Lexington Avenue by Jeffrey Zeldman CC BY 2.0
The span of Lexington Avenue between 25th and 29th streets is flanked on either side by Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian restaurants; by buffets of masala chicken and palak, floating in layers of oil. In between, there are Indian grocery shops specializing in everything from ground coriander to nutmeg, from bottled pickles to canned curries, some with Arabic writing and questionable expiration dates— an entire culture, packaged with preservatives in small shops. In front are glass display cases, decorated with mounds of Bengali sweets, much in the same manner as traditional sweet shops of Calcutta, the capital of Bengal. These sweets are mass made by a factory in Jackson Heights that supply to Spice Corner on one end, as well as Foods of India down the block. And outside the dusty entryways, Southeast Asian limo drivers and cabbies hang out. In the evenings, the Indians just finishing their consulting jobs eat at Chinese Mirch while, even later at night, when the day workers are safely home, women in tight little skirts, platform heels, and gaudy makeup, clutching their patent leather purses, strut up and down.
Here, everyone knows everyone by face; everyone is dada or didi (elder brother or sister). When I walk into Spice Corner across the street, Alam never lets me leave without a dried date or a sweet in my hand. I moved to New York twelve years ago to attend college. I now manage a distribution agency for an Indian media company; circulating Bengali publications to Calcuttans all over the US. I, like my neighbors, make my living selling mementos to a group of people that cannot let go. My office occupies the ground floor of the only building on the block that doesn’t have a street number. Matthew, who owns a trading shop nearby, selling everything from electric razors to saris, comes into my office regularly to send faxes and returns the favor by supplying me with shipping boxes from his deliveries. He is an elderly South Indian Christian minister who drives in from New Jersey every morning. I see him through the window, walking across the street to my front door and I am at the entrance before he can ring the buzzer. He nods his head from side to side as South Indians do while preaching at me to quit smoking. The span of Lexington Avenue in the lower 20’s is known to most New Yorkers as Curry Hill. But to many, it is just home.
One morning, I am taken completely by surprise by a loud, disruptive banging on my office window. Being on the ground floor, I have spent several dull, workless afternoons looking out onto the streets, watching Mrs. Ghosh hitch up her sari and step into the nail parlor or seeing Alam walk by with his son from school. Sometimes I just watch the rain fall onto the flowerbed that Pat, from upstairs, planted out in front every spring. But the insistent banging on the window breaks all my meditations. I open the door and am confronted by an elderly Indian gentleman I have never seen before. He is tall, gray-haired and his eyes are red and hard. “You throw garbage there, across the street?” he demands.
For as long as I can remember, which is at least the last six or seven years, I have been throwing my trash across the street in front of Matthew’s building since my building—being classified as ‘commercial’––did not have its own garbage disposal system. Because his is a residential property, the landlord, who also happens to own the grocery store on the ground floor, had set out huge garbage cans outside and yes, I am ashamed to admit, I use them once a week, to dispose of my menial waste. Now, I’d been caught and I couldn’t even lie about it. I start to mumble but am interrupted again. “That is your garbage? Huh? You make garbage here and you throw over there?” He storms out while I remain speechless, all reasoning having failed me because in seven years, I had not thought of an excuse in case such a day ever came. Few minutes pass, and I am still staring at Nikki, unable to utter a word. She stares back at me and I know she is dying to say, “I told you so,” but what she says instead is, “that is why I was always scared of throwing the garbage out and let you do it.” I’m still baffled. I am thinking how and why, after seven years, did I foolishly get caught. “Whatever we did, that was not a nice way to talk to someone,” Nikki says as she begins to vehemently flip through pages of an Indian film magazine.
“Should I go and apologize?” I ask.
“No! Why should you apologize? Not when he spoke like that. So rudely!” I can’t help thinking that her Punjabi pride was getting in the way of neighborly civility.
Nikki is really Kuldeep, my new assistant. She is originally from Delhi, residing in Jackson Heights with her husband and two sons. Nikki left her family ten years ago in India to come to the US and apply for asylum. Two years later, they joined her. Now, she says all sorts of distant acquaintances ask her to sponsor them for a Green Card. “They don’t know that they’ll have to come here and do their own cooking and cleaning. They just dream,” she says. Nikki stares at pictures of Indian models and Bollywood actresses all day long. She asks me if her eldest son Johnny, who never went to college and works as a cab driver, should do a course in ‘Police Studies’ from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Perhaps nursing is more lucrative for a better paying job. Who would want to marry a cab driver, she complains. I ask her what Johnny wants to do. She says he doesn’t care and neither does she, as long as he has a high-salaried position by the end of it. Nikki’s husband drives a limousine. She is not the primary bread-earner of the family. She uses her wages to go shopping in the Jersey mall with her sister every Thursday; she uses it for the monthly installments on the liposuction surgery she had finally gotten last year because the cranberries and treadmill weren’t working.
