America, Serious Writing, society, Thoughts, TRUMP, US Presidential Elections

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. 

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper.

And as Abraham Lincoln said:

A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

This now leads us to deeper questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW? Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

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America, Serious Writing, Thoughts, Travel

When the Cops Were Called on a Black Man at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV….

There is a lot of outrage at Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department for the arrest of 2 black men at a Starbucks for literally doing nothing. This post is not about that. This post is about the time I saw the cops being called on a black man in a Starbucks in Charleston, West Virginia. Please read the entire post before forming your opinions. Also, please note that this is being written as I recollect the incident from my memory, and should be treated that way.

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I was in Charleston, West Virginia on work for two months between December (’17) and January (’18). Knowing my disdain for staying alone in hotels, I naturally sought the slightly more likable atmosphere of a coffee shop to stay alone in. Charleston is a beautiful town, but it is not a big city and there weren’t too many options for a coffee shop. I just wanted to sit in a nice, comfortable spot with an internet connection, not be bothered but still have people around me, and be allowed to spend hours together without being questioned.

The Starbucks on East Kanawha Blvd ticked all those boxes in addition to having a great riverside location, and I happily chose that spot. Over the course of 2 months, I went to that store several times – maybe up to a dozen or so. I generally liked the ambiance, and the baristas were friendly and courteous. (I remember once when I forgot to ask for almond milk, they happily remade the drink for me at no extra cost). The crowd generally consisted of either people who came there to study/work/read by themselves or a small group of 2-4 for a brief meetup. I generally spent at least 2-3 hours there on each of my visit, spending my time mostly reading or writing while listening to my headphones.

It was a Sunday (if I remember correctly) afternoon in the second or third week of January. I was at the Starbucks and working on my computer at one of the smaller tables. A black man was also inside the Starbucks and he had a drink with him at his table. The man had a backpack of sorts with him and the condition of his clothes made it appear that he was perhaps homeless. It looked like he had purchased a drink and so was well within his rights to stay at the store – just like everyone else there. And no one seemed to think otherwise.

As time passed, a group of 4 women (in their 30’s or 40’s) came to the store and sat at a round table that was adjacent to where the black man was sitting. They were there for a good hour or so, and they spent their time talking to each other.

Now, prior to the women coming to the store, the man had begun to pace the entire place – inside and sometimes outside. He did not seem to have any specific purpose in his walking around, and did not appear to indicate any kind of threat or harm to the other customers. After the women came in and sat at the table, I remember the man continuing to pace the store. And I distinctly remember him beginning to just stand and hover around the table where the women were sitting. The women, per my recollection, did not seem to pay attention to him and continued their conversation unaffected by his close proximity.

I remember the man continuing to pace the store and/or hover around the table where the women were sitting. I remember him also walking and/or standing close to other customers. (He never came very close to me as I remember sitting far away from his table). This continued to happen for an hour or more.

My overall recollection of the situation then was that of a black man, who was very likely homeless, pacing around the store without any specific purpose and sometimes hovering around a person or group of people without initiating any kind of contact. I do remember him talking to himself on a few occasions without being loud about it.

My personal thoughts at that moment when I saw him was that, firstly, he had every right to be there just like the rest of us. And no one thought otherwise – including and especially the baristas. Secondly, as much as his aimless and continuous strolling through the store was a harmless act in itself, I did wonder how the 4 women at the table felt when they noticed someone just hovering around them and possibly listening in on their conversation.

From a purely objective perspective, if someone was hovering around me while I was at a coffee shop (with or without friends), I would feel uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with the race or economic status of the person who is potentially invading my space. And if it was something that had continued for an extended period of time, I would have brought that to the attention of the store manager. Specifically, I would have told them that the said person was making me uncomfortable and maybe that they were even creeping me out. Again, this has nothing to do with race. I would have made this comment if it was a black man who was homeless, or a white guy who was dressed in a suit and a tie. (Just a reminder – I am neither black nor white nor Hispanic). It is a simple matter of invasion of space in a public location where there is a general expectation of respecting one’s privacy.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind when I saw the cops show up! I remember there were 2 of them who came in and went to speak to the store manager/barista. They spoke for a few minutes, and by their general body language, it was obvious that it concerned the black man. The man himself was seated at his table minding his own business at this point. After a brief discussion with the store manager, the cops then walked to the man and spoke to him for a few minutes. I could not hear what they were saying specifically, but I definitely remember them being polite and courteous to the man. They must have spoken to him for about 5-10 minutes, then left the man to his table and went back to speak to the store manager. After a brief conversation there, the cops left the store.

