked with hundreds of New Yorkers; a lot of them ended up in the book. Amazon here. More below↓
About a dozen times a century, the planet Mercury becomes visible to us as a silhouette when it travels exactly between the Earth and the Sun. This is called a “transit,” and it’s not too exotic: Venus does it, and of course so does the moon (except we call that an eclipse).
Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System and also the closest to the sun. It looks tiny out there. If you want to see it, you need some help. On May 9, the Amateur Astronomers Association set up a few telescopes at Bethesda fountain in Central Park and were on hand to answer questions, help take photos, and generally expand mental states as Mercury made an hours-long transit on a mostly sunny day.
Here’s some guy looking in the correct direction and seeing exactly nothing extraordinary.
And here’s the good stuff on a digital feed from one of the telescopes.
Transits slam home the fact that we live in a system, a precise dance of spheres. Perceiving a whole planet as an object is deeply weird; there’s a fragility about it, but everything is happening according to ironclad laws and the scales are unmanageable to a human brain. In all, a transporting experience.
AAA president Marcelo Cabrera was good enough give some interview and put things in perspective. By the way, do they make jerk astronomers? It seems not.
Video below of the goings-on. If this kind of thing turns you on, you’ll have a chance to see a Mercury transit in 2019.
I touched down yesterday, after what I only now realize was nearly half a year of traipsing, mostly in Scandinavia. Lots of film work punctuated by lots of salt licorice. You don't like salt licorice? You must have reasons.
I had completely forgotten about Halloween, until this Nora Desmond zombie (?), more by her manner than her costume, made me glad I was back.
According to the Times, what you’ll see as you take the elevator to the top of the new 1 World Trade Center: “an animated time lapse that recreates the development of New York City’s skyline, from the 1500s to today.”
Today New York City unfroze. You probably noticed. I’ve been away for a good part of 2015; when I got back home at the beginning of February, the terribleness of the winter was already a point of conversation. By last week it had become philosophical news.
There were icebreakers on the Hudson and some spectacular photography like this AP shot:
But the rivers never completely froze over. I’m blue from cold, but a part of me wants to see that. I want to walk along Riverside Park, look out towards Jersey, and get an eyeful of this:
Or some version of it. And just the term: ice bridge. It has happened plenty of times, much more often on the shallower East River than on the Hudson. The increased salinity and big ships (and the relative warmth?) make it almost impossible these days.
Here, for perspective, is a rundown of all the major times you could walk between Brooklyn and Manhattan on solid ice, as reported by the New York Times since its founding.
For even more perspective, that last ice bridge was from the East Coast blizzard of 1888, the only one in American history called “Great.” The snowdrifts in Manhattan reached 30 feet.
But enough of winter. We’ve unfrozen. It’s March, the month of my favorite New York City weather phenomenon, one without a name. It’s the morning you walk out and notice that, although certain trees have been quietly budding for days, now is the precise moment when there is a green tinge to the general air. My money’s on March 29.
Yesterday I was at the Rockefeller subway station waiting for the uptown D. What came instead was a ghost from the last century: a gray, square-cut train textured with rivets and scuffs. The interior was pistachio green, with woven seats and ceiling fans. Sitting there was this lady:
I still don’t know if she was put there by the MTA as living décor, or dressed up for her own kicks, or in her regular get-up that just happens to evoke the urban past, or was imaginary.
This is Martha the passenger pigeon. She was an endling, the last individual of her species. On September 1, 1914—one hundred years ago today—she was found dead on the bottom of her cage at the Cincinnatti Zoo. And that was it: the planet had run out of passenger pigeons. In this image Martha is already a museum piece: she was stuffed and perched. The photo is an old-fashioned wet plate, but it’s fairly recent, fitting for a subject that cries out for a do-over and still resonates after a century.
Martha’s death was one of the first instances where we could mark the precise endpoint of a species, but what makes the story of the passenger pigeon so regrettable and strange is the numbers. This wasn’t a furtive bird scratching out a life on a lonely mountain somewhere. Passenger pigeons covered America from Montana to Florida, and were awesomely, nearly mythically numerous. Early New York settlers gaped at a sky filled from edge to edge with a rustling tapestry of passing birds; Dutch colonists reported in 1625 that they “shut out the sunshine.”
They were good eating. When Hudson and his crew dined with the local Native Americans, they were served passenger pigeon. The supply of this ready food source was judged at roughly infinite. You could bring down a dozen birds with one blast of shot. Adventurer and wildlife painter John James Audubon, one of my favorite New Yorkers, made this description:
In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio River, on my way to Louisville... The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.
Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardinsburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river.
Alexander Wilson (the “Father of American Ornithology”) wrote in 1829 that the vast flocking of passenger pigeons had “no parallel among any other of the feathered tribes, on the face of the earth.” He found a breeding area in Kentucky where every tree was nested for forty miles, and described a flowing column of migrating pigeons with no visible end or beginning, “so that the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river.”
In the 1870s these undiminished numbers were reduced to millions; then to thousands; then to one—and then none. Dying out is the main theme of natural history. But this was the largest-scale extinction caused by humans, ever.
Or learn about Revive and Restore, the god-unfearing effort to resurrect the passenger pigeon through genetic engineering. If you like folk music with your biotech (who doesn’t), click below and listen to John Herald’s “Martha Last of the Passenger Pigeons” while you do.
This morning I was on The Leonard Lopate Show. “Don’t be alarmed when you go in and he’s not there,” said Melissa Eagan, the executive producer. He wasn’t. Microphones, office chairs, and coffee how I like it. I sat and waited.
A minute before air, he rolled in and took his seat. What is Leonard Lopate like in flesh? He gives off a force field of imperturbability. This guy is in control, like you could tell him that you’re actually an alien from a conquering planet, peel your face off, and he’d blink and nod: “So tell us about this planet.”
He asked about all the right things, and on my side I tried not to say “um” too much. At the end he shook my hand and Melissa took me around the corner to peer at an old original studio window hanging in the hallway (see top). “This is a relic,” she said. “It’s been at WNYC for eighty years, at least.”
I’ve become the guy people want to show this kind of stuff to, and I like it.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of a working Panama Canal. The first ship to take the shortcut between the Pacific and Atlantic was an American steamer, the Ancon, on August 15, 1914. Actually, this was the first official passage: earlier that month a lowly cement boat, the Cristobal, made the crossing without any ceremony, or much notice.
I like this. The Panama Canal was a great big dirty slog of an engineering feat, and by the time it finally went into service, people seemed a little tired of hearing about it. According to The Path Between the Seas, David McCollough’s history of the canal, the declaration of the official opening was “buried in the back pages” of the press.
Curious for the signal event in world shipping. McCollough again:
It was both the crowning constructive effort, “The Great Enterprise,” of the Victorian Era and the first grandiose and assertive show of American power at the dawn of the new century. And yet the passage of the first ship through the canal, in the summer of 1914—the first voyage through the American land mass—marked the resolution of a dream as old as the voyages of Columbus.
All it took was three decades and 25,000 dead men. For a tidy, if somewhat epileptic, motion graphic on the whole shebang, try this from BBC:
New York City, as the nation’s port, had a lot of skin in this game. But the connection goes a little further. Theodore Roosevelt was the bully mover behind the American effort (he’s presumably the “man” in one of the best palindromes ever: A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL—PANAMA), and Teddy’s our only New Yorker president. But it goes further. You can visit here the very spot where the canal plan was drawn up. As in the very furniture.
The Explorers Club on the Upper East Side looks remarkably like what it is: a century-old meeting place for daring adventurers. By the time you hit the foyer, you know at some point you’ll turn a corner and find a stuffed polar bear (library vestibule, second floor). It’s full of awesome, virile knickknacks. The sleds that hauled Peary to the North Pole hang on the wall, a perfect 10 for badass.
The globe Thor Heyerdahl used to plot the course of Kon-Tiki.
You can see all this if you come to the regular Monday evening lecture. Up another flight of stairs is a members-only area that I was kindly given a tour of by lecture organizer Robert Ashton, a man who once spent ten years straight sailing around the world.
Here the objects become a little more intense. This is the tusk of a woolly mammoth that was found frozen in Siberian ice.
Lots of African art objects.
Lots of important animal parts. Including the penis of a sperm whale.
And in the middle of it all, this table.
This is where Roosevelt is said to have laid out the plan for America finishing the Panama Canal. Before the jungles and the dynamite, before the yellow fever, malaria and mudslides...Before the Ancon and every ship—1,015,721 at last count—that followed her.
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin is one of my favorite places to stun a New Yorker: it’s a soaring cathedral hidden among a row of buildings, just fifty yards from Times Square. Don’t treat a visit there as a religious experience—or not unless you want to; I for one would be happy if I never saw another tortured Jesus in my life. Treat it rather as an exercise in amazement.
For drama, take the 47th Street back entrance. It looks like nothing.
Five steps later you smell incense and bump into a massive pillar. Here’s the straight shot:
My interest in Saint Mary the Virgin, aside from its splendid camouflage, is the building’s place in architectural history. Saint Mary is a true New York City innovator, the first church in the world built on a metal skeleton. Here it is going up in 1894 (click for big):
I headed down with a camera and a notebook to see if there was any part of this pioneering metal frame visible to the explorer. I got more than I deserved. On this Secret New York gig, I’m always hoping to luck onto the Right Person: the sharer, the fixer, the door-opener. At Saint Mary’s the janitor told me to go next door and ring the bell of archivist Dick Leitsch.
You can’t know what to expect from a man who nests in the cobwebs of an old church; Dick turned out to be a charming Kentuckian with a slow, sly sense of humor and a serene urge to knock my socks off. He trudged back up the stairs to fetch a large ring of keys, and during the next hour turned the place inside out for me.
Here’s the motherlode of metal: the trusswork underneath. “They couldn’t build it with buttresses,” says Dick, “because there were brownstones on either side. So they ended up putting all this bracing under here.”
This was still early days for metal structures: nobody at the time knew how much bracing was needed. Dick laughingly sums this arrangement up as “totally overkill. It made the basement basically useless.”
There’s room, though, for a creaky stair leading down to the dark nook where the incense-maker concocts his secret recipes.
Pressed to imagine what a subterranean incense-maker’s digs would be like, I might have come up with exactly this. I didn’t know yet that Dick was showing me the sanctum sanctorum: Saint Mary the Virgin is famous, as much as Episcopal churches can be famous, for the flavor and volume of incense it uses in service. The place’s nickname is “Smokey Mary.”
Cans and jars of the stuff were lined up in the dust like bottles of rare vintages.
As I was inspecting the weirdness, Dick called down: “Now you are the incense-maker. Forever!” And he quietly locked the door.
Kidding. The tour continued in the rector’s office, and its century-plus-worth of church vestments, as well as the old safe with a one-way door in the top to deposit collections, and the censers and hardware used to make all that smoke.
I love anything special-made. The fancy-fancy cross has a nook built right into the wall for it.
And here’s another that looks like Flash Gordon’s microphone.
But my favorite discovery was probably this.