Nikki says reassuringly, “What’s happened has happened.” But I worry. She doesn’t know the intricacies of being a responsible office manager. She doesn’t know that few years back, I had been fined by the city for not having swept the sidewalk in front of our office. I want to tell her about the Better Business Relationships Bureau and city officials who may start beating down my door.
I want to tell the angry dumpster owner that there are worse things in life than someone adding two extra garbage bags to his building trash. Yes, it was wrong, but considering that the city picks up his garbage every Tuesday morning, for free, I don’t understand what, in the larger scheme of things, is his real problem. I wonder if he has told Matthew about the garbage story. Possibly not, because Matthew would surely have come by to find out for himself what had happened. I see Magan, another shopkeeper, step out of his magazine store and I look away in shame. I walk into Spice Corner to replenish my saffron and search Alam’s face for any sign of judgment. In my disgraced silence. I quietly search, like a thief, the three short aisles filled with all things Indian. Most of the customers in Spice Corner are Southeast Asians. They prefer it to the large Food Emporium because they feel safe in the familiarity of the products.
And they all evoke Calcutta—the sandesh, round or square, white or multicolored. I imagine holding one—it will be soft, my fingers will press into its milkiness and I will have to pop it in my mouth before it falls apart in my palms. I preserve the image like a postcard stuck on the refrigerator, reminding me every day of things I don’t want to forget. But when Alam gives me one to taste, I cringe. It is dry, like concrete. The solid mass of hard sugar brings me right back to reality.
Later, when I stand outside on the corner of 28th street, in front of the newly opened kati roll cart, I peruse my surroundings in anxiety, in case I see the angry man somewhere—wanting to avoid him; not wanting to make eye contact ever again. Kati roll is a classic street food of Calcutta made of simply kebabs rolled inside a paratha- a fried Indian bread. Nothing else, just the muscle of meat and bread creating a harmonious sensation. The signs on this cart says: chicken egg roll, chicken veggie roll. and kati roll even though he never seems to have any eggs, all the rolls contain shredded lettuce and the whole mishmash is served with strange sauces I’d never seen on a kati roll before. There are long lines outside his cart during lunch and he has even added a flat screen television that plays Bollywood movies—classic dance numbers with old icons, shaking hips and feet; blaring memories across the Avenue all afternoon. He flourishes not for his delicious food but by ingeniously creating a completely different, Indo-American product and serving nostalgia to a group of Indians who are only too happy to be sold a piece of their past. They have packed up their families and moved to America but they are unable to move on and now, standing in line at the kati roll cart, memory by memory, they are colonizing a small stretch of Lexington Avenue.
I know if Mrs. Ghosh sees me standing there eating street food, she will look disapprovingly, just like my mother used to when I ate the street food in Calcutta and say, “now what junk are you eating?” And I wonder what the Ghoshes will think when they hear of the garbage incident. Like everyone from Calcutta, their family knows my family. They came to New York in the 80s, following their son who did his PhD at NYU. Mr. and Mrs. Ghosh live in a small studio above one of the restaurants on Lexington Avenue. They work across the street. They never venture beyond a four-block radius, unless it is for a medical appointment. Mrs. Ghosh goes to the corner deli to buy her groceries. Mr. Ghosh visits Matthew’s shop every morning for a cup of tea and conversation. They talk about the stock market and how business is so poor. Mr. Ghosh brings his wife her lunch every day because she cannot go far with her bad knee and broken English. But she won’t eat sandwiches or salads because they aren’t palatable to her Indian taste and on Tuesdays, due to religious observances, her food cannot contain any tomatoes, onion, garlic or meat. She won’t eat from the Pakistani restaurants because the food is too oily. Sometimes, all he can offer her is a plain bun and coffee.
Now, twenty years after they first arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Ghosh’s son has passed away. He was in his early 40’s, had graduated from IIT in India, the country’s most prestigious school for the sciences, then completed his doctorate at NYU. He was the dean of the MBA program there, had a fancy custom made condo and a Mercedes he rarely used. He lost his life to bi-polarism, alcoholism, two divorces, and eventual liver cirrhosis. He died in Calcutta, having returned there after spending some time at a very costly detox clinic in south India. The sentiments towards him are somewhat different; the remorse—of a different kind. The “tsk tsk” following his name means, “How could this have happened to such a brilliant man like him?” Mrs. Ghosh smiles when she thinks of her eldest, “Dr. Maitra even today tells me, ‘your son, Mrs. Ghosh, I have never seen such a mind like that.” But I remember seeing him stumble around Lexington Avenue, after having drunk a bottle of mouthwash because he didn’t have any money for real alcohol, whispering to me, “I’m really scared.” And I remember when he broke his nose one time from rolling off his bed. Eventually, his brilliant job couldn’t save him. Dr. Maitra couldn’t save him. He struggled with depression all his adult life and finally, gave up at a nursing home in Calcutta. Mr. and Mrs. Ghosh remained on Lexington Avenue, in their small studio. They did not go to Calcutta for their son’s funeral but their relatives back home made all the arrangements. They made sure the white lilies Mrs. Ghosh so wanted were there.