The man continued to stay at the store and from that point on, he stopped pacing the store or hovering around the other customers. (I do remember the 4 women having left the store by the time the cops showed up). All the other customers justifiably showed no visible reaction to whatever had happened – considering it (whatever it was) was resolved without any drama whatsoever. He continued to stay at the store well after I left the place.

So yes, a black man was at a Starbucks in Charleston, WV and the cops were called on him. But that is the kind of sentence you would write if all you wanted to do was manufacture outrage. (Well the title of this post got you reading so far didn’t it?!?) If anything, I would say this is a perfect example of how things SHOULD be managed. Let me explain:

First of all, I believe that Starbucks has a policy of letting people stay however long they want to as long as they have purchased a drink. I know this because I have stayed there for hours on end multiple times. In this regard, the black man was not asked to leave at any point of time as he was well within his rights to be there for as long as the store was opened (based on the drink I saw at his table).

Second, I do believe that any customer who is causing any kind of discomfort to other customer(s) should be informed that they cannot do so. And if they continue to do so, then they should be considered eligible for removal from the premises. This is a common sense policy that I believe most establishments have. If this includes the calling of cops, it is still justified. But I do believe that the right thing to do would be to first ask the said person to cease their actions, and have him/her removed only if they do not oblige. In this instance, (and I am speculating here), the black man was indeed told – politely and courteously – that he had to cease his ‘hovering around’ of other people. He obliged and nobody questioned him afterwards.

So yes, I will firmly state that the Starbucks employees and the cops performed their duties in a very appropriate manner without any racial prejudice towards the black man. One can always argue whether the baristas would have called the cops if it was a white guy in a suit who was doing all the ‘pacing and hovering’, or if they would have spoken to the man themselves. But that is a purely hypothetical argument that may or may not provide any constructive insights. I also do not know if the 4 women who, in my opinion, perhaps felt affected by the man’s actions, ever complained to the store manager prior to leaving. But regardless of that, from a purely objective perspective, I would personally feel very uncomfortable having any person of any race just hovering around me and invading my space and privacy.

In this day and age of easy outrage, it is very important to document the instances when people do the appropriate thing and show basic courtesy and respect when needed. This is one such instance and due credit should be given to all those were involved in this situation.

America, Bad Journalism, Dudeism, Fake News, media, Mediocrity, Serious Writing, Thoughts

What ‘The Big Lebowski’ Teaches Us About Media Bias

In one of the most enduring scenes that ever came out of Hollywood cinema, there lies a rather deep hidden meaning. It becomes painfully obvious once you see through it. And when you do, you will appreciate the script and the context that much more. The scene is from the movie The Big Lebowski and features Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.

Here is the context (SPOILERS ahead!):

The Dude has failed in the task entrusted to him by an old billionaire. The task is to deliver a large amount of ransom money in exchange for Bunny – the trophy wife of the said billionaire. He has instead lost that money and the old man castigates him for his ineptitude by showing him the consequences of his failure – which involves a toe that is  believed to belong to the said kidnapping victim. Disappointed with himself and worried about the victim, The Dude then ‘discusses’ the situation with his buddy Walter Sobchak. Here it is in full:

WALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by 3 o’ clock–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

Essentially, the Dude has come to believe that the toe that is shown to him by Jeffrey Lebowski (the Billionaire) does indeed belong to ‘Bunny’ – the Billionaire’s wife – the apparent victim of a kidnapping. But Walter is clearly having none of it. He firmly believes that the toe is another in a series of ‘victimless crimes’ that are done by ‘fucking amateurs’! (Of course, in the end Walter turns out to be spot on!)

