Sunset Park smells like barber’s lather and masa.
I went for breakfast on a Saturday, just as the barbershops started opening for business. Electric clippers, the faintest match strike of a razor strop, rumba on the radio; but I smelled the shaving cream first.
These are my morning smells: black coffee, dried figs, the clean emptiness of yogurt, which has no smell at all, and is intended to fertilize the bowels with cleanliness, and Gillette shaving cream. I am always thirsty for coffee in the morning, as soon as I wake up, and smell someone walking past on the sidewalk with a cup from a corner donut cart. Then, my mouth and nose water and I want coffee. I have not shaved in a few weeks, so I cannot honestly say I miss the scent of shaving cream. I can experience shaving well enough from the voyeur’s vantage point.
In Bakery La Flor, there is a diner counter, a large glass case of pastries, and plastic tables. I picked up my order of huevos con tocineta at the counter and brought it to a table, along with a cup of coffee with milk, which though inferior to black coffee is a necessary substitute in a Mexican bakery. The eggs and bacon came with French fries and a generous portion of buttered bread. Barely awake, no thanks to the soporific subway ride (the N is an exceptionally smooth train, seeming to hover above the rails instead of grinding out wide aching turns), I squeezed out three packets of ketchup on the fries.* Although I felt full after breakfast, I convinced my brother to join me at Cafe con Pan, where we bought pan dulce**, a sugared donut***, and a flaky guayaba and queso concoction. We walked to Sunset Park—the actual park, not the neighborhood—and sat in front of the public swimming pool.
Two drifters, my brother and I, walked into a grocery store and drank too sweet coconut soda. I snagged a plastic baggie of morita chiles. Sunday night, I made a pork stew with chopped shoulder meat, canned tomatoes, summer corn, red kidney beans, and six peppers. My brother tried to toast them in hot oil and filled the apartment and exterior stairwell with tear gas. I ran, doubled over and racked with pain, while he stood, calm, wheezing and stirring the incandescent oil.
For most of the afternoon, we reclined on a grassy hill in Green-Wood Cemetery. In PrairyErth, William Least-Heat Moon describes how he enjoys eating lunch in cemeteries. A visit to Green-Wood served equally well as a digestif. Entering from 23rd Street, visitors pass through a Gothic gate. It’s some Spirited Away shit. I half expected the dead to rise as hazy shades and float among the tourists. One cannot help but feel like trespasser, crushing the skeletons of the not-too-recently deceased with every footfall. Careful to avoid stepping on graves, we wandered to an isolated knoll. I read a book and sat quietly, caught between the tranquility of an urban sanctuary and its unsettling context.
My sister came in town Thursday night, and she joined us for dinner at Tacos Ricos. The number of taquerias in Sunset Park is overwhelming, and we chose on the basis of positive reviews, location, and instinct. Seated at a long communal table, we sipped cold horchata and waited for our tacos. My favorite, a taco filled with cueritos, had the great sticky slimy gelatinous tug of fresh pork skin.
On the way back to 36th Street we bisected a block party complete with fire hydrant spraying a thick mist against the backdrop of a dying sun.
The next morning, we returned to Sunset Park, again for a kind of breakfast, dim sum. At 10:30 a.m., we waited thirty minutes for space at a table. Diners are given a number, and a man calls them out, one at a time—in Cantonese!—over a loudspeaker. So we taught ourselves Chinese, packed tight in the lobby with native speakers who disregarded our discomfort. What else were we to do, ask for help?— easier but not nearly as exciting.
East Harbor Seafood Palace prepares a divine har gow, almost transparent, crystalline, the pleated wrapper cradling a giant juicy crunchy shrimp. Red barbecued pork, folded into puff pastry, killed my craving for roast pork buns—forever. We ate clams in black bean sauce, pork and shrimp shumai, snow pea leaf and shrimp dumplings, and a taro cake softer than jello. A gargantuan helping of sauteed greens, enough for a family of six, disappeared over the course of brunch. And we stuffed ourselves with beef rice rolls, fishy sticky rice, and fried glutinous rice balls filled with lotus seed paste.
I cannot say what Sunset Park means. Other than a day, a diversion, an investment of hours, what impression does it leave behind? When rewritten as an accounting of time, the memory ceases to hold significance. Its meaningfulness leaks out, filtered through plaster into an insubstantial gruel. Left alone, as mysterious as a barbershop, it is a thicker and richer dish.
*The proper procedure for extricating ketchup from a foil packet is as follows: 1) Tear open along the perforated edge to make a small slit. The opening should not extend more than two millimeters into the body of the packet, or else the volume of flow will be sub-optimal. 2) Position the packet at an oblique angle to the plate, downwards. 3) Squeeze, using the tip of the thumb and the first joint of the index finger, from the very back end of the packet to the front. Do not be afraid to exercise a good amount of force on the packet. 4) Stop before the beginning of the slit. 5) Repeat until all available ketchup has been extracted.
The largest ketchup packet in the world weighs 1,500 pounds. That is enough ketchup for 28,571 servings of huevos con tocineta, if customers are ordinarily provided with standard issue condiment sachets, and if they use approximately three sachets per serving. The exceptionally crispy and, well, potato-y fries at La Flor demand exactly three packets, that is, if customers order their eggs over easy, and if they sop up the yolk with the fries, not the bread.
**One of my friends, who shall remain anonymous but has appeared numerous times in my adventure writing, told me on a trip to East Harlem, “I always order pan dulce.” Implying, of course, that I must always order pan dulce, too. So now, every time I enter a bakery of Hispanic extraction, which is an event of some regularity, I ask for pan dulce. Often, the staff looks at me as though I am insane, pleads ignorance, or simply shrugs with indifference. In Lockhart, Texas, I finally received a positive response, some recognition that pan dulce is not a figment of my friend’s warped gastronomic imagination. A sweet bread, as the name implies, eggy, crusted with sugar and cinnamon. Like the pineapple buns available at Chinese bakeries—because pineapple buns contain no pineapple, artificial or otherwise. Just that crumbly sugar topping. The pan dulce from Cafe con Pan lacked my familiar sugaring, though the actual pastry tasted similar to other, unnamed specimens in the pan dulce family.
***When I originally made this annotation, I am sure I had something marginally interesting to note about the sugared donut. Oh, yes: I will hereinafter refuse to write the word “doughnut.” That is an incorrect spelling. The only acceptable spelling—hell, the only properly American spelling, is donut. As in the “donuts strawberry-glazed” of Albert Goldbarth’s poem “All-Nite Donuts.”