Mrs. Ghosh is in her seventies and still reads Rabindranath Tagore and listens to Rabindrasangeet songs from the 70s. She is scandalized by the current story printed in Desh, (a highly regarded, old, Bengali literary publication) where the first paragraph describes a kiss. “All sorts of rubbish!” she says. She dreams of returning back to India where the fruits are fresher; the cooking stoves are different and all the prices in the bazaar are negotiable. She figures their monthly social security payments will stretch a long way there.
But Mr. Ghosh will not go. His life in New York is defined by Park Avenue on one side and Third, on the other; by his wife; by his gossips with the shop owners; by the radio which gives him all the news and by his memories of Tehran—when he held an enviable job and had servants. His dreams have died with his two sons and there is nothing remaining in this city or in India that can bring them back. He doesn’t cry but his eyes are dark and sunken in and they are hollow. He remains alone when Mrs. Ghosh goes to India, because if his pacemaker malfunctions, neither will the Indian doctors be competent enough to save him, nor will the benefits of his Medicare stretch out so far. He came to New York to give his family a better life and now he is stuck in it. Mr. Ghosh has not been back home in fifteen years. He knows only in theory that the Calcutta airport has been rebuilt and that his old apartment has been broken down to give way to a new commercial building. He had come to New York to help his son through college. Last year, he finally went back, as a trial, but, with no sons; with nothing to look forward to and with a steep credit card debt. Calcutta was not what he imagined. He complained that he was bored; that he couldn’t go out for walks because the weather did not suit him and that he got very ill with the flu. He returned, still not knowing whether he wants to make that permanent shift back home.
The enraged building owner does not know that I had been dumping garbage there for seven years. He comes again, banging on the window. This time, accompanied by a smaller, meeker man. They are carrying one black garbage bag each, which they dump at my door front. “Here, you take your garbage. If you throw your garbage there again, I will call police,” he says as he marches across the street back to his own turf. I am so shaken by this incident, I walk all the way home, from 28th Street to 83rd. I have to calm down and convince myself that the police won’t come knocking on my door for one, perhaps two counts of garbage fraud; that I won’t get sued; that they won’t revoke my green card and I won’t have to walk the walk of shame back to Calcutta. I consider talking to him the following day. I have it all planned in my head: I will carry a box of sandesh from Spice Corner as a peace offering. I will say, “Dada, I’m really sorry, it was a mistake and it will never happen again.” He will call me beti (daughter) and all will be forgiven. But in these few blocks of Lexington Avenue, camaraderie and brotherhood can only stretch so far when paying for one’s own trash is concerned. In New York, as a commercial tenant, it is my obligation to organize my own disposal. It is his right to complain.
Nikki is vehemently against my idea. She thinks I should just forget about the incident. “But how can I, Nikki? I work here, he works here.” And presumably, the only man in that four block radius that I’d never seen before, will now become a regular sighting. Nikki doesn’t understand how I date non-Indians; why I go to Budapest for holidays––“What’s there that you can’t find here?” she asks. Having only recently started working for me and not being an integral part of the neighborhood, she doesn’t understand my awkwardness and embarrassment. How can I explain to Alam that I am too lazy to organize my own trash pick up? That I had once, a few years back, attempted at working something out with Pat, who is my landlord’s assistant. She said she’d call the super, who would call me to discuss rates but somehow it just never happened. How can I explain that I‘m not trying to pinch pennies but that, since in seven years, no one raised the topic, I considered it a discreet and convenient arrangement with my brethren.
“I know! I’ll take him a box of sweets!” I say. Now, Nikki is almost scandalized as she looks up from her magazine.
“You’re going to take him sweets after he yelled like that? Are you mad?”
“Why Nikki? Look, it was my mistake after all, no?” I don’t expect anything in return for those sweets. I just want to absolve my guilt. Who knows, maybe he’ll even say I can continue throwing my trash there. She just shrugs. She seems to have forgotten my original sin and thinks I am the one who has been wronged.