Which all brings us to a simple question.

Why did the Dude believe that the toe did indeed belong to Bunny? 

On the face of it, the apparent ‘proof’ consisted not of direct evidence of the identity of the victim, but instead consisted of an indicator – one which needs to be taken at face value without questioning in order to arrive at the suggested conclusion – that the toe does indeed belong to Bunny. It is this very ‘indicator’ nature of the evidence that Walter Sobchak questions and confidently declares that he could generate the same evidence by 3 o’ clock that same day (with nail polish!)!

The Dude believed the initial assertion (that Bunny was harmed because of his ineptitude in not delivering the money) not because of the ‘proof’ (a severed toe) that was presented to him. Instead, he started off by taking the initial assertion at face value without questioning, and then used the ‘proof’ to confirm this belief. The narrative was setup in such a way for the Dude that he just assumed the initial assertion was true and perceived whatever ‘proof’ he was then presented to simply confirm this assertion – even if that ‘proof’ was simply ‘indicative’ in nature.

Now where else have we all seen this? Where have we seen a topic being presented in such a way that it makes an assertion first and then uses primarily ‘indicative’ evidence to backup its claims?

There are a good number of ‘news’ websites and print media that utilize this very technique to sell stories and content. Many headlines from such organizations are usually articles involving a recent quote by a personality of some significance, or one or two facts that include numbers. This is then typically followed by a description of the context. But there is a sub-category here. This group of articles contain something more. It is usually subtle, but it is there nonetheless.

These articles contain a narrative that interpret the said development in a very specific way. And they do this not by offering any hard facts, but by providing evidence that are at best ‘indicative’ in nature. These articles usually contain a catchy headline that typically signals something to be feared or worried about. The article then starts off by repeating the assertion made in the headline in a more elaborate manner. Then it goes on to the actual quote or fact(oid) which typically forms a very minor part of the full article. Then the article attempts to reference previous similar developments in an effort to forge an apparent pattern – all spelling doom to varying degrees. Then the article goes on to make statements that involve the use of modal verbs such as ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘might’, ‘could’ indicating the possibility of further bad news. And then, finally, at the end of it all, to tie it all together (I had to obviously use the pun!) and to bring a sense of authenticity and confirmation to their idle speculations, they ‘reveal the toe’!

The ‘toe’ typically involves a quote by someone directly unrelated to the actual development, but one who holds a position of some significance in some industry, academia or organization that would entitle him/her to have opinions on the matter under consideration. The bigger the said person’s significance/position, higher the level of authenticity that is perceived to be on the speculations. It is important to note that these quotes are not something that is made by these persons out of their own volition without being specifically asked for. This is almost always a situation where the quotes are actively sought out by the person writing the article, and these quotes are then included in the article to provide a sense of truth and authenticity (and general concern) to the speculative inferences/statements made preceding them. (They send us a toe, we’re supposed to shit ourselves with fear.) In a sense, the person writing the article has already built a narrative (without many facts to support them) and then looks for quotes from ‘experts’ or ‘analysts’ to corroborate the same. Of course, nowadays, these ‘experts’ are dime a dozen. (You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me.) So it is another question altogether whether every single ‘expert’ he/she contacts provides quotes that corroborate their narrative, or if he/she only includes those experts’ quotes that does corroborate their speculation.

**********

See this Dec 25th article on CNN Money about Brexit for a good demonstration of the above idea. Also go to this Dec 13th article by the same writer on the same topic where he appears to have some information that doesn’t necessarily support the narrative in the article in the Dec 25th article. Also observe how he has cleverly left out those pieces of information in the Dec 25th article.

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So at the end of it all, it is simply a case of the writer making an initial speculative assertion and then ‘revealing the toe’ to backup their claims. So the question you, as a reader, have to ask is, “Am I being presented actual proof based on hard facts, or am I being ‘shown the toe’?” If you suspect the latter, then you know the ‘news article’ is nothing more than clickbait garbage. If it is the product of actual investigative journalism, then you will probably see a lot more information in the form of hard facts backing up the said claims. It is up to you to actively seek out the difference.

