Friday, October 9, 2009


Imagine you're a precocious, loudmouthed 10 year old, enamored with the city that you live in and its myriad mysteries. The never-ending speed of its citizens, the spray-painted scarred walls of the subway (this was in 1990 mind you), and the subway itself, with its electronic beeps and boops and its tunnel hugging, bridge chugging path from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Now imagine that in the middle of a routine trip to Grandma's apartment, taking the Q Diamond (RIP) from Ditmas Park, Flatbush to the Upper West Side (with a transfer at Herald Square to the D) all of a sudden there's a flash of light, a burst of imagination, and a brightly colored cartoon strip, coming out of nowhere, bursts onto the walls of a subway station that isn't even there. You're enamored, even though it last less than 30 seconds before it disappears and you're climbing the Manhattan Bridge towards the original burst of imagination that is New York City.
You're 10 years old, you just saw an awesome animated cartoon-strip
thing while on the subway and then its over, and gone again. You look for it on next month's trip to Gramma's apartment, but its gone. You can't even remember which windows it showed up on - the left or the right side - or between which stops on the train. Years go by, you wonder if it ever really existed, or was just a catnap-powered dream while holding Mom's hand on the subway. A decade goes by and you can't even describe it successfully, further removing this phantom vision from the possibility of reality.
Well guess what Virginia. It existed, and exists again, and has a name. Its called the Masstransiscope and is the genius of an artist named Bill Brand. And last night, at the NY Transit Museum, Mr. Brand gave an enthralling lecture about the inspiration, creation, scientific explanation, destruction, and re-installation of one of the most whimsical, energetic, free pieces of public artwork in New York City. Free if you have an unlimited Metrocard, that is.
Bill Brand, an experimental filmmaker and archivist, as well as professor of Film and Photography at Hampshire College was just another young, creative soul in New York City during the deep dark 1970s and early 80s. He became enamored with cartoons at an early age (Woody Woodpecker with Walter Lantz) and how all films are "simply individual pictures that change from frame to frame". We're learning this as Mr. Brand lectures in the screening room of the NY Transit Museum, and hands out small pieces of 35 mm film, to explain the notion of how film works. Next up, a VHS tape, which Mr. Brand violently smashes against the corner of the podium, in order to rip up the tape and pass it over our heads in the audience. Then Mr. Brand kills all the lights and illuminates himself with a high-powered camera flash. We watch as the ghostly retina image of Bill hovers in the air for a second, then floats away - persistence of vision. Its all visceral, and slightly loopy, and does a good job of explaining early films, notably the zoetrope.
We go on learn how Mr. Brand approached Creative Time, the arts organization, with this wacky idea of installing a slow-motion stop-animation cartoon in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway stop on the (nowadays) B & Q trains. To his amazement, they were on board from the get-go. In order to create this interactive film projection, a 300 foot installation, kind of a narrow square hallway had to be installed on the platform of the disused station, with narrow vertical slits in the wall closest to the trains rushing by, and with the painted panels on the back wall. Silkscreened panels, 228 in all, with each one showing a different stage of the animation. Protective graffiti-proof sheer coverings on top of each painting (more on this later). Two vertical fluorescent bulbs framing each of the slits, to light the art as the subway rushes by. Installed and "opened" to the public in 1980, and lasted for 5 years. It looks likes this:

Then Mr. Brand had a family, moved away. Couldn't keep up the upkeep. "Public Funding for 'permanent art' in this country generally means five years" Mr Brand shrugged at us during the lecture. It briefly resurfaced for a few months in 1990, which is when I saw it on my way to Gramma's and it blew my mind. Again, covered in graffiti, vandalized, left for trash.
Until 2008, when construction work on Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle unlocked a gate in the sidewalk which lead to the Myrtle Avenue station, and direct access to the installation. With help from MTA Arts for Transit, and other organizations, including ShelterExpress/MetroClean which helped strip away the years of accumulated paint that coated the panels (but thanks to the sheer coverings, left the animated paint works largely intact), the Masstransiscope was reinstalled.
After Q&A with the artist, the audience of 40 left the museum as a group, and went on a "ride-by" the Masstransiscope. Present in the tour group, Thersea DeSalvio, the artist who painted the original pieces in 1980, and her daughter. Ms. DeSalvio had left the country in 1985, missed the resurfacing of the piece in 1990, and returned to live in NJ. Therefore she hadn't seen her own artist creation since it was first installed in 1980. What a trip! We boarded the R train at Lawrence, rode into Brooklyn one stop and transferred across the platform for a city-bound B. In no time at all we were watching (and applauding) the piece as we whizzed by it (at 7 mph). You too can check out the Masstransiscope. Just swipe your card on a Manhattan-bound B or Q train, sit tight, and wait for the dream to begin. It'll be on your right, after Dekalb Avenue station and before the bridge.