This Virgin Mary presides over the side chapel—which, by the way, pushes the already amazing depth trick of the interior into the territory of the eerie. For whatever reasons, this statue strikes me as a perfect thing. When I stopped to figure out how, Dick was quietly waiting for it. “Lee Lawrie,” he said. It’s the guy who did this:
I’ve found my way back to New York City, just in time for the release of New York: Curious Activities. It looks like this:
but in my mind it will always be this, except messier:
The weeks around the final draft were crammed with attention-intensive tasks, in ways that made me keep strange hours and smell interesting. I did a one-two punch of TEDx talks (boom and ah-boom), and started filming a documentary on Alexander Ekman’s beautifully crazy A Swan Lake at the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet.
“Lake” really meant lake. The final stage was filled with 6,000 liters of hot water. Here’s a sample of rehearsal:
and an idea of what went into the look:
Then I bounced, somehow, to South Africa. Again with a camera: I documented the Stars of American Ballet tour. This is why I now have footage of a rhino eating a tutu. All of this is true, incidentally. Here’s the bush, just before the rhinos were fed ballerinas:
And now the present. It’s August. I’m sweating at a desk with the waterfall static of all 500 of my neighbors’ air conditioning units wafting through the open window. I’ve got a couple of months of steady editing ahead of me, and a hoard of odd New Yorkana still to spill. Meanwhile, Amazon tells me, with no apparent sarcasm, that newborn New York: Curious Activities is among the top 500,000 books in the universe.
This poster, featuring portraits from the blessed era before the invention of the smile, hangs on the wall of the tintype studio on the ground floor of the Center for Alternative Photography on East 30th Street. Allow me to shill for a moment. This place does it right. Upstairs you’ve got studios and classrooms for seemingly every photographic process on earth. In the basement is a vast collection of old gear, like an eBay warehouse stuck at 1911. In between is the studio, where you can have your permanent and unique portrait taken with an antique camera and printed onto a sheet of metal.
I came to the Center to take a class on cyanotype, just one of the vividly chemical arts on offer. The prints are formed by the compound ferric ferrocyanide. After coating your paper with the light-sensitive cocktail, which is the palest yellow-green, you do your exposure and then watch while the image gradually darkens in the developing bath to a lush, deep, indelible blue. The process is the origin of the term “blueprint.” The tone is a kind of dye: you can even print on cloth.
While I was there I spoke with executive director Geoffrey Berliner:
Berliner, mostly responsible for the Center’s hoard of antique equipment, is obsessive—in my world freely synonymous with “likable.” He took my picture three times while I was there. Once with a camera that makes two nearly identical prints simultaneously for viewing through a stereoscope, an early 3D contraption. The second was with an uncompelling digital point-and-shoot which, however, was customized to take a solid old-timey lens. The third was a wet-plate collodion print in the tintype studio downstairs.
“Wet plate collodion photography is addictive,” he warned, with the look of a guy who knows, and went on to explain the Center᾿s place in New York, a photographer’s city if there ever was one.
The first photograph in the so-called New World was taken out of the window of Samuel Morse’s studio looking over Washington Square Park. New York is basically the beginning of photography in the United States. Lenses and equipment were made immediately downtown, right around City Hall, and then later moved further north to around this area, and all the retailers were further west near Penn Station. So we’re in a very historical photographic district right now, and this building is devoted to that history.
The tintype studio is sort of an homage to those old studios of the 19th century. If you’re interested in photography, that’s great. If you’re not, but you want a keepsake, a thing, not a pixel, not something that’s living in the cloud, then you come here for this crafted object. You’re actually pouring the emulsion, the actual syrup onto the plate, you’re sensitizing it, you’re making it wet in the camera—and you leave with this thing that will last a long, long, long, long time.
When I sat for my tintype, the first thing the photographer Bonnie did was select a shiny new rectangle from a stack, the canvas for my eternal image (actually aluminum, not tin). Then I got a front seat on the darkroom process: coating and loading the now wet plate into a black cartridge. This was then slid into the back of a camera that had a lens the size of a teacup. Sit still. Click. Then into the darkroom again to develop.
The development part is witchcraft. There are two stages: one where you see your image emerge as a negative, and a second where the negative blooms weirdly into positive. The resulting print is the only version in the world of the brief moment when you were translated by glass into a cone of focussed light shining on a chemical compound.
Filmmaker Errol Morris recently published the second part in his Times series on Lincoln and photography. He interviews collector Keya Morgan; I liked what Morgan had to say about wet-plate process.
It’s like magic. Pure magic. When you move away, the image doesn’t move away. It stays there for eternity until somebody destroys it or misplaces it. When Lincoln was standing there, there were light waves shooting out at 186,000 miles per second, hitting that collodion plate—that emulsion was made directly from him. I mean, that’s incredible.
Yesterday walking down Fifth Avenue I heard in the tourist babble of the street what sounded (to my Californian ears) like an authentic pronunciation of the word “dude.” There’s a quality, a languid, bovine note, that I miss when other States use it. “Dude” seems to me born of the West, and from there exported over the amber grain to every corner of the nation.
Or not? As it happens: not. During research for Secret New York, I discovered that it’s the other way around: “dude” was coined on the streets of Gotham. Which got me thinking: other New York City word origins? I sniffed around, made a list as a thematic insert for the book, but it got cut for lack of space. I just dug it up: here it is.
John L. Mason, a tinsmith working in New York, filed his patent for a screw-on lid in 1858. He was only 26.
Head shops are where you can buy a decorative statuette that is curiously ideal for smoking weed in. The term comes from a shop of the same name that operated out of 304 East 9th Street. After it opened in May, 1966, the Village Voice noted its collection of “exotica,” and added: “The police have been by a few times, taken notes, but everything is cool because no drugs of any kind are sold there.”
This odd word has been traced to New York City children’s slang in the 1920s. At the time decal transfers were popular; kids would stick them on everything for no good (or bad) reason, perhaps the logic behind the meaning “ridiculous, to no purpose.” The word “decal” is an abbreviation of “decalcomania,” from French décalcomanie. “Decalcomania” got twisted to “cockamamie.”
Short for “knickerbockers.” Washington Irving’s History of New York gave us this term for a New Yorker (it gets shortened even further in the case of the basketball team, the Knicks). Irving’s book was illustrated by George Cruikshank, who portrayed “old-time” Dutch in loose short pants. They looked a lot like women’s undergarments.
According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “a self-satisfied self-assertive cocky person with pretensions to cleverness.” This presumably sums up the character of Aleck Hoag, who lent his name to the phenomenon. Hoag was a pimp, thief and con-man active in the mid-1800s; he operated a New York brothel equipped with sliding wall panels so he could rob the johns while they slept.
From “opposite the editorial page,” a newspaper format first used by the New York World.
Straight from Dutch hoekje, meaning “hide and seek.” Used in the sense of skipping school from at least the 1840s.
The musical form and the name for it are both homegrown.
New York invented Santa Claus. In Holland, St. Nicholas’s Feast Day is on December 6, but early New Yorkers moved it, along with its tradition of giving gifts, to Christmas. The name first appeared (as St. A. Claus) in the New York Gazette, 1773. Washington Irving was the first American writer to give a description of Santa Claus (“riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses”) and Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast gave him the form we recognize today. But it was another New Yorker, Clement Clark Moore, who really fixed the man in the public imagination: in 1822 he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins, “’Twas the night before Christmas...”
From Corlear’s Hook, a Lower East Side neighborhood on the river once known for sailors, shipwrights, and the prostitutes who lured them.
From Greek theosophos (“one wise about God”), the name of the combination of ancient and Eastern philosophies promoted from 1875 by the cracked and intense Russian aristocrat Helena Blavatsky at her mystical salon, called the Theosophical Society.
First recorded as New York City slang in 1883, meaning “a fastidious man.”
The term Southerners use to disparage Northerners has a rich history of insult. It was originally designed to hurt the feelings of the Dutch: the word either comes from Janke, meaning “little John” or Jan Kees—“John Cheese.” In a reversal, the early Dutch adopted “Yankee” to make fun of Englishmen in neighboring Connecticut. In turn the British used it, even before the Revolution, to describe Americans in general. The song “Yankee Doodle” dates from 1755, during the French and Indian War. It was written by a limey bastard Army surgeon to mock the ragtag Colonial troops who fought alongside the regulars.
Well, you don’t have to do anything after you flush, and because we live in the bosom of civilization that’s as it should be. If you want to suspend taking sewage treatment for granted for a bit, or are just fascinated with the wrong side of the spiral, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant gives tours to the general public once a month.
In the orientation speech you get the whole logic and reason behind the place. 99.9 percent of sewage is just good ol’ water. The DEP chestnut goes: Q: What’s the difference between drinking water and sewage? A: Six inches. (The distance from tap to drain.) Good water is used to flush the unsavories like—to take just my favorite of the euphemisms—“TSS” or Total Suspended Solids, which can be present to a greater or lesser degree depending the stage of the process. At the plant they use the term “mop water” for thin sewage, the revolting “pasta sauce” for thick, and “sludge cake” for the fully treated stuff that gets barged up the East River and sold to farms. If someone offers you sludge cake with your coffee, firmly refuse.
Here’s the electrical system control room. It looks exactly like you were imagining.
Here’s a guy coolly averting some fecal disaster.
This is the one of the massive boilers that keep the so-called digester eggs—the thirteen-story stainless steel orbs—at a constant temperature.
For me the most striking detail of the whole show: that temperature is 98.6 degrees. As in people temperature. The bacteria inside that busily breaks the sludge down is the same that lives in your gut, because giant steel egg digestion is really an extension of human digestion. With every batch, half gets moved further along the process, while the other half is kept to “seed” fresh sludge with critters. The eggs even fart: methane comes out the top.
The first thing raw sewage encounters is a 1.5-inch screen that keeps out big stuff that would screw up the system. When asked what was the weirdest thing they’d ever found in the screen, the superintendent got a little more hair-raising than I was expecting. But he said they’d also found (and returned) flushed wedding rings. The stuff gets scraped off by mechanized blades. This is the worst-smelling part of the tour.
You take an elevator to the gangways at the top of the eggs. Through a glass porthole on each one you can see methane bubbling. Methane and million-dollar views: not a bad mix for a weekday.
This little honey is the first fossil I’ve ever found without the help of a trained professional. A whole mess of scallops and snails in a sandstone matrix, right from the shores of New York City. Potential fossil hunters: this is the cement-like gray you want to look for.
I was out solo, but hardly alone: it was a couple of weeks ago at Far Rockaway, just a trot down from the busiest stretch of beach at the level of 116th Street.
The thought of crowds of unsuspecting people walking by a fossil mixed in with some shells on the sand does something for me. The rating on this one is 7,000-12,000 years old. So either older than agriculture, or older than any surviving architecture. I’ll take it.
Trolling through the City Blog of the Times, I came across two interesting articles that ended up neatly intersecting last week. The first was about a British rock climber, Gareth “Gaz” Leah (above), who had written a book about climbing in Manhattan. NYC Bouldering has over three hundred routes or “problems,” and you can do them all without leaving the island. This is squarely within my strike zone of Nature-Meets-Metropolis.
