A few nights in the last few weeks, I’ve been working late and, realising I needed groceries but would miss the closing time of stores near my apartment, I’ve opted to make a treat out of a chore. I’ve headed five blocks north from my office and ridden into
heading for the Fairway Market on Broadway. I’ve swept downhill from Central
Park South, leaving behind the oppressive heat thrown off by New York’s buildings and streets in the
current heatwave for the marginally cooler park, surrounded by trees yet
overlooked by skyscrapers.
|Central Park: a treat to ride in - for those with a taste in|
But on Thursday night, after a particularly sulphurously hot day, the experience had an unexpected, added edge. Almost as if I’d ridden into a cloud of some pollutant, I found myself inhaling as thick a concentration of horse manure smells as I’ve ever experienced. The tourist carriages that I often follow in the morning from their stables on the lower west side had clearly been busy that day, I realised. That had left a generous coating of manure baking on the asphalt in 100F heat, with predictably stinky results.
The experience brought home to me how vital a part smell plays in the full-frontal assault of riding a bike in any large city during a heatwave. In
however, it currently plays a particularly special role. The city has been
better in its gentrification push over the last 20 years at improving how it
looks than how it smells. Many of the odours consequently represent the forces
that even so controlling an administration as Michael Bloomberg’s still hasn't managed to rein in. They tell a story about the city that’s wafted only into
the nostrils of the still fairly select bunch of people prepared to ride a bike
in New York
on a day when the thermometer is showing over 90F and one’s glasses steam up
instantly one steps outdoors.
There are, of course, some smells that persist year-round. Sometimes when I'm riding by the East or
As the spray splashes against the railings, there’s a salty
smell in the air, an unmistakeable reminder that Hudson Rivers, a boat's wash slaps into the promenade. New York is a maritime city and that the
rivers, as well as carrying water from upstate, are inlets of the sea. It’s the
smell of the secret of New York’s success – a gateway
between the interior that vessels sailing up the Hudson River serve and the wide
Atlantic Ocean out beyond the harbour.
The same goes for the smell that meets me as I speed on my bike down the western side of the
. I think it’s a
mixture of boiled duck, five-spice mixture and plum sauce, but there’s an
unmistakeable smell to areas with a high concentration of Cantonese
restaurants, like Chinatown, where the bridge emerges in Manhattan
Bridge Manhattan. In my mind’s eye, the smell
forever has me sitting in one of the countless eating places in the heart of Hong Kong, at a Spartan formica table, with plates
of steaming food being brought to me. The two places smell exactly the
Then there are the smells that testify to how my fellow New Yorkers’ behaviour changes as the heat rises.
Earlier in the summer, when the
was still closed off firmly every night at dusk, a late night ride down the neighbouring
bike path was apt to prove a trial. As I passed groups of people congregated
along the low stone wall by the path, the distinct, herbal smell of the marijuana
they were smoking would tickle the upper reaches of the inside of my nose. By
very late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning, the path was apt to
become an obstacle course, as happy dope smokers milled around, their risk
perceptions – seldom a strong point of path users – worsened still further by
the weed. Hudson River Park
The path is at least less cluttered now that the park is generally open late into the night. But, as I ride by the park’s helpfully-placed bushes, the strong smell bears testimony to park users’ continued desire to smoke dope while watching
New Jersey’s lights becoming fuzzier and
The city’s public parks smell different in daytime heat too. Taking myself once again out of the city on Saturday, I rode up (for the first time) to The Bronx, bound over the city line to
. In The Bronx, I found children
playing in the water from opened fire hydrants. In Van Cortlandt Park, my
nostrils and ears encountered a distinctive mixture: firelighter liquid, loud
Latin music and the smell of barbecued meat, wafting from the elaborate set-ups
that scores of families had lugged into the park. Westchester County
But probably the most telling smells are the ones that testify to how much organic matter still lies festering, largely unnoticed, round the greatest city on earth.
It’s tempting to think of
New York as forged out of concrete and
steel, an entirely manmade creation. I’ve recently discovered that that’s not
entirely fanciful. Midtown and lower Manhattan
sprouted their skyscrapers precisely because the bedrock there is close to the
surface. Many of the buildings there are plugged straight into the solid,
unyielding bedrock, with no messy soil in between.
But the stench in
is a reminder how the city continues to consume vast quantities of organic materials.
Horses’ oats and hay end up caked on Central Park’s
asphalt. The smell of rotting food from humans’ garbage, which I often smell as
I cycle past the sanitation department depot in Chelsea, is far more widespread in summer. It
hangs around the big piles of garbage bags piled on the sidewalk as the sun
makes the discarded fruit and vegetables inside decay all the faster.
Worse still is the stink emanating from some of the drains. The city might have eliminated graffiti and broken windows above ground. But there’s something far less readily controllable about the life of a drain. The whiff that wafts up from some gratings puts me in mind of a slum in Mumbai or Kolkata, where the same malodorous ingredients mingle in the open air.
Yet the smelly life that springs forth when the mercury jumps to 90 is far less surprising to a cyclist than to most people. Cyclists are close enough to see the rat dart across the cycle path, smell the garbage truck that’s blocking the road and notice year-round the surprising number of horses still at work in the city. All testify to a secret, natural life that teems under the city’s streets, in its open places and in hidden-away stables. Cities have been giving off these smells since the dawn of civilisation - the odour of people living close together satisfying their various natural needs. However much he or she might smarten up the city's look, no future mayor looks likely to eliminate them.