In this day and age of information/noise overload, if you even mildly suspect that you are being ‘shown the toe’, then it very likely is indeed just garbage. You should then be wary of any article from that particular source of ‘news’. This is a very simple and practical approach to consuming news media today and to distance ourselves away from fake news, pre-determined narratives, and idle speculation masquerading as truth. And if enough people do this on a regular basis, then we might still have some hope left for humanity’s progress.

America, Food and Lifestyle, new york city, Restaurant, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 3/3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) (The Food Part 2) for more.

Indian Food in NYC

I suppose in the end, it all came down to the Indian food for me. Very early on, it became painfully obvious that I was going to be spoilt for choice in every conceivable aspect. So, at this point, I am just going to go ahead and list the places I frequented the most and/or the ones I just want to give a special shout out to:

  • Spice Grill: God knows how many times I ordered from this restaurant for delivery. Yes, the mega-awesome ‘Delivery!’ guy from my previous post was delivering food from Spice Grill. I just could not get enough of their vegetable/paneer base and the very satisfying amount of food they packed into their ‘Lunch Box’ order. I pretty much had the same exact order every day for several weeks. Very prompt delivery (duh!) and great tasting food. The irony here, of course, is that I never actually visited their restaurant in person during all my time there! And I suppose I still owe them a good review on Yelp.
  • Vatan: If you have about $35 to spend on the best vegetarian meal, then really consider your decision already made. This is not just food. This place is a divine experience in itself. Devanshi and I went there multiple times with increasingly satisfying meals (and took our friends along with us). This is an all-you-can-eat place where the waitresses serve you at your table. The menu is primarily Gujarati food, but really, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. This is vegetarian food in all its glory and appeal!
  • Desi Deli: A Punjabi dhaba in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan that is open – get this – 24/7! With a limited menu serving both vegetarian and non-veg dishes, it pretty much gives you enough finger-licking food to more than fill your stomach. (Think Quality of food > Quantity of options). This place was a 15 minute M50 Crosstown bus ride away from my apartment. And anytime we found ourselves on the west side of Manhattan, there was really only one place in our minds for food. I will always remember that one time when I randomly woke up hungry at 3 AM, took the crosstown M50 to 10th Ave, ate a hearty meal, took the same bus back to my apartment, and went back to a blissful sleep! There should definitely be a Desi Deli in every city. No exceptions.
  • Adiyar Bhavan: This place probably served the widest options of South Indian food, and is best enjoyed in the restaurant. I learnt the hard way that having these food items delivered really brought down their taste and texture, making for an underwhelming experience. But eating the same food there, it was obvious that it was the best South Indian food place in Manhattan. I particularly have high praise for their Rava dosas and the sambhar that is served with it.

Shout Outs:

  • All the Jackson Heights restaurants in Queens: I only visited Jackson heights about 4-5 times and tried a new place every single time. I recollect having some memorable chats at Raja Sweets and Fast Food. Perhaps if I had spent a lot more time in that neighborhood, I would have found a place that I would have frequented often, but my visits there were limited.
  • Mumbai Express and Usha Foods: Great chat places in Floral Park in Queens. Usha Foods also had a whole array of snack items to take home. It was a long ride there, but totally worth doing it on a Saturday or Sunday late morning.
  • Darbar Grill: Ordered a lot of ‘Lunch Boxes’ from here as well (similar to Spice Grill).
  • IndiKitch: The only Indian ‘fast food’ place that had perfected the ‘Chipotle Model’ for Indian cuisine. There are so many ‘fast food’ places that were trying to ape the Chipotle style of menu – rolls, rice bowls, etc – but IndiKitch was the only one that got it spot on. Their menu might be a little difficult to navigate if you are not actually there, but once you get it, you will quickly realize why it works so smoothly.

So there you have it. Everything I found out and explored in NYC that was Indian food. I am sure there are many more there that I didn’t get to, but I guess that is for next time.

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And with that, I have concluded the ‘Food in NYC’ part of my ‘5 Months in NYC’ series. More posts still to come on other aspects of NYC.