I tracked Gaz down and he agreed to show me a couple of his favorite spots (definitely going in the next book). I thought he might also be the guy to solve a riddle in the other City Blog article, this one about an artist named Kevin Sudeith, creator of lovely and bizarre carvings in Manhattan rock. Sudeith calls these carvings “modern petroglyphs”—that’s to say, rock art with symbolic or even religious overtones. Squarely within my other strike zone of Metropolis-Meets-Ancient.
The article doesn’t give the exact location of the carvings per Sudeith’s wishes, and out of deference neither will I. Because I know where the carvings are, now. All I did was swipe up the above photo from the article on my phone and Gaz said, immediately, “I’m ninety-nine percent sure where that is.” Then he drove me to an unfriendly stretch of expressway banked by schist cliffs where, among other stuff, we saw discarded syringes. Gaz was dead right, and I’m doubly a happy writer.
This is plantain. It grows pretty much everywhere. If you chew it up, the pH of your saliva will react with the plant’s chemistry to form a universal antiseptic. The nickname is “nature’s medicine chest.”
This is mullein. The leaves are pleasantly fuzzy and about palm-width. Its nickname is “nature’s toilet paper.”
These are potassium iodide tablets. You’ll want to take some if you get in the vicinity of an atomic blast to reduce the radiation poisoning. They may have a nickname: I hope I never have to find out.
I learned these things, and many more, in the North Woods of Central Park during a class in basic survival with Shane Hobel, founder and operator of Mountain Scout Survival School.
In the class you’ll learn to make an emergency shelter, and how to negotiate a smoldering Metropolis, and the safest way to break sticks. You’ll learn which is tastiest among raccoon, skunk, opossum and squirrel, how to signal someone with a mirror, and how to make an emergency water filter from Poland Spring bottles and a tampon.
But the real draw for me is Shane Hobel himself. I don’t know anyone like him. He’s one of five on the National Tracker Search and Forensic Investigation Team and has contractor, stuntman, motorcycle instructor, and security consultant on his résumé. He calls himself White Feather. He makes vague references to “The Elders.” His speaking style can be hilariously rough for someone who charges money for classes, and as the righteous browbeating went on, I liked him more and more. The war is coming. (Or the Nanny State, or peak oil, or a weather catastrophe, or zombies). Hobel’s job is to make this vividly clear.
Here are some of his greatest hits. Parts of it you can call paranoia. But paranoia, in hindsight, you can call preparedness.
“When I hear the whiners I say: OK, you’re dead, you’re dead, you’re gonna die. The ones that say: Oh, I got this, I can do this—you’re dead. The ones who say: I don’t know what I’m doing—you’re gonna be fine. You’re here to learn.”
“I’ve caught squirrel, bird, pheasant, snake, turtle, fish—all with bandanas. Super versatile and super cheap.”
“So, you can put on your go bag and walk twenty blocks? Reality check. We’re talking two hundred blocks: that’s how far you have to go to get you to the threshold of where you can finally go somewhere.”
“Think about today: you’re in a beautiful park in a city, there’s no hunger, no hypothermia. You’re not in a survivalist situation, you’re in a survivalist class. You’ve got it easy.”
“Make sure that the micron count on your water filter is .2 or less. If it’s more than that, you might as well use your sock. Which I don’t recommend.”
“The amount of oil in a Frito corn chip is disgusting. That’s why they’re so delicious. You can take a Frito chip, and put a lighter to it, and it’ll burn like the wick of a candle for a long, long time. Then you can start fires with it. Talk about survival food.”
“Anybody here vegan?”
“Anybody here vegetarian?”
“Good. You will survive.”
“Don’t ever trust any government agency, they’re just criminal, criminal, criminal, criminal, right across the board. It’s the ignorance of the American public not doing anything about it—that’s what’s driving me crazy.”
“I can track deer, and hunt deer, and make a hundred and sixty different extracts—tools and things—that you can get from deer.”
“In my advanced wilderness survival class the only thing you’re allowed at all, is a knife. But you’ll be making your own knife.”
After making the video of collecting fossils at Far Rockaway, I started hearing about Dead Horse Bay. It’s a mile-long inlet under the Marine Park on the southern coast of Brooklyn where, beginning in the 1850s, New York City used to chop and boil its dead horses to make glue. The spot later became a more or less contained landfill, and then an uncontained one, and today is a beautifully gloomy fountainhead of soggy antique junk. You learn here what’s durable in life: shoe soles, ceramics, and glass.
Squishing through this bay at low tide is very much like collecting beach fossils, except the fossils were manufactured by us. The approach from the marina offers some real natural beauty (above); after fifty yards the first bottles start to appear.
Then bottles and shards of hand-painted plates and century-old horse bones and, for context, the primordial shells of dead horseshoe crabs.
Then glass. More glass than sand. The lighter glass, as well as the ceramics and even clam shells are often dyed an odd orange-leather color, by god-knows-what. In places the water has a violet cast, and reflects petroleum spectrums, and smells like fuel. The bottles you pull out have a sheen of artificial mother of pearl.
Not all the glass is antique, but people come from all over to pick through it. A woman from Ontario was there for colored shards: she knew the composition of each glass by the color. I learned for the first time about uranium glass, also called Depression glass. It’s generally a pale chartreuse, and was used in complimentary glassware handed out at shops and movie theaters in the 1930s. It really contains uranium; under a UV lamp it will glow.
The most common object seems to be this little guy. If you want to start a world-class collection of two-inch-high faceted brown bottles, grab a sack and get yourself out to Dead Horse Bay. Small bottles come in all sizes and colors, and are more likely to be whole. They’re also sometimes embedded in a rich sediment of what must be compacted garbage of yore: you have to chip them out like jewels from rock. Click the pic for a gallery of finds.
How do holograms work? “Think of a tire track,” says Jason Sapan, owner and resident magus of Holography Studios. “It leaves an impression in the mud; you’d then fill it with plaster, and have an identical three-dimensional tire. We’re doing that with light. That shape now—in dimension—is stored in the light wave, which comes back to our film, and gets photographed.”
If I didn’t understand that—and I definitely didn’t—it wasn’t for lack of examples. Sapan has a gallery space that is the last word on this 3D art form. All sizes and types. I like holograms, but they’re so totally convincing in conveying a witchy dimension beyond the flat plane, when I look at them I feel like something has gone terribly wrong either with physics, or with my brain. You can even print them on transparent plexiglas so that when the hologram isn’t in direct light it’s just...nothing. Then hit the switch and you get this:
Or this. It’s Warhol reading a magazine; as you walk past, he moves, looking up from the page to give you a 3D stare. Sapan, who has been at this for decades, filmed the sequence himself with the actual Andy Warhol.
If you make a visit, see if you can get a tour of the tech dungeon where Sapan keeps his lasers, and one million other things.
Here’s the shooting station, where a beam is bounced from mirrors onto the subject, in this case a skull.
And here’s a former subject stuck on a shelf: a plaster eagle. For the palace of the Sultan of Brunei (true story), Sapan had to construct the whole model from scratch. “The longest part of the whole process is making this stuff,” he says.
One thing, though: holograms are totally unphotographable. The best photo of a hologram just looks like the real thing. So here’s a short clip of one of the gallery highlights: a circular clear plastic hologram with shifting frames, creating the illusion of a tiny woman floating, in full Help-me-Obi-Wan style, right before your eyes.
The monument to William Tecumseh Sherman at the southeast entrance to Central Park is currently getting restored. Generally ranked among the nation’s finest equestrian statues, it’s one I never took to—partly because the mottled patterns of aging gilt and bronze made it hard to see correctly—until I read this article by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. He doesn’t just like the statue of Victory leading Sherman into battle: it’s his favorite public art work in the city.
What interested me most in the article was Sherman’s attitude as a portrait subject. Do an image search for the general and you’ll see a very intense, very photogenic man. He looks like he never smiled in his life; in some shots he looks almost deranged.
For the equestrian monument, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens had Sherman pose for nearly 40 hours. When he asked the Civil War hero if he wouldn’t mind sprucing himself up a tad, Sherman answered, “The General of the Army of the United States will wear his coat any damn way he pleases.” Lucky for us, according to Schjeldahl: the bare-knuckle grandeur that resulted was, he wrote, the artist’s “signature feat.”
The restoration of the monument was announced in the Times a couple of months ago. Today the same reporter, David Dunlap, came out with a City Room piece that includes an exclusive view inside the bronze statue.
This is a mural in Haiti that depicts the Statue of Liberty draped in the loa Dumballah. A loa is a voodoo spirit, and Dumballah, who takes the form of a snake, specializes in fertility. People who believe he’s real also believe that he can grant wishes.
What does any of this have to do with my recent trip down the Bronx River in a canoe? Funny you ask.
First the river. You can really do this: get out of a subway in the Bronx, walk a couple hundred yards, and find yourself in a fluvial dream. White cranes wading at the banks, minnows darting in the shallows, and the old water (which the borough was named for, not the other way around) slipping south at a walking pace.
I saw ancient willows.
I saw rabbits.
I tranced out on the incongruity, and plain beauty, of traveling down New York City’s only freely flowing fresh water.
Now, I know freaking peculiar when I see it—and I was about to see it. Off the bow there was money: dollar bills floating in the river. I fished one out, wondering if I’d find somebody’s fallen wallet tumbling upstream, maybe a corpse, when my paddling companion became very still and murmured: “You. Are. Being. Observed.”
I rose up slowly, still shaking off the wet dollar bill, and turned just in time to see a couple of black ladies swish off into the trees without looking back. On the bank was this:
It’s peeled bananas and boiled eggs on a bed of rice and covered in what I’m gonna guess is cornmeal, for reasons I’m about to get to. After pocketing the bill, I got back to paddling, and eventually reached the grid, and home.
And the internet. What did people who came across bananas’n’eggs arranged on a plate next to a river with floating money in it under the furtive gaze of ladies who disappear into bushes do before the internet? It took me three and a half minutes to get here, a university webpage outlining various voodoo business. Damned if Dumballah the snake loa isn’t behind all this.
Dumballah is the snake...Being both snake and aquatic deity, he haunts rivers, springs, and marshes...He is in charge of white metal (silver) and must be fed white food and drink...His favorite foods are eggs, cornmeal, melons, rice, bananas, and grapes. It is believed that if respects are paid to him by a married couple, he will keep them happy.
I’m no expert on voodoo, or its more common local variety Santería, but I’ve brushed against it before. I know that offerings are found in Gotham all the time, and fresh money (the bill I fished out the water was spanking new) is also a feature. So call me intrigued.
And I like this Dumballah, for two reasons. One, he “sustains the world and prevents it from disintegrating,” which is clearly a help. Also, he can’t talk: “He is one of the oldest of the ancestors and is so sacred that he doesn’t speak, but expresses himself through hissing sounds, just like that of a serpent.” I like to think he believes everyone can understand, so—old thing—just keeps on hissing.
What did I do with the money? I wanted it as a souvenir of an odd experience—which, you should see my place. But it got shuffled in with the profane, and I guess I just ended up spending it, and probably desecrating a voodoo ritual.