Photographs and Youtube video thanks to Masstransiscope website and artist Bill Brand.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lost in History vol. 82: Long bike rides, useless Queens forts, suburban hoods & delicious foods.

Every so often, one needs to forget the plans. drop the job, ignore the bills, get on a bicycle and ride off, into the horizon, like the superlative urban cowboy. No, not that type of urban cowboy, more like a two-wheeled adventurey explorer, armed with water bottle, bike map and camera, a little bit of spending cash and balanced atop a trusty steed, ready to take to the roads of eastern and suburban New York City. However, you'd be surprised how many friends found the notion of a long leisurely bike ride a no-go. My arguments fell on hungover ears.
30 miles round trip, to the northern-eastern end of Queens and back!
To see a historic Fort built during the Civil War but never used!
Just us and bikes and the vast private driveways and detached houses of eastern Queens!
Leave me alone.
I almost had to roll by myself. Right up until t-minus one hour, when good buddy / food writer / avid cyclist Josh Bernstein decided to tag along. Noon o'clock hit and we were off!
We took a circuitous route, that started us zipping through subway-accessible 'nabes, like Ridgewood and Glendale (the M train); Forrest Hills Gardens (the G, R and V trains); and North Jamaica Hills (the F and E trains), which is where we found this
awesome art deco power station, across from the Queens Hospital Center, on Goethals Blvd, related in name only to the Goethals Bridge, in Staten Island.
After North Jamaica Hills however, it was suburban Queens with generic hood names to the max. Before getting lost in the bland, we figured it was snack time - on the corner of Utopia Parkway and Hollis Court Blvd we charged into D'Alessandro's Meat Center, since 1957, for some protein based munchies, like sausage and cheese stuffed antipasto, and some fresh mozzarella balls in a spicy olive oil.
Finally upon reaching Fort Totten, we were a) amazed at the sheer size of the park and b) totally lost in trying to find the Visitors Center and historic fort at the center of it. All we could find was the FDNY training facilities, picnic grounds, decaying Victorian houses, and lots of construction cranes and fenced off areas. After asking a few locals we stumbled upon the Visitors Center, and, lo and behold, were a few short minutes from the next public tour! What luck!
Fort Totten was built as the Civil War was getting under way, (the very pleasant and dorky-cute NPS Ranger informed us) but midway through the War, rapid advancements in technology rendered the Fort completely unusable.
In 1862, after finishing 2 out of 5 walls to the (ultimately incomplete) Pentagon-shaped structure, the US Army field-tested a new type of cannonball. This pointed-tip rifle-shot projectile had a much better aim, and whats more, did tremendous damage to the interior of the Fort. Whereas a basic projectile would ricochet across the granite room, causing few dings but not much structural damage, this new rifled weapon lodged itself deep into the Fort and knocked whole chunks of masonry off the walls.
This test projectile, circa 1863, is still lodged deep into the walls of Fort Totten. This meant that if the Fort couldn't stand against one basic (massive) bullet, there's no way it would survive an artillery shelling, and the entire structure became totally obsolete as a defensive post. USA! USA! USA!
Once we were all swole up with national pride, it was time to stuff our stomachs. After getting a little lost and ending up in Douglaston (which is almost as far away from everything else in NYC as one can possibly get) we found a nifty little Deli with old school signs on the inside and outside. We got two massive heroes - a homemade Roast Beef and another homemade Roast Turkey, plus some North Carolina style slaw (apple cider vinegar!) chips, drinks, and custard.We found our way (after getting lost once or twice more) to Alley Pond Park, sat on a bench, and scarfed some serious hoagie. An unmitigated Sunday success, Josh and I biked our tired legs, full stomachs, and sun-scorched heads back to Brooklyn.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lost in History vol. 81: Gin and Juice, Tacos y elotes, the El and Samosas; Food crawl in Jackson Heights