America, Food and Lifestyle, Happiness, new york city, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 2 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) for more. 

Food trucks are omnipresent in New York City. There are a wide variety of them serving all kinds of cuisine and at all times of the day and night. Being a vegetarian, most of the food trucks (or most of the items on the food trucks) were things I wish I could eat, but wouldn’t. Of the things I could eat, my enjoyment came not just from the quality of the food itself, but from the sheer experience of being able to access the food in such a manner. Perhaps it reminded me of the informal nature of the food industry back home in India, or maybe it was the pleasure of having found some great food in a setting that did not conform to the general expectation of a ‘restaurant’. But there was essentially a raw kind of satisfaction that I derived from eating at food trucks – paying in cash, having limited menu options, cooking in an open air and/or confined space setting, getting my hands dirty with all the food, limited/no silverware, a full stomach, and leaving with a feeling of having somehow found a new ‘joint’ that served great (and cheap) food.

o
The NYC Dosa Man

 

Any post on New York City food trucks serving vegetarian food would be incomplete without a shout out to the NYC Dosa man. Easily the best Dosa in town, his food truck is located inside Washington Square park, and he serves a limited number of Dosa options along with some Idli, samosa items. On my third visit to the place in about 2 months, the Dosa man, aka Thiru Kumar, actually recognized me and made a remark on the lesser quantity of food I was purchasing as compared to previous visits! I explained to him that my wife was not with me and hence only 1 serving. He is a very affable character and all the regulars seem to like and appreciate his food and personality. So, yeah, definitely go there if you are in NYC.

Which brings me to the idea of Vegan and vegetarian food in New York City. Devanshi and I found out (the hard way) what Vegan food has mostly come to signify in NYC. Being vegetarians, we were both on the look out for vegan places to explore. One of the ‘highly rated’ places was this restaurant called Wild Ginger in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg area. It was supposed to have some great Vegan food, so we went there. When we received our food, we were in for a rude shock. There was no meat alright. But that was all there was to the ‘Vegan’ part of the food. The food looked like meat, smelt like meat, tasted like meat, and even made us feel like we had eaten meat. In hindsight, the menu should have made it quite clear as to what to expect. Think of a regular Asian restaurant serving all the meat dishes. Now replace all the meat with ‘Soy protein’, ‘tofu’ and ‘seitan’. And you have the Vegan menu at Wild Ginger – and really most of the self-proclaimed Vegan restaurants in NYC.

Replacing meat with meat substitutes and taking a lot of pains to ensure that the final dish resembles the original meat dish in every conceivable way is the general idea of ‘Vegan’ restaurants in New York City. And I personally cannot and will not approve of this idea. However, the bigger realization my wife and I had was that, apart from Indian cuisine, there was really just no other cuisine out there that offered such a massive wide range of original vegetarian food. Yes, you will find vegetarian ‘options’ in many cuisines – notably Greek, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern – but they are just that – options. The primary dishes from these cuisine will always be meat based. And once you come up with the idea of ‘substituting the meat’, you are already out of the conversation on original vegetarian cuisine. Overall, it was a rather disappointing realization for both of us – that mankind through millennia of civilizations somehow never managed to come up with original vegetarian cuisine apart from this one country called India.

new_york_hangawi_interior_seiichi_joanne__x_large
Hangawi Restaurant in Koreatown

But it would be completely remiss of me if I did not make a specific and grateful mention to the very few exceptions we found in NYC. First and foremost, a big big shout out to Hangawi in Koreatown. It is an upscale restaurant that serves – believe it or not – only vegetarian food. And no, these are not meat substitute dishes. These are vegetarian dishes that look like vegetarian food, smell of vegetables and spices, taste like vegetarian food free of any meat influences, and most importantly, made me feel like having eaten a hearty vegetarian meal. Yes, some of the dishes do use Tofu, but I will personally attest to these dishes still not bringing any meat influences to their taste. The place is admittedly on the expensive side. But you also feel like you are dining at an expensive place once you start eating. So, yes, if you are looking for a nice date night that makes and serves vegetarian food the way it should be, this would definitely be the first place to check out.