It’s one thing to call yourself the Lemon Ice King, and it’s another to also be the Lemon Ice King. Once you see this corner joint in Corona, Queens, you’ll know you’ve stumbled on that endangered New York species, the Real Thing. The King has been serving up Italian ices for sixty-nine years, and always according to the original recipe. As is only correct, the King makes the rules: inside a sign reminds you:
“We still don’t mix,” says co-owner Vinnie Barbaccio. “The founder, Pete Benfaremo, I used to work for him when I was a kid. He was a real...” Barbaccio smooths his white mustache and searches for a nice way to say “tyrant.” “Let’s just say mixing was one of his pet peeves. Every flavor has always had its own spatula. You had to do it his way, or you walked out.”
There are currently 52 flavors, and the recipes are a secret. A local middle-aged lady in line says that the Lemon Ice King pretty much defined her childhood; the taste has been consistent. She sums up the appeal: “Real fruit. And you can tell.” If you come in the winter, you’ll see tractors out front hauling hundreds of boxes of citrus fruit; it gets crushed, and sugared up, and frozen, and packed into drums. In the signature lemon ice there is real pith and pulp.
“That’s the way it’s been done since square zero,” says Barbaccio, “and that’s the way we still do it.” It works. Barbaccio can barely talk ten seconds without having to dart back in to deal with business, and the line has every variety of human in it, of every age. “It’s the one the people like,” shrugs a guy from a local pizzeria picking up a large order. “Give ’em what they want.”
The Lemon Ice King is on a square; in the middle is a park called William F. Moore by officials, and Spaghetti Park by everybody else. It’s the answer to the question Where should I eat the best Italian ice of my life? On the north side is a bocce court where guys have been playing for at least as long as the King has been in business.
Here old Nico, a wizard of the overhand grip, is contemplating the mystery of incompetence as he destroys his younger Mexican opponent. Nico’s signature move: wait until younger guy tries to knock you out with a power play; when he misses, gently roll out a bank shot and—since the game’s already over—immediately roll your last ball just a couple of feet behind it, so that both come to rest in perfect mocking formation just inches from the target pallino.
This weekend I thrummed into the waters between Coney Island and Breezy Point on a fishing boat-for-hire, the Sea Queen VII. I can’t say I much like a boat with a serial name (The Pride of the Bay IX; The Unsinkable III) but she was, except for some wicked roll about halfway through, a solid old girl. Fluke was the catch, and the patrons were split into two camps: newbies, represented pretty much evenly by summer camp tweens and frat jerks, and sunburned tars, who held the stern.
I stuck with the tars. One of them, Randy, had a weeping Jesus tattooed across his back with the motto “In Memory of MOM.” He, like the other experienced fishermen, held his rod with the tip pointed down, and kept his thumb laid gently across the line. The water out there can be only ten feet deep in places. I saw people haul up clumps of mussels, and crabs, and the puzzlingly named rabbitfish, which has wings like a bird and barks like a dog. After four hours Steve, whose tattoos skewed Irish, made a last-ditch effort to win the pool ($150) and came up with a sand shark so white and perfect it might have been molded in PVC. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m done.” And he leaned over to burn the bait and hook from his line with the tip of his cigarette.
There are two ways to know for sure if it’s officially summer in New York. One, thousands of people do yoga in Times Square. For the last dozen years, this is how the spandexed masses have celebrated the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.
The other way to tell: people begin bitching about how hot the subway is. Or actually: how hot the suffocating platforms are, and how cold the air-conditioned trains are inside by comparison. Why can’t we meet somewhere in the middle, MTA? The question was put to a Transit spokesman a few years ago. As it happens, the baking city’s heat actually seeks the subway spaces out, forming torrid “heat sinks,” which are exactly as repellent as they sound. And the air-conditioning of the cars makes matters worse by releasing hot air exhaust into the system.
And why not just air-condition the connected tunnels and platforms as well? “You can’t air-condition an infinite space,” said spokesman.
I hate summer subway platforms, but I admire this guy’s ballsy logic.
After getting so much out of his birdwatching tour in Bryant Park, I wanted to hang out again with Gabriel Willow, this time on the so-called Bat Walk, an exploration of Central Park at night.
Willow, the Wizard of Audubon, has an uncanny command of these tours, as though he and Nature worked out the script beforehand. Near Strawberry Fields a bluejay is making a racket. “That’s a danger call,” Willow says, “so there’s probably a predator somewhere near.” The phrase is barely out of his mouth before we spot a hawk hunching on the next branch over. Willow points out a gray catbird in a bush. “It got the name because the early settlers thought it sounded like a cat”—the catbird meows—“but it can also mimic other birds”—the catbird tootles. In the Ramble he says, “Right about this time is when the raccoons wake up. Gotta come down and go to work, start raiding trashcans.” And promptly a bushy adult clambers grudgingly from its bed high up in a sweetgum tree.
The Bat Walk, offered through Sidetour, starts at twilight, when the day shift fauna settles down and the night shift comes on. Once you’ve been sensitized, you’ll believe you can feel this changeover taking place quietly around you. The air is actually different: Willow notes that at twilight fragrances are more pronounced as the humidity rises, and the trees open the pores in their leaves, releasing the day’s store of oxygen. When one of the tour-goers thinks she sees some motion in a tree, Willow holds a flashlight at his temple and homes in on the spot. “Ah,” he says. “Baby raccoons.” Holding the beam next to your head puts you at an angle to catch the reflection splashing from the backs of a nocturnal animal’s eyes; one by one we try it ourselves: nothing in the black tree, and then—pairs of gleaming, living dots, shyly observing.
When the first bats come out, the sky is still light enough that you can see them darting above the trees.
Thanks to electronics, you can also hear them. “I have this nifty device here called a bat echolocator,” Willow says, pulling from his backpack a small black box. It brings down the bat’s impossibly high-pitched bursts to within the range of human hearing. Willow turns the dial to above 30 kHz, into the frequency range of red bats, which are the most common of the half-dozen species found in Central Park. Soon the machine fires off a series of eerie chitters.
There’s something beautifully strange about this perceptual eavesdropping. The navigating signal a bat makes is generally entirely private. It isn’t a call: it has no message to convey. You could think of it as a sonic paint that the bat sprays over the world in order to “see.” With echolocation bats can resolve an object as fine as a human hair; in Central Park, they use it to hunt flying insects, emitting a base signal that will speed up for greater resolution as they approach prey.
It feels like sorcery, but Willow is quick to offer context. “We tend to categorize,” he says, “but the senses are basically just perceiving waves of things: your eyes are perceiving light waves and your ears are perceiving sound waves. But we’ll never now what it’s like. We can figure out the mechanism but not the reality.”
Pondering the reality of bats in the cool aromatic depths of Central Park is—you must have gathered by now—a good way to spend an evening. Listen to the echolocation for yourself:
The awesome shadow is the Alley Pond Giant, sometimes called the Queens Giant. It’s the most ancient living thing we know of in the whole city. This tulip tree might have been around in 1609 when Hudson turned his ship up the bay and saw a handsome people “clothed in mantles of feathers and robes of fur”—the orginal New Yorkers. It’s also the tallest tree in the city, but don’t take Wikipedia’s word for it, because their wintertime photo makes the noble old god look around seventeen and a half feet tall. Its real height: absolutely, terrifically huge.
To find the Giant, follow this map: it’s spot-on. You get to see a lot of Queens that you probably wouldn’t otherwise. This is the eastern limit of the city, a place of strange sights like dogs off their leashes and real houses with what appears to be sky above them.
Like everything striking and natural in New York, the old tree has built-in tensions. You access it by an asphalted path at the intersection of two unfriendly residential thoroughfares, about a hundred yards from the looping confluence of the Long Island Expressway and the Cross Island Parkway. Even when you’re halfway down the path, you can still see the semi trucks hurtling by, and there’s no point, even deep in the green, where you can’t hear the hiss of major traffic.
The path head looks like this:
And you’ll take it, because the other direction looks like this:
At first you’ll think that you’ve been lured into a facsimile of a trail, because all the nature is behind a black chain link fence. Then the fence suddenly stops. Head out directly into the wild. After about 50 yards, you’ll have seen a few trees that could or not be the one. Then there will be no doubt.
There was a time when the Parks Department thought it wisest not to advertise the Giant for fear somebody, or several somebodies over time, would do something idiotic to it. Now they’ve adopted a policy of quiet tribute. Against the tree base leans a weathered sign.
It reads, in part:
This tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipfera) is the tallest carefully measured tree in New York City with a height of 133.8 feet. It is also probably the oldest living thing in the City at an estimated age of 400 years or more...This tree is perhaps the last witness to the entire span of the City’s history from a tiny Dutch settlement to one of the great metropolises of the world...It has survived miraculously from a time when native Matinecock people trod softly beneath it to an age when automobiles roar by oblivious to its presence. If we leave it undisturbed, it may live among us for another hundred years or so.
On the other side of the tree, like a warning to enjoy the power and otherwise mind your business, is your old friend poison ivy.
Below is a satellite shot of the improbable Greenbelt, a four-mile stretch of forest right in the navel of Staten Island. The blue circle marks what is reportedly the wildest spot in all of New York City: the furthest you can be from a house or street and still have your feet on land.
The spot looks like it sits on the edge of a lot of development, but the cleared area to the southwest is a cemetery, and the white dots to the east are the sand traps of a golf course. And listen: it doesn’t matter. When you’re inside the Greenbelt, you are gone.
Getting there involves a miracle of public transportation—a subway, a ferry, a bus—that takes over two hours, crosses every variety of city landscape, and costs $2.50. These long NYC traverses are some of my favorite traveling. You pack a lunch in your tight apartment with the honks and shouts of the street coming through the window, and when you unpack it, you’re sitting on a fallen tree overhanging a verdant bog that croaks with toads. Inner Staten Island is half-wild anyway; the roads have no sidewalks, and two steps from the asphalt you can get acres of poison ivy. A skip through this patch, right near a bus stop, would be good for two weeks of flaming hell:
High Rock Park is the center of the spread of forest, the “buckle of the Greenbelt,” and there is a whole network of trails there. I dove off in search of bogs, and saw a lot of old fallen trees—a sight that always speaks to a certain encouraging wildness. Much of the earth of Staten Island, unlike the rest of New York City, is red: iron percolated up with springwater.
I’ve had a special liking for these chunks of red ochre—iron oxide—ever since I read that certain Native Americans used to crush them, mix the powder with bear fat, and spread the paste on their bodies as a sunscreen and insect repellent. The practice might be the origin for the term “redskin.”
My new happiest place on the planet is a sweet little kettle swamp that was apparently owned by a single patrolling red-winged blackbird. I spent a few hours there, and didn’t see one human.
The Drop-In Drawing program at the Met has been active for years. It works like this: twice a month, toward closing time, a group of people gather in one of the endless galleries and study an element of drawing together under the instruction of museum staff.
There are two great things about this. First, you’re in one of the world’s preeminent collections of art for a purpose other than stroking your chin. And: “Drop-In” is literal. You don’t need anything. Folding stools, good paper, different pencils and charcoals, erasers, drawing boards—they’ve got it. If sketching after masters interests you at all, you have to search hard for an excuse not to come.