I spend the entire weekend deliberating on what to get for him. I can’t get him anything from Spice Corner because, being two Indian grocery stores on the same block, they are competitors. Maybe I can go to Jackson Heights. But is my remorse strong enough to take me all the way on the 6 train to Grand Central and then the 7 to Flushing? Besides, how can I give him anything Indian as a gift when he sells pretty much everything there is to sell from that country? A friend suggests I get chocolate dipped fruits, “Indians will go wild for that kind of stuff, “ she says. But that seems almost too decadent, if his taste is in any way akin to his dusty, unattractive, unfashionable store. The more I obsess over the gift, the more rapidly my courage begins to ebb and I consider abandoning the entire idea altogether. But I know only too well that this man, who has tied up my thoughts the entire week, will forever have a hold on me if I cannot overcome this one small obstacle.
By the following Monday, I am despondent, shoulders hunched and stooped forward as I walk into a patisserie downtown, to buy an almond croissant for breakfast—my favorite comfort food. On the counter, by the register, I see a beautifully packed small box of Argentinean delicacies. Not quite cookies, not quite madeleines, not quite a tarte. The ambiguity makes it all the more perfect for a cause I’m not even sure about anymore. I know this is it; this is the gift I have been looking for. And suddenly I am recharged.
I march triumphantly across the platform of the train station, up the stairs, across Park Avenue, across 28th Street and before any other doubts stop me from my agenda, I hold my breath and force myself into his store. There is someone else sitting at the counter. I almost gasp out aloud in relief. I inquire about the owner of the building. From the signboard outside, I gather his name is Mr. Sinha. “Which Sinha are you looking for?” the man inquires. “I’m not sure, “ I stammer. “Someone who owns this building who came to talk to me across the street, last week.” “They’re all Sinhas. But you must mean the man who sits here in the shop,” he says.
As luck turns out, he is not going to be in all day and I am told to return later. “Can I leave something for him and write him a note?’ “What is it?” he inquires, suspiciously. “Oh, just some sweets. You see, I had done something wrong and I just wanted to apologize,” I say. He doesn’t question any further so I assume he must know what I’m talking about. “Come back tomorrow,” he says.
I retreat back to my office on the other side of the avenue and tell Nikki that I will just leave it with the other man with a note. “We don’t do things that way though, you should go in person,” she says. She never calculates a 10% discount correctly or answers the phone in grammatical Bengali, but annoyingly I realize she is right this time. It is considered more proper and respectful in Indian custom to meet someone face to face to relay news or a message—marriage of a daughter; birth of a son; apology for wrongdoing. But I say, “Well, we are in America. In India we go in person perhaps, but here, we leave notes.”
Later that day, I bump into Matthew and tell him about the incident. “Oh, it must have been Arun,” he says. “He’s a little crazy, you know,” he says, pointing at his head with index finger. “I don’t know if he’ll accept the sweets but you can try tomorrow.” “You don’t think I should just leave it with the other man?” I ask hopefully. “It is better that you take it yourself, no?” he says, nodding his head. I have visions of going back the next day and having the Argentinean baked goods flung at my face; all my shame smeared on me.
The rest of the day I struggle with this dilemma—note or no note, in-person or in-gesture. At five in the evening, all my strength of character begins to depart for the day. And before I am suffocated and squished inside the train with the rest of the commuting city, there is only one thing I have the courage to do. I write a note, seal it inside an envelope and take it over with the box and hand it to the other man. “Can you give this to Arun, please?” I said and ran out. Miraculously, I have not seen him again and I avoid that side of the street like the plague. Although every morning I walk gingerly into work, dreading the very possibility of facing Mr. Sinha, I have no remorse. I realize that it is impossible to regret something I did not have awareness of at that time, an idea which I perhaps naively, but truly trusted––a perfect world; true happiness; a community of Indians in midtown Manhattan sharing their trash disposal system.
And in the end, when my idealisms have waned, all that remains are three very depressing city blocks. We have all landed up there for different reasons: some out of choice, some having no other alternatives. The Ghoshes came for their son; Nikki came for a green card and perhaps a perfect figure and I—for a college education. Though we may not have known each other in our own country, here, in the paradox of Lexington Avenue, we are trapped collectively—hidden underneath the facade of streets; divided, like the arms of a compass: one foot circling those few blocks, while the other foot remains firmly planted behind in India. And perhaps it is only the distance in between, where our memories float, that we can now call home.
This essay was originally published in print in
The Threepenny Review
. This is its first appearance online.
About Buku Sarkar
Buku is a writer and photographer who has lived between Calcutta and New York. Her fiction has appeared in N+1 and Apt, her essays and articles in Huffington Post, Mint Lounge, and Threepenny Review, and her photographs in various publications including the New York Times. You can see more of her bukusarkar.com and on Instagram @bukusarkar.