I will mention two other places. One of them is Beyond Sushi – a vegan place that serves plant based food in the sushi form. Having been a regular consumer of sushi till not too long ago, I was particularly impressed with how plant products prepared to taste like a vegetarian dish while retaining the general feel of eating a sushi. Relatively inexpensive and strongly recommended.

Another reasonable exception would be By Chloe. We visited that place many times. Particularly like all their Veggie burgers.

And speaking of Vegetarian food, I am going to end this post with another rather comical interchange I had while ordering some food.

I was walking through Chinatown early in the morning on a weekday and passed by a bakery that appeared to have some nice pastry buns. I saw this one pastry that I wanted to try which had some sweetened coconut stuffed in a bun. Unfortunately, it also had a piece of ham in it. So I asked the lady there if they had a pastry without the ham. This is how the (short) conversation went:

Me: Do you have this pastry without meat?

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, I want this without meat.

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, no meat.

Server: No meat? OK! Meat take out!

Me: ???

Server: Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: Oh! You will just take out the ham from that bun?

Server: Yes! Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: OK. I will have one.

She then promptly removed the piece of ham from the pastry and gave the pastry to me! It cost about $1 and tasted great!

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PS: I initially intended this to be a 2 post series on the food. But I guess I am going to have to make this 3 posts now. The last post will be on the Indian food in NYC.

America, Des Moines, Food and Lifestyle, My sense of Humour, new york city, Serious Writing, society, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants
Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

2317delivery1

Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!

America, Des Moines, Family, Happiness, Serious Writing, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts

On Being Married

It has been a little more than a year and a half since I met my wife, and a little more than a year since we got married. All this time, I have been constantly reminded by the wife of the fact that I have not made any mention of her in my blog – direct or implied. And more importantly, how that needs to change. When I asked myself why I hadn’t written anything about her, I realized that I was really waiting for some kind of a narrative to take form in our relationship – a narrative that I could then put in words and provide a context for. And I believe that I do have such a narrative right now, and so here is what I have to say on finding the right person, my decision to get married, and what I found on the other side of the decision.

I met Devanshi in March/April of 2016 when my general state of being was largely captured in this post I wrote back then. We met on a dating app and started chatting first. It was in those first days of chatting that we found out that we were both at the same Steven Wilson concert in Chicago just a few days before. To me, there could not have been a better way we could have been introduced to each other. Steven Wilson is one of the people I admire a lot – not just his music, but also his general thoughts on life and society. Realizing that this girl I had just met shares some (if not all) of my passion for his work and message meant a lot to me.

I wish I could say that our time together from that point onwards till we got married – about 4-5 months later – was just a great honeymoon period (as in any relationship). We did have our fun, make no mistake. There were more music festivals/concerts that we went to, got to know each other’s friends and even happily revealed to our parents that we were dating. But through all of that, her efforts to finish her graduate studies loomed large over most of the time we spent. There was a lot of uncertainty and many sleepless nights – for both of us – during the 2-3 months she was trying to finish her graduate studies.

And THAT pretty much sealed our relationship. For her, I proved to be a reliable and supportive friend who happily helped her with everything I had through some of her toughest times; and for me she proved to be the smart, tough and mentally strong person I had always sought out in a partner. There were times when I thought I would have just given up if I was in her position, only to find her continue to work and find a way to the finish line. Strength of character is a quality I have always admired and after she successfully defended her project, I realized that I had already made the decision in my head about where this relationship was going.

Within a few weeks, we were getting married at the neighborhood coffee shop Smokey Row with a few friends (and family through Skype) and a wedding officiant administering our vows. We then had a small party at the Art gallery of the Social Club to celebrate the wedding.

I am trying to come up with an analogy for this particular point in my life. The only thing that I am reminded of is the time in my life when I had just gained an admission to NITK for my undergraduate studies. This was right after me spending considerable time and effort preparing for the entrance examination, following which I gained admission to the college. In both situations – my wedding and gaining admission to the college – I experienced a feeling of having arrived somewhere. But, more importantly, I also had this stronger realization that the real deal lay just ahead of me. Yes I could always take satisfaction in having arrived at a place I valued, but what I did with my life and situation after that was what mattered from that point on.