Mastery cloaks itself. Great works become more mysterious the more you look at them, and if nothing else, what you’ll get out of retracing an artist’s choices in line and shadow is a deepened respect. At a recent class we drew from Manet, and the painting I sat in front of, “Boating” (1874), was great for this. There doesn’t seem to be anything very complex happening in the sailor’s face. But it’s full of graceful observations. My sketch didn’t begin to come together until I realized that, unlike usually, there are no shadows under his eyebrows. There’s light. In fact, there’s sunlight. In fact, there’s the active, watery kind of sunlight, reflecting from the waves in front of him.
I liked how one instructor, Jessica Houston (below on the right), expressed this sudden connection you can feel with the artist. “Drawing opens up another kind of engagement with an object,” she says. “And I think in particular it kind of collapses time. Because you stand in the very same place that the artist stood when he or she made that work. It was a live thing. It was an activity. The painting is a trace of that.”
Last Saturday I spent a few hours at the ACME Studios in Williamsburg to see what the deal is with anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy. I didn’t do my own: I was there in a chronicler’s capacity, the guy interested to know that among the teeming eight million in NYC there are a few people sitting around a table somewhere cutting open rodents, pulling their insides out, and arranging them for display.
You can do this at your own kitchen table: all you really need, besides a deceased animal, is a dry preservative, a sharp knife, tweezers, a needle and thread, and a tendency not to throw up a lot. But you’re better off getting some expert guidance, especially for the trickier moves like tongue and brain removal. Here’s your expert:
This is Divya Anantharaman, and her class offered through the Observatory covers all the mouse stuffing basics. When you arrive the mice are already laid out and ready for peeling. They’ve been...one hesitates to say “rescued.” —They’ve been shifted, in destiny, from a snake food outfit in the Midwest. “I don’t put in any request for color or size or anything,” says Divya. The animals arrive dead, and every shipment is different. “It’s a natural product, so you never know.”
Is this an injury to the dignity of the mouse? Debatable. If you give your little guy a bronze sword and shield, and top him with a crest of bristling deer fur, probably not. (Hat-tip to Aaron from Danbury.) “It’s different every class,” says Divya. “Some people go for something really dynamic, some people are more subtle.”
Best results come from the folks with a clear idea and some preparation. Others get carried away with the tiny props on hand; unless your idea is “zombie prostitute,” it’s good policy to show some restraint. At worst, you’ll learn something.
“You get to take away a bit of skill, a bit of know-how,” says Divya. “Like a craft class, but you get your hands a little dirtier. It’s an anatomy lesson, a good mix of science and art.”
It’s also history. Anthropomorphic taxidermy goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, and is often grouped in the suspiciously cute-sounding category “Victorian whimsy.” The practice was popularized by this guy, Walter Potter:
Potter was a nut for taxidermy, and created an entire museum for his pieces. He went in for detail (if there’s a mouse wearing a tiny dress, under the dress are tiny lace knickers), but kept things weirdly normal: scenes of daily life that just happen to be enacted by frozen kittens, or rabbits.
When he died in 1918, Potter was skinned, stuffed, and perched in a chestnut tree near his childhood home in Bramber, England. Don’t look this up.
With the connection of the WTC spire last week, the Western Hemisphere got a new man-made high point. Pic taken from the roof of a building on downtown Broadway. This sci-fi monster is really growing on me.
At the head of Great Jones Alley there’s another example of wry parking signage that attempts to worm its way into the magical jungle of your brain. It doesn’t seem to be official city issue like the last one, but has the good sense to play perfect deadpan.
I’m trying to visualize a sign like this in, say, Cincinnati. Not working.
I’ve always wanted to try birding, but I’ve also always been a little put off by birders. Specifically the birders you meet now and then in the Ramble of Central Park: pointy, creaky people, in my experience. So when I heard that the Audubon Society offers birding in Bryant Park, I sensed a good thing. Bryant Park is not a deliberate, artificial cradle of forest life: it’s a lawn on the very crotch of Midtown. It’s likely to attract a different sort, and there’s no better place to plumb the theme of Nature in Metropolis.
This turned out to be far better than I’d hoped. Partly due to this odd creature:
It’s an American woodcock, and to see one in Bryant Park is extremely rare. In every direction rise gleaming skyscrapers—and here’s this bird taking a breather during an epic migration north, blinking modestly in the shadow of a painted bench. The rabbity face is unique: the eyes are so far back on the head, this bird has overlapping fields of view—and as a result, depth perception—in the rear, where danger lurks, but not the front. The front hunts for worms, and it’s unique, too: the woodcock’s bill has nerves all the way to the tip so it can sense life underground, and the tip is prehensile: it can jab the dirt, and then grab the worm. The plumage is a confusion of dashes and flecks—the compelling ecological term is “cryptic coloring”—and this woodcock was so hard to see, even on a manicured patch of ground, our guide had to resort to an ingenious method to help one of the birders: “Do you see that bench?” he asks. Nod. “Okay, do you see that rock to the right under the bench?” Nod. “That’s the bird.”
The guide was this excellent person:
His name is Gabriel Willow, and he has a trait that true masters often will: generosity. What he told me in interview after the tour so perfectly captures what I hope to transmit through writing about the city, the best I can do is quote him wholesale.
One of the beauties of being out in nature and exploring birds is it can take you out of your own city concerns sometimes, and transport you a bit into their world. So you just sort of lose track of time. You’re in a little reverie, watching the woodcock rooting around for worms or something, and it’s really interesting, trying to think how they experience this landscape. And you see a lot in Bryant Park. You just have to open your eyes and look carefully.
It’s the other lovely thing about this pastime: it enhances your powers of observation and your sense of the possible and the unlikely, because you never know what you’re going to find. We saw half a dozen people go by that woodcock, totally oblivious, walking to work. And if they were aware, how might it make their day a little more interesting, to see this incredibly improbable bird? And the more you know about the bird’s story, the more meaning it has.
More of Willow’s good work in tracking urban ecology here. Bryant Park birding schedule here. More than you maybe wanted to know about the woodcock’s scientific name here.
Every time I see a person in New York who uses religion as a launching pad for their own special fireworks of crazy, I always think of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, where she describes the preacher as “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” This particular insane person, a regular on the subway, has a well-thumped bible, a Jamaican accent, and the nuance of a foghorn. Click the pic for more Jesus.
Today, Saint Patrick’s Day, I collected my first mushroom. The New York Mycological Society held one of their regular fungus walkabouts, this time in Inwood Hill Park. The site had advertised leprechauns, but this turned out to be a ruse, perhaps to draw newcomers into their musty cult. (How to identify a newcomer: he’s the one not wearing a loupe on a lanyard.) But I couldn’t have been the only person who noticed something naturally leprechauny about our leader, the New York Botanical Garden’s Gary Lincoff:
People obsessed with mushrooms seem to share a wary friendliness that first manifests as a slow burn of excitement. There are two hundred different mushrooms you can collect in Inwood, and microfungi beyond number. The prospect of spotting something strange—down in the leaves, budding from a log or rock, or oozing down a crack—never dies. One young man carries a clipboard to log his discoveries; he wears a shearling hunting cap, and has a scruffy Civil War-style mustache and blue eyes as pale as an iceberg. He says: “If you don’t find something new, you’re not looking hard enough.” This is not a bad thing to hear from a club member.
I learned fifteen thousand things. Here are a few.
Mushrooms are not plants or animals. In turn, slime molds are not mushrooms. Slime molds are in fact gargantuan amoebae. The one below had sprouted a yellow shag carpet of fruiting bodies. Why? Air currents are dead on the forest floor, but not millimeters above it. The tiny boost gives the spores a chance to spread.
This tawny fungus naturally forms tessellating shapes. The Linnaean handle is Xylobolus frustulatus; Latin frustum means “piece broken off.” Its handsome nickname is “ceramic parchment.”
Every serious mushroom hunter goes out with a bottle of potassium hydroxide, or “KOH.” If you dropper this compound on a mushroom, the stain may turn black, or yellow, or even purple, often clinching the identification (common ammonia is also used). The mushroom below is a Phellinus rimosus and it was found growing on a fallen black locust tree, which is this particular mushroom’s specialty. It’s now in my freezer to kill the bugs; later it’ll go on the windowsill, next to the fossil.
This next mushroom is called Daldinia concentrica by biologists, “King Alfred’s cake” by civilians, “cramp ball” by folklorists, and “mockturdle” by myself. You can’t, and wouldn’t, eat it. The cake name comes from a legend about Anglo-Saxon king Alfred who, while fleeing the invading Vikings, hid incognito in a peasant woman’s cottage; when she asked him to keep watch on her cakes, he let them burn because he was so preoccupied with his threatened kingdom, and presumably a shitty cook anyway. (Turns out the story was actually ripped off from the Vikings.) The mushrooms were a bogus remedy for cramps: sufferers used to carry them in their pockets.
June, I’m told, is the best time to go fungus hunting. When I ask if there’s any charismatic mushroom that might knock a beginner out, one man (tweed coat, horn-rimmed glasses) says: “You should have been with us on our December walk. Then you would have found something that could have knocked you out for real.” Psilocybin, he explains. Shrooms. Magic mushrooms. Boomers. Caps. Mushies. Blue meanies. “Growing right up there,” he says, pointing up the hill. Now you know.
I first learned about the Broadway Clock Tower visit in one of a stack of quirky New York City books (you can find them at the Milstein Division of the main branch of the public library), and as far as I can remember, which is not too far, it was the only thing that particular book was good for. I had vague familiarity with the tower as old headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company (between Worth and Leonard Streets: it’s now the Criminal Court), and had seen it, but the way you see city buildings that don’t involve you personally yet: a little like wallpaper.
That’s to say, I had overlooked a working four-faced stone clock flanked by a team of guardian eagles a dozen stories in the air. The author of the library book said that climbing up the tower and seeing the clock from the inside was one of his favorite things to do. Once a week, you have the opportunity to agree with him: every Wednesday morning at 9AM, the official clockmaster of New York City, Marvin Schneider, hoists the weights and oils the old machine. Because the clock is a landmark, you can make a visit while he does it. This is Marvin:
And this is an original bottle of tower clock oil.
Two things. First: climbing up the clock seems to have been a bit more of a thing a while back. For instance, it’s where Mickey Rourke (intercut with smoothly turning gears) jackhammers Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks. “She was right there,” Marvin says reverently, pointing to around four o’clock.
Second, the building is haunted by one of the city’s weirdest riddles. The way we see the tower is not the way passersby in the early 20th century saw it. The stone clock house used to be capped by bronze atlases that shouldered a globe with a spreading eagle on top. Like this:
Every piece of this titanic sculpture—muscles, world, bird—disappeared sometime around 1947. That nobody knows where they ended up drives Marvin Schneider crazy. “If you find out,” he says, “you’d be solving the Big One.”
I haven’t found out yet whether there’s actual punishment involved, but this Department of Transportation sign in front of Rockefeller Center is the only instance I know of municipal thoughtcrime enforcement.
Maybe if you think of parking (I did, and I don’t even have a car), they have someone in a cold gray room somewhere whose job it is to think of you paying a hefty fine, buddy.
Tonight was the opening of the third installment of Single Fare, an art exhibition featuring exclusively works on plastic MTA subway cards. You would think this would get old. It doesn’t. Hundreds of people packed into RH Gallery on Duane Street to see tiny portraits, and tiny landscapes, cityscapes, film stills, mosaics, photographs, abstracts—even zoetropes, sculptures and whatnots. (Hey, person who just melted a card into a dirty ripple: either you need to try harder, or you’re a diabolical talent. From 1925.)