The invitation was as straight-forward as it gets: Jackson Heights and Elmhurst have good food. We're bringing good booze. You bring good conversation, and some greenbacks, and we'll eat our way through some of the most ethnically diverse blocks in all of New York City. How could we possibly refuse?
Once we got to the Jackson Heights / Roosevelt Avenue subway stop and locked up our bikes, we found the crew lined up outside a taco cart parked right under the El. Frank, our tour guide and a Jackson Heights native - praised this particular cart's beef paunch, con picante. A few of us got puerco, some ventured for the callos (tripe), and some for the lengua de chivo (goat tongue). We knew that this wasn't going to be your basic meat-on-a-stick kind of noshing tour.
Our sturdy group of 13 included an Asian, a Kiwi, a handful of Hungarians (including Frank and his girlfriend Zsuzsi), a laid back California surfer-dude, a Wasps, two Jews (soon to be three) an Italian, two Polacks, and one who pleaded "non-denominational." But good eats and early summertime drunk knows no color lines; we were all excited for our cross-cultural conclave of creative crunch-and-munching across Queens.
Frank and Zsuzsi had thought ahead and brought a couple of thermoses filled with Pimms Cup, a delicious (and strong) gin-and-juice-based summertime refresher. With our Subway soda cups stocked with Pimms, we made our way under the 7 train to our next stop, an Ecuadorian ceviche truck, for camarones (shrimp,) chivo and callos (tripe). each served in a thick soupy takeout cup.
Jackson Heights is an extraordinary neighborhood for its confluence of ethnic types, as well as the number of train lines that service it. You have the good old International Express (the 7 train) which rumbles on old steel I-beams along Roosevelt Avenue from Times Square to its terminal in Flushing. It was built by the IRT in different segments from 1915-1928, and therefore it shares a designated number, along with the other IRT lines 1 through 6.
The IND lines of E, F, G, R and V all share the same track, and were built by the city in the mid-to-late 30s. This new mode of public transit allowed immigrants to flood into the newly established garden community of Jackson Heights. What started out as Irish and Italian eventually became Ecuadorian, Mexican, Indian, Bangladeshi, Tibetan, Korean, Malaysian, Bhutanese and Fillipino. Ergo, yummy. Onto the elotes cart! Frank brought us to a tiny shack under the El and bought us a bunch of elotes - thick grainy stalks of corn, slathered with mayo, queso, a spicy ground pepper and lime juice. It started to rain, and we huddled under a modern FroYo shop's awning, devouring our elotes. Que sabor!
We hauled eastward, into Elmhurst, for Malaysian-Chinese. This is where one of our intrepid Italians bought, halved, scooped and served up Durian fruit to the crowd. Durian is the noxiously smelling-of-rotten-milk-and-eggs type asian monstrosity of a fruit. Our party was split down the middle on the disgusting/engrossing taste of the Durian fruit, but there was no denying the rank odoriferous. On the other hand, the Malasian takeout at Good Taste Malaysian Chinese was exquisite and yumtastic. Our third Jew arrived, in the form of BFU Will Meyer.
Back to Jackson Heights! There was more to eat! Samosas! Sammy's Famous Street Meat (being fought over here, in the concrete triangle, between yours truly and Mr. Aaden Stern.) Tibetan Momos (beef, chicken and veggies steamed dumplings,) and sticky Indian honey dessert! Our man Frank could do no wrong!It wasn't until we got to the Korean Fried Chicken takeout spot, complete with its own quirky mascot (shown here with Kate McCooliak) that we shouted, Enough! Enough! Too much deliciousness, Frank, let us roll home on our fat bellies! It had been 5 hours of wandering Jackson Heights, and enjoying no fewer than 9 different food stuffs from 7 different countries, found on 3 different continents, all under the El of the 7.
We love Queens! And Frank! (FYI, he's also available for private tours.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lost in History vol. 80: A Very HALy Memorial at the City Reliquary