We continued to go to as many concerts and music festivals as possible, with some miscellaneous travel sprinkled in between as well. We explored our mutual passion for cooking and board games along with some friends who moved in to our neighborhood. We spent 2 months in Manhattan, taking in a lot of what it had to offer and exploring the city and nearby places. But in trying to find the narrative for my married life, I realized that there just wasn’t a long running aspect that I could point out and say this has what defined my marriage life.

And the primary reason for that was us never getting the chance to stay together for an extended period of time. She visiting India and me having to go out of town for work every now and then has led us to never being able to spend extended periods of time with each other. Over the past 1 year, we have been together for just about half the time, and only for 1-2 months at a stretch. Though we have tried to make the most of our time together, what this has meant is that we have just not been able to setup a routine that could have otherwise defined our married lives. It is hard to quantify what we have missed out due to these constant interruptions to our continued understanding of and bonding with each other. And it may well be that we may never know until we actually begin to spend extended periods of time together.

But if I were to be pressed for one underlying narrative for our time together since our wedding, I would have to point to my wife’s effort to find a job following her graduation. It has been a very arduous process for both of us at so many different levels and over an extended period of time. The consequences of her not having a job manifested itself in many different aspects of our married lives that neither of us could have foreseen. We were putting our efforts to the best of our abilities to find a job, while also dealing with constraints that were beyond our control. Frustration, uncertainty, and a sense of despair took hold of our relationship at times in the process. But in the end, she did find a job – and found one in one of the unlikeliest places we had expected.

My wife started working last week at Garden City in Kansas. I helped her move there a week before, and she has now started her career there. It is a small town of about 30,000 people in SW Kansas and a good 9 hour drive from Des Moines. Interestingly, it is the most diverse city in all of Kansas – with a large Hispanic, Asian and African population!

So what does this mean for our path forward? Yes, for one, it definitely means that we will have to live apart while she pursues her career and I pursue mine. It also means that we have to wait a tad bit longer to discover what it is that we are potentially missing out on by not living together for extended periods of time. But to me, there are a few things that I am looking forward to with us living apart.

I have always believed in the value of people living by themselves for a few years after they start a job. The idea is that this would be the only time in their lives when they would have time, money and freedom to do whatever it is that they wanted (within reasonable constraints of course). I know I happily went through it for several years prior to meeting my wife. But I was always worried that my wife would never be able to get that opportunity – especially if she got a job and we lived together.

So as a silver lining, I am happy that Devanshi will get a chance to live by herself, forge her own routines, explore her own interests, and develop her own hobbies. As someone who did all that myself, I value that same experience in others – and especially in someone who is my wife. And so, in a way, I am looking forward to some things that living apart will bring us.

When I graduated from my Masters program and secured a job here in the US, I wrote an email to one of my Professors from undergrad letting him know about my progress. In that I had told him about how I went through some really tough and uncertain times and was able to get through all of that and secure a good paying job. He congratulated me on my degree and job, and he told me something that somehow put everything I had been through at that time into the right perspective. He said, “Life conducts the examination first, and then teaches a lesson.”

I have been thinking about what he said of late. My situation may not be perfectly analogous to what he said. But it does fit neatly into some form of a corollary. My wife and I went through the hard and uncertain times upfront in our marriage, and instead of it potentially weakening our bond, it has in fact strengthened our resolve to see these times through. So when we eventually do get to the point of living the married lifestyle that we have always wanted, our experience is going to be that much more rewarding. And so I firmly believe that if this is our examination, then we are going to reap some hefty rewards once it is done.

But all said and done, I do realize that this is just the beginning of our married lives, and that there will be many more chapters to look forward to. And rest assured, there will be many more posts here to capture it all.

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I had promised my wife that I would write about her soon. And after she reads this post, I would be fairly certain that she will admonish me for revealing so much! I suppose this is also part of the examination!