Co-founder Jean-Pierre Roy has an idea why people go for it: “You know, I think artists like it because it’s very egalitarian: there’s so many options of what to do with your ideas, that to give everybody the same constraint is kind of freeing in a way. And it allows for kind of a good-natured competitive experience.”
You might have heard that this month Grand Central Station celebrates 100 years. Actually, the place is technically called Grand Central Terminal, but if anyone jumps in and corrects you it’s generally considered okay to kick them in the face. Grand Central has its own thick atmosphere of history and legend; my favorite detail is the analysis of the “soot” that had uniformly blackened the interior until a restoration in the 1990s. Turned out to be not train exhaust, but pretty much pure nicotine. Those lovely photos with the buttresses of dramatic sunlight angling down into the main concourse came courtesy of tobacco.
One detail that’s not always fully appreciated is the enormity of the clock piece decorating the south façade (above). The work, called “Glory of Commerce,” features Roman gods—Hercules, Mercury, Minerva—that are truly colossal. Please note, rest of the world, that the American eagle is tight with these giants. It’s one thing to hear that “Glory” was the largest statuary group on the planet when it was installed shortly after Grand Central opened a hundred years ago. And it’s one thing to hear that the sculpture is fifty feet tall or that Mercury’s head alone reportedly weighs fourteen tons. For me, what really conveys the scale of these giants is seeing puny humans crawl around them. That’s another thing. Like so:
If you’ve never noticed the brass clock embedded in the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, you’re one of the many. Still, the clock is pretty well known among those shifty obsessives with a thing for the rare and the odd. The company that installed it, Barthman’s, has been around for well over a century (it used to be located right on the corner along with the clock; now it’s a couple of doors north).
At peak the clock gets walked on more than 15,000 times per hour: they’ve actually counted. And the thing has been telling the correct time more or less continuously since 1899. It nearly took a terminal hit during 9/11—the towers were only blocks away. When I asked manager Connie Swierkowski about it, she said I should talk to Barthman’s bench jeweler Guilo: he’s the one who caulked up the cracks in the sidewalk (see the blue arrow in the pic above) and changed the motor after rainwater seeped through. And he was down in a subterranean workroom, right underneath the clock, when the explosion shook Manhattan.
Subterranean workroom? This is one of the few cities in the world where you can get a pretty clear idea of what happens underground, so I guess I didn’t expect that below the cement corner there was nothing but dirt and skeletons. But for some reason I wanted the clock to be set in, like an urban gemstone. “No,” said Connie, “that’s how we get to it—wind it and repair it and correct the time and everything—from underneath.”
Enter Guilo. He took me through a metal door on Maiden Lane, led me down into the city’s thrumming guts, and once we were in the right spot, completely disassembled the corrugated tin sheeting in the ceiling to show me the backside of a true New York City curiosity. Exclusive. Click for big.
Call this Part II in a series on New York City chickens. Now that you’ve seen the best place to be one, here’s something like the opposite. What decorates an urban chicken’s blackest nightmare? This:
It’s the plastic flaps separating the stacks of cages—chicken tenements—from a guy with a knife. And, as it turns out, a couple of very special processes: first, a turn in a cone to drain the blood, then a scalding bath, then a spin in a machine with dozens of rubber digits that rip out all the feathers while the poor bird judders around like a sneaker in a clothes dryer. You don’t have to watch all this, of course, but one thing that unites the people who get their chicken from viveros, or live poultry markets, is an unsentimental approach to dinner.
There are a dozen viveros in New York City, and a couple in Manhattan. The interest of these places goes well beyond poultry: they’re the working class immigrant experience in concentrate form. A Chinese guy between an El Salvadoran and a West African waiting to get a chicken slaughtered by an Arab? You will find it here. And not everybody who buys a chicken wants one for dinner: adherents of Santería—a Yoruba-Catholic mashup practiced by thousands of New Yorkers—use (momentarily) live chickens in sacrifice rituals. This sounds made up. It’s not. My favorite bit of Santería news? The principal who was fired for warding off her high school’s evil spirits by dousing the place with blood. This was in Manhattan.
I don’t know much about Santería, but I can’t help but like that this kind of kinky flapdoodle really goes on around here. It overshoots “medieval” by a mile and lands somewhere near the very source of superstitious mist. I first heard about the practice while researching the grave of naturalist John James Audubon for the book. The grave is in the uptown Trinity Cemetery (on what used to be Audubon’s land). A retired verger at the church there told me about finding strange offerings on the tombstones—what he thought were remnants of santerista rituals. I don’t know if he was right, but I know that any graveyard story featuring the phrase “a bag of cow tongues with women’s panties” earns my full attention. Listen for yourself:
New York City: somebody’s buying a forty-thousand-dollar ring on Fifth Avenue, somebody’s sipping a caramel latte under fluorescent light, somebody’s stepping out of a limousine in their gym clothes, somebody’s spraying chicken blood to impress a demon. But then, nobody ever said it was boring. My favorite vivero is Manhattan Live Poultry on East 117th. Charlie, a Puerto Rican fruit seller who keeps a stand out front, has seen the santeristas come and go. Here’s his version:
There’s a parking lot in the Bronx that has an old aspen tree behind a chain link fence. In the tree live dozens of wild chickens. Or maybe they aren’t exactly wild. They’re whatever an animal is that runs loose when it wants, but through a landscape of concrete and asphalt and old tires and broken glass. Feral? I don’t know what to call them. But head over there with a bag of dry rice and you’ve got yourself something strange to do.
The chickens roost up in the old tree not because they have a sense of urban poetry, or sense of urban anything: it’s just good old-fashioned staying alive. “They gotta protect themselves from raccoons and rats,” says Eddie Guerrero, who works at the lot. Raccoons eat chicken? “Oh,” he widens his eyes, “a raccoon will tear a chicken up.”
Eddie turned out to be one of the best people I’ve met on this gig. He watched quietly, pushing a broom, until he sensed that more info about the chickens was welcome—and then he delivered a succinct, informed, and unexpectedly soulful account of how they live. Free, but among us. Listen for yourself:
Mastodons, the woolly mammoths of North America, lived on Manhattan for millions of years. It’s possible to bore into Gotham earth and strike ancient bone (see below), but there are indirect ways to infer the presence of the vanished giants.
In the book I cover the odd and lonely Kentucky coffee trees of Central Park: they produce seed pods filled with poisonous green goop. For a long time biologists wondered why this tree went to the trouble to make fruit that no earthly animal can eat without falling down dead—when eventually someone remembered that much bigger animals once grazed the land.
Here’s another angle on the same theory. You may have noticed certain New York City trees armed with enormous thorns. It’s the honey locust. Here’s one in Riverside Park that has a particularly crazy, nasty beard of spikes that says: “Be my guest, stupid.”
This defensive measure may have been aimed at mastodons, who were likely (in the style of today’s elephants) enthusiastic bark-strippers.
As for actual mastodon bones, the last time anybody dug some up on Manhattan was a group of workmen in 1925. Still worth trying, though. Click the headline if you want the full story of drama and debauch; for instance the milkman who stole one of the prehistoric teeth, saying, “I want this for Hazel. It’ll be a corking thing for the whatnot.” Indeed.
The milkman wasn’t alone: out of fourteen loose teeth, just one eventually made it to the Museum of Natural History.
In the museum collections they have a full jawbone from the same site; the tag mentions the thievery, with the note: “two molars were recovered after a plea for their return was issued.”
You know what that means. Eleven Manhattan mastodon teeth are still out there: on mantlepieces and bookshelves, in cellars and attics...
If you answered: filling a pig intestine with blood-soaked barley, you are weird. And correct. You must also know that it’s getting near holiday season at the Estonian House, when that New York stronghold of the strangest of the Baltic countries hosts its annual verivorst tutorial/festival.
Verivorst is black pudding or blood sausage, which apparently unites us all. “It’s pretty much a peasant food all around the world,” says Aili Vanaselja, whose family recipe kicked off the NYC tradition. “In Argentina they have morcilla, they make it in Spain and Germany...My nanny is from Bhutan, and there they make it with rice.” Asked where to get the best blood, her husband Siim (I also met a Taivo Ets and an Ell Tabur: all Estonian names sound vaguely intergalactical) said immediately: “An Italian place, 38th Street and Ninth Avenue.” Now you know.
After collecting real New York City fossils I checked out some of the ones you can see hanging around Manhattan. In the lobbies and window frames and columns of buildings: weird beasts frozen forever in limestone and marble. These urban fossils ring all of my cherries: it’s science and architecture and hidden treasure and the deepest, strangest kind of history.
They have the therapeutic quality of perspective. You’ll feel better about the world when you’re in the handbag section of Macy’s, for instance, and while the frowning lady next to you is trying to figure out whether she wants to drop a thousand perfectly good dollars on that same goddam Louis Vuitton owned by every Mrs. Jones everygoddamwhere, you’ve got your nose pressed to the marble pillars, inspecting the remains of animals that flourished 450 million years ago.
Pictured above are horn corals in the exterior of Saks Fifth Avenue; below, sea lilies in the framing around Tiffany’s display windows. Bottom: high on the west wall of 510 Fifth Avenue, a giant sea snail in what was once the lobby of the Manufacturers Hanover Trust (now a retail clothing store).
But the best fossils, for hiding-in-plain-sightness, might be the ones at the Rockefeller Center. The entire complex is clad in Indiana limestone. It just looks like a buff, sandy texture, nearly uniform except for a few interesting scars and what look like drag marks from the quarry. But get your nose close to pretty much any part of it, and you’ll see skeletons.
These animals flourished in a tropical sea that once covered the Midwest. You can find the same rock at the Empire State Building and the Met.
Here’s what Rockaway looked like a couple of days ago. That’s just the wild beach: the neighborhoods were a good deal worse. It was a sad chance, if you needed one, to see sidewalks heaped with destroyed furniture, hundreds of dead cars, and boats in the streets. I wasn’t looking for an upside to all this: I was busy feeling lucky that I’d personally had it easy, disaster-wise. But I learned to respect the storm in a different way. She sluiced a shitload of water, but she also coughed up a few treasures from the dark sea. Among them, fossils. Real, true, New York City fossils.
I learned that such a thing exists from Carl Mehling. Mehling, as noted elsewhere, works in the Paleontology Division at the American Museum of Natural History, and is almost certainly the only person to have found fossils in all five New York City boroughs. His secret: he’s insane. He really wants more than anything to find mineralized dead things, and he doesn’t take but-this-is-a-metropolis for an answer. I asked him what’s the best you could hope for from a stormed-over shoreline, and he made a sort of voluptuous moo: “Oooooh,” he said, “a crab. There are these crabs embedded in the sandstone with their claws folded up and you can see every little detail...Ghaah!”
Five days after Sandy howled over the city, Mehling and I drove out to Rockaway to deliver a bagful of flashlights to the boardwalk area, and swung by the beach to see what remnants of the deep past were strewn among the labyrinths of litter. Here’s what happened:
It’s instructive, to say the least, to have a paleontologist along. Mehling crunches over the same debris you do, but he sees it differently. The best thing I learned is that beaches may be, at any one time, secretly teeming with fossils.