Hal was a coyote. Possibly the most famous coyote to scamper the grounds of Central Park, score cover shots on both the Post and the Daily News, and pass from these terrestrial plains in two days' time; Hal had snuck his way into our hearts. Named after the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, where he was discovered on March 20th 2006, Hal enjoyed a short but exciting hustle before the NYPD shot him with a tranquilizer dart and ended his adventurous romp. While en route to the New York Zoo in the Bronx, Hal passed away unceremoniously, due to complications of heart worms and the digesting of a poisoned rat. So ended the saga of Hal . . .
. . . until a few Sundays ago when Brooklyn-based artist Dillon de Give hosted a memorial to this fallen figure of mystery. Dillon got it into his head that Hal never saw a proper send-off, and intended to do so with help from his friends at the City Reliquary. Dillon's intention was to create a reciprocal human trip by recreating Hal's 60-some-odd mile journey, from upstate New York to Central Park, but backwards, starting here and ending there. Dillon also planned on leaving impromptu memorials to Hal along the way. He wanted a proper send-off for his own journey, and we sent out the word and got a few speakers together for a late-afternoon lecture in our rotating exhibit gallery.
Audience members enjoyed Wile E Coyote cartoons and mingled around while waiting for the event to start. Dillon went first, explaining his childhood association with coyotes, growing up in New Mexico where there are a helluva lot of them, as opposed to here in NYC. He spoke about the evolution of the coyote and their predilection for living with humans as scavengers, much like pigeons, how the two are almost spirit animals, surviving on the cast-offs of us. We watched some live coyote footage and enjoyed the explanation for Dillon's impending journey.
I went next, explaining how Central Park was the first man-made creation of nature in the world to resemble nature itself. Prior to Central Park, parks in the world looked as if they were designed by humans - the National Mall in DC is a giant rectangle, with all the trees in a straight line, all the landscaping done very consciously. Ditto Versailles in Paris, but to the nth degree. With Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux had the opportunity to make a obviously landscaped park in the middle of the most urbanized city to date, but they went the opposite direction, hiding the city from the park-goers.
Following the Central Park talk we had a sculptural artist, Nao Matsumoto show a slide of his sculpture hanging in the Pratt Sculpture Gardens in Brooklyn, and discuss the mythology of Wile E Coyote and the never-ending chase for the Roadrunner. It was completely impromptu, as Nao had just been contacted the day before the lecture and wasn't sure if he was going to make it. Nevertheless, his talk was brief and beautiful, discussing the experience of soul-searching and always hunting, and allowing the process of the hunt to be part of the discovery.
After Nao, Kay Turer, Resident Folklorist of the Brooklyn Arts Council spoke about the coyote as trickster in Native American folklore. "Coyote went along" was her gift to Dillon, in which she explained that at the start of every tale, these magical talismanic words impart the knowledge that Coyote the explorer, Coyote the adventurer, Coyote the unknown will always go "along" in his ways, no matter what obstacles or interruptions he might face.
Following the speakers our collected group of 60 audience members went to our spacious backyard and participated in a group howl, for all the dogs and coyotes of Williamsburg to share in. It was a wonderful event, and Dillon de Give took off the next morning on his 66 mile journey. We miss you Hal!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lost in History vol. 79: A Fowl Affair

Our neighbor, Shai Kessler, happens to be a highly accomplished chef, having worked for such NYC institutions like Bloomingdales as well as hotshot new restaurants like Dovetail on the Upper West Side. Regardless, we are all busy New Yorkers and hardly ever get to sit around and appreciate the man's talent for cookery. Its not like we want to give tours to our friends on our days off, and he sure as hell isn't interested in cooking for neighbors and hangers on.
But when his roommates, Thomas & Samantha, a wonderful married couple from Tennessee had their fancy digital SLR camera stolen from them, off Sam's neck, while they were asleep on the L train
on Christmas Eve! . . . Shai decided to do something about it. He did the thing he's best at - get friends and neighbors together for a homecooked meal / benefit to help the kids buy a replacement camera. That's how we found a quirky invitation with a plump bird slapped up top slipped under our door.
We put on our fancy dinner jacket and slippers, walked the 20 feet down the hall with a bottle of organic red and the requested $20 donation in hand, and joined a raucous party in progress. We also did our part in party production by donating our banquet table and most of our chairs. We nibbled on olives and introductions before the first course, a sumptuous Roasted Quail in a sherry reduction augmented by a tart lentil salad.
The benefit seemed on the successful side, as had any more than 20 arrived, there'd be no place to put their butts or wine glasses. Two couches, a flight of stairs, three tables, seven chairs and various flat surfaces were all quite accommodating, and plates of food were being balanced on bookshelves, countertops, hands, laps and the aforementioned banquet table. Sam and Thomas (pictured above left and right) made a speech that brought a few to wipe their moist eyes. More wine!
Second course was a delightful Coq Au Vin, surrounded in a pomme puree and augmented by wilted winter greens. As the various party people (and Josh, above,) can attest, the dishes were basically licked clean by slightly tipsy revelers.
With dessert - a scrumptious Cardamom Flan encircled by a Rose Petal sauce - came the post-prandial Ports and Sherrys, as well as a rousing game or three of Apples to Apples, the best party card game in the world. After hysterical comparisons and more wine, port and sherry (but no more food - we all had our fill) it was time to head home. We, in the most delicious food and wine induced coma, thanked our fortunes to know such good people who have such good taste.

Shai is already planning future dinner parties and benefits - if so inclined, shoot us a line and we'll gladly put you in touch with this DIY chef superstar.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lost in Philly vol 78: Twentyfour hours of Philidelphia, Beer, and Boys will be Boys

Josh the freelance journalist sent out the first email. "Yo. Goin' to Philly for their Beer Fest. Who wants to come along? Wheee!" Josh has a preternatural tendency to tap into excellent food and drink adventures, which makes him a natural when exploring the outer boroughs of our own city. The deal only got sweeter when Josh scored a free hotel room as well as a 2 free passes for the opening night's event. One for him and one for me! Wheee! Off to Philly for me! I invited Jonah for the beertivities.
Josh and Aaron Wilson (known as Wilson) had bused down earlier that Friday, so when Jonah and I arrived at 4pm sharp, Wilson and Josh had been wandering and drinking. We parked the Eggplant Xpress, made our way to the bar, and gulped down the first of many a beer. I started with a Marzen, a heavy, malty 6.8% whopper of a beer, auspiciously heralding my arrival in this beer-mad city.
Countless dorm rooms are plastered with the wonderful Benjy Franklin (mis)quote "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." How trite, yet how true. Just like Brooklyn's Brewers Row in today's East Williamsburg / Bushwick, Philadelphia had its own hood, Brewerytown, in the northwestern part of the city. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, Philly boasted more than 90s breweries in the city itself, with another 100+ in the metropolitan region. However, the one-two punch of post WWI anti-German sentiment, followed by Prohibition shuttered most of these industries for good, in both Philly and BK.
But just like Brooklyn, Philly has seen a beer resurgence, with dozens of breweries and brewpubs reopening and jumpstarting the microbrew revolution with delicious results. The Philly Beer Week, now celebrating its 2nd year, is a 10-day festival spread out over over 50 bars with hundreds of events and thousands of pints poured into thirsty maws. None of us could spend more than 24 hours celebrating, so we got straight to liquid business.
After the first pub, after the hotel check-in, we set off on a bar bounce. But its not all booze and blues - many bars and breweries offer feel-good reasons to drink. Our next bar gimmick, called "Save a kitten, drink a fish!" was in donating all dollars spent on Flying Fish beer to an animal rescue fund. Following bar #2 was Bob & Barbara's Lounge, where every square inch was dedicated to PBR paraphernalia and ads from as far back as the 40s.
Then, it was a quick cab ride to the Comcast center and the Opening Tap event. Over 50 brewers offering 2 to 3 different samples of their luscious, liquidy wares. Each participant was handed a 6 ounce plastic tumbler in which to taste the beers, but with one entry ticket each, we could sample as many beers as we wanted. And lord, did we sample!
Following the opening tap, two more Brooklyn Boys - Aaron #2 and Ben Haas were waiting to meet. We found them, surprise surprise, in another bar. So we joined them for beers (hoppy, spicy) and charged onwards, to more bars for more beers. At some point a cheesesteak was devoured. At another point, a strip club was entered. Sadly, Philly shuts down for the night at 2am and our gang all passed out, a day well drunk.
The next morning was a little painful, so we decided, rather spectacularly, to head to Johnny Brenda's in the north end of Philly, for an authentic Port Brunch, in which we had over a dozen microbrewed ports to choose from.
Naturally, we tried them all. A wise decision.
Following our port brunch, we marauded our way across town in the brilliant Philly haze and sunshiney smog, enjoying the resurgent industrial neighborhoods.
Somehow, through blind, drunk historical luck, we stumbled upon a historical marker declaring the very first Lager brewed in America! To celebrate, we went to the bar.
And then another one. And then . . . it was time to leave this magical world of hefeweisens and hopbacks, of IPAs and Bells for Boobs (Bells Brewery which donated proceeds to breast cancer research) in which our drinking would certainly save the world. Maybe not our livers . . . but who needs them?!? Philly, we love you and we'll be back! As soon as our throbbing headache goes away . . . More than enough pictures of our adventures can be found here, here, and here!