“They’re Pleistocene marine fossils,” Mehling says, “so it’s a lot of the same species that live there today, but they’re clearly fossils because they’ve been preserved in nodules of stone. They range in age from about 12,000 to 7,000 years old—the older ones in that group are the ones that would really be considered fossils.” (Mehling draws the line for considered reasons at 10,000 years.) But when chunks of fossil-bearing rock get washed onto the beach, Mehling says, “all that stone weathers away and it just looks like a seashell. So a huge amount of the shells on the beach are probably fossil shells, but you wouldn’t be able to tell unless you did some expensive analysis on it.”
If you feel a little blown away by this fact—that when you lay out your beach towel, you’re surrounded by the remains of creatures that lived before humans had cities, or writing—read more here.
The place on the left is E. 99th Street at First Avenue. Those are garbage trucks: the brick building is a Sanitation Department depot. But it’s a depot unlike any other in the city, and to find out why, you have to poke around until you come upon the place on the right. This otherwise ghoulish iron stairway is your rabbit hole to a vast trove of art.
The “art” you have to take in context: everything here on the second floor is, strictly speaking, trash: it was tossed, deliberately lost, discarded, left on the curb. But then along came a garbage man, and he decided the discarder was wrong. Yes, garbage men are the ultimate arbiters of value in the city, and they grant reprieves. As powers go, this one is pretty great.
The garbage museum has been slowly amassing its collection for a couple of decades now. The building is supposed to be off limits to civilians, but when I asked the guys in sanitation green standing out front, one shrugged, “It’s not for me to tell you where you can go and can’t go.” What I know is: nobody kicked me out. For more on the space and Nelson Molina, the guy who started it all, try this article in the Times.
Top prize in my book for trouble and mystery: Dog No. 34.
Boxing is on the decline among young New Yorkers. The old-timers at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn can talk about this for hours. “Used to be, young guys, they come in here to fight,” says Rodney, a regular watcher. “Somebody walk in that door, they gonna hit, and they gonna get hit. Kids now, it’s all about the points. They ain’t no brawlers left.” Still, he’s not exactly camping out anywhere else on a Saturday afternoon.
October 13 was the Metropolitan Championships, a hurdle on the way to the Golden Gloves, a gateway to boxing glory. I don’t know what Gleason’s was like a generation or two ago (according to owner Bruce Silverglade, it’s the oldest operating boxing gym in the States) but the young fighters I spoke with at the “Metro” were the most disciplined, good-natured people I’ve met in a long while. They radiate a unique vibe: swaggering, methodical, nervous.
The Westside Rifle and Pistol Range on 20th Street is a no-nonsense firearms training facility located in the basement of a 12-story building with fancy stone and iron balconies. In other words, my kind of thing. It takes a while to find the entrance, but when you open the back door of the lobby and hit the stairs down to the basement, you can already hear the pow, pow of guns. A second ago you were walking down Fifth Avenue; now you’re among folks with a thing for deadly force. It’s a little surreal.
“I get teachers, doctors, lawyers,” says Johnson, the manager. “I get people in the public school system. I get men, women...” A lot of security and law enforcement personnel, but the regulars are united by a simple love of guns. Johnson says he came in years ago for a hunting license, and fell under a spell. “For me it’s more of a zen thing, being able to reach out—” he aims an invisible pistol “—and touch something at a distance.”
You can do this, too. If you’ve gone through the first-timer application process (not a big deal, but don’t bother if you’re a felon), within minutes of walking into the place you’ll be holding your own .22 target rifle and listening to the expert instruction of “Tiny” John, who looks like he could shot-put a refrigerator. John is quick, funny, and eerily skilled with guns. When I observed that my rifle shot consistently high and to the left, he took it from me, strung an inch-wide strip of cardboard out about thirty feet, and made a pretty line of holes right up the middle. Then he went to work on my card:
In the photo at the top of the post you can see the tiny black dashes he made around the word “New;” in the video he draws a Smith & Wesson 9mm and neatly punches out the one on the right.
Highbridge is a nearly 200-foot-tall water tower that lords over the Harlem River at about 174th Street. If “asking around” is scientific, then I’ve proven to my satisfaction that nobody who doesn’t live directly in its shadow knows anything about it. The tower used to house a 47,000-gallon water tank that was fed by the Croton Aqueduct. There’s a fair amount about the Croton in the book: it was a massive public works project completed in 1842 that had mythic overtones: the reservoir at 42nd Street was built in an ancient Egyptian style meant to foreshadow awesome permanence. It’s just the kind of architectural hubris that New York delights in converting to smithereens: after only fifty years they knocked the reservoir down to build the main branch of the New York Public Library.
The High Bridge, the last leg of the aqueduct’s forty-mile journey from upstate to Manhattan and the oldest surviving bridge in New York City, is still there. But you can’t walk on it. The old bridge has the interesting quirk of leading a double life in GoogleMaps: clearly visible in satellite mode, from the point of view of traffic it’s a gray ghost: although it still links paths on either side of the Harlem River, it was closed to the public decades ago, and today only vandals and adventurers ever set foot there.
The park that crawls along the outcrops of the Manhattan side is one of the wildest places I’ve ever visited in the city: it feels lost, furtive, overgrown. The hills creep with greenery, and springwater oozes right out of the rock, and the trees seem to be stranger than other city trees, even slightly sentient. At the same time, the trails are paved with broken bottles and Harlem River Drive never stops humming.
So Highbridge Park is a good place for both natural and urban history, and Ranger Jerry Siegler, one of the park rangers who give weekly tours there, knew a lot of both. Ranger Jerry pointed out an ancient plane tree with a hollow trunk that used to be home, for years, to a stranger-than-average homeless guy. Homelessness is a theme at Highbridge Park, perhaps because the place spreads over a zone where natural laws are suspended. And it’s dense. According to a Times article, during a mid-80’s cleanup
dozens of abandoned cars, hundreds of tires, refrigerators, several dead dogs and a human body were found amid the tangled brush.
But a house in the trunk of a tree surrounded by cadavers and appliances is not as weird as homelessness in Highbridge could get. There was weirder—and far, far, better. If you take a tour that includes walking up the insides of the water tower itself, you will end up in an octagonal granite room with bracing vistas. According to Ranger Jerry, this was an aerie for the eagles of the bums: here the homeless lived strange, rent-free lives at the top of their own forgotten tower. Below is the view south from one of the tower’s arched windows. Even the photo seems infected with the general oddness of Highbridge: it doesn’t look like New York City—or not the one I know. It looks like the New York City a thousand years from now, after the plague, and the missiles, and the zombies have come and gone.
If you make your way to Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island, you’ll find two things worth the trip. One is the south pole of New York City (and State): some inspired citizen marked the spot with an actual cartoon-style candy stripe pole. Beyond that point there be dragons, and New Jersey. The other thing is the Conference House. It was here, in 1776, that a single conversation determined the fate of the United States.
At the onset of the Revolutionary War, Staten Island was the site of the enormous British troop landing; the seventeenth-century house (it’s the oldest standing manor in New York) belonged to a prominent Loyalist. Just after the Battle of Long Island, British admiral Lord Richard Howe held a meeting in the house with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge, who had made the crossing together from New Jersey in a rowboat. Over a tense snack of wine and mutton, Admiral Howe said: “This is getting ridiculous. What do you say we just all shake hands like gentlemen and stop killing each other.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Okay. But we still get to be our own country.” Howe sprayed a fine mist of claret. “Ah!” he choked, “no, that won’t do at all.” Franklin said (this is all paraphrasing) “Wrong answer, Dick.” The yanks rowed back, the Revolution continued, and today we drive on the right side of the road and play baseball and make great action movies and whatnot.
Every year in mid-September, historical reenactors take over the Conference House. I’m a great fan of the idea of historical reenactment, but it usually comes off a little sad. Not here. I think I was officially sold when I saw the woman in bonnet and petticoat pause from stirring a smoking iron pot of corn chowder to casually wipe the tears from her eyes with her apron. Next to her was a smiling, well-built young lady churning butter. Later I ate some of the butter on fresh bread and I can say: churning butter is worth the trouble. I met Private Clark, a poor farmer who joined the Loyalists because of his unwarlike nature; when I asked how he thought the conference might turn out, he blinked, “I would not hazard a guess,” and nibbled on some hardtack he kept in a Ziploc baggie. I appreciate that his uniform looked like it had been stored under a dead horse:
What makes the Peace Conference festival work is the connection to the precise location of history: it was here that the epic meeting took place. You get quiltmaking and dulcimer music, and a guy who makes leathergoods with porcupine quillwork and another who shoots muskets at the sky, but the main event is a reenactment of the conference itself. Every year Ben Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge make the passage from New Jersey over the Arthur Kill, usually in a period rowboat. “The boat got stuck on the George Washington Bridge,” says a lady from the nearby Raritan Yacht Club. “We had to use a motorboat instead.” Nobody minds. After a dramatic trudge up the hill to fife and drum, the actors take seats around a table and recreate history.
If this isn’t your thing, head back down to the beach and just stare. You are still within the boundaries of the world’s most batshit metropolis, but it looks like Nowhere. The woods and shores give visitors, according to the Conference House museum, “a glimpse of a pre populated landscape of New York City.” If you want to imagine an untroubled Algonquin fishing oysters in, say, the year 1608, this is the place.
It’s still an architectural mystery to me how “overwhelming” can manage to convey “human.” Manhattan Art Deco has a brilliant knack for this effect; you see the Empire State or the Chrystler and you think: this crazy behemoth was made by and for people. The building on the left is a personal favorite of the impossible-heroic style: the 70-story RCA Building (now called the GE Building, or 30 Rock). It’s a famous structure that’s very hard to visualize: strangely thin on edge and a full block long, one of its nicknames is “The Slab.” There’s no place you can still see 30 Rock as it appears in the photo (taken right after construction in 1933). If you want to get the long view looking down the approach to the Plaza, you’ll bump into the buildings on the other side of Fifth Avenue before you can take it all in. When you’re within the perfectly arranged space of Rockefeller Center, the tower positively looms.
This kind of lens can create an impossible world where receding vertical lines never converge: in this case it might just as well be called a perspective eliminating lens. It’s not the viewpoint of an eye: it’s the viewpoint of geometry. Ideally straight and free of the normal distortions, this is 30 Rock like you’ve never seen it in life, and like you’ve probably never seen it before in a photograph.
For comparison, here’s an image of the Rockefeller Center at its loomingest. This photo is by Samuel Gottscho, who also took the one at the top of this post. Gottscho could be the patron saint of late-blooming local artists. Born in Brooklyn, he was a traveling salesman who took photos on the side. He didn’t become a professional until he was 50, and didn’t do his best work (by his own estimation) until after 70. The Museum of the City of New York has a trove of Gottscho work. See it here.
If you’re like me, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about urban bowl planters—but you know brilliant when you see it. I was recently in Crown Heights, around Utica Avenue. Some wizard had discovered that, instead of buying a decorative planter (compare left), you can make your own by turning an old tire inside-out, scalloping the edges, and painting it “terracotta.”
If Civil War General Daniel Butterfield is famous—it’s debatable—the main reason would be the military bugle call “Taps.” The general is supposed to have written it. Except he didn’t, really. And the statue of the man that stands in Sakura Park in Upper Manhattan is supposed to look like him. But it doesn’t, really. And Butterfield is supposed to be a swell guy, but he was actually a bit of a conniving jackass. The monument, the history, the man: it’s all screwy in seven different directions, and the bronze statue is my candidate for Official City Representative of the MESSINESS OF HISTORY.
The City plays a role, here. Next to the Butterfield statue is a Parks Department sign that keeps things simple: it claims the general was “the composer of the mournful bugle call Taps,” period. Park signs are none too accurate; I once asked a librarian at the New-York Historical Society what he thought of them, and he stiffened and rolled his eyes like he’d been smacked with a cartoon frying pan. Why the real origin of the bugle call interests me, I have no idea. Maybe because Taps is so lovely, when it’s played right it can make my hair stand on end. This is played right:
In 1862, the simple melody replaced the traditional military “Lights Out” call. One legend has it that a Union captain, after hearing a Confederate soldier groan all night in a ditch, finally crawled over in a fit of pity and, when he held a lantern over the dying man, recognized his own son (who had been “studying music in the South when the war broke out”). Because he was a Confederate, the boy was refused full funerary honors: only one bugler was allowed. Lucky, then, that in the son’s pocket was Taps written out complete: the captain had the bugler play the original composition, everybody felt terrible, and a military tradition was born. The story, of course, is totally ridiculous.
But the truth is slippery. Historians agree that the first person ever to play Taps was bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton; according to the fairest version of the story, he and General Butterfield sat down and wrote the new call together after a battle. But in his own account, Norton slips in a couple of embellishments:
General Daniel Butterfield, then commanding our Brigade, sent for me, and showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me.
The original tune, the pencil, the charming envelope: it’s all made up. The account has to be squirrelly, because Butterfield couldn’t write a note of music. We know this because Butterfield wrote in a letter:
I can not write a note of music.
Butterfield could play the bugle, though: he picked it up as part of a commanding officer’s standard skill set. According to the general, he didn’t think the traditional evening call was “as smooth, melodious, and musical as it should be,” and sat down with Norton to improve it. In other words, Butterfield took the existing song, and went to work on it. The existing song was the first eight measures of Lights Out, otherwise known as “Tattoo.”
You can hear the DNA of Taps about 14 seconds in. Tattoo is an ancient bugle call, and as it happens even the name “Taps” originates there. This from Jari Villanueva, the Arthur Fonzarelli of bugle call historians, and the source of most of the above:
Tattoo may have originated during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) or during the wars of King William III during the 1690s. The word tattoo in this usage is derived from the Dutch tap (tap or faucet) and toe (to cut off). When it was time to cease drinking for the evening and return to the post, the provost or Officer of the Day, accompanied by a sergeant and drummer, would go through the town beating out the signal.[...] Tattoo was also called Tap-toe and as is true with slang terms in the military, it was shortened to Taps.
When you compare the original with the smoother, more melodious version, you have to give Butterfield a lot of credit: he may not have invented the song, but the man had an ear. So the Parks sign says that the general composed Taps: only part of the truth. I knew this going in. I got thoroughly bit, however, by another detail. The statue of the general was created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Although his name sounds like squelching mud, Borglum was no slouch. You know him from this:
Borglum, as the Parks sign notes, annoyed Butterfield’s widow because the statue didn’t look enough like her dead husband. Borglum said: sue me. She did; he sued back; feelings were hurt. Borglum, the sign claims, “was asked to modify his design so extensively that he signed the piece on the top of its head, commenting wryly, ‘That is the only part of the original statue they didn’t make me change.’” I love that “wryly.” Especially since it seems to be made up. We pick and choose our bullshit: this signed head was the reason I wanted to write about Butterfield at all. It’s the kind of thing you want to pass on to others: That statue? You can’t see it from the ground, but the artist signed the top of the head in a rage!
The book was already in proofs before I pondered for a moment the reputation of Parks Department signage. I biked up to Sakura Park with a video camera and a 12-foot pole, and...you can guess the rest.
No signature (that I can see). And anyway spiteful head-signing loses its force when you’ve already signed the general once. Take a gander at Butterfield’s left bootheel. Gutzon Borglum, there the whole time.
Today I noticed for the first time: the Union Square farmers market is full of bees. You can see scores of them in the stands: bees scaling nectarines, grappling on plums, nosing nosegays. Stinging people: apparently not. The girl at the honey stand wears black-and-yellow gloves, and stands, in perfect composure, amid a cloud of agitated bees. “They’re attracted to it,” she says, holding out a plastic spoonful of sample honey. This makes sense. “And they’re angry because we took it from them.” Also makes sense. But where do the bees live? She points across the street.
Here’s something more surprising than bees swarming Union Square: there are thriving hives on the rooftop of the building at 17th Street and Broadway. What’s more, the honey you buy at the market stand comes, in part at least, from those very hives. The man behind this neat arrangement is Andrew Coté, producer of Andrew’s Taste-Bud Bursting Local Wildflower Honey and the closest we will ever get to an urban apiculture superhero. My jar cost $10.
Columbia University Astronomy Public Outreach Program has the most outlandish event roster.
“The Truth About Black Holes.” “How I Found a Supernova.” “Strange New Exoplanets.” All this in a city where you can hardly see a star in the night sky. New York scores a nine on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale. The scale measures the amount of skyglow from light pollution, and nine is as bad as it gets. In Galileo’s time, everywhere—absolutely everywhere—was a one. Today you can scarcely find a one in the continental United States; you’re better off in the Australian Outback or Antarctica. But astronomy in Metropolis isn’t totally futile: the whole celestial carnival is still silently spinning out there beyond the glare, waiting. The Outreach Program is for folks who like to be reminded. It expands the feeling you get when, walking at night on a loud cross street banked with fragrant garbage, you turn a corner—and see a tremendous full moon hanging over the roof of a brownstone.
The schedule is regular: every other Friday in the Pupin Physics Lab (read about it in Chapter 9 of the book). You can see the domed telescopes on Pupin’s roof from the ground. The place is noted for other other reasons: it’s where the first uranium atom was split in the U.S. Atom bomb code named the Manhattan Project? That’s why. The labs are connected to Columbia’s famous tunnel system; once you could scurry directly to the underground capsule that was home to the original cyclotron—the atom-splitter itself. This monster of a machine (the magnet alone weighed 65 tons) was sealed in the university basement in 1965, and gathered cobwebs there until it was dismantled for scrap in 2008, making a lot of science people sad.
After a short lecture on a subject guaranteed to trivialize your personal problems, the Outreach lets you browse the cosmos through their rooftop telescopes. The view out into space isn’t great. You won’t mind. A bleary image of an object millions of miles away makes that object seem realer than the airbrushed textbook version. For instance, this is what Saturn looks like:
On nights when there’s too much cloud cover, you’ll get a slide show. But really: try to come when you can get some telescope time. One of the strangest parts about the whole experience is being on an open rooftop in the middle of Columbia University. All the surrounding air is tinged with the glow of Riverside Church, the tallest church in America. Here’s a long-exposure shot of it; click for the big version.
New York finds a strange twin in Venice, Italy. Both cities are islands that expand up rather than out; in both the street life flows through dramatic corridors of stone and brick; and in the thick of summer both smell a little like someone just put out a garbage fire with dog pee. Then there’s the architecture: NYC is full of Venetian references. The theme is covered in chapter 4 of the book; recently I had the chance to interview a key player in the Venice connection: Andrés Garcia-Peña, Central Park’s longtime gondolier.
There have always been gondolas in Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted had them in mind when he designed The Lake, and the first rowers—nearly a century and a half ago—were in fact Venetians. Today, Garcia-Peña is the man. He first donned the red stripes 18 years ago; he knows pretty much everything there is to tell about oaring a weirdly tilted Adriatic boat in the middle of the world’s greatest park. Listen for yourself:
After the Rives Brothers downtown NYC tour in June, we realized we might be on to something. We’re going to spread out this summer and hit a few more spots. Next stop: East Village. Poster below; more info at our tumblr .
Carl Mehling, paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is as far as I know the only person to have discovered fossils in all five NYC boroughs (including Manhattan). I like him for two reasons: one, his museum office is full of toys of awesome creatures, as though a very smart and very wealthy 8-year-old works there; and two, he tipped me off to the Subway Garnet.
The Garnet is a nearly 10-pound jewel that was dug up in 1885 at 35th Street by some guys excavating for a sewer. It grew isometrically—that is, its facets are natural. The AMNH Gem & Mineral department keeps it in a steel cabinet next to other marvels (the memory of an opal carved into the shape of a monkey still makes my kleptomania tingle). Jamie Newman, a senior assistant there, let me cup the melon-sized gem in my hands for a few minutes. It was a rare privilege, and my best 9.625 lbs ever in New York.
In chapter 3 of the book, there’s an entry on 18 West 11th Street. This townhouse was blown up in 1970 by a domestic terrorist group and later got a one-of-a-kind alteration: the front skews from the plane of the street. The only couple who ever lived in the restored house were theatrical producer Norma Langworthy and her husband David. I recently found out that sadly I was likely the last person to interview Norma for print: she passed away some months ago at the age of 92. She was a favorite on the street for keeping a Paddington bear in her crooked window and changing its clothes according to the season and holidays. The tradition was in honor of her husband, who “loved bears.” He died himself 20 years ago.
The peculiar house recently went on the market for $11 million. The last time I walked by, the realtor had planted a FOR SALE sign out front, and tried to get cute with a detail that was making the neighbors blanch in horror. There was the Paddington bear in the window in its usual spot—but now wearing a tiny tee-shirt with the realtor’s logo on it. The realtor is Corcoran, and they have an office a block away at 49 East 10th Street, in case you are in the area and find that you have a surplus of spit.
New York stories of mutants living underground go way back, and if you believe them, well...enjoy. The Freedom Tunnel is the one place in the city you can visit that was home to actual urban cave-dwellers—hundreds of them. Check out the documentary Dark Days by Marc Singer. The squatters were mostly homeless looking for safety and privacy, but some seemed positively drawn to eternal dark. They were forced out when AmTrak reactivated the tunnel, but who knows what’s down there at any one time. It’s a good place for explorers who like their trespassing tinged with dread.
We gave the last of our just-for-kicks Rives Brothers downtown tours today, to the best turnout yet. The group started at Grand Central Terminal and ended up in the footprint of the old Dutch state house. Along the way we stopped in City Hall Park for New York junk food—snacks that were invented and first manufactured in the city—with an emphasis on Tootsie Rolls.
Now, Tootsie Rolls were created by Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfeld, who named the candy after his daughter Clara, a.k.a. “Tootsie.” In our shtick, we said that Clara weighed around 437 pounds—or somewhat more than her brother “Chunky.” This was mean-spirited slander but not, we think, totally improbable. And look: later I found out that the Chunky Bar was invented in NYC as well, by a Philip Silvershein—who in fact named it for his fat granddaughter. Why would I make this up.
The Rives Brothers will be giving special tours in other locations around the city this summer.